Pick me as next Australia Council CEO (and here’s why) – Daily Review

TO: SAM WALSH, CHAIR, AUSTRALIA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS
RE: OPEN APPLICATION FOR THE CEO POSITION, AUSTRALIA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS
Dear Sam,
Thank you for accepting this application. 
I have chosen to take this open and public approach to the recruitment process. I thought it only fair to include the whole arts sector whom I would be representing and particularly Australia’s artists who should be the first to know that one of their number will be heading up the agency that has such a profound effect on their lives. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Well, not yet.
Firstly, congratulations on your appointment to the position of Chair of the ACA. New to the seat, you may not know that I have been a persistent critic of the Australia Council and it is in this spirit that I make this serious and heartfelt application. Also, I owe a debt. Some years ago, one of my mentors the late and excellent Richard Wherrett, drummed into me that if I was going to criticise the leadership of a cultural institution then I had a responsibility to put up my hand when the position became vacant. Fair enough.

So, what can I offer?

Firstly, attitude. I will not blink if the government-of-the-day attacks the ACA, if it tries to compromise its independence, if it tries to reduce its budget, if it tries to corrupt its mission. I will stare them down. I will work tirelessly to ensure its independence, its financial and moral position. I will publicly advocate in its interests and in the interests of its various constituencies, in particular the independent artists and small-medium sector who have borne the brunt of the culture wars. I will advocate tirelessly for the intrinsic value of the arts and I will make this central to the ACA’s advocacy strategy. I will not resile from the necessary work to defend the agency and I will work to expand its influence and budget. The health of the arts sector and Australian artists is more important to me than the 200K you will offer me. I’m happy to accept less. I’ll put my job on the line for the agency’s mission to support and nurture the Australian arts. If at any point, I do not believe that I can improve the current conditions of Australia’s arts and culture landscape then I will help you find someone who can. I promise that I will neither seek nor accept performance bonuses.
Secondly, experience. I am an established and successful Australian artist. My dealings with the ACA run deep. I am a funding recipient. I have been a peer assessor. I have been engaged in various consultative roles over the years. From 2005-2007, I represented the ACA at the then new Performing Arts Market Seoul in Korea and provided advice on extending the agency’s role in Asia. I helped facilitate the relationship between the ACA and the EU-funded International Network for the Contemporary Performing Arts (IETM), both parties requesting me to broker the meeting at which a formal agreement was set in train. I was contracted to establish and lead the IETM-Australia Council Collaboration Project in Brussels from 2009-2011, a position from which I provided regular advice to the Australia Council on international relations in Europe, and Asia. I’ve done plenty of time on various state and local government agencies in leadership, advocacy and artform advisory roles. I’m alright at the policy stuff, too. I’ve knocked out plenty of papers in my time that are related to the above positions or as a lone operator in the field, sniffing out what’s going on.

I can send you all the links and references if you’re still reading up to this point, and just in case you might be worried I’m having a lend. Be assured, I’m not.

Thirdly, aptitude. I am steeped in a liberal arts education which has been identified by many experts as crucial to the lateral thinking and complex problem-solving needed for effective leadership in any sector in the 21st C. I hold an undergraduate degree in Politics with a side-serve of Visual Arts and a Masters in Asian Studies, both from Monash University, and most recently I knocked out a PhD in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT which started its life as the working man’s university, most appropriately for me as I love to work. Suffice to say, my thinking space is as inter-disciplinary as my making space. Oh, and I graduated as an actor from our esteemed National Institute for Dramatic Arts where I spent a fair bit of time being an activist which is another story that might put you off, so I won’t go there… Anyhow, the long and short of it is that, should my application be successful, you can announce my appointment with whatever nomenclature suits your purposes, artist, doctor, protagonist. I’ve been called a lot of things in my working life, I don’t mind. Just give me the job.

Why? Why do I want it so much?

