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Cultural Value and Cultural Policy: An Australian Perspective by Julian Meyrick

This website is all about facilitating as broad a debate as possible on cultural value. The ambition is to get people thinking and discuss together across disciplinary, professional, ideological as well as geographical borders. In spite of the beauty of the interconnectedness that the web allows for, however, geography still matter when we talk about culture and, most definitely when we talk about public policies for culture. These are inevitably affected by the local cultural, social, economic, legal and administrative structures, and most notably, by the weight of history. It is a pleasure, therefore, to be able to offer you an international perspective by publishing this witty and informative mini-essay post from university professor and theatre director Julian Meyrick of the University of Flinders, in Adelaide, South Australia. Julian offers plenty of food for thought on the much awaited National Cultural Policy launched in Australia earlier this year.



There is no necessary relationship between a National Cultural Policy (NCP) and spiders that lurk under toilet seats to bite you on the bum, but the juxtaposition is suggestive in the Australian context, where both exist.  Creative Australia, launched last March, is the twenty-year sequel to Creative Nation, the country’s first cultural policy, and one of the first in the English-speaking world.  From the cultural value perspective, much has changed yet much remains the same.  Culture in the broad sense – everything from drama to drag racing, coloratura to community cook-offs – is 3.6% of GDP.  Consider that agriculture – so visible and politically influential – is 3.9%, and you get a sense of how far the sector has come.  Even discounting the tendency for Creative Industries scholars to see Christmas decoration as a form of artistic practice, there is no doubting culture’s importance to the life of the nation.  Everywhere you turn, there’s someone re-enacting the arrival of the First Fleet, or converting office space into painters’ studios, or offering five jokes for $1 (what’s orange and sounds like a parrot?  A carrot.  Cost me 20 cents, a good investment given the number of times I’ve told it.)

Where there’s culture, cultural policy follows like a stalking shadow.  In the past this has involved mainly negative instruments of control: imprisonment, censorship and, my personal favourite, hot-iron branding.  Less often but significantly, they have meant positive patronage and evoked a different set of questions.  What are we getting for our money?  How do we know if it is any good or not?  Are we supporting the artist, the art or its public dissemination?  Cui bono? Who benefits from the patronal relationship outside those immediately involved?  These hardy perennials faced the choregoi in Periclean Athens, the Earl of Leicester in Elizabethan England, and Simon Crean, the Minister responsible for Creative Australia, in Canberra in 2013.  What makes the Australian government think an NCP will solve the root problems of cultural provision?  Exploring this is useful in a comparative sense because Australia is still an Anglo country in many respects.  It plays cricket, puts the head of the Queen on its coins, drinks tea and has a Westminster system of government.  An NCP isn’t something it naturally adopts.  There are dangers, of course, not least of which is boring people to death with the tsunami of documentation such an approach unleashes.  But there are positives.  For governments have to know how culture works if they want to have a national policy about it.  So before rolling up our newspapers and squashing this spider flat, let’s briefly consider what’s on offer.

Australia got the ‘60s late – in 1972, to be precise.  That’s when Gough Whitlam, a young, Left-leaning leader of the Labor party (sic) swept to power after twenty-three years of conservative rule.  Gough faced a backlog of reforms, among them the establishment of an independent arts agency, the Australia Council, and a doubling of its annual budget.  This period remains a Mythical Age in the minds of many artists, a time when a page of scribbled foolscap could swing you a four-figure grant and sculpture made of old buckets was hailed as advanced art.  The reality was a little different but it’s true that creative practice raced ahead of the administration hastily set up to support it.  Governments have been trying to work out what they got themselves into ever since.  This has led to a string of peak reports – one a decade on average – and countless grant, governance and accountability changes, as well as fire fights about subsidy’s distribution.  A key feature of the Australian scene is that nearly all the major cultural organisations postdate the introduction of public subsidy.  While no one would call the industrial ecology weak, it’s not as strong as the UK’s and the policy realm is more prescriptive as a result.  That the major organisations represent the best of Australian culture is an oft-questioned presumption, and at times, notably in the mid-1980s, their dominance has come under strong attack both from within the sector and outside it.

Another difference is the federated nature of the polity, the fact that the country is comprised of six states and two territories, each with their own government, history, geography, demographic peculiarities, resource base and climate.  After World War II, when arts subsidy was being extended for the first time, the agency responsible, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), was a baron’s court, with states making individual contributions and jealously watching their return.  When the Australia Council replaced the AETT it brought a more national perspective, but it still has to behave, like the federal government itself, with careful regard for regional equity.   There is no equivalent of London dominance.  While Sydney and Melbourne may fancy themselves as national capitals, Perth, exporter of minerals par excellance, is currently the wealthiest city and Brisbane, home to major Asian immigration, the fastest growing.

The first goal of an NCP, then, is to foster what the grey literature calls ‘an all-of-government approach’ to the sector.  This means getting the myriad Ministries and qangos to talk to one another and show awareness of each other’s goals and values.  The ex-director of Arts Queensland, Leigh Tabrett in a recent essay, It’s Culture, Stupid, paints a vivid picture of the systemic failures attending cultural provision at a government level because it falls between the departmental cracks.  Arts funding is a soap opera of rows, stand-offs and growling resentments.  So often these conflicts arise from basic misunderstandings about what different organisations are trying to achieve, or what kinds of impact they seek to have.  Debate about cultural value stalls and interlocutors take refuge behind their institutional commitments, venturing out only to trade blows.  In this context, an NCP is not – not even vaguely – a means of control, an attempt to impose an official idea of culture.  It is a framework wherein those who find themselves represented must acknowledge the full extent of the sector and work towards putting real meaning into strategic operators of capture – ‘excellence’, ‘access’, ‘impact’ – which are so often wielded like blunt instruments in a pub brawl.

