Please note: Some of the content on this page was published prior to the launch of Creative Australia and references the Australia Council. Read more.

Kathy Keele Speaks At The Opening Of Junction 2010

Speeches and Opinions
Aug 26, 2010

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentleman.  It’s been a great start to what I’m sure will be the best Regional Arts Conference ever.

I would like to acknowledge the Lietermairena Paniher and Tyranatepana  people who are the traditional custodians of this land.

I would also like to pay respect to the Elders, both past and present, of the Palawa people and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders present today.

I want to talk to you this afternoon about the state of our Artists in Australia …… and offer some input into the debate on how we invest in our artists’ future.

The role that the arts and artists play in our communities has changed over the last decade.

We know that from our research … from attendances …  from the increasing importance of philanthropy and patronage in the arts.

And we know that from the ever increasing ways that artists engage with our communities …  our schools … in health … in our indigenous communities…the disabled … and in our social justice systems.

I’m sure our next speaker … Mike Smith … will have a lot to say on this.

To ground this discussion and provide some meat to fuel future discussions … I will be drawing on a couple of important pieces of research published by the Australia Council this year…


To begin with … let’s look at how artists are faring in Australia…

The first piece of research I want to flag is the latest survey on artists incomes by Professor David Throsby and Anita Zednik  … released just last week …

… It’s titled Do you really expect to get paid?… which I’ll just refer

to as the Throsby report.

The Throsby report is the fifth in a series published over the past thirty years.

It’s a great longitudinal study of the role of artists over this time frame.

And the results…well…I look forward to the day when the words struggling and artist are no longer such intimate companions.

Unfortunately … that day still seems a way off.

It won’t come as a surprise that most Australian artists still can’t live off the income they earn from their art.

In the city, the median income an artist earns for their creative work is eight thousand dollars.

In regional Australia, the figure is five thousand.

Throsby’s research also alludes to some interesting demographic shifts.

In 2001 … 27% of artists lived in regional, rural or remote Australia.

Now the figure is 31%.

The most pronounced shift recorded is in the number of writers and visual artists living in regional Australia.

Forty seven per cent of Australia’s writers were living in the regions in 2009… a leap from 26 percent since 2001.

Forty nine percent of visual artists live in the regions … 15% more than 2001.

What the research doesn’t tell us is where these artists are coming from …  whether they are surfacing from within regional Australia … or moving there from the cities.

Regardless of  their origins … their home appears to be a happy one.

Throsby tells us that 61% of artists view living outside capital cities as having a positive effect on their creative practice.

The second piece of research I want to mention is the report, More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts… which I’ll just refer to as the Participation research from here on in.

This research … released in March this year … shows that Australians are highly engaged in the arts … not only as audience members … but as creators of art … particularly in the wake of the internet.

It shows that Australians widely agree that the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life…

…. and that fewer people think the arts are too expensive.

It shows that Australia is moving away from the view that the arts are elitist or pretentious.

It shows that Australians widely agree that the arts can play an important role in their communities.

It should be noted … however … that although the majority said there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in the arts … the response from regional Australia… unsurprisingly… was that there were fewer opportunities to experience the arts.

It would seem that we have a situation … at least in regional Australia … where we are actually facing some pent up demand for arts experiences.

Overall … the story these pieces of research give us is a mixed one.

On the one hand we have the unchanging narrative of the struggling artist in the Throsby report.

And on the other … we have the Participation research which offers a narrative of a country embracing the arts in its communities in all its forms.

So the bottom line for our artists is a peculiar one.

We love your work … sorry about your salary!

Sorry about your career prospects.

Sorry about your job security.

So where to from here?  Let me discuss the following three points in the remaining few minutes…

First of all… Competition for arts funding is intense –

There is no shortage of excellent … innovative arts projects from artists who are both established and emerging.

Second  … we have a funding landscape whose growth appears limited … especially from governments trying to deal with budget deficits … aging infrastructure … and increasing pressures on the healthcare system … to name just a few.

Thirdly … and importantly …  we have the beginnings of a discussion about how best to fund artists and the arts in Australia.  I want to ensure we make the most of that discussion.

Let me talk to each of these areas.

TIME (Intense competition for grants )

First … the intense competition for arts grants.

At the Australia Council … we are receiving ever more applications from artists wanting fellowships, residencies and time to explore and develop their art.

And we all know…Great art needs time.

Artists need time not simply to make the great finished product …

….  they need time to reflect … to come up with ideas …try things out …

…  first, second and twentieth drafts …failures and successes

…  the pieces of work that we never see as they go along.

And let me tell you something …  it’s not just artists in the city who are strapped for time.

Throsby tells us that regional artists said lack of time was the single biggest obstacle to their professional development.

Interestingly … lack of time was a bigger obstacle for regional artists than lack of financial return or lack of work opportunities.

As I referred earlier…we award quite a number of residencies and fellowships each year across the artforms and I’m always quite flummoxed when I get a question in places like Senate Estimates asking quite sternly just what exactly the artists are doing and what are they required to produce on these grants.

We should not hesitate to say that they are there for time and space.

And we need more of exactly these opportunities to support artists in their work – just creating new Australian art.  At the Australia Council itself we say yes … on average … only about 25% of the time.   And it’s not for a shortage of ideas, as I said before.

I’m looking forward to hearing people’s thoughts on this.


So where will this funding support come from?

We’ve come from a world where government was expected to use our tax dollars to take care of all our needs … including the arts.

And can I say … we still need government support … and from all spheres of government … federal … state … and local.

But we are moving into a world that looks innovatively beyond government.

Collaborations, leveraging, private sector engagement, non-arts funding…many of you are leaders in putting different kinds of funding together… Beyond our role as an arts funding agency … the Australia Council sees a role for itself in this broader effort to diversify support for the arts.   Two examples:


Over the past seven years Artsupport Australia has helped artists and Arts Organisations access the support of philanthropists across Australia.

