Australia's International Cultural Diplomacy by Martyn Coutts


This essay will identify the need for an international cultural policy for Australia. It will review the literature in the field especially with a focus on current models that exist within the policy vacuum of a national cultural policy. There will be a focus on the artist exchange model of the Asialink residencies as a new way in which cultural diplomacy can be carried out. This review will look at papers written in the last 5 years that highlight the need for new creative policy frameworks, a new forward-facing international cultural diplomacy and also the role of artist exchanges, which may show the way forward for an alternative way of engaging with our region, the Asia-Pacific.


Australian Cultural Policy Background

There have been just two national cultural policy frameworks that have been developed in Australia since Federation in 1901. The first was the Creative Nation policy created during the Keating government in 1994. The second was Creative Australia in 2013, delivered by Arts Minister Simon Crean during the Gillard government. Both of these documents were delivered by the previous two Labor party governments (Rosler 2015) and were both delivered during major pivots towards the Asia-Pacific. Although Australia’s relationship with Asia has changed significantly over the past 25 years (Carroll 2014) our knowledge of Asian cultural life is low(Carroll 2014). No tertiary institution currently offers core teaching of Asian performing arts practice(Carroll 2014) and there has been a general fall in funding to touring performing arts to Asia from Australia - from 50% to 20% (Carroll 2014). A counter to this data is the question made towards the buzz phrase ‘Asia-literacy’ asking ‘who defines the ‘Asia’ of Asia-literacy and who is excluded from the process’? (Rosler 2015). There appears to be a weakness in the writing on this topic regarding the specifics of Australia’s ‘Asia-literacy’. Beyond the statistics above there is no more detail, which undercuts the general argument for greater policy focus on this area. If there was more detailed research into the role of Asia-literacy and how the impacts of that greater acceptance of plurality manifest in Australian society, then it could be the basis for inclusion in a future cultural policy white paper. What does the current lag in cultural policy mean for our sense of our country? If the ‘arts and culture really are ‘the shortcut to understanding who we are’’ (Rosler 2015), then ‘Does the fact that Australia has no foreign cultural policy indicate that the Australian Government in unsure what Australian culture is?’ (Keys-Statham 2013)


Australian Culture Diplomacy

In trying to unravel these questions, there is not only the issue of domestic cultural policy and how that impacts creators and audiences within Australia, but it has the potential to also affect Australia’s interests and values throughout the region. There has been an understanding within government that ‘cultural diplomacy is generally valued for its capacity to manage international relations to further the national interest’ (Rosler 2015) and that it can ‘broaden and strengthen Australia’s relationships in Asia, both formally and informally’ (Keys-Statham 2013). There is broad agreement that the body that is tasked with handling Australia’s cultural diplomacy, the AICC (Australia International Cultural Council) needs a refresh (Keys-Statham 2013, Carroll 2014, Rosler 2015). It is a ‘relatively small section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’ (DFAT) (Keys-Statham 2013) and it needs to be ‘re-vamped’ (Keys-Statham 2013). However there is disagreement in whether or not DFAT is a good partner for this type of cultural diplomacy with some suggestion that there is a ‘clear alignment of the work’ (Rosler 2015) and the counter argument that DFAT’s main function is to ‘support the political and economic interests of the country’ (Carroll 2014). Generally there seems to be a need for a new model of cultural diplomacy (Carroll 2014) that is not just a tool for image projection (Rosler 2015) but is a ‘logical extension of Australia’s nascent cultural confidence in the region’ (Keys-Statham 2013). Despite the lack of a cultural diplomacy body, ‘cultural exchanges and collaborations are nonetheless proceeding’. (Keys-Statham 2013) There is one organisation that has worked in this space for almost 30 years, linking Australian artists, arts managers and organisations with the Asia-Pacific. That organisation is Asialink Arts.