Following on from this, an NCP also makes it harder for Treasury bean-counters to insist on a one-size-fits-all performance measurement regime.  This is perhaps not immediately obvious – that the object of government cultural policy is the government itself, a way of improving its own operational planning.  Treasury is the major target not because Treasury personnel eat artists’ livers for lunch, but because the department’s habitus is so removed from the empirical and phenomenological structure of actual cultural experience.  It may be that some new, brilliant measurement model brings light to the instrumental darkness.  But this will only succeed if there is a philosophical context for its reception.  An NCP tells Treasury that culture matters, that it’s time to figure out a better way to support it, and for assessing the results.

Finally, the NCP puts cultural organisations on notice about their place in the industrial ecology.  In Creative Australia there is a handy table of figures that shows where Australia currently spends its cultural dollar.  It is not on high art, which makes up less than 5% of the A$5b+ poured into the sector every year.  It’s on broadcast television, heritage and film.  More support comes at the state and local levels than from the federal government, and more from government directly than from statutory authorities like the Australia Council.  Yet so often the political focus is the ‘major’ arts organisations and arm’s length funding programs.  The debate about cultural value and the reality of cultural production are out of whack.  We really are in a media and arts integrated world and most of our attention should be going on the implications of the new relationship.  This is where the big money, the big risks and the big lies are to be found, not in the tribulations of ailing repertory theatre or science museums.

It might be argued that Creative Industries scholars have exactly this perspective, rejecting the Leavisite notion of culture as Elgar and Eliot.  Stuart Cunningham’s 1992 book Framing Culture: Criticism and Policy in Australia was a foundational moment for the ‘policy turn’ in cultural studies.  Yet CI’s mapping of the industrial ecology is superficial and has not led to a robust understanding of how the sector actually works.  Odd.  It was a push from the Left and should have produced exactly this.  But in its eagerness to join the policy fray it dialled down the very critical concepts that might have given it (and us) better empirical purchase.

Now it’s up to the NCP to come up with a picture of contemporary cultural production that is true, fair and complete.  How?  Well, governments don’t gather data and then act.  They act and gather at the same time, nudging their arcs of involvement in the direction the data suggests.  At the end of Creative Australia there’s a ‘Tracking and Targets’ section that says,steps have already been taken to better understand and demonstrate how the objectives and activities of institutions align with the cultural and broader policy strategy through reforms to agency reporting arrangements and development of a new governance reporting framework. Once fully implemented, the new governance framework will provide consistent baseline data to measure the institutions’ aggregated economic, social and regional impacts and the impact of the Government’s investment in national cultural agencies and institutions, including broader benefits to the Australian community” (120).  More of the same, yes. But also the beginning of a two-way exchange of information.  Quantitative measurements of cultural value have had their day in the sun.  They aren’t going to go away, and they do reveal certain things about some activities.  But the idea that numbers do not lie died with the GFC [global financial crisis].  They lie all the time and it is only by adding a qualitative (historical, empirical) component to our valuation strategies that we can develop a better sense of where cultural subsidy goes and what it provides.

For too long, governments have got away with intervening in culture without knowing much about it.  Demands for accountability have stemmed from a social fund of ignorance that has created a compliance machinery of infernal form-filling and inappropriate adminspeak.  An NCP is potentially the beginning of a rhetorical reform, a winding back of managementese and its replacement with management skill.  It’s a place to start a more honest conversation about culture and cultural value, one both necessary and long overdue.




Professor of Creative Arts, Flinders University. Artistic Counsel State Theatre Company South Australia.  Honorary Associate, La Trobe University. Honorary Fellow, Deakin University. Associate Director and Literary Advisor at Melbourne Theatre Company 2002-07. kickhouse theatre artistic director 1989-98. Founder member and Deputy Chair of PlayWriting Australia 2004-09. Member of the federal government’s Creative Australia Advisory Group 2008-10. Director of many award-winning theatre productions, most recently Angela’s Kitchen, which attracted the 2012 Helpmann for Best Australian Work. Director of the inaugural production of Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? and winner of the 1998 Green Room Award for Best Director on the Fringe. Productions: for MTC: Tribes, The Birthday Party, Thom Pain, Enlightenment, The Ghost Writer, A Single Act, Cruel and Tender, Dinner, The Memory of Water, Blue/Orange and Frozen; for STC: The Vertical Hour, Doubt and The Snow Queen; for the Griffin: Angela’s Kitchen and October; for fortyfive Downstairs: Whiteley’s Incredible Blue and Do Not Go Gentle….  Responsible for expanding the Affiliate Writers Scheme at MTC and for initiating the Hard Lines new play development program. As an academic, he has published histories of the Nimrod Theatre and the MTC, a Currency House Platform Paper, and numerous articles on Australian theatre, cultural policy and contemporary dramaturgy. He is currently completing a series of case studies from Australian theatre in the 1980s focusing on the relationship between creative practice and arts funding.






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