Ratbags at the gates

Shortlisted, 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize, The Alfred Deakin Prize for an Essay Advancing Public Debate

ON A JULY evening in Sydney in 1955, the nation's arts establishment gathered to celebrate the beginning of a new era in Australian culture. It was the gala opening of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust's Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown and they were all there: a former High Court judge, scions of media and grazing dynasties from all the states, the hierarchy of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and of course the senior public servant who drove the changes in cultural policy for decades, H.C. ‘Nugget' Coombs.

The crowd had gathered in the refurbished Majestic Theatre in Newtown – a former cinema and before that a live Vaudeville venue – to applaud an English dame, seventy-three-year-old Sybil Thorndike, and several English knights of the stage including Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Lewis Casson, as they performed English playwright Terence Rattigan's now-forgotten Sleeping Prince. A lot of imported talent, one might think, to celebrate the birth of Australian culture in its modern guise – a new partnership of philanthropy and government subsidy.

The souvenir program included a poem written for the occasion by James McAuley that took the Majestic's Vaudeville past as the takeoff spot for a more upmarket future. Dame Sybil, nearing the end of her career as the leading British actress of her generation, delivered the lines:

Here Drama used to live; and now once more
She breathes, she wakes, far lovelier than before.

The poem ended with the tribute to the youthful Queen Elizabeth, epony­mous patron of the Trust that would oversee Australian efforts to build permanent performing arts companies to serve local audiences – and perhaps even rekindle the age of Elizabethan and Shakespearian drama in the twentieth century antipodes:

She broke the spell, she summoned up delight,
And led us to the triumph of this night.

I found the souvenir program recently in a battered folder of old photos and newspaper clippings. Printed on cream basket-weave paper tied with a red ribbon, and adorned with the backstage signatures of the visiting English artists, the program – like the night itself – was a cherished memory for my grandmother, Eunice Lloyd O'Neil, who performed on the night as one of the two Australian pianists.

For Eunice, the evening was an important statement that Australian culture would now embrace high art. A classically trained pianist, she had worked as an accompanist for the great South Street eisteddfod competitions in Ballarat. But this was not enough to support her as a single mother in the Great Depression, and she moved to Melbourne to pursue a precarious career as a musician, servicing the hungry demands of a new technology – radio broadcasting – for live content and personalities.

Vaudeville artists and actors, classically trained musicians, novelists and short story writers were at the centre of a big experiment to discover what would excite audiences, keep them buying radio sets and attract advertisers. Eunice's yellowed publicity clippings mark the progress of her career from accompanist for children's talent competitions and juvenile choirs to billing as ‘Australian pianiste and songstress' with the 5 Star Revue on commercial 3XY. She performed with Vaudeville stars including Stella Raymond and Max Reddy, and future newsreader Eric Pearce, who all moved on to successful careers in television in the 1960s.

Eunice had later joined the more erudite 3LO, to create a live show called Sweet Sophistication, based on performance of new songs and piano music. The radio station was part of the newly established ABC in 1932, and programmed popular music, commissioned radio drama and formed the classical ensembles that went on to be Australia's symphony orchestras. Even though radio dramas were not considered serious theatre, they attracted large and devoted audiences, and provided employment for countless actors, musicians and sound engineers. Eunice's commercial profile earned little respect from the cultural policy-makers of the time; artists like her were not considered carriers of Australian culture, more like ratbags, so the invitation to perform at the Newtown gala must have been particularly sweet.


ENTER THE AUSTRALIAN Elizabethian trust, based on an entirely new model of cultural policy – a partnership of private funding from philanthropists and public funding from the state governments, with the Commonwealth contributing thirty thousand pounds. Although the Commonwealth had supported selected authors since 1908, this new subsidy model for non-profit art-making was formulated and articulated as a conscious effort to create an Australian-based cultural industry; it was an unapologetic nation-building exercise. The arts embodied a new creative energy and showed Australia could stand as an independent nation. ‘Our aim,' the Trust declared, ‘is to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians.' It would do this by establishing institutions: a national opera, a national theatre and a dramatic arts institute to train young performers. The Trust's first annual review featured messages from the Prime Minister as well as all of the state premiers: Joe Cahill, Henry Bolte, Vince Gair, Thomas Playford, Robert Cosgrove and Bert Hawke (Bob's uncle). Notwithstanding Cahill's role in committing New South Wales to the Sydney Opera House, this was as unlikely a bunch of arts supporters as you could find – even then. But there they were, left and right, premier-patrons all, promoting the arts for audiences in their states as an explicit expression of an emerging Australian arts sector. And paying for it.

For me, it is almost unbelievable that this landmark was celebrated by importing English theatre stars to perform an English play. I look at this piece of memorabilia, preserved among my grandmother's professional clips and publicity shots, as an outstanding example of the cultural cringe – a quaint but embarrassing lapse in taste which Australia has put firmly behind it.

But has it? In the profoundly different world today, where cultural product pervades every waking moment, there is a need for new models that encompass, but go beyond, the nation-building ethos and subsidy system of which the Trust marked the beginning – there is a need for new visionaries in policy and politics, artists who are prepared to buck the system, and push and prod their society to better define and understand itself by telling stories, providing insight and the joy that comes from watching outstanding and innovative performances.

When you read Nugget Coombs' accounts of why the Trust spent so much to import work, it is clear he and the other trustees and policy-makers thought Australian audiences valued English work more highly – the superior product of the ‘mother country'. Even among the most passionate advocates of Australian culture, in the upper reaches of the ABC and the public service, there was a lack of confidence that locally based artists had the skills to enrich and entertain their audiences. The Borovansky Ballet toured, but had to shut down regularly as finances dictated; live theatre had declined during the Depression and war years, and commercial productions were largely imported while the orchestras were still building their strength.

Coombs notes in his memoirs that ‘in the exuberance of the immediate post-war years', Australians were conscious that they had proven their capacity to stand alone and achieve things on an international stage: ‘This self-awareness and assurance was reflected in a burst of activity in the arts.' Coombs and his colleagues were aware of the growing pressure from artists themselves for more public and private investment – to move their work to higher standards with better production resources and more rehearsal time, and actually reach audiences in dedicated venues and exhibition areas.

Coombs worked hard to establish the local equivalent of the Arts Council of Great Britain, which had been championed by John Maynard Keynes. Coombs argued this case, using his persuasive powers on a succession of prime ministers and pointing to the success of Keynes' model, which had fostered new British culture with public investment. Australian politicians took longer to be persuaded. In 1949, he persuaded Prime Minister Ben Chifley to invite British director Tyrone Guthrie to visit and advise on the establishment of a national theatre. Guthrie proposed a two-phase program: first importing foreign – principally British – companies to tour and raise the level of audience appreciation, critical review and local standards; and then creating a London-based company of Australian actors as a training ground. Guthrie's plan was dropped after the election by the new prime minister, Robert Menzies, but the idea reappeared in modified form when Coombs convinced the general manager of the ABC Charles Moses, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, John Pringle and Melbourne money-man Ian Potter to join forces to found the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust as a public-private partnership.

The trust was designed to have flexibility, to foster expertise and build its reserves by producing ‘popular' – profitable – productions. As the opening night gala program declared: ‘The Trust [will] provide greater opportunities for Australian artists to earn a living in their own land, and for Australian audiences to enjoy the pleasure that live theatre can bring.' Imported stars and productions were an integral part of its activities, designed to give it a profitable source of income.

