Funding Art in Australia – An interview with Donald Horne

29 Mar

First published in The Tribune Winter Reading Issue (No 2388)7 August 1985

Professor Donald Home has been chairperson of the Australia Council, the Commonwealth arts support body, for over six months. Recently, he talked to Mark Roberts about the way the arts are supported in Australia, as well as discussing some of the problems he has already encountered in the council, and his hopes for the future.

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In What Price Culture? David Throsby and Glenn Withers point out that, based on 1981 census figures, more people were employed by the arts than were employed by mining and agriculture — a point you also made in your inaugural address as chairperson. How important do you see economic considerations, such as potential for employment, tourism, and so on. being in determines the direction of the government’s arts policy in the future?

Whether people like it or not, I think it’s pretty obvious that manufacturing, as the principal dynamic in society, is no longer working. In purely economic terms, we have to look towards labor-intensive service industries, otherwise the economic plight will simply get worse.

Now, it happens that the arts are an extensive industry. Art and entertainment add up to a couple of billion dollars worth of activity each year, and if you add to that the information industries you can add a few more billion dollars. I can’t be exact, but I’m talking about industries which are worth several billion dollars.

When one adds to this the fact that the arts are not only an economic multiplier, but also a social and cultural multiplier in an economy in which jobs are becoming even less and less interesting, it can make more sense to implement arts support schemes than it does in periods when the work ethic seems to be operating at its full volume.

We should be looking at ways to provide unemployed people — and employed people — with other views of life rather than just the economic.

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Since you’ve become chairperson of the Australia Council, there seems to have been a greater level of debate within the arts community over the role the council plays in funding, and to an extent, determining what art is produced in Australia. Do you think this level of debate is a healthy sign?

Well, there has always been a number of debates, there’s nothing new about it, actually. Naturally, if the resources are scarce, and they’re allotted one way, the people who didn’t get what they wanted will have criticisms. That is a perfectly necessary and essential feature of any government arts support policy.

At the same time, it is essential that there should be diversity in any system of support for the arts. In other words, the Australia Council, the Australian Film Commission, and the state arts agencies and others are essential. You don’t want to have just one centralised, bureaucratic art support scheme.

Some of the particular debates that have have arisen have been, first of all, the fact that the Theatre Board recommended (and the council accepted its recommendation), that there should be a ceiling placed on the money given to the major theatre companies. The idea behind this was that some of the extra money could be diverted to minor theatre companies. This seems to me to be a perfectly defensible position.

I think it would be wrong if all the funds of the Australia Council went to just a few companies. That would really be setting up a kind of state monopoly.

It is important that minor companies should be encouraged — partly because they might be more innovative or they might introduce things that the major companies wouldn’t introduce: but also because, as major companies decline, minor companies come up. So. in this way. the council is maintaining the market a bit.

Then there is a second controversy; and that is the question of the Australian Opera. Here, the council’s policy is that the Australian Opera should be maintained as a national organisation fulltime. However, the Australian Opera had asked for an extra million dollars in subsidy, and the council simply couldn’t find an extra million dollars.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that, at present, a quarter of the council’s total grants go to two companies, the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet. In fact, the Australian Opera, along with the accompanying orchestra, actually obtains more in grants than the Literature Board and the Visual Arts Board combined.

So the council felt that it couldn’t be expected to provide more money for the Australian Opera. However, it has put up a scheme where the council would provide the base support for the opera while the states would make contributions depending on the amount of time the opera spends performing in particular states.

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In your inaugural address, you talked about the Canadian and British models of government arts support bodies in relation to the development of the Australia Council. In the last Fringe Network Newsletter there is an article by Michael Volkerling, the head of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, where he discusses the importance of regional groups to the overall decision making process of the New Zealand Council. Do you think that the Australia Council could learn from the New Zealand experience in helping to overcome claims of “state bias”?

We already have it in Australia; we have the state support agencies. We have a better model than New Zealand, we have federation — just as in the US there is a federal body and there are state branches. The diversity is built into our model already.

I certainly believe that there should be continual and growing co-operation in certain ways between the Australia Council and the states. But, overall. I think we already have that.

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On the figures for state government support for the arts — certain states contribute more to funding arts in their state than others. Do you feel that this is putting pressure on the Australia Council to subsidise those states where the state governments aren’t funding arts to the same degree as other states?

I don’t think the council is making up any lost funding. The council funds most where there are the most applications. So far as I’m aware, in the past it has not had a policy of trying to build up areas irrespective of where the applications come from.

If you are speaking specifically about NSW, it happens that NSW, for reasons that have nothing to do with the state government, generates a lot of funding applications. It would seem that a lot of artists and writers live in NSW.

The area the council is particularly concerned with is Queensland where the number of applications is disproportionately low. If you compare Queensland with South Australia there is a very big difference in the proportion of applications.

For the first time in the council’s history I think, they’re showing a concern about this unevenness and it’s having a special inquiry which will involve, among other things, an internal examination. We’ll be trying to work why it is that the proportion of Queensland applications is so low and what can be done about it.

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Ted Hopkins, in his paper Deconstruct the Australia Council, discusses what he sees as the limitation of the way the council is structured into various art form based boards. He suggests that these boards are symbols of idealised “pure” art forms. I am also personally aware of a number of cases where people have been told that their submissions don’t fall within the boundaries of one board, and to take it to another board, where the same thing happens again. (It seems that it happens most often between the Literature and Visual Arts Boards.) Do you think there are many problems in the current board set-up?

I think that there are problems in having a board structure, though I don’t agree that the Council is doing anything particularly odd in this. They are just the normal divisions, and all divisions are somewhat arbitrary.

What should offset that is co-operation between boards and a certain firmness in inter-arts considerations. I don’t think we could just abolish the boards and have everybody sitting around on some inter-arts committee looking at all the applications because arts are inter-related. It would be much worse than the present system.

The present system has limitations and I’m sure that members of the council are interested to hear criticisms of those limitations.

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At the recent Conference on Culture, the Arts, Media and Radical Politics, there was some discussion of the difficulty young artists and artists from minority groups have in getting to know about how the council works, and how to use the council. Do you think this is a major problem — that once someone knows how to “write” submissions, they have a definite advantage?

I think this is a major problem and we’re making Queensland a kind of paradigm case of that. Once we’ve investigated Queensland fully, I think we’ll have a lot more to say about it.

There’s another problem, of course, and that is that you could spend the whole budget on “missionary” activity. There is a limit — and whether the council is spending the right amount on this or not is a matter for debate.

Sidetrack Theatre presenting LOCO to workers at the Chullora railway workshop in Sydney during the mid 1980's. The project was funded jointly by the Theatre and Community Arts Boards.

Well, yes, that is always a difficulty in any period of reform. In some ways the Community Arts Board, or the Community Centres, when initiating programs, should be, as it were, a kind of vanguard.

I think there are times when what is described as interference is essential because people simply don’t know the alternatives. They don’t know what is available. Then comes the time when, if things are generated, you perhaps have to be more concerned with the community’s initiatives.

The big new development, I hope, would be in community groups — not only local government but also, for instance, in joint funding arrangements in, say. Aboriginal communities, or areas of great unemployment. ■

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