The arts industry in Australia breathed a sigh of relief on Monday when the Labor government announced the country’s first national arts and cultural policy in nearly a decade, with Anthony Albanese declaring the arts to be “at the heart of our national life.”
The policy, called Revive, is set to deliver 286 million Australian dollars (about $202 million) over four years to, well, revive Australia’s arts, entertainment, and culture sectors, which some in the industry have described as being on life support after years of cancellations and postponements during the pandemic, and funding cuts by the previous Liberal government.
Not only does the policy inject new money into the fields, it also seems to suggest new directions for how we see the arts as in Australia and what kinds of arts we value and prioritize.
Most of the new funds will go to the Australia Council, the national organization that allocates arts money. The organization will also be rebranded as Creative Australia, and new bodies will be established within it dedicated music, literature, and workplace safety for artists.
The policy promises to prioritize Indigenous arts and culture, with a new Indigenous-led body to be created to advise on funding and investment decisions. In a break from previous approaches, commercial arts forms, like popular music, will also receive funding.
Kath Mainland, the chief executive of the Adelaide Festival, described the policy as a “really brilliant shot in the arm for the arts,” after a few dark pandemic years when she — and likely many others in the sector, she said — had something of an “existential crisis” about the value of the arts within broader society, at a time when artists were often unable to do their jobs.
“For well over a decade there’s been much more dying than living going on for the arts,” Eamon Flack, the director of Belvoir Street Theater in Sydney, said in a statement, adding that the new policy felt like “survival, maybe even the possibility of genuine cultural and artistic thriving.”
While the new policy was not “transformative,” said Ben Eltham, a lecturer at Monash University and expert in Australia’s cultural and creative industries, it was refreshing in its rhetorical shift and signaled a reversal of the scapegoating of the arts by the previous Liberal government.
“The arts was seen as easy target to beat up on politically,” he said, calling it “an opportunity to position yourself as anti-elitist and against culture and the arts, and it was thought that would help you to play to the suburbs and people who liked sports and footy.”
The investment in types of art like contemporary music, literature and games suggested “a more contemporary and perhaps a little bit more commercial direction in terms of the orientation of the funding,” Dr. Eltham added.
The way the arts has traditionally been funded in Australia, particularly through the Australia Council, has been criticized for prioritizing large heritage companies and traditional Western art forms, like opera and classical music.
That funding model was based on the idea of supporting “particular organizations that are believed to be necessary to the national cultural infrastructure,” said Jo Caust, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne who researches arts funding in Australia. But she added that the previous approach risked being out of sync in a country like Australia, which has many diverse cultures practicing many different types of art.
For example, she said, opera organizations receive the biggest share of funding from the Australia Council. While the opera is an important cultural institution, she said, “it’s really an art form for the elite in a population.”
Although the hierarchy for funding among different forms of art won’t change significantly under the new approach, Professor Caust said, the prioritization of First Nations art and mentions of inclusivity in the new policy are important steps forward.
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