The deference to British models and the lack of confidence in local creative skills perhaps reflected the weight of the Depression and years of war. Australia had shown great signs of a vibrant and eclectic mix of cultural expression in its early years. The first theatres opened in the 1830s, and a constant mix of professional and amateur artists created performance and exhibitions of art. Currency Press has documented an extraordinary story of the richness and diversity of this cultural life which contradicts the more dour views of struggle and survival in a harsh climate. In its encyclopaedias Companion to the Theatre in Australia and Music and Dance in Australia, there are fascinating vignettes of communities staging, writing and connecting with European art from early in the nineteenth century – in opera, theatre and music – with classical ballet performances from 1845 and Australia's first professional opera company augmenting amateur work from 1861. In the Victorian era, the colonies established collecting institutions for visual arts, historical and scientific material. In the new universities, faculties of arts and humanities began a conservative, but nevertheless heartfelt, discussion of literature and fine arts, and the conservatories trained musicians. The great quest for winners gave the Welsh eisteddfods a congenial home in provincial towns and the suburbs, and generations competed across the performing arts. The emergence of a stream of talented Australian singers, headlined by Dame Nellie Melba, was no happy accident, but a product of this competitive environment. In regional Victoria, the South Street, Ballarat competitions which gave my grandmother her start provided one of the prime venues for this grassroots artistic and cultural life, creating a well-supported hub of community life of choirs and ensembles and soloists. By the mid-twentieth century, artists like Eunice had found a niche wherever they could. In the 1950s, she played the piano for children's productions at the North Sydney Independent Theatre where Doris Fitton continued to produce new work, and established a children's theatre company in Castle Hill in the city's north-west. Even in the comparative affluence of the 1950s, theatre happened at the junction of professional and amateur, where people gathered to make their own art and nurture local audiences.


MY FIRST AWARENESS of this long tradition came from my grandmother's stories of Melbourne in the Depression. These weren't the stories of hunger and fear that came from the other, more conventional side of my family. Life was tough, but Eunice's stories were about nightclubs and broadcasting stations, weekends spent playing the piano for community singing in the Princess Theatre. Going through her clips is to walk through a vanished world of radio personalities with Vaudeville skills, of live performance in which opera mixed with jazz, and Tin Pan Alley with talent shows. The yellowed clippings speak of gypsy bands, recitals combining opera arias with musical comedy, and annual rehearsals and performances for the 3XY juvenile choir. The ABC's 3LO had live music and singing in every genre from jazz to martial bands and Wagner. The ads for the musical family nights featured close-ups of actors in Shakespearian costume for the dramas which also featured on the stations.

As a third of the workforce lost their jobs, these actors, musicians and singers – freelancers and contractors – forged an entertainment and art audience around the new broadcast technology. By the time the Depression faded into war, Australia had a vibrant cultural industry – commercial, heterodox, untrained – and radio was an integral part of the national culture. Theatre had been hit hard by the Depression, but the establishment of the ABC in the depths of the Depression created jobs and audiences in a fusion of popular culture and European classical music traditions, in locally produced radio programs. At this time, the first of the refugees from Nazism brought artistic skills and appreciation, steeped in European music, writing and critical traditions.

Despite the vibrancy of this activity, much of the cultural establishment harked back to the nineteenth century as the golden age, and was slow to recognise the depth of local talent and community interest.

The same thing was playing out in the visual arts, where the Heidelberg tradition of landscape painting was seen as the ideal and the emerging modernists as debasing the tradition. By the 1950s, Menzies was a public supporter of artists, but actively campaigned against the modernist experimentation of younger painters. The Commonwealth Art Advisory Board was determinedly conservative in the Australian work it bought for official establishments. Despite international recognition of the young post-war painters like Sydney Nolan and Russell Drysdale, at home there was reluctance to explore new ways of portraying the Australian landscape. Many of these artists left for Britain – the paradigm of a sophisticated centre with appreciative audiences, readers and art buyers. But those who remained became articulate fighters for cultural subsidy in Australian work. Their legacy became obvious in the late 1950s and '60s.

Less than a year after the Newtown gala, the Elizabethan Theatre Trust had invested in Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, proving drama based on a uniquely Australian group of cane-cutters and barmaids could be both compelling and authentically Australian. It also invested in a 1956 opera season of four Mozart operas that marked the beginning of Opera Australia and gave clear evidence that Australian singers could support regular local productions of high quality. Perhaps most importantly, it supported the creation of the National Institute for Dramatic Art at the University of New South Wales in 1958, under its first director Robert Quentin. NIDA trained or employed a generation of theatre artists who entertained and enriched Australian audiences with their own stories and culture, and then trained subsequent generations who have spread across the world to international acclaim. At the same time, small magazines, including Nation, emerged as real forums for debate and intellectually challenging criticism. With the introduction of television in 1956, a new medium hungry for the work produced by actors, writers, entertainers and musicians provided new opportunities.

So somewhere in that night at the theatre in Newtown, when the establishment families gathered and the ABC blessed all with its patronage, the elements of Australia's modern artistic life were emerging – the distinctive mix of public and private money, building box office by casting celebrity names balanced by support for new talent. Audiences were attracted by the big names, and donors were presumably gratified by the careful listing in the program to publicly thank them for their patronage.


HALF A CENTURY on, Australia has developed an exhuberant confidence in its ability to make work and export it to audiences, readers and viewers in other parts of the world. It has been a fast growth. The arts moved rapidly from the Trust's determination to ground the performing arts in the traditions of British culture to a revival of interest in exploring national identity in painting, drama and music – a preoccupation that had disappeared when the exuberance of Federation gave way to the despair of World War I. This desire for an expression of a sense of place gave Australian policy-makers a complementary rationale for public support of the arts.

For Eunice's son, my father Lloyd O'Neil, the nation-building exercise preoccupied him – he was captivated by this next step of using the arts to forge a national identity. Lloyd got his start in publishing in 1945, in the secondhand books section of Angus & Robertson's shop in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. There he read the old Australian stories published in the nineteenth century and in The Bulletin over the Federation period. He became a passionate advocate of these books and stories, and was keen to share his enthusiasm. One day a customer refused to buy a book he recommended because it was Australian, saying: ‘I don't want to read that rubbish – give me something from England.' Astonished by this response, in that moment he found his vocation and a mission for life. He was determined to prove Australia could match England in theatre and publishing, and at the same time develop a distinctive approach to the arts that defined a uniquely Australian identity. His generation used the arts and cultural structures established in the 1950s to create a national identity that seesawed between larrikin and avant-garde, contributing to a sometimes raucous debate about what it meant to be Australian. But they needed some help – and with the growth of subsidy in the performing arts in particular, but also for literature and screen – they were able to make the debate real for Australians everywhere.

By 1955, my father was working in Brisbane, for a new Australian publishing company, Jacaranda Press. With a group of colleagues scattered over the east coast in a handful of small publishing companies, including Andrew Fabinyi at Cheshire and Frank Thompson at the University of Queensland Press, Lloyd spent the 1950s and much of the 1960s working to establish publication by Australian publishers and designers of books by Australian writers for an Australian audience. The motivation was a passion for Australia's potential writers, kicked along a little by anger that too many Australians, like his customer at Angus & Robertson, wanted their literature filtered through British tastes and producers.

