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Creative Australia likely to deliver real change

By Michael Volkerling - posted Tuesday, 2 April 2013


It is a shame Simon Crean has been stripped of his Arts portfolio in the wake of his role in the bungled Labor leadership challenge, because his Creative Australia policy is a substantive document that will deliver meaningful change to our arts industry. Thankfully it appears the government is still committed to carrying the policy forward, as the new Arts Minister Tony Burke has just tweeted his support for the document, describing it as "inspiring" and saying "it's an honour to implement it as Arts Minster". These are positive signs, because although Creative Australia lacks the ambition and gravitas of 1994's Creative Nation, it may well prove to be more influential, especially for Indigenous and young artists.

One of the most important things of Creative Australia it that it will be resourced from the 2013 federal budget, and that the policies are guaranteed funding (subject, of course, to political will) for up to five years. Many of the proposals in Creative Nation did not get off the ground since they were not resourced following the defeat of the Keating Labour government. It will be more difficult to turn the clock back when dealing with programs that will have run for up to two years by the time the 2014 budget is presented to parliament.

Another benefit of Creative Australia is that agencies such as DEEWR, state and local government have been brought formally within the ambit of the cultural policy. This emphasis on integrated governance or 'joined-up government'- what Crean called 'joining the dots' – strengthens the positioning of the arts and culture within the machinery of government. Over time it should also reduce transaction costs and, through the incorporation of a diversity of agencies within a common policy framework, reduce the need for citizen, businesses and community organisations to understand the way in which government is structured in order to secure the services they need

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We have yet to see how the projected reforms to the Australia Council will be rolled out, but the language of Creative Australia suggests a sea change. The policy's goals still refer to the need to support excellence, but there is some evidence to suggest that this concept is now differently construed. A 2008 Australia Council report refers to excellence as residing in 'knowledge whose value is embedded as self-evident or infrastructural, needing only maintenance and continuity' (AEA, 2008: 50).However, under Creative Australia, the Australia Council is now to have a 'new purpose': 'to support and promote vibrant and distinctively Australian creative arts practice that is recognised nationally and internationaly as excellent in its field'. The concept of excellence remains but with a new inflection.

These differences will be amplified by two other emphases within the new policy. The first is the prominence given to indigenous cultural production. The emphasis in Creative Nation was on strengthenening the cultural production of the past. There was to be a new Gallery of Aboriginal Australia where the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies was to be relocated. Support would be provided for indigenous people to retain their material, intellectual and spiritual heritage. New intellectual property provisions were to be enacted. There was virtually no reference to contemporary indigenous arts practice.

This is where Creative Australia represents a major advance. Indigenous culture is now seen as a living contemporary culture with a digital reach. Support for the retention of language, for the visual arts industry and for an indigenous television channel are among the many new programs that are introduced.

Finally, a generational step change is also evident. In 1997, Mark Davis complained of the undue influence of gangs of 'middle-aged cultural apparatchiks' who dominated Australian cultural life through 'a desperately backward-looking stasis and a fearful hanging-on'. Reviewing the situation in 2007, he concluded that 'the gang is still in town' with the consequence that 'young people continue to be economically and culturally marginalised in Australia, pilloried in the media, valorised only insofar as their youthfulness can be commodified, but too rarely sought out for their ideas and opinions' (Davis 2007).

Creative Australia should put an end to this situation. Young people as school leavers now have the benefit of the Arts Ready program and increased support for the national training institutions. After graduation they can call on the ArtStart program, and the Australia Council's new funding programs will make it easier to access support for the cross-platform, multidisciplinary work many of them favour.

The art form boards – gang headquarters, in Davis's terms – have gone and will no longer act as standing lobbies for their peers. And given the demographic composition of under 30's Australia, we can also look forward to a greater ethnic variety in future cultural production. So despite its modest pretensions, and the chaos surrounding the departure of the Arts Minster who was so influential in its genesis, Creative Australia is likely to still deliver real change.

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About the Author

Dr Michael Volkerling is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney. Prior to this he was Director of Research and Evaluation at Arts New South Wales. This followed a long involvement in the cultural sector in New Zealand where he held the positions of Director, Centre for Creative Industries at Wellington Institute of Technology (2003-2006), Program Director, Leisure and Heritage Studies at Victoria University (1993-2003), Executive Director, National Art Gallery and Museum (1988-1993), and Chief Executive of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand (1997-88).

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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