Australia Council for the Arts

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The Australia Council for the Arts, commonly known as the Australia Council, is the country's official arts council, serving as an arts funding and advisory body for the Government of Australia. The council was announced in 1967 as the Australian Council for the Arts, with the first members appointed the following year. It was made a statutory corporation by the passage of the Australia Council Act 1975.

Australia Council for the Arts
FounderGovernment of Australia
TypeCultural institution
Area served
Key people
Chair, Sam Walsh AO
CEO, Adrian Collette AM

The organisation has included several boards within its structure over the years, including more than one incarnation of a Visual Arts Board (VAB), in the 1970s–80s and in the early 2000s.


Prime Minister Harold Holt announced the establishment of a national arts council in November 1967, modelled on similar bodies in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.[1] It was one of his last major policy announcements prior to his death the following month.[2] In June 1968, Holt's successor John Gorton announced the first ten members of the council, which was initially known as the Australian Council for the Arts. Economist H. C. Coombs became the first chairman of the body, while the other members included radio quizmaster Barry Jones, school principal Betty Archdale, magazine editor and state Liberal MP Peter Coleman, socialite Virginia Erwin (wife of federal Liberal MP Dudley Erwin), architect Karl Langer, author Geoffrey Dutton, theatre producer Jeana Bradley, arts patron Mary Houghton, and retired academic Kay Masterman.[3]

The council issued its first grants in December 1968, which were distributed via the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust as the council did not yet have its own financial apparatus. Gorton stated that the council "had adopted a principle widely accepted [...] that high standards can best be achieved by a concentration of available funds, rather than by a thin spread over a wide area".[4] The council subsequently received criticism from smaller professional and semi-professional companies, leading to the establishment of an Arts Special Projects Fund to assist smaller organisations.[5] In December 1969, Coombs announced a new formula for grants whereby organisations could only receive a maximum of two-thirds of their budget from the council.[6]

In February 1973, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced a new structure for the council whereby funding recommendations would be made by seven autonomous boards for different areas of the arts.[7] Later that year, the council produced a report recommending that it be established as a statutory corporation.[8]

Aboriginal Arts Board (1973)Edit

The Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB[9]) was created in 1973. Comprising Aboriginal Australian artists, writers and performers, its purpose was "to stimulate Indigenous Australian arts and lead to the preservation of many art forms almost lost since the settlement of Australia by Europeans". Dick Roughsey was the inaugural head of the board, followed by Yolngu artist and activist Wandjuk Marika. One of its earliest activities was the hosting of a seminar called Aboriginal Arts in Australia at the Australian National University,[10] with around 800 attendees, with the intention of working out how government could best support Aboriginal culture and art in the future.[11]

When created, AAB had similar aims as the Aboriginal Publications Foundation (APF), leading to some duplication of work by the two bodies. From mid-1975, promotional work carried out by the APF was put under the control of the AAB, while the APF became a referral body for the AAB. The APF was wound down, with its main responsibility the publication of the quarterly journal Identity until its closure in 1982.[12]

The Australia Council became the biggest consumer of Aboriginal art, as there was not much interest in it during those years. Works were bought directly from artists, and often sent to galleries in the US and Canada.[10]

The Board was later renamed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board or ATSIA Board, and is as of July 2021 the ATSIA Panel.[13]

Change of name (1975)Edit

After being given statutory authority in March 1975 by the Australia Council Act under the Whitlam government,[14] it was renamed to Australia Council.[10] The Council then incorporated other government projects, such as the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board.[15]

The Visual Arts Board (VAB) existed during the 1970s[16] and mid-1980s.[17][18]

21st centuryEdit

The Council's operations were independently reviewed in 2012, and the Australia Council Act 2013 (the Act) commenced on 1 July 2013.[further explanation needed]

In early 2014 federal Arts Minister George Brandis and Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull told artists at the Sydney Biennale that they were ungrateful and selfish to protest about the role of Transfield in the Nauru immigration detention centre. In December 2014, Brandis withdrew a large portion of literature funding from Australia Council.[19][20]

In May 2015, Brandis cut $26 million a year for four years from Australia Council arts funding, a third of its arts funding, receiving significant criticism from the arts community.[21][22] The money was reallocated to a new program, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). NPEA in turn was criticised by many artists and arts organisations for lacking the "arms-length" funding principles that had applied to the relationship between the government and Australia Council since its inception in the 1970s. These principles have traditionally had bipartisan support.[23][24][25] Brandis was criticised previously for giving Melbourne classical music record label Melba Recordings a $275,000 grant outside of the usual funding and peer-assessment processes.[26] Brandis's changes to funding arrangements, including the quarantining of the amount received by Australia's 28 major performing arts companies, were widely seen to disadvantage the small-to-medium arts sector and independent artists.[24]

