OzCo's New Winged Keele


It’s been quite an interesting year for the arts in Australia. Apart from the usual cavalcade of big names at the various capital city festivals and big deficits at some notable major performing arts companies, there has been some serious movement in the top brass of Australia’s major arts institutions.

Up here in Queensland, we’ve seen the platinum baritone of Lyndon Terracini sweep all before him in that orgy of self-congratulation they called the Brisbane Festival. By securing Mikhail Gorbachev for the event, Terracini pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of finding a politician who would make Peter Beattie jealous. (Memo to festival organisers in the rest of Australia: politicians like arts festivals much better when there’s a politician headlining.)


In Victoria, the determination of Steve Bracks to shore up his base led to a bonanza for the arts pre-election. Most everyone in the Victorian arts did well out it: the Melbourne Writers Festival got its funding doubled, Melbourne Fringe got extra money (hooray!), and contemporary musicians hit the jackpot thanks to Claire Bowditch’s timely intervention on ARIA night.

Meanwhile, in our nation’s largest city, the arts actually received some policy attention after the grand old man of Australian cultural economics, Professor David Throsby, called for a national cultural policy. Unfortunately, we got a Values Debate instead, which was not quite the same thing, as most of the media ignored Shadow Arts Minister Peter Garrett’s discussion paper (or was it a ‘Blueprint’?).

Finally, to little acclaim, the Federal Government appointed a new boss and a new chair to the Australia Council our nation’s peak arts funding and advisory body or ‘OzCo,’ as everyone in the arts calls it.

I have criticised Jennifer Bott, OzCo’s former CEO before in New Matilda‘s Policy Portal. With a penchant for the sort of incomprehensible management-speak that enrages Don Watson, Bott set out to make a name for herself by ‘re-focussing’ the Australia Council’s activities.

In 2005, this curious term meant abolishing the two most interesting parts of the Australia Council: the Community Cultural Development Board, which funded arts projects in the community; and the New Media Arts Board, which funded innovative stuff using technology.

Critics spied a political agenda behind this latest in a dizzy round of OzCo ‘re-structures’ pointing out it was those radical New Media types that had funded ‘Escape From Woomera,’ an interactive computer game that gave users the chance to play Steve McQueen with Australia’s mandatory detention policy. Then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was reportedly not amused.

Still from interactive game ‘Escape from Woomera’

JenBot, as she’s known around the arts traps, clumsily brushed off criticism from the arts community over the re-structure before sailing off to a job as CEO of the University of NSW Foundation, where she’ll continue to enjoy a standard of living most artists can only dream about.

In her stead, Arts Minister Rod Kemp last week appointed Kathy Keele. Keele’s former job was running the Australian Business Arts Foundation (ABAF), so she should get on well with the new OzCo Chairman none other than her old Chairman at ABAF, James Strong.

ABAF  has been kicking some goals lately in the ludicrously neglected area of arts philanthropy, though its main achievements have been more in the promotion of arts sponsorship than in actually brokering new money for the sector. The challenge for ABAF is to articulate how arts sponsorship can percolate down to smaller arts companies and individual artists. This is much more difficult, because the economic trends which dominate the cultural industries the so-called ‘superstar economics’ run in the opposite direction.

The move to bring both the CEO and Chair of ABAF over to OzCo prompted Katrina Strickland in the Australian Financial Review to speculate about a possible merger, but so far both Strong and Keele are playing a straight bat.

Keele, who is reportedly more diplomatic than JenBot, has been generally welcomed by Labor and the arts community, probably on the theory that she couldn’t possibly be worse than her predecessor. But she is faced with huge challenges in her new higher-profile role.

Federal support for the arts in Australia has stagnated during the Howard years apart from a series of one-off top-ups driven by the near-permanent financial crisis of the sector. The challenge for Keele will be to address the big picture issues, especially the Council’s focus on legacy artforms with ageing audiences.

Take OzCo’s latest funding announcement: a series of worthy but profoundly unconnected funding announcements about community arts, music for seniors, training for young conductors, touring for new music ensembles, and a big partnership project in Western Sydney. It’s not so much ‘Big Picture’ as ‘Big Grab Bag.’

New media and new technologies have completely fallen off OzCo’s agenda, which in other people’s big picture seems absurd. By any stretch of the imagination, it’s unlikely that Australia will be able to compete with Vienna for opera or New York for musicals. We should instead be concentrating on newer artforms where we can punch above our weight.

In the short term, the Keele and Short appointments will be good for OzCo because they are obviously going to be in favour with the Howard Cabinet.

In the hypothetical longer term, Keele might find Peter Garrett a more interventionist Arts Minister, which will bring new challenges. Given that Garrett has been an actual artist unlike OzCo’s Chair and CEO perhaps that will be a good thing.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.