But make no mistake; the new Australian publishers did not start with Patrick White, who was published in Britain. They had to build a commercial base of useful and local titles before they could support local fiction, politics and history. So my father's first title from Jacaranda Press was Queensland, Daughter of the Sun; later, at Lansdowne Press, he published titles like How to Play Aussie Rules whose blockbuster sales generated the income to fund the first book on poverty in Australia, and the biography of Aboriginal leader Pastor Sir Doug Nicholls, and almost forgotten nineteenth century writings from Antony Trollope to Mrs Clacy's A Lady's Visit to the Gold Diggings.

As the 1960s progressed and the Australian publishing industry gained some strength, Lloyd O'Neil gave interviews hammering his point: ‘Our literature has its deficiencies, but a poor Henry Lawson means more to me than a brilliant William Faulkner. Literature relies on identification ... What we must strive for is a self-supporting industry: Australian books written and published by Australians, and printed by Australians on Australian paper.'

This was difficult – the post-war split of world book trading between American and British copyright areas gave London-based publishers the Commonwealth rights to publish books in Britain, and sell them into Australia. As a result, British publishers were able to spread their overheads over a much larger market, but in the process they held the Australian reading public hostage to British tastes and publishing schedules. For decades, Australian authors – even those supported by the Commonwealth Literary Fund – were only taken seriously if they were published in London, the legacy of a commercial relationship that unwittingly fed a lingering cultural cringe. On the other hand Lloyd O'Neil and the other new Australian-based publishers benefited from the rapid growth of secondary education in the 1960s and the establishment of new universities, which created a market for textbooks based on an Australian curriculum.

COOMBS WON HIS case – in the end. Prime Minister Harold Holt was persuaded that a nation needed its own source of art and mechanisms to support it and his successor John Gorton moved to establish the Australian Council for the Arts in 1968, with Dr Jean Battersby as its first executive officer. It consolidated the subsidy model of arts funding and had a broader mandate to encourage film production as well as the performing arts. Gorton announced plans for a national gallery and museum.

Artists who had retreated to England started coming back, and began to take over from the businessmen and public servants managing Australian arts. The Australian Opera employed full-time singers and The Australian Ballet was established in 1962 as a full-time company. Artists and curators were beginning to assemble a national art collection, with surrealist painter James Gleeson playing a significant part advising on purchases and a young James Mollison became the executive officer of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board in 1969, when there was already a major commitment to contemporary Australian work.

In the 1970s, governments based investment in the arts firmly on a commitment to cultural expression of an emerging national identity. As Australians developed a growing confidence in their own culture, it grew increasingly important for national leaders to point to expression of this independent identity in music, drama, film, television and other art forms. Distinctively Australian stories were the aim – in Australian voices, for Australian audiences – on stage, film, television, visual art and writing. By the end of the 1970s, the test for success was the Australian accent.

The movement was deep and broad. The Elizabethan Theatre Trust had fostered institutions that supported individual projects and artists, but it did not bring a broader community behind them. The new high schools and universities were incubating a second wave of artists and cultural warriors, which emerged to articulate ideas about an Australian national identity. The community as a whole became more involved, especially as television expanded its repertoire of local dramas and soaps – distinctively Australian culture became popular. At the same time a bunch of students at teachers' colleges and universities emerged with the time to experiment with theatre and writing.

A decade after the future Opera Australia was established and NIDA began, and as The Australian Ballet settled into some sheds in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Flemington, live theatre in the inner suburbs around the universities grabbed public attention with a rough and ready approach to making stories. La Mama and the Australian Performing Group emerged in Carlton at this time. These vibrant companies drew on the students coming through the universities both on stage, backstage and in the audience. They began experimenting with new works, lunchtime workers' theatre, theatre in warehouses and factory spaces.

Overlapping groups began to make films, using the skills they had learnt from television and advertising, and from commercial, ABC and community broadcasters to experiment with live performance and cinema. Every visit to the Pram Factory, or a university drama production revealed something new – the sadness in Peter Cummins' monologue as Monk O'Neill in Stretch of the Imagination, or Max Gillies and Bruce Spence sending up Daniel Mannix and B.A. Santamaria.

In Sydney, The Legend of King O'Malley, directed by John Bell, channelled the same mix of humour, history and nationalism in a production that began at the Jane Street Theatre and toured Australia. It was an unforgettable experience. To have the exuberance and irony of Australian life on stage, in a production of a theatrical revue based on a politician, was quite startling – my father saw it and promptly spread his passion for national identity in literature to theatre. Many of the nationalist cultural pioneers joined the crusade.

Late in the 1960s, documentary and children's television director Tim Burstall made the first deliberately arthouse Australian feature film, 2000 Weeks. As the National Film and Sound Archive site Australian Screen notes: ‘There was an intense desire amongst a few people to restart an Australian film industry, and Burstall was one of the leaders. Indeed, he made nationalist artistic longings the main theme of the film.' It showed to a few handfuls of people in a single cinema in Flinders Street, Melbourne, later converted to a Christian revival centre. I can recall how startling it was to have Australian voices in such a self-consciously arty piece, how desolate it was to sit with a fellow school student in a virtually empty house – and how beautiful Jeanie Drynan was in the lead female role.

In 1971, Burstall abandoned arthouse and made Stork, based on a David Williamson play. It had a wider release than 2000 Weeks, but its first season was still at the Palais, the converted dance hall on Port Phillip Bay, in then-scrappy St Kilda. It was vulgar, funny and, to quote its own script, ‘empathic', bursting with strong Australian imagery and young people. The same suburban kids who were staying at school and then going to university went to see the film. It was undeniably Australian, but there wasn't a cane-cutter in sight.

Burstall and his colleagues were strident about the need for an independent national identity – one defined first by the fact that it was neither English nor American, and then by an identifiably Australian sense of humour and vulgarity. He followed up with Alvin Purple in 1973, which had wide distribution and reached unprecedented audiences. Unlike Burstall's struggle with producer Patrick Ryan to raise funds for 2000 Weeks, these films could draw on a federal Experimental Film Fund. The larrikin was now a centrepiece of Australian cultural subsidy.

While in Melbourne the ocker film genre flourished, and filmmakers satirised Britain too in Bruce Beresford'sBarry McKenzie sagas, arthouse movies were also successfully finding an audience. The South Australian Film Corporation produced both Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and the movie that explored the wool industry, Sunday Too Far Away. Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith brought an Aboriginal experience vividly to the screen. By 1981, Gallipoli – also written by David Williamson – explored Australian culture with confident, emotionally complex language and imagery. As Australian Screen notes: ‘The film remains one of the most loved of all Australian films, partly because of its intense nationalism. Its mixture of innocence and sacrifice, youthful high spirits and brutal, industrialised murder, helped to redefine how Australians thought about the First World War.'

The emerging consensus about the need for cultural expression of national identity had made the 1970s a decade of intense artistic flowering and brought a corresponding growth in the public institutions and funding for the arts. By the end of the decade, this quest for a national identity had established a field to work on in cultural areas: war, suburban life, and a realistic, at times grim, examination of the relationships between men and women. Artists were showing their own society, exploring views about settler society and there was even a glimpse of Indigenous culture.


THE SUBSIDY MODEL, after its first night out in Newtown in 1955, had become a successful innovation. It evolved to form a complex landscape of cultural institutions and practices, fostering an authentic voice and mirror of Australian identity for audiences around the country and – to our gratified surprise – in London, New York and elsewhere.

In the twenty-first century, many of what are now known as the creative industries continue to work in a subsidy landscape that is recognisably the same. The Australia Council operates as grant-maker for live and visual arts, music and literature with an extra role to develop some support structures for new areas in community building and digital distribution.