I believe the Australia Council is on the wrong side of history. I believe it no longer understands its role or agency within the broader cultural landscape. I believe its working culture is silo-based, myopic and disconnected from many of its constituencies. I believe it can neither understand nor read nor respond to the artistic trends and cultural movements that shape Australia’s identity in the 21st C. In many ways it represents and replicates our political class – Sam, you probably know this first hand – in that it parlays the needs of its citizens (read: artists) as it plays to the wants of business (read: organisations). This disconnect has led to massive inequities which will crush our cultural sector. Unless action is taken.

Which is why I hope you will appoint me.

The first order of business is the National Framework for Governments’ Support of the Performing Arts Sector (the MPA Framework) for which the current administration has instigated a consultation process designed to strengthen it. My application puts that process ‘on hold’. If I take up the position, my first action will be to address the Framework from a completely different point of view.
Under my leadership, the funding inequity that has dominated the Australian arts landscape since the 1980s and which, over the last years, has wreaked havoc upon artists, their ambitions, their working conditions and lives will be resolved. The key to this havoc is the MPA Framework. The quarantining of the major organisations within the Australia Council budget, long implicit in the power dynamics of Australian culture, is a direct cause of the parlous success rate of artists seeking to make their work (down to 17%). Now, a lot of people are going to jump up and down on their ballet toes and contest this correlation but we all know noise when we hear it. Here’s the signal: Artists in their late 30s and 40s are leaving the arts in droves, meaning a whole generation of artistic work and experience is lost. They know that direct funding to artists has fallen drastically over the last decades and continues to do so. They know that direct funding to artists is the lifeblood of artistic and cultural production. They know current levels will not change unless the system changes. 

The ACA will lead that change. How will it work?

Through the MPA Framework, the ACA ‘administers funding to the 28 MPA companies on behalf of the Australian Government and state governments, at levels they set and agree to’. The ACA plays an important leadership role in the management of the Framework. Internally, the ACA’s MPA Panel ‘considers the MPA results in a broader context of support to other areas of the arts sector nationally. This overview and strategic understanding is critical to the health of each area of arts practice in Australia.’ So, contrary to the oft-repeated imputations that the agency has its hands tied, it clearly has the capacity to recommend adjustments to the conditions under which the MPAs operate as is evidenced in the current survey – by strengthening its position. However, unless you’re an arts ostrich with your head in the sand, it’s pretty clear the Framework is toxic ‘to the health of each area of arts practice in Australia’ other than itself, and it needs to be put to bed, for good. 
Of course, it will take time. Which is what the MPAs will need to transition out of a secure funding pool into a new main stream of competitive funding which the current MPA Panel has also proposed. However, it will look quite different under my administration. To unpick the Framework, the States need to come onboard via the Cultural Ministers Council. The devil is in this process, and it may be that we choose a slightly different tack to simply dismantling the Framework although that is of course a genuine option. Another strategy might be to maintain the Framework and simply index the MPA’s share of the Australia Council budget at one-third of its overall grants budget (it currently takes just under two-thirds). This may be the best way of all. Two important things will result. One: The issue of (in)equity, both actual and moral, will be, in part, resolved. Two: The MPA’s interests will be tied directly to the whole-of-sector’s interests rather than to their own self-serving interests as is now the case. In order to increase the size of their own budget the MPAs will need to lobby for the increase of the whole budget thereby benefiting the whole sector with whom they will have to work in a collegial and complementary manner.

So, what to do with all the extra cash freed up under this redistribution?

Simple. Give it directly to artists through a number of transparent, effective portals and trust them to build our cultural capital through their artistic endeavour. It hasn’t been tried before, so it’s a unique approach. And as we know from the evidence given at the 2016 Senate Inquiry into the Arts, for which we can thank His Excellency George Brandis, the engine-room of Australian cultural production on all measures does NOT lie with the MPAs but with the independent and small-to-medium sector. They just need some petrol, Sam. I don’t know how across this evidence you are but I’m happy to take you through it with the finest of toothcombs.

Under my leadership, cultural development will be kick-started big-time.   

