Wednesday, April 29, 2015

National and local - putting arts and culture upfront

In many ways getting a strategic, broad and visionary framework accepted across government is more important than funding. If the case is successful, then over time funding of various kinds will be more likely.

Arts and cultural policy is an important way out spelling out why and how arts and culture are important to both Australia as a whole and to specific states and regions. The ACT Government is in the middle of a review of its Arts Policy Framework adopted in 2012. The revised Framework will be in operation from the middle of 2015 so it’s important not to waste this opportunity to get it right.

The review raises many strategic issues about arts and culture – issues of much broader relevance than only the ACT. Many of these arose during the development of the National Cultural Policy and it's interesting to see them appear again in a more local and regional context.

'Wide brown land', sculpture above the marvellous Arboretum, by a superb Tasmanian design team, is a symbol of the links Canberra has to many parts of the diverse nation of which it is the capital

Developing arts and cultural policy for the ACT is unique because it is both the capital of the nation – hosting most of our national cultural institutions and a strong international diplomatic presence – and at the same time, an important regional centre.

The vision statement for the Arts Policy Framework needs to be bigger, stronger and bolder
The current guiding vision for the Arts Policy Framework is 'Canberra and its region comprise an inclusive, unique and creative arts landscape where excellence is highly valued. The ACT is home to innovative artists and arts organisations and is an important part of the cultural richness of Australia.'

The arts in the ACT are not just ‘an important part of the cultural richness of Australia’ but a channel for international engagement, dynamically linking regional, territory, national and international. We can't adequately express the breadth of the arts landscape without including its role in the local economy and society through mentioning creative industries and the importance of expressing cultural diversity. More could be made of the cultural diversity of the ACT and how that links to artistic diversity and innovation. Cultural diversity is central to Australian society and also the ACT. At the time the National Cultural Policy was being developed, figures which are now likely to understate the situation indicated that in Australia more than 43% of the population were either born overseas or had a parent who was – it would be interesting to know the comparable level in the ACT.

In the public forum to discuss the review the issue of ambition was raised. To be successful the ACT Arts Policy Framework has to reflect ambition. Canberra has come of age across a range of areas and arts and cultural life and the support that government provides for this needs to reflect this and engage with it. More needs to be made of the fact that Canberra is a regional centre that happens to be the national capital and hence a channel to international engagement.

The significance of the arts is that they have a dynamic relationship with a much broader cultural universe and beyond that with our economy and society. Often that relationship is not immediately obvious. For example much arts activity functions as R&D for creative industries. Ideas tested out or floated by artists in their personal practice are often picked up much later by the advertising, design or fashion sector and popularised.

The current Arts Policy Framework needs to be broader in terms of how it frames 'the arts'
It would be much better if the Arts Policy Framework was more clearly located in the wider environment in which it functions. An arts framework can only work if it acknowledges that 'the arts' are part of a much broader Australian cultural life which includes creative industries and cultural heritage. This is groundwork that was previously already covered very comprehensively by the National Cultural Policy.

There is also no reference to two crucial elements in Australian culture, both at local and national level - cultural diversity and Indigenous culture.

National cultural institutions
As a concrete example the Framework as it stands refers to the importance of links with the national cultural institutions but the reality is that apart from the National Gallery of Australia, all of these deal with culture and cultural heritage, rather than ‘the arts’.

Indigenous culture
In a similar way the current Framework makes no mention of local Indigenous cultures (and languages). Yet the ACT is linked regionally through a whole different strand of connection between local communities and surrounding Indigenous communities and their cultural activity. It is also linked internationally and nationally through the role it plays as a national capital in highlighting Indigenous culture as a national phenomenon. Engaging with Indigenous culture as part of the Framework is difficult without moving beyond consideration of ‘the arts’ as narrowly expressed to broader ideas of culture and cultural heritage.

Digital transformation
I don’t think it is possible to have an arts framework that doesn’t mention the relationship between the digital transformation of society and the changes to production and distribution by artists and arts organisations and the changes to the way audiences both access and engage with arts and culture, including by direct participation.

A vast transformation of contemporary culture not seen since the breakdown of traditional arts and crafts in the industrial revolution is underway due to the impact of the digital and online environment. Artists today are confronted with radically different challenges and opportunities to those they faced in the 20th Century.