The states have developed their own grant giving mechanisms and strategic priorities. NIDA has been joined by programs of similar stature at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and Victoria College of Arts. The Australian Film Television and Radio School provides specialised training for the screen industries supplemented by film schools at other universities and in colleges. Other federally funded institutions do similar work in ballet, classical music, circus and Indigenous dance. Screen Australia funds film development and production, as its predecessor organisations have done (and policy for commercial film industry development is once more tending to tax credits rather than direct subsidy), while the National Gallery and the National Museum have become part of the tourist trail in Canberra for locals and visitors, as envisaged when they were first proposed. The National Portrait Gallery – the Howard government's major expression of this long burst of artistic institutional nation-building – has just opened its doors. Meanwhile, the ABC plays a crucial role in the arts, and there is continuing debate about the Australian content rules for television drama and music.

Despite these achievements, I think it is about time the subsidy model was reviewed, revised and even replaced with a new formulation that matches the contemporary challenges of today's very different cultural landscape. Crafted by two generations of Australia arts policy-makers, the subsidy model is beginning to fall behind, and look remote from contemporary cultural issues. The national identity it once helped define has moved on, and the best of the rest of the world is more accessible than ever. My question is whether the subsidy model remains the optimal way to meet the needs of audiences, investors, artists and the community. The concern arises not from any particular failure of the institutions and companies that have been created, or the subsidised writers, painters, musicians, craft workers and community projects. Judging by their skills, and the demand for their work, they are a dynamic force.

But in the broader community, the concept of ‘Australian art', or even ‘art' itself, is changing. The globalised internet-driven ‘future' is here. Emerging artists are asking, legitimately, why are they treated as a charity case for government subsidy, rather than as the vanguard of the new economy. Their audiences are not necessarily interested in the debate about whether a particular dance work or play is distinctively Australian; indeed they are not responding simply as Australians.

In this new environment, the criteria for success are evolving. In recent years, the policy-makers have taken comfort in the ‘excellence' of Australian art as proof of successful investment in cultural expression of national identity. And there is evidence of ‘world-class excellence' all around. Scrapbooks are full of glowing reviews for Australian companies performing abroad – Academy, Tony, Emmy awards for actors; Booker, Pulitzer, IMPAC, Astrid Lindgren, Samuel Johnson prizes for authors; Pritzker, and inclusion in Venice Biennale and Documenta evidence of international achievement for architects and visual artists – to name only some of the prizes Australians have won in the past decade. The public knows that investing in sport yields a rich harvest of medals so, the reasoning goes, investing in culture will yield the cultural prizes that prove to the taxpayers that their money was well spent.

For my generation, the drive to excellence has revitalised the subsidised arts organisations and institutions. It has been a way of taking the national identity debate to its logical destination, producing work of great significance and strength because of its craft and creativity, not just because it is Australian. However, for younger generations, the rapidly changing technologies and evolving audiences mean there is a need to re-examine the subsidy model. But I have not seen any recent arts policy-makers recognising or addressing the issue in the manner of a Coombs or a Battersby – or even, for that matter, of a Holt or Whitlam.

For someone who was brought up in a family deeply involved in building the arts around national identity, the prospect of examining and changing the foundational ideas about cultural expression is deeply challenging. Agreement about the need for artists, arts companies and galleries to develop and tell an Australian story, and to show the rest of the world our distinctive take on heritage art forms, has been so complete that the main debate in arts policy has been about how much to invest; and rancour about which artists and companies should receive the relatively modest support that is on offer through the dedicated arts funding system. At the same time there is tabloid and talkback criticism of funding for critical and confronting work – although in truth most people recognise that the history of cultural expression is all about artists bringing up unmentionable and uncomfortable subjects. Underlying these debates is continuing pride in national achievement measured internationally, and anxiety about ensuring it is maintained.


TO MY MIND, the high point of this conflation of art-making and national identity occurred on the opening night of the 2000 Sydney Olympics at Homebush and on televisions from Alice Springs to Shanghai, Hobart to London, Cairns to Chicago. It was an extraordinary mix of entertainment, history, humour and high art. Technically brilliant and stunningly designed, it went from classical music conducted by Simone Young and David Stanhope to Human Nature and Nikki Webster; contemporary dance choreographers worked with event managers and Indigenous performers. It was presented to the world as a distinctively Australian story from Indigenous cultural roots, settlement and immigration through to a lively, self-aware present which aspired to move and enrich an international audience.

An opportunity to redefine the relationship between the artists of Australia and their public– and private-sector investors was lost in the years that followed. It could have been a new beginning, an opportunity for a fresh way to relate to audiences at a time when an emerging global culture, enabled by an accessible technology, was scrambling old business models, even ideas of national identity, and at the same creating new audiences and practitioners at home and abroad – enabling unimagined possibilities. Instead, it was business as usual: public investment in the arts under challenge as unavoidable cost increases undermined subsidy budgets followed by catch-up injections of new money, and new pilot programs chronically underfunded and rarely able to mature.

In our euphoric determination to tell a good story about Australia, we perhaps lost sight of the anger that lay close to the surface of the public debates in the 1950s and 1960s about the sort of culture Australia aspired to create for its citizens. The bitterness that flowed as the Howard government questioned its predecessor's national identity agenda showed that this anger was still a potent force within the artistic communities linked by the subsidy model, but it made little impact in the broader community. The national identity that artists had cultivated and propagated during the 1970s had become passé, but political and public resistance to examining the evolution of the society resisted the introspection and risk-taking needed for the next step. Again, the need to re-examine the relationship between the arts and Australian politics is overdue, and looking at the impulses in that debate may be a good starting point.

Reading the texts of post-war Australian cultural debate – academic and biographical studies of figures like Sydney Nolan, Albert Tucker and the Boyds – I am struck by the sense of rejection of the uncouth, the unlettered in Australian society, and references to philistinism in its economic and religious elites. The anger in plays like Alan Seymour's One Day of the Year is still painful, while Summer of the Seventeenth Doll makes the inability of Australian men and women to express their emotions and share their love openly a real and deep tragedy. This anger from artists and their producers parallels an ambivalent sense of whether the only route to real artistic passion and expression was to leave.

When architect Robin Boyd wrote The Australian Ugliness in 1960, it was an attack on suburban values as much as a call to create an architectural style suited to its environment. ‘The Australian ugliness begins with fear of reality, denial of the need for the everyday environment to reflect the heart of the human problem, satisfaction with veneer and cosmetic effects. It ends in betrayal of the element of love and a chill near the root of national self-respect.' In Barry Humphries' early performances at the Union Theatre in Melbourne, there was a steely edge to the satire based on Edna Everage, the suburban housewife from Moonee Ponds, and the monotonal Sandy Stone. Later he extended the satire to ‘Th'Y'artz' and skilfully parodied the politicians who dispensed cultural dollars in the name of Australian identity. From the start, it was clear that it was suburban life without cultural aspiration that was the real target.

These artists and many others were challenging their own country to change, and to look outwards. Satirists, architects, painters and publishers had a mission to craft a more sophisticated society, with the confidence to look at its failings and strengths, and to use this self-examination to express stories in music, theatre, craft, painting and writing. Anger was a weapon.

Now you see some pushback on this – the suburbs are celebrated; ignorance and intolerance are still satirised, but with less vitriol and a certain Bogan pride. We can all dance with the stars or become an Australian idol: self-confidence (like mediated celebrity) has become an end in itself. Australians are now more educated, travelled, culturally diverse and open to new experiences. There is resistance to the notion that positions the artist as a superior observer of social life, but not part of it.

