Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quip that “Sausage making and policy-making shouldn’t be seen close-up.” is certainly true when it comes to arts education policy. Everyone has good intentions, globally there is a lot of support for national policies, but almost inevitably offal and sawdust creep into the mix.

What ingredients make for a worrisome arts education sausage? In our experience fickle recognition of the value of arts education too often results in shifting government and legislative priorities. Golden periods of policy support and innovative thinking frequently slide into times of decline and the momentum generated fades, for decades sometimes. Such periods of pause always come along with a big chill; underfunding, dismantling of infrastructure and attacks on the value of the arts generally.

External events also play their part. Recently COVID-19, the move to remote learning, and the challenge of writing policy in the age of algorithms are unsettling predictable policy pathways.

Lamentably, not all major arts and cultural organizations place a high value on arts education or community engagement programs, nominating the sharing and celebrating of virtuosic talent as their principal KPI.  The participatory artistry of arts educators and teaching artists is recognized but can sit to the side of the main capital ‘A’ arts game. There are many exceptions to this approach of course, especially as diverse communities are now demanding stronger representation in publicly funded galleries, museums and performing arts centers.

Yet extraordinary things in arts policy have been achieved and it is possible to identify four principles of exemplary arts-in-education policy making.

1. The principle of global alignment 

One approach to realizing a unified policy strategy across nation states is to activate the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child (1959) that enshrined the right to access, and participation in culture for all children and young people. Across three Articles (13, 17, 31) the right to culture and arts engagement is laid out. Article 31:2 is strident by saying, “States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”. Such a statement is the basis of national and local policy development for equitable provision of arts, culture, and creativity for all children and young people across the globe. A local inflection of the UN Declaration can be seen in policy from Creative Scotland. This cultural enabler endorsed the recommendations made by the Children & Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland in their COVID-19 Independent Children’s Rights Impact Assessment. Resulting was action to “maximize all opportunities for children to enjoy their rights to rest, leisure, recreation and cultural and artistic activities and address structural inequalities that constrain these rights” (p.2). This statement by Creative Scotland is similar in outlook to that espoused in the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child.

2. The principle of ‘best in class’ quality

There is no mystery about how ‘best in class’ quality can be identified and developed through good arts education policy. Work by philosophers in aesthetics first provided the foundation of many research studies and twelve years ago, the landmark The qualities of quality: understanding excellence in arts education was published. It proposes that “the hallmark of high quality arts education is that the experiences offered are rich and complex for all learners, engaging them on many levels, and helping them learn and grow in a variety of ways”. Globally there are many innovative programs that deliver this, including potent preservice and professional learning for arts educators and artists. The Norwegian Arts Council Artist Assistant Scheme is just one example of the way a 2017 innovation can be mainstreamed if well-funded and given time to mature. Finally ‘best in class’ quality not only refers to arts pedagogy and design. It includes the quality of the art making materials students have access to and the appropriateness and worth of the artworks they experience and engage with.

 3. The principle of First Nations first 

For First Nations peoples, connecting and reconnecting artists and communities to living knowledges, story and languages is an inherent value of arts and culture. The engagement of Indigenous perspectives center the value of connection to land or country, the importance of community, and embedding culture (e.g. dance, song and language) in all programs to build intergenerational strength, empowerment, and a positive future. A First Nations arts approach requires foregrounding a self-determination strategy that results in direct engagement with, and participation by, First Nations peoples to determine engagement approaches, arts practices and resources appropriate to place. Australian-based Aboriginal organization Inala Wangarra lead programs which connect First Nations children to their culture. The Gift of Gallang – the Jagera word for ‘healing’- was launched in local primary schools in Inala four years ago, following a rise in the number of attempted youth suicides. This program uses strengths-based workshops engaging culture, country and community run by Aboriginal facilitators to remind participants that they matter. The interconnection between Indigenous arts practices and self-determination are hallmarks of the program.

4.    The principle of cultural justice 

Recently there have been powerful arguments for arts education policy not to be contained within the silos of either ‘the arts’ or ‘education’. Some argue that our work must be located within the larger field of cultural rights, which stand as a human right.

Australian artist, commentator and scholar Scott Rankin asserts “Every one of us should have the right to participate, be represented in and consume their country’s culture, to have a voice in the cultural discussion, to be visible in the narration; because it is our cultural right”(pp.8-9). For those denied these opportunities it becomes a matter of cultural justice. His Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive is a powerful and timely tale for now. For Rankin, arts education policy is asserting each individual’s cultural rights and therefore requires our policy developers to use the language of justice, “to argue with the pervasive force of international law” (p.60).

 Where in the world are our policy writers who are up for this challenge? Please stand, we need you now.

By Sandra Gattenhof, Professor and Director of Research Training,
School of Creative Practice, Queensland University of Technology


Brad Haseman, Professor Emeritus and Executive Vice President, Kadenze, Inc.

Credit for Image: Jason Leung on Unsplash