To meet this challenge artists are making wholesale changes to the ways they produce, integrating new approaches and techniques across art-forms with reworked traditional ways to produce a new paradigm for artistic and cultural practice. As part of this an artist may move between their own practice, work in a community context and semi-commercial work as a designer. Traditional artform boundaries are also changing. The so-called 360 degree commissioning familiar to the film world is being more broadly applied across artforms as content is repurposed and reused to produce the book, the film, the game, the website and the T-shirt of the same content.

The organisations that represent and link artists are crucial to meeting these challenges, making possible economies of scale and collaborative solutions. They enable artists to focus on their creative work equipped with the broader skills and support needed to survive and flourish.

The distinctive features of the new order, such as massive interconnection, a heightened relationship between artists and audiences and a far greater plasticity and flexibility of creative content, offer immense opportunities to artists. Artists’ organisations play a crucial role in this.

These features of the digital world also point to a new integrated approach by cultural organisations to all aspects of their work. In the new environment artistic programs, membership, online presence, partnerships and marketing, and promotion and sales have to interact seamlessly so each reinforces the other, as a way of multiplying the impact and reach of relatively limited government support.

It also can offer new ways that government can engage with artists, using both online and digital means, but also making better use of the existing channels that have long been available, namely the organisations which represent artists. These organisations have been actively changing the way they operate to reflect the new environment and to make use of the new tools for engagement with their members.

It would be invaluable to have a clear outline of the dynamic interaction between different elements in the Framework
One of the elements I find missing from the 2012 Framework is a clear outline of the dynamic interaction between different elements. There are references to the National Cultural Institutions and to the education sector but it’s hard to get a sense of how they all interact as part of the broader cultural sector. This dynamic interaction was clearly apparent last year with just one very successful example that I am familiar with, Design Canberra, which linked activity across silos, with design as the common element. Incidentally it is no accident that in seeking a broad cross-cutting theme that linked up many sectors for development of its arts and culture sector New Zealand chose design.

A sense of dynamic interaction within a broader cultural sector could be provided through a brief introduction linking the various elements but would also need to be reinforced in each section at a more detailed level by modifying specific points as I outline below.

Arts and cultural activity not funded by government
While a framework is about the role government can play in support for the arts, it is crucial to recognise that government-supported arts does not occur in a vacuum. There is a world of commercial arts activity and small scale creative industries that receive no support from government – and ideally would never need support, or perhaps only targeted support. They are still active players in the sector and have to be recognised and factored into any planning.

Regional, national and international
The existing Framework rightly mentions the importance of Canberra as a regional centre but it would be good if this was extrapolated to capture the unique nature of Canberra as a regional centre that is also the national capital and therefore a hub for international connection linking the regional to the global. As just one example, the diplomatic presence in Canberra is a crucial channel for increased international engagement but it is also something occurring through links between artists, cultural researchers and arts and cultural organisations in Canberra and their peers overseas. For example, the Design Canberra initiative, launched last year, is building on this with a multi-year plan of growth.

In the existing Principles what this might mean is that the words, ‘Embracing Canberra’s position as a regional centre and fostering opportunities for increased engagement with regional communities’ could be augmented to say something like ‘Embracing Canberra’s position as a regional centre and fostering opportunities for increased engagement with regional communities and linking this to Canberra’s national and international role’.

Cultural diversity, artistic diversity and innovation
For example, focusing on Australia’s cultural diversity, and the matching cultural diversity in the ACT, is closely linked to both facilitating community participation and access and to artistic diversity and to innovation. When cultures intersect, innovation is much more likely to occur. Recognising this in the introduction could be reinforced by modifying the point ‘Funding local arts organisations and activities to continue to deliver arts outcomes for the ACT community’ to say ‘Funding local arts organisations and activities to continue to deliver arts outcomes for the ACT community by drawing on our cultural diversity to both reflect this in artistic content and in the audiences and participants arts organisations engage with.’

It is hard to imagine Australian culture without the key component of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that underpin and enrich it. This is a clear example of how cultural diversity delivers artistic diversity and innovation.

Creative industries
‘Supporting engagement with and between local arts organisations, business and philanthropic sectors and the National Cultural Institutions, to increase opportunities for local artists and take advantage of synergies with programs such as Enlighten and major blockbuster exhibitions’ is good as far as it goes but there needs to be mention of the fact that a whole component of the local business sector referred to is local creative industries such as designers, architects, digital content producers and games companies.