Australia is a practical nation; it is time to ask what happens now? What happens next with this pool of talent, of trained skills and creative thinking? How much do Australians expect of their governments in guaranteeing access to culture? What is the distinctive twist to new art forms, including digital art, where international collaboration is common and the audience is online and anywhere? How should funds be allocated between Indigenous, European and Asian voices to celebrate and explore settler culture in suburbs and regions? And who has the skills and the standing to make the allocation? Should the arts generate a commercial return? Can we measure their contribution to academic achievement in schools, to community strength and urban renewal, so as to reassure the electorate that the arts play their part? Which bits of the arts budgets work, and which don't? Do the arts need to continue an attack on philistinism, or celebrate our new sophistication?


FINDING THE RIGHT language to explain why socities value their creative arts is difficult, but in an era where returns on public sector spending are measured and weighed in everything from emissions to train timetables, it becomes necessary. Sustained support for Australian creativity has given politicians and policy-makers confidence in one area at least: they know Australians are creative and able to produce work that is recognised as excellent. Successive generations of talented artists, writers, musicians, performers and filmmakers emerge, despite the lack of rigorous education in creative thinking and art-making in schools. But creating policies to take advantage of this interest and capacity is still tentative.

Indeed, the biggest debate about the arts in 2008 was not about developing talent, or making Australian art available to new audiences and industries, or about the centrality of art and creativity in the new technologically-enabled global economy. It was whether photographs Bill Henson exhibited in Sydney and prominently on display in regional galleries were pornographic. For much of that debate, the print and radio commentators railed at the defence by artists of Henson's work, as the product of an elitist group too blinkered to recognise the pornography and sexual exploitation of children that was obvious to ordinary Australians. Even when the Classification Review Board ruled the work did not need to be classified, there was an incapacity to move to a sustained discussion about whether art distributed on the internet made child subjects more vulnerable to exploitation than the same work in an art gallery or a book. Henson became the centre of real community anxiety about the innocence and privacy of childhood disappearing into a cascading series of networked hard drives. But the public debate was a fairly arid discussion about whether artists were over-privileged and out of touch.

If it showed nothing else, the episode revealed that Australian artists and those who work with them need to find a new way to bring the creative arts to mainstream public debate – and begin to explain to governments how to focus their cultural and creative policies in a profoundly different world to the one which gave birth to the Australia Council and explorations of national identity that defined the arts for decades last century. It is not enough these days to be Australian – creative arts must show they are embedded deeply in community life and the economy.

It is easy to see the dislocation over the purpose of the subsidy model. The Rudd Government labelled its cultural group for the 2020 Summit ‘Towards a creative Australia' – an obvious reference to the Blair government's creative industries strategy and an echo of Keating's 1994 Creative Nation policy. The new Prime Minister told the Summit: ‘This false divide between the arts and science, between the arts and industry, between the arts and the economy: we've actually got to put that to bed. As if creativity is somehow this thing which only applies to the arts and innovation is this thing over here which applies uniquely to the sciences, or technology, or to design. This is actually again a false dichotomy: it's just not like that. Our ambition should be to create and to foster a creative imaginative Australia because so much of the economy of the twenty-first century is going to require that central faculty.'

As part of that summit group, I found resistance to integrating cultural policy into productivity growth. The notion of the centrality of the arts and culture to national life was attractive and valid, and many knew this; however, the struggle to convince others was still unresolved. Some feared that harnessing the arts for the economy would mean losing the power of the individual's connection to art as enrichment. Many took heart when Kim Carr, the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, said several months later: ‘I believe the arts make a terrible mistake when they claim support on the basis of their commercial value. Whatever they may be worth in the marketplace, it is their intrinsic value we should treasure them for. We should support these disciplines because they give us pleasure, knowledge, meaning and inspiration. No other pay-off is required.'

It is an attractive vision – so long as the government investment follows, but like it or not we live in a world saturated with music, with powerful images deployed in commercial contexts in the media and advertising. The economics of the creative industries mean artists must learn to live in the world of productivity growth and the knowledge economy as well as the more familiar world of personal enrichment and revitalisation.

The search for the payoff, for the demonstration that there is public value from arts and cultural funding, is challenging for governments accustomed to output and outcome models of budgeting. For instance, governments have struggled to see how ‘contemporary music' fits into the subsidy model and what role it should play in developing musicians in areas outside classical and jazz music skills and knowledge. Yet the Hawke government's decision to extend and fund the ABC's Triple J network beyond the major cities became one of its most important arts investments. Triple J's Unearthed talent searches and the Hottest 100 polls are a truly national forum for people to explore new popular music, test their skills and find audiences. Yet it was never labelled an ‘arts' policy, rather a means to deliver urban-style facilities to regional Australia.

The failure of the Howard government to resource the ABC's request for funding to expand its capacity to produce a wide range of new content, including an investment in regional video production, for online platforms and digital channels meant that a similar opportunity – to spark creative expression and find new audiences – disappeared. Moments such as this, when the introduction of new technologies open new creative doors – as happened with both radio and television – are only fleeting. The ABC and SBS have played an important role in developing digital content, but this has not been on the same scale or with the same legacy benefits as the public broadcasters' contribution to developing new forms of cultural expression when radio and television began. Instead, the previous government opted to label cultural production ‘content' and feed it into a succession of broadband industry development plans. This seemed to underline the separation of real content from the arty world of the non-profit performance and production. Without an accessible distribution platform, this ‘content' satisfied no-one and failed to stimulate a new industry in the way that the ABC did for both my grandmother's and my father's generations.

Government-supported arts are reaching out to Australian audiences and the broader community in new ways that break down divisions between what's known as ‘elite' or high art. The popular new genres and art forms emerging in a digital age that are finding their own audiences. Yet policy has evolved by tacking new areas of grant-making on to the old in the subsidised section of the cultural industries – surely a failure of imagination. New digital art for galleries and niche audiences should not be subsidised as just another artform, taking its place alongside live drama or circus. Instead, we should use the new technologies to take the best of Australian creativity into areas once labelled as entertainment or as purely commercial and outside the traditional arts arena.


THIS IS NOT a quandry facing Australia alone. In the United States, the whole structure of non-profit arts is facing inquiry and being criticised as focused on supply issues – producing more drama or opera – rather than serving audiences and developing links with the broader economy and community. The Rand Corporation, a research group known more for its defence analysis than its cultural strength, has entered the arts area with some major work about the sustainability of the current non-profit models for making art. In a 2001 report, The performing arts in a new era, Rand urged exploration of how individuals develop their taste for the arts as a way of stimulating discussion of the public and private benefits. There is an ongoing debate among international security specialists about whether American ‘soft power' effectively portrays democratic values when Hollywood profits most from horror and violent excess exported around the world. Soft power, including culture, is again being recognised as crucial underpinning to economic and military power. After years of funding cuts, funding increased for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities in the later Bush years, in part because of the recognition of the importance of such cultural power.

In Britain, public arts investment after World War II was seen as inherently worthy, and the debate revolved around how much to spend. Immediately after that war, there was an intensive burst of activity led by Keynes and the establishment of an Arts Council, official support for the Royal Opera House and its opera and ballet companies and then a long path of growth in support for British theatre and other institutions.

