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Alston's economic rationalisation terrorises the Arts in Australia

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Thursday, 16 January 2003

The Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA), Senator Richard Alston, last month announced a "results based review" of 15 primary national arts organizations. Driven by DCITA, Treasury and Finance and aimed at meeting the May 2003 budget considerations, Senator Alston's review is causing widespread concern in the arts industry.

Although fairly standard in other Federal funded agencies, national arts organizations have until recently been excluded from budget-driven performance reviews. Senator Alston's benchmarks include attendance of the targeted organizations, a rationalisation of entry charges, assessments of future costs and opportunities from uses of new technologies and opportunities to share legal, operational and corporate services. Almost all of these management headings suggest employment rationalizations as well as diffusing the targeted organizations' individual needs. Is this the future of management of public arts institutions in Australia?

For many arts professionals, Alston's inclusion of the Australia Council for the Arts is particularly ominous. Canberra is concerned at requests for increasing the OzCo's annual funding for its diverse and often provocative views. The Howard government has been questioning accepted forms of cultural expression in Australia since it took office. Contradictory ideals of freedom have always been OzCo's business, and while their interest in liberating cultural economics from such high-level political interference remains obscured, financial independence for the arts doesn't exactly appear to be at the forefront of Senator Alston's mind either.


Indeed, rather than considering the calibre of the nation's artistic content, Senator Alston seems more concerned with the executive composition of Australia's top arts organizations. Peter Reith's widely rumoured appointment as Chair of the ABC board is one example. While his qualifications in cultural management remain fairly obscure, his his personal and professional ethics have been discussed widely.

But are the arts' industry's fears that Senator Alston's review represent the dumbing down of Australia's cultural identity in any way founded in reality? The National Museum of Australia is being challenged from conservative historian Keith Windshuttle's views of Indigenous history. And yet, he will not be the first or the last to place controversial theories in public view in Australia. That Senator Alston's NMA internal review appointments seem so heavily influenced by Windshuttle's ideas is indeed alarming but will these people make a difference to the institution's charter to interpret and present the nation's history truthfully? "No but Yes" we chorus in unison because although we can anticipate a tussle of brains versus conservative brawn in the inevitable showdown, should the Howard government attempt to change the NMA's charter, what would become of the institution itself? Will anyone want to go to a museum after this? Contradictorily, Canberra also wants to capture greater corporate and private donations for our nation's cultural institutions, but with so many options for spending one's charitable arts dollars, artistic excellence and intellectual integrity will always be the penultimate allure. If the Howard government achieves any more of these arguably specious appointments, many of Senator Alston's institutions may be hard-pressed to retain their dynamic critical value in the eyes of the public and patrons. Declining attendance figures and donations will likely result. Senator Alston won't need to rationalise entry fees or cut costs in services

But is it time to separate Senator Alston's arts review from his ongoing activities as Minister? No matter how questionable his benchmarks may be, the arts in Australia are overdue for an evaluation of their management's effectiveness. All publicly funded organizations must be accountable and there are many overt signs that the arts are prey to fearfully protective management habits that may be costing Australian artists as well as the public far more than we realize. But I suspect constructively resolving the overly institutionalized style of cultural administration in this country will take a bit more than the current performance review.

One positive result Senator Alston hopes for is more sales from within the nation's prime cultural institutions. So why not let him run the gift shop if he's so keen? Standing at the National Museum's cash register might help Senator Alston learn about the brisk trade they're doing in those lovely red, yellow and black Indigenous land rights souvenirs. Hey Richard, could you wrap up another reconciliation poster and an Eternity T Shirt while you're at it?

1. Australia Council for the Arts
2. National Maritime Museum of Australia
3. National Gallery of Australia
4. Old Parliament House
5. National Portrait Gallery
6. Australian Business and the Arts Foundation
7. The Bundanoon Trust
8. Film Finance Corporation
9. Australian Film Commission
10. Film Australia
11. Australian Film Television and Radio School
12. Questacon
13. National Library of Australia
14. National Archives of Australia
15. Screen Sound Australia

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts
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