New media arts sacrifice

Keith Gallasch

There have been some benefits flowing on from discussions around the proposed restructure of the Australia Council. Consultation took place after being initially off the agenda, new peak organisations have been formed (the National Arts and Culture Alliance, focused on community cultural development, and New Media Arts Australia), current funding structures maintained in the short term, and community cultural development and new media arts are to be the subjects of reviews. It’s a pity that the reviews didn’t predate the restructure given the utter absence of research and consultation evident in the restructure documents and in the Task Force opinions that passed for considered thought. The consultative meetings were valuable, if frustrating in many respects, nevertheless initiating what we all hope will be an ongoing dialogue in which the new peak organizations play a key role. Unprepared for the impact of the restructure and too loosely allied, new media and hybrid artists and producers have learnt much in recent months. The workshop representatives (selected by the Australia Council for 2 meetings) were Lyndal Jones, Mike Stubbs (1st meeting), Caroline Farmer, Sarah Miller, Francesca da Rimini, Rea, David Cranswick, Kim Machan (1st meeting), Julianne Pierce (2nd meeting), Rachael Swain, Daryl Buckley and myself. Task force members included Michael Snelling, Terrey Arcus, Ian McRae and Council CEO Jennifer Bott plus members of staff.

An opportunity lost?

At the consultative meetings, Task Force members iterated their claim that they had acted out of the greatest respect for new media and hybrid artists, that they saw greater opportunities for these practices under the mantle of traditional artform funding categories. These arguments were less than convincing given that Task Force didn’t see these practices as constituting artforms, that they would no longer have their own funding categories, that they would not have a voice on Council and that the quarantining of their funds would have a limited life. So much for respect.

What became clearer was that the Task Force sees the restructure as an opportunity to force onto the other artform boards responsibility for emerging practices resiled from with the establishment of the New Media Arts Board. New media arts it seems is to be sacrificed for the greater good of contemporary art practices.

But just how long will these boards commit to new practices? And with what expertise, what accumulated knowledge of a rapidly changing field of complex practices that have such significance in many aspects of the lives of all Australians? That the Task Force cannot see the value of having a board capable of publicly fronting the engagement of artists with new technological tools, new means of distribution, of audience development and income generation, as well as partnerships extending beyond the arts, is one of the most shocking aspects of the restructure. It is the sign of a great opportunity lost. See the open letters from Brendan Harkin and Dennis Del Favero and other signatories on these pages.

A half-baked restructure

From time to time in the consultative meetings, we were accused of being fixed on a label, new media arts, as validation of our practice. It was also suggested that we were against change. Far from it. A number of us argued that the restructure was half-baked. Why hadn’t the opportunity been seized to review the structure that entails all the artform boards, not just new media arts and CCD? (See the 5th paragraph of Jennifer Bott’s letter.) Did we need artform boards at all? Why wasn’t the struggling Dance Board recognised as a critical example of a small board inadequately funded and better merged with the Theatre Board? Wasn’t there a bigger problem to be addressed, the expenditure on heritage arts at the expense of contemporary arts? Isn’t that the real issue, and right across Council? And, as Daryl Buckley cogently argued, peer assessment by Arts Minister-vetted board members is no way to support contemporary arts practices. As is being proposed for ABC Board appointments, it is time that Council and artform board members be independently nominated and selected, and strictly in terms of their appropriacy. This must be fought for and along with it increased core funding for the artform boards, so that contemporary practices are properly resourced.

Heritage salvation

While we were fighting for the standing and proper resourcing of contemporary arts practices, the Strong report on the state symphony orchestras was released, recommending diminution of player numbers (outside of Sydney and Melbourne), and the Sydney Dance Company announced a deficit of $600,000. Within days, instead of the issues being seriously grappled with by politicians, the media and the public, these organisations were rescued by Prime Minister Howard and Deputy Arts Minister Kemp in the face of backbencher fear of a voter backlash(!). I have sympathy for the state symphony orchestras and the Sydney Dance Company, their collective plights illustrative of the failure of governments to commit to long term planning (how long before like crises emerge again?), but I am horrified at the ease with which the heritage arts are so quickly accommodated.

Peerless future?

One of the major concerns raised at the meetings with the Task Force was how new media and hybrid practices would be adequately assessed in the new structure with its Inter-Arts Office (no longer ‘triaging’ clients to the artform boards, but conducting ‘referrals’) and a limited number of new media expert peers distributed across the artform boards. Where would the collective knowledge and current experience of the field be shared and analysed? One worrying response came from Jennifer Bott who argued that we should regard Australia Council staff members as our peers given their experience and knowledge of the arts. Was this a forecast of even further diminution of peer assessment and the adoption of an Australian Film Commission model, where staff are a part of the decision-making process?

A related matter is the status of the Inter-Arts Office which will all too soon swing into its referring role. The interim CCD division (as part of a reconstituted and retitled Audience & Market Development Division) will be set up under section 17A of the Australia Council charter, allowing Council to appoint members, rather than the Minister. Surely the same should apply to the Inter-Arts Office while it works out exactly how it is going to operate, especially in the matter of peer assessment. Under the proposed model, peers in the Inter-Arts Office assessment meetings will make recommendations for funding, but not final decisions–these will be made by the Director of Arts Development, currently Ben Strout. Strout argued that this signing off was just a technicality and would not interfere with the judgements made by the assessors. Bott argued that other divisions of Council, like Audience & Market Development make funding decisions all the time. But, as Rachael Swain pointed out, those are not grants for the fundamental making of work, they are about its marketing, a very different matter. It would seem a major breach of Council legislature to have a staff member make the final decision on a grant, at whatever remove, however much a mere technicality, without the legality of the action properly addressed or changes to procedure formally instituted. After all, the structures put in place with the establishment of the Australia Council were meant to protect staff from accusations of impropriety of any kind.

What’s in a name?

Briefly, at the end of the second meeting and after an exacting 4 hours of discussion, the issue of relabelling the Visual Arts Board was raised. Various titles like Contemporary Arts Board (too broad), Media Arts Board (confusing) and the Visual Arts Craft & New Media Arts Board (too elaborate) were tabled. I argued that it would be hypocritical of the Task Force to put new media art into a title if they couldn’t recognise it for what it was. But I did ask whether or not the grants booklet would clearly specify new media arts as an area of practice under the visual arts banner–I was assured it would. Until a proper review of new media arts in Australia is conducted (and sooner than late 2005 as planned) and New Media Arts Australia puts a strong case for the return of the New Media Arts Board–or the creation of a cross-industry equivalent outside the Australia Council–we need to closely monitor how the artform boards handle new media and hybrid arts.

The big picture issues of the funding of contemporary art practices, the status of peer assessment, the viability of the current artform board structure, the appropriacy of Board appointments and the precise nature of Council’s role (as it appears to be moving into producer mode), all need our attention.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 4

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005