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Changing public policy in the arts

By Julianne Schultz - posted Thursday, 24 June 2010

The arts are where cutting-edge conversations about the nature of humanity are likely to occur - especially in times of rapid social change, economic uncertainty and environmental pessimism.

Every civilisation has sought to find a way to bring such insights to life - traditionally in music, performance, dance, writing, painting, sculpture and drawing, and more recently on screen, in film, broadcasting and photography.

As a result, artists have been supported by patrons, revered by audiences, feared by despots and welcomed by those seeking to make sense of the world, to deal with its despair and enjoy its beauty.


The place of the arts and culture in public life has changed profoundly over the four decades since the existing models of arts support were developed. It is poised to change again as the digital revolution and the emerging knowledge economy alters the relationship between artists and audiences and disrupts business models by challenging ideas of intellectual property rights.

A snapshot of the priorities provides an insight into this evolution. Those arguing for support for the arts in the post-war years were working on a blank canvas. At the time, there were no national performing companies, scant Australian publishing, no film or television industry and the orchestras were offshoots of the national broadcaster.

In this context, the most persuasive argument for government support for the arts was to bring the benefits of high culture to the public, educating people by exposure to excellence.

Fostering Australian identity did not figure prominently.

Yet the vibrant visual arts of the post-war years hinted at a distinctive Australian sensibility, which achieved critical mass across a wide range of art-forms several decades later. By the 1970s, this produced a showcase of Australian talent. Artistic expressions of the evolving national identity on screen, on stage, and in books and music captured the public imagination. This created an audience and a market.

Over this period, the dominant argument underpinning government support for the arts moved from making international high culture available, to articulating a uniquely Australian cultural identity and incorporating community involvement. In more recent years, the emphasis has shifted to fostering local excellence, ensuring affordable public access and sustaining major institutions and companies.


Patronage of individual artists was always an important component of support for the arts. Devising mechanisms to ensure that this occurred at arm’s length from those with political power was and is an important priority. The Australia Council’s arts boards developed elaborate processes of peer review, designed to achieve this separation. Importantly they also insulated politicians from contentious decisions.

State governments have recognised the importance of the arts as a source of employment, tourism and civic engagement. Funding by the states now represents a third of the total allocation, although 80 per cent of state funds go to venues, access and administration. Through the Cultural Minister’s Council, the states are also directly involved in deciding funding priorities and contributing funds for the visual arts and major companies.

Corporate support for the arts also has a long tradition.

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Julianne Schultz was the co-chair of the Creative Australia stream at the 2020 Summit and a member of the committee proposing the creation of a Foundation for the Artist. A copy of the full proposal and associated research reports can be downloaded at

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About the Author

Julianne Schultz is the editor of the Griffith REVIEW.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Julianne Schultz

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

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