Excellent! The arts budget and other tales of woe

Over the last few weeks, since the sudden announcement by Senator George Brandis that the government would be creating a a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) under the control of the Arts Minister, the one and only George Brandis, himself – I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening and trying to read through the many and exhausting online news items about this government bombshell.

There’s a lot to take in. I’ve skipped a lot. Thankfully NAVA has a dedicated site for artists and arts organisations seeking info. 

However, in all the discussions the problem for me is with the word ‘excellence’. Excellence in the arts is not a new value, especially for the arts in Australia, in recent times. Even the Australia Council uses it. It’s bandied around a lot. It seems to be an institutional term that governments and funding bodies and other institutions of note can spout and mouth as if, said often enough, everyone will agree. Yes. excellent. But what does it mean?

“Excellence” according to my online etymology dictionary can be defined as:

” mid-14c., from Old French excellence, from Latin excellentia “superiority, excellence,” from excellentem (nominative excellens) “towering, distinguished, superior”

So it’s about being ‘superior’, ‘towering’ ‘distinguished’. That will certainly delete a lot of experimental, small-not towering art practices. And that’s probably the point. Art is to be made by people who are superior, towering and distinguished. Nothing there to quibble about. Excellence is excellence. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to argue about. But that’s just the problem, especially in a field as contrary, counter-intuitive, creative, surprising, unexpected and experimental as art and the arts. And this is especially so for small artist-run initiatives.

It’s difficult to predict exactly what the $104.8M –  that will be removed over four years from the Australia Council’s funding – will mean for artist-run initiatives. ARIs, on the whole, are not funded at all by the Australia Council. And if they are, it is project based rather than support for the running of the space.

Rather than a direct hit I think the effect will be more pervasive and insidious. What I worry about and what keeps me awake at night is the shift in cultural and political values that this government and George Brandis are pushing. This of course has been happening across all sectors of Australian society with the drone word “austerity”. And now the arts sector is being included in this neo-liberal makeover. The values being pushed are the old traditional values, the pre-1970s, even pre-Whitlam revolution, pre-aboriginal land rights campaigns, pre-feminism, pre-gay rights, all the battles that we thought we’d won – well at least made some movement on. It’s a return to ‘the canon’ which means the usual suspects, no surprises and ultimately shifting money to the privileged few and let the rest eat cake. (btw Marie Antoinette never said this). I could go on… but it’s probably better if you read Naomi Klein or Richard Denniss (The Australia Institute.)

The Australia Council may not be perfect. Let’s face it we’ve all had our moments of not getting that grant that would have changed everything. And its mission and its work has often been contested by just about everyone. But isn’t that the nature of a public institution with such broad responsibilities. It’s always going to be an agonistic situation.

But the Australia Council is more than its parts. It is a symbol and an actuality in the world that represents the possibility for a more democratic arts. And it is ours. It is a public institution that stands for something that I hold dearly and that is, the accessibility and possibility of the arts for all Australians. Not just the few.

And so that’s why I’m definitely participating tomorrow, June 18, in the national day of action.




What is an artist-run initiative? The answer. It’s complicated.

Stairs to tcb art inc. Melbourne
Stairs to tcb art inc. Melbourne



Sitting on the train, looking out the window. I’m on my way to West Space. It’s the week-end and lots of people are milling around Flinders St Station. Week-ends have a different feel to week-day crowds. There’s an anarchic, frantic feeling. Not enough free time. I’m beginning my working day visiting an artist-run space. There’s a performance scheduled – billed as a Concert at West Space, titled THREE ADJOINING SPACES WITH MANIFOLD EDGES by the artist Helen Grogan. This work runs concurrently with Geoff Robinson’s  room overlay.

IMG_1191_webI’m looking out, but thinking about the book I’m reading Radical Aesthetics by Isobel Armstrong. Written in the late 1990s just as the Derrida/Deconstructive mania had subsided and relational, social, and other words had become salient. It’s time to rethink what we mean by ‘aesthetics’, Armstrong argues. The meaning of “Aesthetics” at that time had collapsed into ‘the beautiful’ ‘the tasteful’… so you can see how easily it could be deconstructed away as a privileged category of class relations.

But now it is imperative we rethink ‘aesthetics’.

“Productive as this hermeneutics (deconstruction) has been in so many ways – irrigating intellectual culture with new theory – the concept of the aesthetic has been steadily emptied of content. This movement calls out in its turn the project of rethinking the aesthetic.” Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic.(2)


“According to the Portuguese anthropologist João de Pina-Cabral, existing philosophical treatments of the institution have mistakenly depended upon and propagated a “Cartesian view of mind” in which persons “pre-exist intersubjective attainment.” In light of theories on subjectivity advanced by philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, however, he contests this assumption, which proves problematic and inadequate. A reconsideration of the institution must, therefore, begin with the understanding that human subjectivity does not precede institutions and that institutions are not static entities nor the amalgamation of individuals, but rather relational processes of becoming….

In other words institutions reflect the processes of sociality and mutuality that bring into existence ouselves. Thus, institutions by artists are simply the means by which the articulation of artists occurs wherein each institution expresses artistic particularities through a be(com)ing togetherness.”  Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Lee Podesva, Institutions by Artists, Fillip Editions/Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres