NASAA Notes: February 2015

February 6, 2015

Ideas from Down Under

I recently met with Tony Grybowski, CEO of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Aussie equivalent of our own National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Our meeting was a good opportunity to trade ideas and compare notes about cultural policy and government funding models.

Both our nations use three tiers of government (federal, state and local) to support the arts. Australian arts funders, like their U.S. counterparts, are honing their public purposes in a climate marked by political turmoil, demographic change, economic uncertainty and government cutbacks. We have much in common.

But there are differences in the arts funding policies and programs used in Australia and in America. These differences spark my interest, arresting my assumptions about what’s normal for government support of the arts, and stretching my thinking about what’s possible. For instance:

Artistic merit: Artistic merit is at the foreground of the legislation of the Australia Council, as it is for the NEA and many of our own state arts agencies. But how can you encourage or adjudicate artistic merit as a public agency? And is it possible to uncouple the false dichotomy of excellence “versus” access? To address these challenges, the Australia Council actively promotes a concept called artistic vibrancy. This framework (developed with help from our good buddy Alan Brown) offers five essential ingredients of artistic vibrancy: great art, audience engagement, development of the discipline, development of artists and community relevance. The Australia Council promotes this as a strategic planning tool for arts organizations, and it’s also referenced in grant reviews. It’s a good read for any state arts agency that’s revising its grant adjudication rubrics or offering capacity building resources to constituents.

Six-year operating support for major cultural institutions: Since 1996, the NEA has been prohibited from providing operating support to direct grantees. Among U.S. state arts agencies, multiyear operating support grants are fairly common: 19 states offer them. However, most of those grants extend for only two years. Massachusetts and Ohio are the exceptions, providing support for up to four years. So why did the Australia Council recently double its support for major cultural institutions from three to six years? Tony cited a number of reasons: the Council requires its grantees to demonstrate a long-term strategic vision, so its investment terms should match those expectations; it’s nearly impossible to achieve (let alone measure) meaningful outcomes in any less time; it’s much more efficient to manage.

The Australia Council provides several kinds of multiyear project support, too. Such terms may not be feasible for American state arts agencies, but it certainly makes one think twice about what can be achieved in 12 or 24 short months.

Indigenous cultures: The first paragraph in the Australia Council’s new strategic plan recognizes that the nation is “deeply shaped by more than 70,000 years of continued, unbroken Indigenous storytelling.” One of the Council’s four primary goals is devoted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures—and support for these groups was added as a primary function of the Council in its recently revised enabling legislation. I’ve read literally hundreds of public arts plans and statutes during my years at NASAA, and I have rarely seen a government be this explicit about its commitment to honoring first peoples.

These are not magic bullets, of course. The Australia Council is facing multimillion-dollar funding cuts over the next three years. It successfully navigated the equivalent of an agency legislative review last year. And tensions sizzle about distribution of the agency’s grant resources between large institutions, smaller groups and individual artists. Sound familiar?

Australia has state and territorial arts agencies but, unlike you, it has no equivalent of NASAA. The Australia Council convenes them, but the states don’t have an independent professional association to support their work and advocate for their policy interests. (Pausing here to jot a quick note to self regarding potential business expansion opportunities for NASAA. . . .)

Public support for the arts isn’t yet “perfected” in Australia. Nor is it perfected here in America. To quote one of my favorite Australian Broadcasting Corporation exports, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, “It’s lovely here . . . yes, it’s idyllic, if it weren’t for the snakes and dead bodies.” Still, both our countries have much to contribute to a dialogue about why and how government should support the arts in diverse democratic societies. As Miss Fisher says, “There can be no brave new world if there is no brave new art.” Hats off to the Australia Council for the brave ideas it offers us.

In this Issue

Executive Director's Column

State to State

Legislative Update

Research on Demand

More Notes from NASAA

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