Half a century later, Tony Blair realised that being seen with popular musicians was a political plus, and committed to a new global image of his country as ‘Cool Britannia'. The economy benefited from thriving creative industries and London became the hippest city in the world on the back of the booming financial services sector and the layer of cultural glitz. Return on investment was the criterion, rather than the enrichment of upmarket audiences; community linkage, rather than a great night in the theatre, was the priority. These days, after a decade-long policy experiment based on the idea of creative industries, policy-makers are still struggling to come up with measures which bridge the gap between individual enjoyment and appreciation of art, and the political and bureaucratic need for outputs and outcomes. One of the leaders developing the new focus on skills and the creative economy now regards the situation in Britain as a ‘crisis'.

In 2006, Demos analyst John Holden described cultural policy as a closed conversation among experts. He said there was a need for a new language based on cultural value and a democratic consensus on the role of culture in British society. In Cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy: Why culture needs a democratic mandate (Demos, 2006), Holden argues that those in the cultural industries must find a new way to connect with policy-makers and politicians on one hand, and with the general public on the other. ‘Somehow, over a period of decades, politics had mislaid the essence of culture, and policy had lost sight of the real meaning of culture in people's lives and in the formation of their identities,' Holden notes with some despair.


THE DEBATE ON the globalisation of the economy has been underway for more than decade, and immigration has made Western countries increasingly heterogeneous, the issues of what makes a national identity and a national art are increasingly complex. Australians have out-grown the masculine notions of mateship and larrikinism, and downplay Australia's early socialist experiments these days. The Howard government's insistence that multicultural values should be eclipsed as the national characteristic by something called a ‘fair go' has not helped. It is hard to apply this slippery idea to the arts. Does it mean that everyone has a chance to pitch their ideas once, but to whom? How does it relate to issues of equal opportunity through education or training? What does it mean to disadvantaged families or people with disabilities who have little chance of participating in Australian middle-income lifestyles? Does everyone give a fair go to others (of any race, rich and poor, old or young), as well as expect it for themselves? I am not sure I see Australian theatre or music exploring this problem. Films still get made about tongue-tied Australian men dealing with grief or traumatic change, and quirky comedy continues to explore both female and male conversations, but it is hard to see much debate in the cinemas and concert halls about the future of this country.

It is increasingly clear that we are engaged in conversations with multiple voices. A range of stories reflect not only ethnic diversity but an increasingly wide range of experiences and lifestyles and interests. In practical terms, the subsidised cultural activities have extended to take in a variety of voices. The western suburbs of Sydney, for instance, have a range of venues and arts institutions such as the Casula Powerhouse and performance areas of Urban Theatre Projects that are continuously absorbing new arrival communities and as a result have a very different focus to the inner city venues. Across regional Australia, more and more towns are opening up their local theatres and exhibition spaces to a wide range of work. There are significant contemporary art spaces in Queensland towns like Mackay, and Lyndon Terracini's Queensland Music Festival is a magnificent example of creating location-specific work, including the Mt Isa Bob Cat Magic show. Out in the desert communities, Indigenous artists have connected their culture with international art buyers in a way that would have astonished the cultural pioneers of earlier generations. There is, however, very little coherent policy to address this changing dynamic and the overall goals of the subsidised model of arts and cultural production.

Multicultural policy followed national identity politics. New waves of British immigration have turned our ideas of what is British from those of the Queen and dames performing Terence Rattigan to soccer, punk and cutting-edge design. European, Asian and African immigration has provided endless connections to new and old cultures, and gritty community theatre and arts. Globalisation has facilitated an almost constant interchange with other cultures, and international capital to back local talent. Baz Luhrmann's films are financed by Fox – the US film producer albeit controlled by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch – and the tax credits he has accessed meld international capital with public investment.

As the baby boomers age, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain the image of Australia as perpetually adolescent, excusably brash; we are after all one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. It no longer rings true, and as the international response to the ‘Where the bloody hell are you' tourism campaign showed, it is not an image that is attractive to the rest of the world. Australians are much richer, better educated, more knowledgeable and worldly than they were three decades ago – success has set the bar higher.


THE TERM 'CREATIVE industries' was conjured by the Blair government to describe those ‘activities which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have the potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property', according to Stuart Cunningham, the leading Australian academic proponent of this concept. This policy has had mixed success in Britain, but it has provided an intellectual framework for the transformation impacting on economies in the developed and developing world. Australian researchers, particularly in Queensland, have been at the forefront of integrating policy thinking about culture with the fast-moving development of ideas around innovation and systems development in modern economies. Queensland University of Technology's Creative Industries Precinct, for instance, has sought to move policy in the creative industries beyond traditional industry development in areas like media or advertising to look at creative inputs right across the economy. Cunningham has identified the large numbers of people with creative training employed in mainstream areas of the economy and concluded that Australia underestimates their contribution. For researchers like Cunningham, it is innovation policy rather than old-style cultural policy that presents the compelling challenge for government.

Others seeking to find new arguments for arts funding draw on what is clumsily called ‘instrumental' arguments – enhancing social cohesion and human capital – as a basis for renewing public sector investment in the arts. If art-making can help disadvantaged youth to understand their situation, or help them gain literacy and job skills, then arts funding can be rationalised in terms of welfare and education, and gain access to the much greater pool of public money allocated to these well-established government service areas. Research proves the utility of music as therapy for the sick, and creating artistic precincts is a proven way of bringing people back into decayed parts of the city – to look, buy and maybe participate. These are compelling arguments well supported by cost-benefit analysts in places like London, where creative clusters are a substantial initiative – but not sufficient to sustain a national commitment to the diverse set of artforms ranging from major collecting institutions and the performing arts centres to the local cultural development programs dotted around the country.

What is often overlooked in this discussion, and the policy debates here, is that Australia has well-established skills in creative industries that are both artistic and commercially valued in the global economy, notwithstanding the financial crisis. For instance, Troy Lum, the young head of film distributor Hopscotch Films, was recently listed as one of the top fifty film executives in the world by Hollywood Reporter. The commercial success of Australian companies in the creative economy is scarcely acknowledged here. While many start-up companies never grow up, Village Roadshow (whose involvement in Australian filmmaking began as distributor of Stork and Alvin Purple) is now a major independent film producer worldwide and a significant player in the United States. Village Roadshow's Albert Finney performed in Stork before becoming the father-figure for countless producers and directors, and helping to create great Australian films. The company began in 1954 as Roc Kirby's drive-in at Croydon in suburban Melbourne. Its portfolio of film production is only intermittently profitable, but as part of a mix with its cinema, film distribution and theme parks, Village Roadshow flourishes. It is a reminder that investing in art also involves investing in the contemporary economy. Media, entertainment and art are intricately mixed.

News Corporation, which began as a single newspaper in Adelaide, is most discussed because of its news and political role. But its role as a producer and distributor of entertainment and as a major publisher of literature and arthouse music and movies is arguably more important. About a billion dollars of work has gone through the Fox Studios in Sydney since it opened in 1998; the Gold Coast-based studios of Village Roadshow have also attracted major productions. While The Australian often delights in dressing down artists as elitist (like its readers), it has maintained serious criticism, debate and writing about Australian culture for decades. The Daily Telegraph is a major sponsor of the Sydney Festival, and the News Corp papers in other capitals are also involved in cultural activities.

I worked on several News Corp projects in Australia, including Fox Studios, and the start up of Foxtel. These were absolutely profit-driven exercises, but I watched the company hire about two thousand young people to begin or develop careers in television for the opening in 1995, including creative artists striving to connect with audiences as well as commercial producers excited at working in the connection between new technologies and old-fashioned storytelling, be it for subscription television or a Baz Luhrman blockbuster. Australians take credit for every Oscar or Emmy won by an Australian actor, so we should also take credit for the business acumen that has built on creative talent outside the subsidised sector. Yet we have a somewhat split view of our film programs, veering between wanting a relentlessly local product and international commercial success.


