What Australia Teaches Us About Effective Cultural Policy

cultural policy
Sydney Opera House during the Vivid Sydney Festival, Photo: MP Mike Baird, via Twitter.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “policy” as

…a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual.

Policy, though, can and also should be the vehicle in the public sphere for arriving at communal plans to address common issues. In this way, policy can result from advocacy, including arts and culture advocacy.

To be most effective, any policy, whatever the topic, must go beyond simply being a “course or principle of action adopted.” It must include an articulation of the intended goals and/or problems that the policy intends to address or ameliorate. In the formulating of policy, this articulation is all too often missing and the policy reads and operates as if a faceless bureaucrat crafted it.

In some of my past column, I have written on a related topic — urging that merely identifying problems in the arts sector is ultimately insufficient; that proposing specific solutions to problems is critical to actually addressing them, even if the only result is to spur discussion of the issue. Let me go further along these lines. By putting forward an articulation of goals and intentions when proposing a policy, the ensuing dialogue will often lead to a more fulsome solution to the underlying problem. Since this articulation offers opportunities for different parties and stakeholders to explore disagreements and/or competing interests, the final policy tends to be more strategically complete. If an implicit allocation of resources is pertinent to that policy, the process allows the use of those resources to be fully understood and evaluated by everybody, thus ensuring and maintaining accountability. This will help to prevent resources from flowing to unintended places or to unproductive efforts.

The final policy is then strategically more complete.

One area where I have previously argued for a complete statement of goals is with regard to inequities in our cultural landscape. We live in an increasingly multicultural society; giving voice to, and exposing each other to, the diversity of our backgrounds and identities makes us stronger and more whole as a people. Therefore it is essential to reduce existing inequities. But I have objected to simplistic goals — I have written that simply “making funding more equitable” does not go far enough. To enable a thorough discussion of how to achieve our goals, there must be some framework on which to judge any proposed policy that would redress inequities. Simply calling for greater equity is, in fact, too insufficient to be effective.

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Why do I raise this subject? Because, based on news from the recent Grantmakers in the Arts conference in St. Paul, MN — which has also been commented on by Barry Hessenius at his Barry’s Blog — a new report appears to be imminent that will conclude there is even less equity in the culture sector than an initial groundbreaking report on the same topic some five years ago. Hessenius, clearly frustrated, rhetorically proposed arbitrarily dividing present cultural funding into three equal amounts, allocating each portion to a different budget sector of our ecology. That, he wrote, would be better than the systematic problems with inequity that the whole sector has right now.

Still, this is a perfect example of the problem with a naked policy, because decisions about who gets and who foregoes resources are always inevitable in the real world. Such questions as “What do we mean by greater equity?,” “How do we resolve competing requests for the limited resources?,” and “Is the solution compatible with our long-term societal goals? remain unanswered without more than a mere policy.

Fortunately, there are examples in other parts of the world that we can look to as models. Australia, for example, has a national cultural policy based on clearly articulated goals, one that they periodically reexamine.

Since the establishment of a national funding mechanism in the Australia Council Act 1975, the government has pursued three critical goals: the pursuit of excellence; the widening of access; and the fostering of “Australian-ness,” i.e., the responsibility to reflect Australia’s evolving national identity to its citizens and to the world.

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At the end of the 20th century, a review of the state of Australia’s culture sector added a fourth goal: sustaining financial viability. Three funding streams were instituted to execute the mandated goals and each carried specific obligations for recipients. Institutions deemed representative of Australian culture to the world at large had an obligation to tour internationally, others to tour Australia (increasing access) or they were regional companies supported in the commissioning of work — all to promote a rich and vibrant creative ecology throughout the nation. These goals and policies were reviewed and tweaked again in 2011. Just last week, a new report revisited the policy yet again, with an eye toward underlying goals in the area of opera. In addition to recommending increased funding, the new report recommends tweaks to more narrowly focus the connection between funding and national goals:

Taken together, we can see how a society can establish clear cultural goals — along with the policies to achieve those goals. Then it can engage in an ongoing dialogue and evaluation on a high level.

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Another point is how to most effectively advocate for, and maintain, a strategic policy over time. Former National Endowment for the Arts Chair Bill Ivey argued:

The state, as our agent, long ago ceded far too much authority over our creativity and heritage to a web of commercial interests.

Ivey also proposed a cabinet-level department of culture, as exists in many other countries, including Australia. While this suggestion may not be realistic in our current political environment, the least we can do is to argue for a proactive national conversation about the role and place of culture in our society. Ivey’s approach — articulating a goal and then a solution to achieve that goal — models the approach we can all adopt. Or, we can follow Australia’s lead.

Let’s circle back to inequitable funding for a moment. We can absolutely rely on reports to provide us with data, but we absolutely must go beyond only suggesting a policy. What will be most impactful is a fully fleshed-out approach that lays a foundation, identifies an issue, articulates goals that are related to it, proposes a solution to achieve goals and identifies measurements of success. With such a process, there is a bona fide basis on which to thoroughly examine and evaluate how well the goals are achieved. With such a process, more importantly, we can engage in a complete and rigorous dialogue about the correct goals — that is, before we settle on a policy.

American arts and culture has a right to such a process. The question is when — and if — we will begin.