Thursday, June 18, 2015

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 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’.

I wondered if I would make it up to Parliament House as part of the #freethearts delegation this morning to have a few chats about the importance of arts and culture. There were over 65 of us, from every state and territory and from every artform, all crammed into one tiny room so even the visiting politicians sometimes had to stand, so probably no-one would have missed me. In the end I’m happy to say I made it.

I had a small problem with sciatica, which was why I thought I might not make it, but it’s a minor case so I was okay. I was told that the feeling in my leg was referred pain from my lower back but I’m convinced it was referred pain being felt by a whole massive layer of the arts and culture sector that has been cut away by the recent changes to arts funding arrangements in the last Federal budget.

Senator Ludlam hears the concerns of the delegation about the impact of funding changes.

After all I am on the Board of Craft ACT, one of the small local organisations which is almost certain to be severely affected by the changes. Like over 400 other small arts and culture organisations across the nation, we’d only recently finished working on our expression of interest to the Australia Council for six year funding.

In the grand scheme of things the funding concerned might not seem like much but it would have enabled us to continue to attract broader support at a much higher level than this funding, multiplying it and its impact many times. It would have enabled us to plan ahead with our vision for a creative powerhouse centred in the national capital, connected to the surrounding region. It would link up artists and designers, community organisations and local businesses to foster an innovative and clever Canberra. Through some of our signature projects like DESIGN Canberra, which we intended to link internationally, and our plans to have Canberra listed as a UNESCO City of Design, we had high hopes and big dreams.

Delegates from all across the country travelled to Camberra to speak about the serious impacts the changes would almost certainly produce in their communities.

Unfortunately, it just got much, much harder. All the signs are that the new George Brandis Memorial Fund will be for project funding, not for the underlying operational funding which we mainly receive from Arts ACT but have relied on the Australia Council to supplement. At least that’s how it sounds from the Minister’s media release and the somewhat vague evidence in Senate Estimates. We love project funding but operational funding is what keeps an organisation ticking over, constantly adding the series of achievements that make for real long term success.

Multiply this thwarted vision a hundred or more times and what does it mean - it means one more step along the path to mediocrity.

All this was going through my head as I made my way up to ‘the House’. It flashed through my mind that I’d once heard some tough old wharfies refer to visiting ‘the Big House’, by which they meant prison. Is ‘the House’ as big as ‘the Big House’, I thought. Are people sentenced to ‘the House’ for anything in particular or is it just that sometimes they look like they should be. Perhaps it’s a bit like Australia itself, which I like to think was settled by those who either were convicts or should have been. Ah, the tricks your mind plays on you when you’re racked by pain.

This alien country we were visiting hove into sight, swept by rain and shrouded in mist. It might have seemed to be a land empty of life, in which no-one spoke a human language and instead only exhaled warm air, but luckily we spied signs of intelligent life.

We filed through security, which just reinforced the impression that we were travelling to another land, with the metal detectors and X-rays that usually populate international airports. At least no-one patted us down and the frontier guards seemed pretty friendly, especially given how many of us there were.

Then, true to our Australian heritage, we were escorted, like a chain gang of convicted felons along the wide airy corridors to our appointed meeting room where we proceeded to turn unhappiness into action.

‘What an admirable bunch’, I thought of my fellow delegates. 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.

We listened to a series of Members of Parliament - local members and Shadow Ministers - from the House of Representatives and the Senate. They all spoke well about the importance of arts and culture to Australia and to their local communities. What struck me was how some of those local members clearly know well the value of their local arts organisations because they know their constituents – they are obviously good local members.

It was unfortunate that Coalition local members didn’t use the same opportunity to express their enthusiasm for arts and culture - I'm sure they too would have welcome stories to tell. There was no sign of the Great Helmsman himself. Unfortunately in both cases being asked is not enough – you actually have to turn up to convey that love.

Here we go again. 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.

See also

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future 
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, caused by lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding and falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less
‘The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. In a context where there have been significant long term cuts to arts and culture funding in the last two budgets, particularly the 2014-15 one, these changes only worsen the situation’, Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less.

National arts and culture funding – follow the money
‘In the continuing furore over the transfer of funds from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015-16 budget, most of the focus to date has been on the Australia Council. What has been happening to the funding of the Ministry for the Arts itself? Based on the publically available budget figures since 2012, it is possible to compare the level of program funding managed by the Ministry for the Arts and see the reduction in funding following the election of the current Government’, National arts and culture funding - follow the money.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe 
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

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?

Getting wild out West – Western Sydney’s long unhappiness at arts funding neglect
‘Western Sydney has long been unhappy with the tiny share of arts funding – both national and state – it receives. Across Australia there are many 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 art galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture and they are the level of arts and cultural infrastructure closest to the very grassroots of our country – the Australians who vote, who get unhappy and who change governments. They rarely do it because of matters related to arts and culture but sometimes matters related to arts and culture, added to other concerns, can help tip things over the edge. More than a few of these organisations are based in the great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney’, Getting wild out West – Western Sydney’s long unhappiness at arts funding neglect.

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

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.

‘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.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries 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’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

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.

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 navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from 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. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

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.

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.

National and local - putting arts and culture upfront
‘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. 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’, National and local - putting arts and culture upfront.

The Indigenous cultural programs – what is happening to them?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

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.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.’ Real jobs in an unreal world.

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