Asialink Arts

Described as ‘Australia’s leading centre for the promotion of public understanding of the countries of Asia and of Australia’s role in the region’ (Rosler 2015) and ‘the nation’s main Asia-Australia arts program’ (Carroll 2014) Asialink Arts began in 1991 and has sent over 900 residents into Asia over that time. Beyond this large number of artist residencies there have also been short tours, workshops and seminars that have connected arts managers and specific country related exchanges such as the capacity building program Northern Territory/Nusa Tenggara Timur (NT/NTT) between Northern Territorians and Eastern Indonesia. (Carroll 2014) While there has been a strong increase in funding for Asialink Arts over the years by DFAT and Australia Council (Carroll 2014) there is also a fear that there is an existential threat to the organisation given its lack of ongoing core funding (Carroll 2014) and given the broad remit and responsibility of Asialink this places a lot of pressure on the staff of just 5 people. The arts outcomes of Asialink cannot be argued with, with an Asialink exhibition opening in Asia on average every 23 days (Carroll 2014) since 1991, Australian artists living in 25 countries in Asia for over 100,000 days (in total) and literally millions of unique visitors to exhibitions, performances and artist talks across the region. (Carroll 2014) The effects of this can be felt in arts managers creating new networks that would then result in new curatorial programs (Carroll 2014) and person-to-person links for artists that can be re-engaged on future projects in the region (Rosler 2015). There is a consensus amongst writers in this field that the artist exchange model has had a much larger effect in the cultural diplomacy area than it should have had. However, finding the data to back this up is difficult given that most of the findings are anecdotal or ephemeral. The question remains of how to measure the effect of the ad-hoc cultural diplomacy that has been carried out by artists and arts managers within creative exchange programs with Asia such as that carried out by Asialink Arts.


Artists as cultural ambassadors

Current cultural diplomacy thinking diminishes the role of cultural exchange (Rosler 2015) and it is generally valued for its capacity to manage international relations to further the national interest (Rosler 2015). We need to view cultural exchange not as ‘instrumentalised’ or ‘transactional’ (Rosler 2015) as it is in business or politics, but multimodal in its application and outcomes. The experience of creatives in the Asialink model goes beyond the creation of artworks and touring, there is an intensity of an artist residency in Asia, including the language and cultural differences (especially in relation to gender or sexuality), loneliness, isolation and the tension that arises from being asked to create work outside of the comfort zone of home. (Carroll 2014, Rosler 2015). The challenging situations in these creative exchanges led to a forging of cross cultural dialogues (Carroll 2014, Rosler 2015) and the benefits of these were listening, empathy, humility, flexibility and hospitality (Rosler 2015). These more organically developed bonds (Rosler 2015) were more likely to create strong active networks and there was the potential for a ‘healthy climate of Asia-literate and interculturally aware Australians’. (Rosler 2015) It can be found that through the Asialink model that a more ‘cosmopolitan’ (Rosler 2015) or ‘grass roots’ (Keys-Statham 2013) approach to cultural diplomacy has taken place, one where the acceptance of plurality and the relations with individuals enable peaceful international development (Rosler 2015).


In conclusion there appears to be a strong argument that a bold new national cultural policy will enable Australian artists, arts organisations and creative agencies to have clarity in how they fit within the nation’s cultural vision. Once this is in place then we can use our ‘unique cultural advantage’ (Keys-Statham 2013) in the global space (one that encompasses the world’s oldest culture and also one of the most vibrant multi-ethnic democracies) to engage our region. To assist in the telling of this story, there needs to be a re-fresh of a new Australian international cultural diplomacy body on the par with the British Council, Alliance Française or the 孔子学院 / Confucius Institute (Keys-Statham 2013). Finally, although the role of artist exchange models such as Asialink has not been tasked with cultural diplomacy, they have surprisingly filled a policy vacuum. The 900 Asialink artists living and working in countries across the Asia-Pacific since 1991 has led to layered networks across various sectors (Rosler 2015) and it would be advisable to build on this success when developing a new cultural diplomacy model for Australia.


Carroll, A. (2014). People and Partnership: An Australian Model for International Arts. Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions: Connectivities and World-making, ANU Press.

Keys-Statham, C. (2013). "Australia’s International Cultural Diplomacy." Australian Policy and History.

Rosler, B. (2015). "The case of Asialink’s arts residency program: towards a

critical cosmopolitan approach to cultural diplomacy, International Journal of Cultural Policy." International Journal of Cultural Policy 21(No.4 ): 463-477.