Arts Minister Simon Crean. Photo: Roger Cummins
AUSTRALIA'S first national cultural policy in 16 years shows little promise of engaging with Asian arts, despite the culturally rich "treasure chest" on our doorstep, arts curators warn.
The Federal Government's national cultural policy discussion paper is "horrible" and "leaden" and has failed to inspire discussion, a former Sydney Festival director, Lindy Hume, believes. "I don't think its been a big success," she says.
Asialink Arts founder Alison Carroll and former Beijing cultural counsellor Carrillo Gantner argue in a new Platform Papers essay that the Arts Minister, Simon Crean, must rectify the failure in the Federal Government's national cultural policy discussion paper to mention Asian arts when he releases the policy next month.
Many Australians and Australian arts leaders are "ignorant" of Asian arts, culture and languages, Carroll and Gantner argue in the essay, Finding A Place on the Asian Stage.
The essay, to be launched in Melbourne today by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, charts a fall in the Australia Council's share of Asian arts spending from more than 50 per cent of international funding under Paul Keating to 10 to 20 per cent today.
The Age understands Mr Rudd agreed to launch the paper after he resigned as foreign minister. The paper praises former Liberal foreign minister Alexander Downer as the "strongest supporter" of Australia's arts engagement with Asia but criticises successive Labor and Liberal arts ministers for lacking interest in forging art links with Asia.
Carroll and Gantner argue that arts programmers are "timid" and that the Rudd and Gillard governments have only "modestly rebalanced" Asian arts funding.
"All of us in the sector have failed in allowing the programs and policies that Keating supported to be seriously diminished and ignored," they write. They quote the former director of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Aubrey Mellor, as being "depressed" at seeing "no sign" of Asian performing arts in Sydney when he recently visited from Singapore, where he is a dean of performing arts at La Salle College of the Arts.
While the authors praise Hume for bringing some Asian shows to the Sydney Festival, such as the crowd-pleasing The Manganiyar Seduction, they criticise most festival directors for being "more comfortable in the better-known corridors and green rooms of Europe and North America".
Hume says Australian audiences have a "potential hunger" for Asia-Pacific performances that needs nurturing, adding that we "should have a big aspiration, as a national culture, to be of our time and place, and this is the Asian century".
Curators say that exchanges in the visual arts are far more advanced than those between the performing arts.
The Sydney arts space Carriageworks, for example, is organising an exchange between a Mumbai artist, Nikhil Chopra, and a Sydney artist, Justene Williams, who will exhibit their work in both cities.
Younger audiences particularly crave the kind of international performances that are in short supply on Australian stage, says Carriageworks' chief executive, Lisa Havilah, who argues that national cultural policy must reflect a greater diversity and stop subjecting international arts funding to the "whim" of political cycles.
Lieven Bertels, the new director of the Sydney Festival, who will bring traditional and contemporary acts from China for next year's festival, says "ninety-five per cent of the white population of Sydney, to put it very bluntly, looks at Asia as still the yellow fellow from the corner shop".
Australians in general "love it when everybody tries to speak English, and they are very lenient and accepting of other people not speaking English very well", Bertels says, "but that also defines Australia to a point where everything has to be in English.
"In the performing arts, we still find it difficult to present work with surtitles, for instance," he says.
Bertels disagrees with Carroll's and Gantner's suggestion that the Sydney Festival should join the Association of Asian Performing Arts Festivals, of which the Melbourne Festival became a full member this year.
"I'm not overly enthusiastic about these gentlemen's clubs [in which you have] friendly meetings over lovely dinner," Bertles says. "There is a tendency to think that's going to solve anything."
An Australia Council spokesman, Cameron Woods, confirmed that the council's share of international funding that was spent in Asia had fallen since the mid-1990s, but the "dollar value" had been higher in 2010, when the council spent $1.1 million, than in the 1990s.
Arts organisations had made "strong inroads" into Asia, Woods says, but a "greater investment" for Australia's cultural engagement in Asia was required.
Mr Crean said the Gillard Government has made it clear it sees cultural engagement with Asia as an "important focus" and that "Carrillo Gantner would know very well my commitment to a stronger component for the arts in Asia".