A- A A+

Arts face growing uncertainty despite momentous year

Esther Anatolitis |  15 January 2017


2017 is set to be a momentous year for the arts in Australia. On 1 November we commemorate 50 years since Harold Holt announced the creation of an independent body to champion 'the free play of our cultural interests and enthusiasms at all levels'. Yet today's Australia Council faces an uncertain future, and the free play of our cultural interests is jeopardised by that uncertainty.

Face peers through rain-wet windowBy 1967, the Australian arts landscape was ready for a strategic national approach. The Commonwealth Literary Fund had since 1903 provided financial support to writers as Australia's very first form of public investment in the arts. The Commonwealth Art Advisory Board had guided the government's purchase of paintings and commissioning of portraits since 1912.

The non-government Arts Council of Australia — founded in 1943 as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, now Regional Arts Australia — had toured hundreds of performances to cities and towns across the nation. Other developments were more opportunistic in their origins: the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet, for example, owe their emergence to the Queen's 1954 visit.

Holt's announcement meant bringing together disparate focuses and isolated funds with a national vision. The benefits would be immense: harnessing artistic expertise to foster the creative industries strategically, with impacts beyond the current imagination.

However, with this new strategic approach would inevitably come a power shift away from political decision-makers and towards the artists whose ideas would inform the new body, as well as the expert staff who would steward its arm's-length processes.

Although announced by Holt and established by John Gorton, the Australia Council came most strongly to be identified with Gough Whitlam and his Program, and so when Malcolm Fraser initiated an administrative review across government, the Australia Council was targeted. This was the first of many attacks on a body designed to operate with artistic expertise and statutory independence.

In 1985, arts minister Barry Cohen suggested that arm's-length funding 'protects partial patronage and hides prejudice beneath a cloak of artistic integrity'. That same year, shadow arts minister David Connolly told Parliament that the arm's-length approach was 'merely a political subterfuge to protect ministers from having to make hard decisions' and proposed disestablishing the Australia Council altogether.

In 1988, shadow arts minister Chris Puplick proposed abolishing the Australia Council on the basis that 'the so-called arm's-length principle has become an excuse for ministers to ignore and avoid their responsibilities for defining and promoting a proper national arts policy'.


"The history of Australia's public investment in the arts is the story of an emergent, evolving cultural confidence. Like any sense of identity, such confidence evolves through periods of insecurity."


Two attempts were made to introduce such a policy, with neither attempt surviving a change in government. By 2013, however, the Australia Council had evolved to a sophisticated form with its own board — a governance robust enough to maintain a responsible focus despite political change — and a strategic plan taking a long-term view of the full spectrum of the arts. This was, at last, the 'all-embracing Council' that Holt had imagined.

And so, the following year, the only option available to a minister intending to overcome the political subterfuge of artistic integrity was to act unilaterally, removing more than $300m with neither warning nor policy rationale, thus creating today's instability. With only $182 million left in its budget — of which $110 million is quarantined for 28 companies, and $28 million committed to a further 128 organisations — the Australia Council's capacity to work expertly for the arts across the nation has been perilously undermined.

The history of Australia's public investment in the arts is the story of an emergent, evolving cultural confidence. Like any sense of identity, such confidence evolves through periods of insecurity. 'Advancing our own distinctive cultural activities,' Holt had argued, and 'the growing public recognition of what our actors, our artists, our writers, our musicians and others in a varied field of cultural interest are seeking to do, will add much to what the government is doing.'

One day, Holt envisaged, the Australian Government would have the confidence to invest significantly in the nation's cultural future by nurturing artistic integrity — seeing that independent work as enhancing the government's own.

As the uncertainty of further funding cuts hangs over the Australia Council, and with the first sitting week and Senate Estimates just weeks away, we must ask: Will 2017 see that day?


Esther AnatolitisWriter and curator Esther Anatolitis is director of Regional Arts Victoria and an advocate for the arts. She tweets @_esther



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Investment in the arts is not an expense, it is an investment. Look at how popular a destination Berlin now is. The arts employ and invite. Hey expand our imaginations if we want to be innovative. They provide the 'objective correlatives' around which we can unite, discuss, observe our reflections and grow. Unfortunately, being a philistine is not a barrier to being a conservative politician.

Michael D. Breen 18 January 2017

Thanks for this succinct and sobering summary.

Sue Murray 18 January 2017

What a shame the Australia Council should bring this "uncertainty" upon those it claims to represent. Past Senate Estimates heard the reallocation of funding was due to the Councils' failure to be accountable to taxpayers of Australia, in its operation of 'closed shop' regime. Until the sector addresses this 'shadow' uncertainty and potential closure of the Council will remain. Wake up kiddies, EU, UK and USA all allow the private sector to cherish and participate in cultural democracy, but not our elite comrades.

Anne Stone 06 February 2017

Similar articles

Punitive truth behind Dutton's 'sham marriage' furphy

Kerry Murphy | 11 November 2016

Peter Dutton'We're not going to allow people who have sought to come by boat to come to Australia through a backdoor and we are not going to allow sham marriages to facilitate that,' said Peter Dutton. Given all the existing checks and hurdles, why have a ban? It would only affect about 2000 people; the other 35,000 who came by boat before 19 July 2013 or were not sent to Nauru and Manus Island are not affected. The true intention is to further punish the people we dumped on our Pacific neighbours.

Islamophobic racism is a blunt weapon

Rachel Woodlock | 15 November 2016

Face plastered with Islamophobic labelsIt is an enduring personal tragedy that I can never think of 'zinger' responses to hurled insults until having turned them over in my mind for some time. The white male hoon in his 20-year-old unroadworthy car has long-since roared away from the traffic lights after shouting some unremarkable and unoriginal statement: 'Go back to where you came from you [expletive] terrorist.' Kilometres later I'm ready to shout out: 'I would, but Doncaster East is becoming way too pricey for the likes of me.'

Mooted boat ban ignores history and humanity

Gillian Bouras | 08 November 2016

Port Adelaide 1869-1889It would be interesting to know how many of our forbears were illegal immigrants. One of my great-great-grandfathers was. From County Down in Ulster, he was only 16 when he used his thumb print to sign on as a seaman; it was 1847, midway through the Great Famine. Throughout the long journey he was persistently bullied by a petty officer. One morning he snapped, and clobbered the bully with a deckscrubber. Convinced he had killed the man, my ancestor jumped overboard.

Tweeting our way back to the Middle Ages

Brian Matthews | 03 November 2016

Detail from cover of Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of The Middle AgesCuriously, while privacy continues to be valued and sought in the 21st century perhaps more strenuously than ever before, its milieu is once again the furious turmoil of aggressively public revelation, exhortation and threat that distinguished Johan Huizinga's scarifying portrait of the medieval world, in his book The Autumn of The Middle Ages. In our age, 'all things in life' once again have 'about them something glitteringly and cruelly public'. Or to put it another way, we have social media.

Turnbull's boat ban is crazy and cruel

Kerry Murphy | 03 November 2016

Malcolm Turnbull on Sky News'Will this affect my case?' Hassan was worried about the survey that said nearly 50 per cent of Australians wanted to ban Muslims from migrating to Australia. I was working on his protection visa. He had a strong case. 'No,' I replied. Like any large religion, in Islam there are many variations in practice and beliefs, influenced by cultural and historical events. To simply ban them all is a crazy option. You do not ban everyone just because a minority are involved in criminal activity. Or so I thought.