Following Malcolm Turnbull's successful spill of the leadership of the Liberal party in September 2015, Brandis was replaced as arts minister by Mitch Fifield.[27] In November Fifield gave back $8 million a year for four years to Australia Council, changed the NPEA to the Catalyst Fund, and stressed it would have a focus on smaller arts projects. The arts community was not impressed by the changes.[28][29]

As a result of the reduced funding, Australia Council cancelled project funding rounds for small groups and individuals in 2015 and then cut funding to over 60 arts organisations across the country in May 2016. Small arts organisations such as the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA), Leigh Warren & Dancers and many others were affected, forcing them to contract, merge or make drastic changes to their programs.[30]

The Visual Arts/Craft Board was renamed the Visual Arts Board around 2007–8.[31][32]

Function and governanceEdit

The Australia Council for the Arts is the Australian Government's principal arts funding and advisory body. Its purpose is to promote and invest in Australian arts.[33] It is "accountable to the Australian Parliament, and to the Government through the Minister for the Arts".[34]


Visual Arts and Crafts StrategyEdit

The Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy (VACS), a partnership between the federal and all state and territory governments in Australia, was established in 2003, with the aim of "providing stability to Australia’s visual arts and craft sector". VACS delivers funding across all jurisdictions, with half provided by the Commonwealth and half by the states and territories. Its current policy framework runs from 2021 to 2024.[35]


ACCELERATE was a leadership program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the creative arts, run jointly by the British Council and Australia Council, in partnership with state arts agencies, between 2009 and 2016. During that time, 35 people participated in the program, with many alumni going on to excel in their fields.[36]


Australia Council AwardsEdit

The Australia Council Awards were established in or before 1981, with the numbers of awards awarded each year growing over time.[37] As of 2021 there were eight categories for achievement in various types of arts, called:[38]

  • Australia Council Don Banks Music Award
  • Australia Council Lifetime Achievement in Literature
  • Australia Council Award for Dance
  • Australia Council Award for Visual Arts
  • Australia Council Award for Emerging and Experimental Arts
  • Australia Council Kirk Robson Award for Community Arts and Cultural Development
  • Australia Council Ros Bower Award for Community Arts and Cultural Development
  • Australia Council Award for Theatre


Australia Council Fellowships, worth A$80,000, "support creative activity and career development for mid-career and established artists". Past fellowship holders include: Hetti Perkins (2018), Lisa Maza (2017), Vicki Couzens (2016), Brenda L Croft (2015) and Reko Rennie (2015).[39] They are awarded in the areas of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts; community arts and cultural development; dance; emerging and experimental arts; literature; music; theatre; and visual arts.[40]

First Nations Arts AwardsEdit

The annual National Indigenous Arts Awards (NIAA) were established by the Australia Council in 2007.[41] Renamed as the First Nations Arts Awards in 2020,[42] as of 2022 they include four categories, all restricted to Australian First Nations artists:[43][39]

  • The Dreaming Award, established in 2012, "to support an inspirational young artist aged 18-26 years to create a major body of work through mentoring and partnerships", with Nakkiah Lui winning the inaugural award
  • The Red Ochre Award, established in 1993, a lifetime award for outstanding lifetime achievement in the arts, is awarded annually to both a male and female recipient
  • The First Nations Arts Fellowship, to support the creation of a major work
  • The First Nations Emerging Career Development Award, which supports two artists or arts workers to pursue their professional development

The awards ceremony is held event is held on 27 May each year, on the anniversary of the 1967 referendum. At the event, Indigenous Australians who have been awarded Fellowships (in 2018–2019, Vernon Ah Kee for visual art, and Ali Cobby Eckermann, for literature), and First Nations artists who received Australia Council Awards earlier in the year are also celebrated.[44]


In May 2020 the Australia Council awarded a A$25,000 grant to performance artist Casey Jenkins for a piece titled Immaculate, incorporating a live stream of Jenkins self-inseminating. Following adverse media coverage, the council suspended the funding hours before the first performance on 19 August, and formally rescinded the grant on 21 September 2020. The council stated that the withdrawal of the grant was not due to negative media coverage, but followed legal advice about the organisation's liabilities if pregnancy resulted. Jenkins said that the council had "grossly and insultingly mischaracterised my artwork". Writer and social commentator Ben Eltham wrote that the council's actions might have a chilling effect on performance art in Australia.[45]


