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