Nick Hughes Introduces

Community Arts in Australia

A longtime community theatre worker provides a Webster's-eye view
of the support picture for cultural development in Australia
as background to three articles on community arts practice...

Read it and weep, fellow Americans -- then take some cultural action!


Links to Nick's Articles on cultural action projects in Australia -- and elsewhere in Webster's World


Webster's World's section on community arts in Australia kicks off with three articles generously provided by Nick Hughes, an activist, teacher, and writer in community and political theatre. Nick has also been kind enough to provide the information on which this introduction is based.

You can't tell the players without a scorecard, so if you are unfamiliar with cultural development in Australia and want to get as much as possible out of Nick's articles, we advise reading this page first.

But if you'd rather go straight to Nick's articles, just choose these links:

Public Support for Community Arts in Australia

The first thing readers from the U.S. may notice is that both public cultural agencies and labor unions figure prominently in the story of Australian community arts, much more so than in the United States these days. Comparatiavely, Australians are much more generous in allocating public funds to cultural support, with decidedly more emphasis on community-based programs than in the recent decades.

Here, Nick describes public-sector support programs; links to Web resources appear later on this page.

The Australia Council

With regard to Australian domestic funding arrangements, it may be best to refer people to the Australia Council's Home Page (see the link below). The Australia Council is the federal government's arts funding and advisory body and is structured into a number of different Funds: the Theatre Fund, the Music Fund, the Literature Fund. One of the Funds is the Community Cultural Development Fund.

The Community Cultural Development Fund (CCDF)

Nick forwarded the following material from the Australia Council's Community Cultural Development Fund's home page (link below):

The Community Cultural Development Fund aims to assist communities to investigate and express their culture by supporting artists and communities to work together. It supports community-based arts practice that affirms the principle of self determination. Community cultural development enables communities to advance their artistic, social, and economic aspirations.

The Fund supports work across all artforms and in new technologies, with communities locally, nationally and internationally. By searching out new partners, new media and new sites for cultural expression, community cultural development stimulates innovation in art making and community building.

Through its programs the Fund aims to:

¬…       achieve an increase in locally determined arts and cultural development;

¬…       encourage outstanding achievement in arts and cultural activity within the community context;

¬…       encourage cultural expressions of diversity in the context of current debates on the future of the nation;

¬…       ensure that the value of community cultural development is widely accepted.

The Fund accepts applications from all kinds of communities to all its programs. Those addressing the needs of communities and artists living in rural and remote areas, those of non-English speaking background, and those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent are particularly encouraged.

The Fund offers support for Community, Environment, Art and Design (CEAD) projects. These projects affirm and develop the link between the cultural life of communities and the quality of their physical environment. They support an innovative approach to public environmental design based on collaboration between artists, designers and communities.

The Art and Working Life Program

An Australia Council program of particular relevance to community artists is described by Nick as follows:

The Art and Working Life program of the Community Cultural Development Fund (CCDF) has been in place since the late Seventies, and an enormous range of projects have been funded as part of the program. The CCDF was previously called the "CCD Unit" and also funded a wide range of projects in the areas of youth, women and migrants. Both the Community Arts Board and the CCDU were quite successful in encouraging the Performing Arts, Literature and Music Boards of the Australia Council to adopt community cultural development agendas in some of their programming. The search for new audiences and new involvements in cultural practices has been continuing in Australia for two decades. It has driven the cultural growth of the country and is one of the things that makes it such a stimulating and fascinating country in which to live and work.

The Art and Working Life program has taken a less central role in the CCDF's funding priorities in recent times (You'll notice that there is no mention of it on the CCDF's home page.)

Labor in Australia

Many more artists are engaged in workplace programs supported by Australian labor unions than in the United States (though such support was a vital part of public cultural policy in the Thirties). We asked Nick for a little background on why this is true. He provides a description of the state of the unions in Australia.

With regard to the role of unions in Australian life, I hardly know where to start! The union movement has been more centrally important in the development of Australian political life than it has in America (from what little I know of the American union movement.) There has always been a close tie-up between the Union movement and the Labor Party in Australia. But the relationship has been neither straightforward nor homogenous. Both the Union movement and the Labor Party have had their progressive and their reactionary wings.