Of the near-$180 million grants budget, let’s take out the $60 million to be allocated in my version of the MPA Framework (down on the current $109 million). The remainder will be delivered in two competitive programs to which only independent artists and operators in the small-medium sector can apply. The first program will be for small-to-medium arts organisations through the Multi-Year Funding Program. In the interests of cultural efficacy, this Funding Stream will be benchmarked along the same lines as the MPA organisations indexed at one-third of the Grants Budget ensuring security in this part of the sector for the first time (double its current funding level of $29 million). The second competitive program will have a few streams – 5-year sunset fellowships to 100 artists per year, life-support stipends for established and senior artists and significant funds for the creation of new work and the revitalisation of existing work. Attention will be paid to regional and First Nations artists along with a conscious desire to refuse the temptation to curate Australia’s arts and cultural landscape. That is the job of the field NOT the ACA. To be clear, the majority of the ACA’s grants budget will be delivered to independent artists and the small-medium sector.

What effect will this have?

Of the MPAs, the best of them will survive. How? By creating business models that are not the hulking anachronisms most of them operate today. The State Theatre companies will probably do better given how little of the funding they receive anyway. The AO will struggle but if anyone has attended an AO production over the last however many years, they will appreciate it is the struggle the company has to have. Theirs is a business model that owes more to the historical periods from which their repertoire originates than it does to the 21st C. Across the spectrum lies the classical heritage music organisations which need to embed modern business practices in their operation in much the same way as they have embedded the ‘deeply classical’ in their programming practices. It is a brave new world the MPAs will embrace with guidance, support and newfound resilience. We will all help them get there.
The Key Organisation sector will benefit from a freedom they have never known. However, we must be mindful that their governance structures do not swell with the additional funds. Less is more in compliance and governance, two words which constitute an industry in their own right and which have made consultants rich.
The Independent Artists. Well, what can they do with a modest level of security, continuity of funding, blue-sky commissions and a leadership role they have had only in the paternalistic rhetoric that has hitherto passed for ‘policy’? I believe a better-funded independent arts sector can profoundly change the material nature of Australian culture for the better and make it a force for good in society as it seeks to address fundamental challenges to democracy. 
The best of this approach is that we are all in it together. For levels of funding to increase, all sectors must band together as a united front. That is the beauty of indexation. If the Australia Council grants budget increases then so do the respective budgets of the MPAs, the small-medium and independent sectors. This will create collective goodwill that will replace the division of the haves and have-nots. Under the present system there is no reason why independent artists would advocate for an increase in the Australia Council’s global budget because they know that money will go to the MPAs. So why would they bother? This new system will radically alter the DNA of Australia’s arts and culture scene. It will bring us together.

Is this proposition all a bit crude? Of course, it is Sam. This is after all just an application.

Wait till you interview me. 

Then I can tell you about my plans for devolving some of the administrative and evaluative processes of the ACA. Here’s a taster. To many Australian artists and cultural operators, the ACA is an ivory tower whose purview is Sydney-centric. The concentration of administrative activity in Sydney does no favours to anyone including those who are Sydney-based. Subsequent to this, one of the ACA’s mantras has been that its actions and policy are led by the field. The circumstances and consequences of Brandis’ action proved this to be a fallacy. It begs the question: how can the ACA be led by the field from which it is disconnected ? I will allocate funds in the administrative budget to a process of devolving intelligence-gathering activities to the field. How will this work? Each year, up to three artists and cultural operators will be paid full-time to attend, scope and describe the activities in their state or territory. These positions will rotate annually so as to subvert any gate-keepers’ default setting. Each field officer will write up their views on the work they have experienced providing a national scope to artistic activity. This initiative would spread the national intelligence of art-making across the field and into the agency. Significantly, this will tie the agency to a very direct relationship to the field in ways that ‘consultative processes’ and our under-resourced peer assessment process simply do not. It will also flatten the ACA’s structure opening up a new, critical and informed channel of information and feedback. 
There’s more where that comes from, but we’ll have to wait for our face-to-face. 
I’m looking forward to it.
Interview me.
It won’t cost you a thing, other than travel costs of course. I’m in Melbourne by the way. You could drop by?
Interview me.
C’mon.
Yours Sincerely,
David Pledger
Artist, Curator, Candidate
[box]Main image: Big Foot by John Kelly, 2005 (the artist’s altered image of the official Australia Council logo)[/box]
 

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