CaLD arts funding and policy


A couple of months ago I was asked to consult on funding strategies, to research relevant grant opportunities and to help write grant applications for a local “multicultural” (they self-define this way) arts festival that takes place in the Inner West of Sydney. I attended this festival, now in it’s 6th year, just last year for the first time and absolutely loved it, so was happy to help out.

Actively seeking financial support for this sort of arts activity again reminded me of the challenges faced by artists and arts organisations practising under the cultural and linguistically diverse (CaLD) arts label; not the least of which is the binary attitudes and dichotomous dialogue around the value of CaLD arts and indeed their validity as serious/professional, contemporary artistic practice. CaLD arts have historically been seen and used as instruments of social cohesion and intercultural understanding, and therefore as having value predominantly as tools in community arts and cultural development efforts. Through this instrumental positioning, CaLD arts have been placed in direct opposition to other (dominant) arts practices often asserted to be characterised by artistic rigour and excellence; arts practises that are valued for their intrinsic worth.

While drafting applications for this festival, I had to make the decision whether the “ask” would be better centred around artistic outcomes or community development outcomes. In some cases it was clear cut of course – if you’re applying for a Multicultural NSW Celebration Grant, for example, you’re going to talk up the cultural exchange and intercultural understanding potential of the festival. But what if you’re applying to the Australia Council for the Arts, for example? How do you shape your argument to fit the criterion of artistic merit/excellence when the same body you are applying to has historically placed CaLD arts in direct opposition to the concept of excellence by relegating them to “community arts and cultural development” practice?

This boxing of CaLD informed arts practice into the community development basket is a relic of multicultural assimilation and integration policy more broadly. Policy that has it’s origins in the 1960’s and 70’s. But, because art (much like all products of human cultural expression) evolves more quickly than the language and constructs invented to make sense of it/evaluate it/plan future directives for it, policy-makers can only ever play catch-up when it comes to designing and implementing policy to address complex, changing needs. When it comes to meeting the changing needs in the evolution of CaLD arts practice specifically, it would seem we haven’t really moved all that far from the original cultural policy that created the dichotomous dialogue in the first place.

The first national cultural policy was designed and implemented by the Keating Labour government in 1994. The excerpt below illustrates the way in which the concept of nurturing excellence in the arts is regarded as distinct from promoting cultural identity and diversity.

The Commonwealth’s role in cultural development falls into five principal categories:

  • nurturing creativity and excellence;
  • enabling all Australians to enjoy the widest possible range of cultural experience;
  • preserving Australia’s heritage;
  • promoting the expression of Australia’s cultural identity, including its great diversity; and
  • developing lively and sustainable cultural industries, including those evolving with the emergence of new technologies.

These “principal categories”, outlined above, gave rise to grants programs at all levels of government, structured around either achieving “artistic excellence” or “community arts/cultural development” outcomes in the arts. CaLD arts fell into the latter.

The problems associated with CaLD arts being labelled as predominantly community development work, have been discussed, researched, written about and criticised before. The Making Multicultural Australia website and the writings of Andrew Jakubowicz and his contemporaries are an excellent starting point to trace the history of policy, its ramifications and important commentary on these. The Australia Council for the Arts itself has reckoned with the issue through several iterations of multicultural policy development. Their Arts in a Multicultural Australia Policy brilliantly called for a re-positioning of the way CaLD arts were viewed altogether. It called for an inversion of the notion of CaLD arts as being situated within the broader arts sector and put forward the idea that all arts practice needs to be viewed as positioned within a multicultural reality. I think the most current edition of that policy was published in 2000. That’s 17 years ago now. We’re still talking about the same issues today.

