Chapter 3. The convergence of arts and cultural policy

Table of Contents

Re-Visioning ‘Culture’
Instrumentalism and Sustainability
Reconciling Complex Culture with Cultural Engagement

While the previous chapter focused on arts and cultural policy in Australia, there are parallels in many other countries. Governments of all persuasions, in all jurisdictions have experienced difficulty in formulating coherent and appropriate policy strategies for the arts and cultural sector. In particular, in most developed countries, support for the elite arts has been allied to a range of instrumental strategies in which cultural and creative activities are used to leverage solutions to a variety of social problems. These include unemployment, social alienation, regional access, disability, social welfare and therapy, and more generally, the creation of a sense of community and ‘well-being’.

Re-Visioning ‘Culture’

In the United Kingdom, according to former Minister for Culture, Tessa Jowell, there has been a major shift in the arguments and strategies for under-writing culture — from support for culture on the basis of ‘what it does in itself’ to support for culture ‘in terms of its instrumental benefits to other agendas’ (Jowell 2004: par.12-13). Jowell argues that the result of this policy shift has been ‘a spiral of decline’ (Jowell 2004: par.24). Whether culture is supported because of its ‘intrinsic value’ or its ‘instrumental benefits’, Jowell’s successor, David Lammy, argues that ‘we still lack a coherent case’ to justify government investment in culture (Lammy 2006: par.19). So, on the one hand, government support is still assumed to be worthy and the sign of a ‘civilised’ regime while, on the other, support is decried as an indulgence of so-called ‘bleeding hearts’.

Possible reasons why cultural and creative organisations have found it harder to be sustainable might include:

  • they are spread too thinly doing too many things; or

  • pressure from competition with other agencies pursuing instrumental programs; or

  • the broad brush approach undermines the original cultural or creative rationale of particular organisations or cultural practitioners.

It is also the case that governments in many jurisdictions have attempted to reduce the reliance of the arts and cultural sector on the public purse by facilitation and incentive policies designed to increase support from the private and non-government sectors. At the same time, increases in the number of cultural organisations, practitioner groups and artforms mean that competition for available funding has intensified. In addition, arts and cultural policy has been integrated within whole-of-government (or joined up) policy frameworks spanning diverse agencies and policy agendas which, in turn, has served to shape the form of government-sponsored creativity and cultural production (Holden 2004, 2006).

A fracturing of the coherence of the domain of arts and cultural policy has also emerged. Although the traditional arts (opera, ballet, classical music, theatre) have been inscribed formally within the ambit of cultural policy, there is a growing uneasy tension between what counts as ‘art’ and what counts as ‘culture’ in terms of how practitioners and administrators view the competing domains and in terms of policy initiatives. Whereas the arts traditionally encompassed cultural practices that were cosseted by social elites (largely through the practices of direct and indirect patronage from private and/or state benefactors), the re-definition of arts policy as cultural policy in the second half of the twentieth century sought to remove the elitist tag from traditional arts and include forms of cultural practice that had broad popular appeal (e.g. Australia Council 2000; Hill Strategies 2005c).[1]

This trend was associated with the welfare governance agenda that gave priority to educational, social and quality-of-life outcomes as well as broader democratic and cultural citizenship objectives, such as producing a culturally literate society (cf. Craik, Davis and Sunderland 2000). Arts and culture were accordingly re-defined from strictly educational accompaniments to indicators of the acquisition of social and cultural capital. The broader the definition of culture, the more fragile, incoherent and tension-ridden this policy has become (cf. Craik, McAllister and Davis 2003). The problem becomes where to draw the line as to what counts as culture (and therefore uplifting) and what deserves support. Is an art program run in a hospital to enhance the self-esteem or healing capacity of patients a creative or a medical program? Is digital media training for unemployed youths a creative or a job skilling program? Have arts and culture as welfare been replaced by arts and culture as a social safety net?