MUCH ACADEMIC DISCUSSION – indeed, much policy discussion  – is based on the notion that creative industries are a future possibility. But they have been central to the development of some of Australia's most successful international companies, growing from a base in media, television, publishing and design including News, Grundy and Crawford Productions and Mimosa Publications. These production companies typically follow a pattern of entrepreneurial growth from a small family business base, international expansion and then sale to an overseas investor or conglomerate. A more global pattern in which international investment is mixed with an ongoing Australian presence and leadership – as News Corp and Village Roadshow arguably have been successful in doing – may point to future directions.

There is no need to argue for making growth in the creative industries a centrepiece of productivity growth in Australia: it is already, and we should study them to learn how to replicate this success.

There is a strong entrepreneurial culture in the non-profit sector too. I have worked in the non-profit sector, as well as the commercial cultural area, and have developed a great admiration for the business acumen in the subsidised sector. While commentators from right and left chide ‘elite' companies, they generally slide over the figures that show subsidy rates well below those of our international peers. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistic surveys released in October 2008 found that performing arts companies received only a quarter of their income from government, and venues were subsidised by just a third. This is extraordinary, even allowing for a few private companies in the mix. In the United States, where tax-deductible philanthropy substitutes for direct public subsidy, box office returns are well below the revenue share they have in Australia. Here, box office pays the bills. From festivals to the Opera House, there is a continuous community judgement on artistic standards. Ticket prices lock out people on lower incomes, but that is because the economics of making live performance are relentless. To survive, companies need to fill each seat at the highest possible price, unless a philanthropist or government grant helps improve access for the young, the elderly or those from remote areas. Philanthropic funding of the arts has come and gone during the era of the subsidy model and increased markedly during the wealth boom of the recent past, but box office remains the bedrock in the arts organisations in major cities.


THE RUDD GOVERNMENT'S review of the national innovation system considered how to make the country more creative, and acknowledged the arts have a considerable part to play. The creative economy can grow from both the subsidised and the commercial parts of the industry, and they should be able to take advantage of each other's skills and ideas. The non-profit arts, for instance, link artists with audiences across a range of artforms and locations, and can act as the innovators of ideas which commercial operations will take on and promote to find a larger audience. This is vital for the collaborative and iterative creative work that goes into live performance on stage and backstage. This exchange is constantly refreshing and reinforcing the more profit-driven areas.

Design is one of the areas where the collaboration and crossover between technological and arts-based activities can work and use the creative skills gained in subsidised education and arts institutions to build a creative economy. The Innovation Review provides a great opportunity to move on from the action agendas of the previous government, which depended on technology, rather than the entrepreneurial skills of the creative producer, to drive business. The quest to find an audience is almost as powerful, for the creative producer, as the return on investment. If anyone understands risk in the Australian and global economy, it is the creative producer.

John Holden has called for research into cultural values in Britain, as has the Rand Corporation in the United States. However, the last comprehensive survey of Australian attitudes to the arts in Australia was conducted in 2000. That research found confusion about how to define art. Most respondents were clear that opera and ballet were definitely ‘the arts', but they failed to see their children's music lessons and dance concerts as part of the same activity. This reinforced the stereotypes, that ‘the arts' are galleries, the Opera House, tortured geniuses at odds with mainstream suburbia, while television dramas based in those suburbs are not considered art because their success is based on ratings, not peer review.

The Council last year announced plans to begin tracking public opinion, but at the time of writing there had been little discussion with stakeholders in the cultural industries about the content of the survey, and the long-term issues that need illumination. Perhaps the inquiry into the future of the ABC and SBS will begin to investigate this, as that review is specifically focused on the relationship between the public broadcasters and national culture.

There is an intriguing mix of information that suggests younger Australians are active and engaged in the arts, culture and creative industries. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has charted a steady increase in the number of five– to fourteen-year-olds engaged in performing arts outside school. That is about a third of young Australians overall, representing the 44 per cent of girls who learn a musical instrument, singing, dance or drama and about 22 per cent of boys. The increased activity is driven by a jump in the number of boys engaged in these activities, going up from 17 to 22 per cent over three years to 2006. The Communication and Media Authority has found that 70 per cent of teenagers over fourteen are engaged in some sort of web authorship, and that about one in eight teenagers has made videos and posted them online, and just under 10 per cent have created their own music or music compilation and had the confidence to put it out for public view using Web 2.0. They are the immediate source of the chamber orchestra players and garage bands of the next decade.

The urge to create, to express emotion and experience in arts, is deep in us all. For some it finds expression in cooking or hobbies; for others, it is unrecognised. For years now, I have noticed how many people start writing or illustrating books for children once they have their own children to tell stories to. Even an international sports star like Socceroo Mark Schwarzer has written a book aimed at encouraging young boys to read – one of many ‘celebrities' to turn their hand to storytelling.

For thousands of kids in Australia, the internet and computer software have made participating in the arts easier. Whether downloading the notation for songs, and then playing along with the computer, or an editing package to add narrative to pictures, we are developing a facility of use with the tools of the arts, to add to the stock of stories and arts experiences. Not all of us have talent and drive to make a career of it, but audiences today are full of aware sophisticated producers who no longer regard artistic talent as a gift of the gods. They know the hard work and collaborative drive it takes to make good art appeal to a crowd. There are sixty-three thousand students in creative arts courses at tertiary level and about forty-four thousand in private colleges, TAFE and vocational employment. Most of these students won't have careers in the subsidised arts sector, nor will they be able to sustain lifelong careers in traditional areas of arts, crafts and design. They will, however, be able to use this creative training in public and private organisations – from fashion to social work, primary school education to furniture stores, financial management to local government.

With more understanding about new Australian experience of the arts, and how they are valued, artists will know more about the people they are trying to reach. More information will produce a powerful tool to show policy-makers how the arts contribute to strong communities. It is a tool that stretches beyond the traditional economic impact studies to get to the core issues of how the arts are essential in individual experience – and while it might point to what may be commercially successful in enhancing this experience, it should also give impetus to experimentation and innovation – far more risky, but essential for renewal of Australian arts.

Perhaps a subsidy model based on national identity can be transformed to become a mechanism to support a diverse expression of Australian creativity, by also drawing on the recognised role of the commercial and the entrepreneurial not-for-profit sector.

With digital technologies collapsing genre categories and enabling easier access online for niche products, there is a chance to create new opportunities at both the micro level and in national institutions. Individual artists and small organisations can reach the global audience to seek exposure and sales. Locally, there is extraordinary potential: just as the video recorder created a new demand for movies in the cinema, as well as a new income stream for filmmakers, so the online world is creating a new demand for live experience. Attendance at galleries and museums is rising, as people intrigued by online images seek the real-time experience of exhibited artists. Festivals are attracting a new breed of people ready to get involved in adventurous experience, who are aware of genre acts and international niche work through the web and want to see it live.

Britain is looking at policies to support micro businesses in the arts, and there have been some similar attempts in Australia. This would be a great direction for Australia Council and Department of Innovation, Industry Science and Research policy-making. Some interesting pilot work has already been done in the area by the Australia Council through the Synapse funding program, and the Australian Network for Arts and Technology has put together networks of artists working at this junction of experimental art and business development – as have some of the training institutions. The case for direct funding of state and regional collecting institutions, galleries and festivals, which feed curiosity about culture and live experience, is becoming stronger rather than weaker. Subsidy can effectively connect high art with the avant-garde and genre arts of the new millennium, particularly where it is digitally driven. It's harder for the national government to find a space in this domain, as so much of this work is supported by state governments, which fund the city-based venues and festivals, and local government, which sponsors festivals and builds and manages local arts spaces.

