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Simon Crean - Minister for the Arts

On September 11, Julia Gillard announced her new ministry, and to Simon Crean’s surprise along with a whole new department to run he was asked to take on- the Arts.

It’s now Simon Crean Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government, Minister for the Arts. Or is that, Minister for all things difficult and far away, plus arts? Given the critical independent wrangling (Oakshott, Windsor et al) pairing regional development and the arts may be a carrot waving, smart strategic move. And for good or ill, it shifts the arts away from the now defunct and always bulky Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts into the arms of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, as the Office of the Arts.

There were mixed feelings when the announcement was first made. Crean is seen as a key part of Team Gillard, is a skilled parliamentarian, unlikely to be easily fazed, and is known to be supportive of the Arts.

In an article in The Australian, Susan Donnelly, executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, which represents the interests of 28 of the largest performing arts companies in Australia, said: ‘It seems like the arts is being taken seriously. Moving the arts [administratively] into [the department of] Prime Minister and Cabinet is good, too, because it puts the arts in a central role.’ By contrast, blogger Grogs Gamut said, ‘Arts is used to being shifted around, but it is a bit of an odd fit.’

Director of Regional Arts Victoria, Lindy Allen said,’ There is genuine excitement in regional areas about the possibilities this new portfolio might bring in terms of capitalising on the achievements of the past, on the work of so many cultural organisations working with local government to make their communities more liveable.’ Fairfax online.

Then the Herald Sun pointed to Crean’s ‘long association with many aspects of the industry over the years’ and quoted Opera Australia’s Adian Collette as saying Crean was a ‘strong advocate of the role of the arts in strengthening communities’.

In the same article, Geoff Brown, executive director of the Screen Producers Association of Australia, was disappointed that the Arts was not to be returned to the Communications portfolio, held by Stephen Conroy, where overlapping issues such as Australian Content might be better resolved. No doubt he will be among those waiting for the outcome of the 2010 Review of the Australian Independent Screen Production Sector, which is due to be completed by 31 December.

In the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Robin Usher reported Simon Crean’s enjoyment of rock music and classical, as well as a penchant for going to the ballet and the opera, even rocking along to ‘Hairspray’. This was seen as heartening engagement with the arts by many, but is it useful? Ministerial responsibility is far more than personal taste or even making an appearance, at least it should be.

Crean’s decision to appoint Helen O'Neill, former executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, as his arts adviser is far more interesting. As former executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, O’Neill is well regarded, and a strong advocate for the arts as a generator of economic innovation and a means of ‘building strong communities’. She is likely to be a significant player in the formation of the promised new National Cultural Policy and any reviews of national arts funding and the role of the Australia Council.

Now, three months along, it’s still possibly too early to be writing an end of year report card. And the news (released by the department) so far, is hardly earth-shaking stuff. The Minister’s been able to announce the opening of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s $4.86 million ($3.7m from Federal funds) new training facility in Albury, which was funded under Garrett; the winners of the third Prime Minister’s literary awards; and a $47 million commitment toward a new convention and entertainment centre in Townsville. The convention centre promises to be a major tourism attraction and local employer, a landlocked loveboat to accompany the new cruise ship Ocean Terminal Precinct that’s being planned.

It’s also not that surprising that Crean’s tried to put the word ‘regional’ into just about every other statement he’s made. Particularly given the opportunities to make announcements highlighting the results of regular regional and touring arts funding rounds for Playing Australia, Visions of Australia, Festivals Australia and $900,000 that will go to 65 successful projects through the Regional Arts Fund.

"This funding will allow emerging and professional artists in regional Australia to demonstrate their talents and enrich arts in regional Australia," Mr Crean said in his 18 November statement. See, I told you… ‘regional’.

"The Federal Government is committed to unleashing the potential of artists in regional Australia and strongly believes a more creative nation is a more productive nation.

"The arts have an important role in maintaining the vibrancy and diversity of Australia's regional communities and bringing people together.

This may well all be music to the ears of Marcus Westbury and his hoped for Renew Australia initiative, however, not much of this is new. It was also an election promise to transfer all these organisations to the Australia Council ‘to promote better outcomes for arts funding’.

So Simon’s end of year report card might read a little like: Though Simon is new to the subject, he is an enthusiastic student who enjoys class activities and shows great potential. We note that he has taken on a large workload and hope this will prove to not be distracting as he moves forward to more complex units in this course. With application he is sure to do well.

By Fiona Mackrell ArtsHub