Improving the existing Policy Framework
The existing Policy Framework could be enhanced with an introductory paragraph that outlines how all the various elements intersect dynamically to make this sector so important and central to ACT life. Points within each of the Principles could have modified wording to also underline and explain this. However, I think that the four Principles themselves could first be rearranged to cover the aims of the Framework more clearly.

The existing four principles
The existing Arts Policy Framework includes four principles:

1. Facilitate community participation in and access to the arts

2. Support artistic excellence and artistic diversity

3. Strengthen the sustainability of arts organisations and the capacity of the arts to contribute to social and economic outcomes

4. Foster artistic innovation and creative thinking

Including sustainability of arts organisations and ‘the capacity of the arts to contribute to social and economic outcomes’ in the same principle tends to blur the principle – it seems to be only a very tenuous link. It would be better to have a principle 'Broaden the support base for arts and cultural activity and thereby enhance the sustainability of arts and cultural organisations’. This is linked to ‘Facilitate community participation in and access to the arts’ but is different.

‘Support artistic excellence and artistic diversity’ and ‘Foster artistic innovation and creative thinking’ sound very similar and would be better in one single principle.

Measuring success
There are a range of potential measures that could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the Framework. A few possibilities could include:

- Numbers who attend but also, more importantly, numbers who are engaged more directly.
- Income and in-kind raised from other sources due to arts funding - i.e., degree of leveraging of government subsidy.
- Extent of broadening of support - e.g., increase in supporters, partners, collaborative projects, cross sectoral engagement - across industry and social sectors, across state and territory and regional boundaries and national and international engagement - all measurable.
- Number of artists whose career are kick-started or developed due to support.
- Number of exports of local skilled personnel and arts products (like exhibitions) to other states or international.

Possible new initiatives to implement the Framework
At the 20/20 Summit - ironically not in the arts stream - a suggestion was made about supporting Australians who have made their careers overseas to come back to Australia more often or more comprehensively to engage more with and mentor local talent still in Australia.

This idea also came up at the public forum as part of the review, in a version applicable to the ACT, focused on those who have moved interstate to further their career. I think this is worth examining for many regions. It happens already to some degree but could be built upon very well.

Making the case for arts and culture
The importance of arguing the case for government support the arts, rather than just taking this for granted was an issue that arose during the consultation. This is where ambition and a broader view of the arts is important. If the arts and cultural sector is restricted to just ‘the arts’, it is much harder to emphasise its importance and the way it is interacts dynamically with the broader ACT economy and society.

The Framework has to be about getting arts and culture onto the main agenda via a whole-of-government approach. It’s not as though the arts are a separate universe that somehow produces economic and social benefits – they are part of the economy and society.

In many ways getting a strategic, broad and visionary framework accepted across government is more important than funding. If the case is successful, then over time funding of various kinds will be more likely.

As part of this it is important that the Framework has a clear component that deals with non-government support such as philanthropy, business support and community contributions (such as involvement by volunteers) and that it expresses this dynamically as a way of leveraging government support rather than replacing it.

I would be curious to know if the economic analysis by the ACT Government on economic impacts referred to at the Forum is only of government-supported arts activities or of the broader arts and cultural sector.

See also

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left
‘Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. At a pre-election ACT arts forum contenders in local elections pitched their policies and plans. There was too much talk of infrastructure and public arts, not quite enough of local, regional and national (and international) synergies and nowhere near enough of the crucial role of operational funding and the importance of creative industries and the clever and clean knowledge economy of the future’, Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A journey to a strange land ­– making sense of the senseless 
‘There we were, over 65 of us, from every state and territory and from every artform, all crammed into one tiny room in Parliament House, so even the visiting politicians sometimes had to stand. Despite the great diversity, the level of focus was frightening. It was helped along by the Chair, who clearly had a degree in alchemy which qualified her to turn chaos into order. If only she could turn the base metal of this example of bad policy into the precious coinage of strategic vision – but that must be the higher degree. Here we go again, I thought. It all felt too familiar, much like previous eras I have lived through, when good things were undone by narrow vision for short-term advantage. Sometimes I think it’s better when government is inefficient – that way it does less damage’, A journey to a strange land ­– making sense of the senseless.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2
we are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind, ‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel 
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

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