A NEW LOOK at cultural policy should start with state and local governments as the primary drivers of cultural diversity and innovation where there is a need for a sense of place and local engagement. Costs are coming down so that technical crews stage major events with laptops and mobile stages. The 2008 Sydney Festival opened with more than quarter of a million people in the city centre on a rainy night. There was high art, salsa dancing and an Irish band playing in front of the New South Wales Parliament. But the really high energy was at Martin Place, where seventy thousand kids created their own live performance with the help of a DJ, funk and electronic, and found public support a novelty. My teenage kids and their friends couldn't quite believe that a subsidised arts festival was interested in them and their experience of music and performance, other than to sell them tickets, and even more surprised that the state government and city council was interested in their creativity. These are the active audiences of the future who will move seamlessly from experience of advertising images to screen-based gaming and on to live performance and even symphony orchestra experiences. Eunice and Lloyd would have loved them as a new challenge and enjoyed acting as mentors for whichever of them wanted to make a living out of the arts too.

The Rudd Labor Government arrived with some lofty ambitions for its arts policy. It picked up some themes where the Keating Creative Nation statement left off, identifying specific links between economic growth and creativity, and promoting training and entrepreneurial development. The connecting thread is art education as a tool to nurture a creative, imaginative Australia. The challenge for the government will be to give this ambition meaning and substance.

Calling for education that encourages creative thinking is in danger of becoming the next business jargon fad. But it is true, all the same: any education system that uses literature, drama, painting, music and craft helps young people express and think about their world. It is easy to see that embedding the arts in every subject and providing Australian students with the opportunity and tools to think critically and creatively about problems and processes has enormous potential, and is giving new energy to learning. There's enough international research to show that subjects like music and drama are great for reinforcing and augmenting traditional skills such as rote learning, language and understanding grammatical and logical structures.

Education should also identify and develop talents. Including the arts in the curriculum will not only help identify the next generation of actors, directors and designers, but also those with the skills and drive to become architects or scientists. For this to occur, all students need access to good teaching and rigorous activities-based learning in these areas ... and then we will see what happens. The 2008 Prime Minister's Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Sciences went to Tanja Monro – a physicist who wanted to be a musician until she was fifteen. I like to think that playing the cello helped her develop rigorous work habits and powers of concentration as well as the imaginative and meditative capacity to complement her mathematical and scientific learning.

In Australia and internationally, economists, business consultants and cultural studies experts have been looking at how to make workplaces more collaborative, creative and solution-focused – all values with work practice that are at the core of arts practice and learning. Steady student demand is driving course creation; universities and colleges are providing a variety of degrees and qualifications from studio recording and animation to creative writing PhDs and screen writing. Workplaces themselves are more diverse, dispersed and networked. Given this proliferation, the Rudd Government could look at the web of universities and specialist courses training artists, to identify what can be done better and to maximise the reach and impact of these courses. There is demand from students for these courses, but limited discussion with arts and cultural organisations about what should be taught. State governments could make a contribution here too, so perhaps the review could feed into a Council of Australian Governments effort to make a national and lasting framework.

In its first year the Rudd Government delivered a number of commitments, including the resale royalties designed to support Indigenous artists, and an additional $10 million for community-based arts to be invested through the Australia Council. And for the first time in Australia, the Minister for the Arts is an artist – singer and environmental activist Peter Garrett. So far, however, there is no overarching program to achieve its ambitious aims, and little public discussion about one. So it is up to the artists and their audiences, readers and viewers to create the projects that form the ‘creative imaginative Australia', to bring some of these rhetorical statements into substantive achievements. Minister Garrett faces a hard task to satisfy expectations from the subsidised arts, but he has the background and the profile to move public understanding about the very different global and technological environment within which the arts now operate.

But it is the Prime Minister who will have to pull together the next nation-building exercise in Australian arts. It is always the way: the buck stops with the prime minister. Leadership in arts and cultural policy has always been most effective when driven from the prime minister's office. In the past, prime ministers who have regarded the arts as a decorative indulgence have missed out on the burst of creativity that spills over into mainstream national life with unexpected results in the national mood and the economy. But prime ministers who have integrated and understood the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the arts, creativity and culture have inspired the nation and made space for innovation with tangible benefits.

The creative arts-based industries cut across so many areas of life, so action is needed in education, innovation and industry, arts and the digital economy. The Prime Minister will have to pull together ministers and departments, and set the pace in cabinet discussions of the new paradigm of the arts. There is a good list of specific projects amongst the account of discussions in the 2020 Summit that he could use as a starting point for his creative Australia and a bunch of people who can test its progress. But along the way he will have to learn to deal with the uncomfortable in Australian art, including Bill Henson, and the risk-taking, and the anger that comes with people trying to change their societies and suffering frustration in the process, just as the cultural warriors fifty years ago risked exclusion and had to find new ways of connecting with audiences and forming unexpected alliances.

Just as the government urges young Australian students to do maths and science so that science-based innovation can aid economic growth, the Prime Minister must also urge students to study music, literature in English and other languages, drama, dance, design, screen and visual arts. This Prime Minister, we know, is a worker, a hands-on man, an evidence-based reviewer and appraiser of what works. Once he sees the evidence, he will, I am sure, be convinced. But he does need to see it. And first he needs to ask for it. As a Queenslander, he knows all about the brilliant successes achieved there over decades from its programs of school-based music education. Why not this as a core part of the education revolution: a violin or guitar to go with the laptop? A culture in which parents tell their children to do accountancy, commerce and law for a good life is one destined for boredom – and second-rate economic growth. Innovation is our future, and the creative arts will be integral alongside the scientists and technologists.

Do we need more ratbags in the arts, as the leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra Richard Tognetti suggested to the business, political and community leaders at a Sydney Institute dinner a couple of years ago? This extraordinarily passionate violinist, who combines leadership with a huge stockpile of technical and creative skills in music and a daring willingness to keep trying new combinations and collaborations, made a powerful case for the iconoclast in times of stasis. And his argument for the ratbag went beyond Australia's tangled history of dealing with the artist as public figure, reflecting on Caravaggio's difficulties with the Catholic Church and the confrontational American artist Jeff Koons.

The answer to his question must be yes. It is not enough to leave it up to the politicians in the hope they will just get it right by themselves. In the end we need another generation of ratbags to inspire and prod politicians and policy-makers to develop Australian creativity. They will be the ratbags of contemporary Australia. In the spirit of those stereotypical bearded bohemians of the art world of the 1940s and their establishment patrons, those visionaries who established modern landscape painting as part of the national identity, and those brash and angry filmmakers and writers of the 1960s and '70s, we can move on to listen to the inspired youthful risk-takers exploring the new possibilities of the global, technologically enabled world. They are likely to be more commercially oriented, more connected to their communities, fonder of Australian suburban life than the ratbags of my father's generation. But they will be passionately opposed to mediocrity, committed to finding and developing talent, dedicated to their craft skills and their art – like my grandmother, who was a ratbag if ever there was one. Above all, like Richard Tognetti, these artists will be entertaining – grabbing the attention of Australian policy-makers and audiences with sheer brilliance – as they enrich our experience of life.

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