In a recent publication on the theme of ‘Intercultural’ arts practice by Australian dance organisation, Critical Path, the effects of instrumental public policy on CaLD artists was discussed in some depth through the writings of artists themselves. The following quote from the commissioning editor (artist and CaLD arts advocate), Annalouise Paul, is revealing:

The residue of Australia’s Multiculturalism, assimilation policies and cultural stereotyping is subsiding for many artists from the non-dominant cultures in Australia. Cultural dance has generally meant folkloric, community and heritage forms. These have not been regularly included in funding project excellence or in curated arts programs but more often relegated to community cultural development activity. Here again dance artists operating in both cultural and western forms find themselves in the liminal space creatively, but also liminal within the wider dance sector that operates from Western-European modes of dance exploration. The works face challenges of cultural navigation and creation that must be produced and critiqued on its own terms, aesthetics, values and frameworks rather than through a European lens or sensibility. (p.7)

But, there do seem to be some shifts in attitudes. In the same publication, Peter Kennard, a composer and musician whose own artistic practice has often emerged from the confluence of ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ traditions identifies a “maturing intercultural dialogue” in practice that “challenges existing notions of ‘multiculturalism’ in Australian performance”. He writes:

…this [maturing intellectual dialogue in practice] is prescient of an inevitable broader cultural shift that will challenge the underlying conceptions and assumptions that permeate institutions, policies and public debates concerned with questions of culture and identity.  (p.79)

I think evidence of these small, but attitudinally seismic shifts, can already be seen in current arts and cultural policy – both in terms of the language and meaning in the documents themselves and the implementation of new measures to address the changing needs of the CaLD arts sector in practice. The Australia Council for the Arts’ abolition of the traditional art-form boards is one such example of this change. And in their latest Corporate Plan, the Council has clear, measurable goals to increase funding to CaLD arts groups. This goal is also supported by the Council’s Cultural Engagement Framework – a type of diversity policy from what I can gather – which it claims is implemented across all divisions and teams. While there is movement in the right direction there I notice that their website still lists the 7 different art-forms across the top navigation menu. One of these is ‘community arts and cultural development’ and sure enough cultural diversity is listed as a priority area within that ‘art-form’. I also notice that, although the traditional art-form boards no longer exist, funding decisions are made as they always have been through the peer assessor panels, which ARE STILL grouped according to art-form expertise. Applicants can now choose which art-form panel should assess their application or if unsure, can call a Grants Officer for some helpful advice. 

Another promising development is this bit from the same peer assessor info page linked above: 

We are committed to forming diverse and balanced panels. We look for peers who are representative of geography, cultural backgrounds, age, gender and ability.

This is wonderful, but it does still make me wonder whether this diversity is achieved for all the panels across all the art-forms in a balanced and representative way or whether those peers, for example, who identify as being of CaLD backgrounds and/or whose work is informed by CaLD practice are dropped into the Community Arts and Cultural Development panel by default… To be honest, I’m confused about how it all works and I’d love to see the rationale that informs how these panels are put together in the first place. What criteria exactly need to be met to satisfy the commitment towards “diverse and balanced” panels? I know though, that it is early days in this change management phase – and the new peer assessor pool was only just formed. Let’s see how it all pans out in practice.

Another promising development has been the new iteration of Arts NSW, that is: Create NSW. It’s got to be a good thing when we shake the very foundations of what it means to be a practicing artist by re-defining “the arts” to include a much broader notion of creative practice. And it’s an even better thing when the State arts department engages in broad sector and community consultation in the process of re-designing and updating State cultural policy. As part of that process, a discussion paper was released for public comment back in 2013. I submitted my two cents worth of commentary on some of the points back then. A brilliant response highlighting CaLD arts issues was submitted by the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (now Contemporary Australian Asian Performance or CAAP). I’m sure those submissions echoed those of many others calling for fairer access to resources and representation of CaLD artists – and it seems that Arts NSW indeed listened. In the most recent Arts and Cultural Development Program funding guidelines document by Create NSW published in April this year, I was super-excited to see that the list of priority areas included both “people living and/or working in Western Sydney” and “people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) backgrounds”.

So, they’re my long and rambling observations based on my funding opportunity research and grant writing travails in the world of CaLD arts activities in recent times. I definitely see some positive shifts but it’s perhaps a little bit too early to measure any significant impacts of new policy directions, though Create NSW has published their first year highlights report – revealing among other things a significant increase in funding going to Western Sydney arts orgs and projects. I’ll be keenly watching for any more stats, evaluations, discussions, commentary or research papers that might emerge.

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