  1. ^ "New council for the arts". The Canberra Times. 2 November 1967.
  2. ^ Myer, Rupert (1 November 2017). "Cherish Harold Holt's legacy so the arts can flourish". The Australian. Retrieved 3 December 2017.
  3. ^ "Arts Council members". The Canberra Times. 5 June 1968.
  4. ^ "Council grants to arts". The Canberra Times. 12 December 1968.
  5. ^ "Performing arts to be helped". The Canberra Times. 1 March 1969.
  6. ^ "Arts council grants: a new formula". The Canberra Times. 4 December 1969.
  7. ^ "Members of arts boards named". The Canberra Times. 17 February 1973.
  8. ^ "Arts body change". The Canberra Times. 9 November 1973.
  9. ^ Wells, Kathryn (February 2011). "Clive Scollay, Maruku Arts, Punu work: history, tradition and innovation, interview". Craft Australia. Archived from the original on 20 April 2013.
  10. ^ a b c Mendelssohn, Joanna (6 November 2013). "40 years on: How Gough Whitlam gave Indigenous art a boost". The Conversation. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  11. ^ "Foundation of the Aboriginal Arts Board". National Museum of Australia. 12 April 2018. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  12. ^ "Records of the Aboriginal Publications Foundation: MS3781" (PDF). AIATSIS Library. Retrieved 29 September 2022.
  13. ^ "Our Strategy Panels". Australia Council. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  14. ^ "Australia's Prime Ministers - Meet a PM - Whitlam - Inoffice". National Archives of Australia. 2 February 2007. Archived from the original on 19 April 2013.
  15. ^ "Our Structure - Australia Council". Australia Council.
  16. ^ "Griffith honours acclaimed artist Robert MacPherson". Griffith University. 30 November 2021. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  17. ^ VAB News [catalogue entry]. Visual Arts Board, Australia Council. 1985.
  18. ^ "Australian Visions: 1984 Exxon International Exhibition: 22 May–9 Jun 1985". Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  19. ^ The Conversation, 16 October 2016, Arts training is an essential part of an innovative nation
  20. ^ InDaily, 24 October 2016, No minister, creative arts are not a "lifestyle choice"
  21. ^ "George Brandis turns arts into 'political football' with $104.7m Australia Council cuts". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  22. ^ "Private arts donors Neil Balnaves and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis accuse George Brandis of neglecting arts community, politicising funding". ABC News.
  23. ^ "The regrettable rise of the arts bureaucrat". The Age.
  24. ^ a b Stuart Glover (20 July 2015). "Writers and publishers are all at sea under Brandis and the NPEA". The Conversation.
  25. ^ "The Australia Council must hold firm on 'arm's length' funding". The Conversation.
  26. ^ Ben Eltham. "George Brandis and the arts funding crisis: one hell of a one-man show". The Guardian.
  27. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 2015, Cabinet reshuffle: artists call on new arts minister Mitch Fifield to 'undo the damage' done by George Brandis
  28. ^ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 2015, Rebranding Brandis arts fund Catalyst won't kill off National Program for Excellence in the Arts
  29. ^ ABC News, 20 February 2016, Australia Council budget cuts blindsided peak arts body's executive, documents show
  30. ^ "An ACE Up Our Sleeves". Broadsheet. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  31. ^ "Chair of Visual Arts Board appointed". Australia Council for the Arts. 12 December 2007. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  32. ^ "The Visual Arts Board is born". Australia Council for the Arts. 15 January 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  33. ^ "Home". Australia Council. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  34. ^ "Corporate Policies & Frameworks". Australia Council. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  35. ^ "Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy (VACS)". Australia Council for the Arts. 2021. Retrieved 27 September 2021.
  36. ^ "ACCELERATE Home". ACCELERATE. British Council. Retrieved 14 September 2021.
  37. ^ "Australia Council Awards Alumni". Australia Council. Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  38. ^ "Australia Council Awards". Australia Council for the Arts. Retrieved 10 March 2022.
  39. ^ a b "About the Dreaming Award". Australia Council. Retrieved 6 November 2022.
  40. ^ "Fellowships". Australia Council. 28 August 2014. Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  41. ^ "National Indigenous Arts Awards". Brisbane Art Guide – BNE ART. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  42. ^ Australia Council for the Arts. "Objective 3: First Nations arts and culture are cherished". Australia Council Annual Report 2019-20. Source: 2019–23 Corporate plan p.21.
  43. ^ "National Indigenous Arts Awards". Australia Council. Archived from the original on 10 June 2021. Retrieved 27 July 2021.
  44. ^ "Celebrating strength, pride and achievement of First Nations artists at National Indigenous Arts Awards". Australian Pride Network. 28 May 2019. Retrieved 14 April 2020.
  45. ^ Eltham, Ben (17 October 2020). "Casey Jenkins v Australia Council: When controversial art loses funding, what does it mean for culture?". Guardian Australia. Retrieved 17 October 2020.

External linksEdit