During the Hawke and Keating Labor governments (1983-1996), a close working relationship developed between the Government and the Australian Council of Trades Unions (ACTU, the Trades Union Federal peak body). This close relationship was expressed in terms of a series of "Accords," by the terms of which the Unions agreed to restrain wage demands in return for general incremental increases in pay and conditions. This enabled the Government to achieve a level of control over the economy in general and inflation in particular that was the envy of OECD economists.

As in the U.S., membership of Australian unions has been falling in recent years, and the biggest challenge for the future is to re-establish the relevance of Union membership for Australian workers. The election of the Liberal (conservative) Howard Government in 1996 has seen a return to confrontational policies in industrial relations and Australian Unions are gearing up for the coming struggles. The recent decimation of the Union movement in New Zealand has stiffened the resolve of the Australian movement to fight for its own continued existence.

Community Arts Movements in Australia:
Expressing Local Cultures

Australia's relatively generous support picture translates into an array of dynamic cultural development initiatives, actively networking on the regional level, as Nick describes:

The availability of funding for artists to work with a diverse range of communities (including workers) has encouraged a dialogue about how to best do this. It also enabled a community theatre movement to thrive since 1972. There were many small, professional, community theatre companies that did Art And Working Life projects in association with trade unions. There were also three companies which specialized in making theatre for and with working people: Junction in Adelaide, Sidetrack in Sydney and the Melbourne Workers Theatre. However, this work was always only a part of their professional focus, and they have all re-oriented their more recent work towards emphasising their theatrical excellence.

The community theatre movement sprang out of a desire to connect with new audiences and the companies that have survived have now diversified into a range of small professional companies working with different communities.

There were also an enormous range of Art And Working Life projects in the visual arts. One of the dominant themes of this work was the design and (re)creation of many trade union banners which are carried in parades and protests.

The language is important here; the re-emergence within the Australia Council of the Community Arts Board as the Community Cultural Development Unit served in practice as a recognition of the change in emphasis from artists working in community contexts to using the arts to encourage communities to express their local culture.

The Australia Council has also provided support for membership-based associations of community artists in most Australian states, as Nick describes:

Artwork Magazine [where Nick's three Webster's World articles originally appeared] is published by the Community Arts Network of South Australia, which is a member-based organization and which forms part of a network of sister organisations in most State capital cities across Australia. The CCDF is the major source of funding for the Community Arts Networks. The Community Arts Networks aim to support arts development and creative expression at community level toward the ideal of diverse and vibrant community cultures.

Links to Related Web Resources

A summary of the useful Web sites Nick has suggested:

The federal cultural agency. See its home page at

o                        Community Cultural Development Fund (CCDF)

This Australia Council program is described further in CCDF's home page, at

The CCD page focuses specifically on CEAD program described above at

See the Australia Council's Web listing of Australian arts groups at

The Australia Council Web site includes a listing of Australia's several community arts networks at

¬…                         Melbourne Workers Theatre

¬…                         Construction Forestry Mining & Engineering Union

See CFMEU's Home page at

See ACTU's home page at

Please feel free to suggest other material that might be included in this introduction, or to send us links to other Australian Web sites that Webster's World browsers might enjoy.


Nick Hughes has worked in theatre all his life. He obtained an Honours Degree in Drama and Sociology from Birmingham University in England in 1972 and worked at the Almost Free Theatre in London's West End until itchy feet took him to Australia, where he has mainly lived and worked ever since.

Nick has worked professionally as a stage manager, an actor, a director, an artistic director, a dramaturg, and a writer, mainly in political and professional community theatre. In 1974-75, he was a founding professional member of the Popular Theatre Troupe, a political theatre company based in Brisbane, Queensland. Between 1981 and 1983, he was the founding Artistic Director of Harvest Theatre Company, based at Port Lincoln in South Australia. In 1984, he spent a year teaching acting and directing at the University of Western Sydney. He has also taught courses at the Centre for the Performing Arts in Adelaide and the Drama Department at Adelaide University.

For the last ten years Nick has worked freelance as a writer and director with a wide variety of theatre companies. He has written 27 theatre scripts. You can send e-mail to him at

Nick Hughes provided the information listed in this page in response to Webster's World's queries. Our deepest thanks to Nick for his contributions.

Links to Nick's articles on cultural action projects in Australia

¬…       Power, Brutality and Poetry: Violence in the Workplace and at Home

Nick describes Geoff Goodfellow's roving residency with AFMEU,
Australia's Automotive, Food, Metal and Engineering Union.

¬…       Working Off the Back Foot: The Importance of Consultation and Negotiation in Working with Communities

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