In the last financial year alone Artsupport facilitated over ten million dollars in philanthropic income for artists and arts organisations.

And regional Australia is not being left behind here … with significant philanthropic dollars going to arts organisations working outside of the cities … including Beyond Empathy… Feral Arts … Curious Works and indeed … Regional Arts Tasmania.

Artist in Residence

We are also seeing opportunities in the forming of partnerships with the non-arts government sector  … partnerships that are about investing both in artists and the communities in which they live.

We’ve seen some important progress on this front … but I believe there’s a lot more we can do.

One innovative program which is taking up this challenge is the Artists in Residence program … which places professional artists in schools across the country.

This is a Federal Government initiative administered by the Australia Council in partnership with all state education and state arts departments

This program responds to the needs of schools to deliver quality education … and artists to provide broader career opportunities where they live.

And of the hundred and five projects that have been funded through this program … almost half are located in regional and rural Australia  … from the Broken Hill School of the Air in Far Western NSW to the Warburton Ranges Remote Community School in WA.


So I’ve told you that one of the key things needed by artists is time to develop their work… and I’ve told you we have to look to a diverse range of sources to fund artists in this country.

So where then should this funding be directed?  Our focus is artists, your focus may be on communities, others well…it’s a big discussion – and I look forward to it…

However, in this limited time and spoace, let me make a few comments on that discussion and then close.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about new ways of funding the arts in Australia –  New ways of giving, new agencies, public private partnerships, endowments, matching, etc. etc.

This is great and it would be good to see even more discussion.   However, far too often …maybe because of how the media likes to dish it up …  these discussions lean heavily on a few well-worn either/or approaches:  For example…

We either fund organisations or we fund individual artists…

We either fund heritage arts or we fund new work…

We either fund community arts or we fund artistic excellence.

Now in some settings … these are meaningful distinctions… and they can be useful in disentangling the arts sector into discrete categories – maybe.

However … when treated as rock solid facts … these categories are misleading and limiting and debating like this is not getting us progressed.

Take the arts organisations versus individual artists.

These two entities … individuals and organisations … are deeply interconnected.

Organisations employ individual artists.

Individual artists are the life-blood of organisations …  particularly in the performing arts.

In 2009 …  there were six thousand two hundred full time employees in the 170 organisations funded by the Council.

Of those… about four thousand eight hundred … or roughly eighty percent  … were artistic and production staff.

So … clearly … these organisations provide invaluable employment opportunities for artists and the development of their work.

And in light of the Throsby research … we should not underestimate the value of supporting a system that provides artists with a stable and secure source of income.

Having said that … I acknowledge that specific art forms … and certain stages in the development of an artistic work … require that an artist works alone … independently from an organisation.

This is significant for regional Australia … which is not equipped with as much performing arts infrastructure… and … as I mentioned earlier … is home to greater numbers of writers and visual artists … who need a lot of time to work on their art in isolation.

So I think what we’re really talking about here is not about whether we support organisations or individuals.

It’s about different stages of an artist’s career and the artistic practice itself.

It’s about supporting what … in broad terms … could be described as artistic practice in a collective setting and artistic practice in a solitary setting.

Many art forms require both settings … some need one more than the other.

So I think we need to haul the conversation back from one that pitches organisations against individuals … to one about artistic practice – at all stages of the development of that precious art.

Heritage versus new art

The next either/or is this question of heritage arts versus new art.

In other words … the old versus the new.

Some might say, “What I do versus what they do.”

I don’t want spend too much time on this issue… but merely to say that the dichotomy is unhelpful.

I imagine that it comes from the heavy competition for scarce resources, but it is still not helpful.  I don’t believe we should have a solution that robs from peter to pay paul

Just because Percy Grainger, Patrick White, or even Bach or Shakespeare  are no longer with us … doesn’t mean that the work is irrelevant … or that new and contemporary meaning cannot be drawn from their work.

When it’s done well … these performances are still about today … especially as so many of them now often also use collaborations … new mediums …  and, importantly, today’s artists.

Community arts versus Artistic Excellence

The final either/or is this question of community arts versus artistic excellence.

Whilst I acknowledge that community based arts practices often employ a very specific creative process … and often have well defined goals, I become concerned when community arts and artistic excellence are positioned as mutually exclusive ideas.

One can either reach for artistic excellence … or one can produce community driven art.

Great art … no matter who or where it’s produced … is grounded in strong storytelling  … it has empathy for its subjects … it strives to capture beauty … it moves us … it provokes.

I can tell you that some of the most artistically powerful pieces of art are produced through and with communities.

And equally the principles of community collaboration  …  community building … and social justice … are not owned by community arts.


In closing let me just say that investing in artists is something I’m passionate about.

I’m the last one that has to be convinced of the importance of regional artists.

It would be a tragedy if the arts agenda … the stories we tell … the culture we shape… were not informed by the mosaic of cultures … communities… and  landscapes  that exist across this country.

Last year alone the Australia Council invested almost 12 million dollars in regional arts activities…and that does not include Major Performing Arts Companies’ work in regional Australia.


How we invest in artists … how we describe and justify this investment … these are big issues.  Let’s learn from our research and inform our discussions so that we can all be a part of a way forward.

Let me finish by recognising the vast amounts of passion investment that is made by all of you working in the arts as both artists and arts workers.

It far surpasses the levels of funding, philanthropy and even box office.

Even with a fully funded sector … this passion investment is priceless and indispensable.

I welcome the vigorous debate that I’ve been hearing on these issues in the arts sector.

And I’m looking forward to hearing people’s views on these issues whilst I’m here at this conference.  Thank you.