Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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’.

When I finally left the public service 16 months ago there were a couple of things I had been working on that I thought were really important and would have loved to have progressed further. At the time I was responsible in the ACT, NSW and Queensland for funding from the suite of Indigenous culture programs that supported languages, culture and visual arts (and indirectly Indigenous broadcasting).

One of the projects I considered so important was consolidating and expanding funding support for Indigenous languages maintenance and revival in Western NSW, which was already well underway because of its strong community base.

Indigenous cultural funding in Western Sydney
The other, which was not underway at all, was getting more funding from the Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government into Western Sydney. This has one of the most dense concentrations of Aboriginal population in Australia but not a matching level of funding from these national programs, which would be ideal for this. There had been a history of not many applications coming from the region – or of the few applications there were not meeting the funding guidelines.

Beyond the obvious sights like the Harbour Bridge lies a whole world - the great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney.

There had been some initial informal discussion with Blacktown Arts Centre and with some of the Ministry for the Arts regional staff about how to help make this happen but at that point the Indigenous Culture branch of the Ministry was disbanded and programs disbursed across the Ministry. Coupled with the continued steady dismantling of the network of regional staff in the Indigenous Culture Branch, much of the work ground to a halt.

With the unravelling of national arts funding which has produced the #freethearts response this has probably become less and less likely. It's one of my great regrets that national support couldn't have been focused on what was happening in Western Sydney.

As a last hurrah for the Indigenous Culture Branch we managed to get tripartite, triennial funding for the Torres Strait Indigenous art centres, from the Australian Government, the Torres Strait Regional Authority and Arts Queensland - with time and good governments, at both national and state level, what could have happened in Western Sydney? It makes you weep at possibilities lost.

Western Sydney - sensitive, neglected and unhappy
I am surprised that governments are not directing more arts funding into the region. It is a marginal seat heartland and increasingly governments are very focused on the needs of marginal seats – if not on meeting their needs at least on looking as though they are. Arts supporters are marginal seat voters, too.

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 this great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney.

The funding neglect in the West has been identified in detail by important organisations in the region. Blacktown City Mayor, Stephen Bali commented, ‘Western Sydney is already a cultural funding desert, despite having a vibrant home grown arts movement that only needs watering to let it bloom.’ He notes that according to a recent analysis by Deloittes, Western Sydney has 9.5 per cent of the Australian population but only gets 1% of Federal arts funding, and 29.4 per cent of the State’s population but only 5.5 % of the State’s arts funding. In comparison, Eastern Sydney has 10.7 per cent of the Australian population and gets 36 per cent of the arts funding, and 33.4 per cent of the State’s population and gets 87.2 per cent of the state’s arts funding.

Previously un-funded arts programs, like those run by Blacktown City Council, were amongst the more than 400 organisations around Australia in the Australia Council expression of interest process for six year funding. Blacktown Arts Centre, with a budget of just $1 million and servicing a population of 352,000, is one of the organisations affected by the freeze on the process which is a direct result of the changes to national arts funding arrangements.

Mayor Bali commented that ‘the impact of Federal Budget funding limitations on the Australia Council will be more far reaching than the Government realises…Every arts body in Australia will feel cold wind blow through their artistic programs,’ he said. ‘In our case, we have lost the opportunity to grow our arts programs to better meet the needs of the residents of the largest local government area in NSW. We also lose the opportunity to provide employment and development opportunities for local and emerging artists.’

Blacktown Council makes a significant investment in arts and cultural development and has a strong track record of nurturing new art forms. Mayor Bali concluded ‘While we have benefited from project grants from the Australia Council, what we need in a region like Western Sydney is a sustained commitment to arts development from the Federal Government…In a politically volatile region like Western Sydney, can the federal government really afford to have arts development being treated with such contempt?’

There has been a range of commentary about what it means and I am sure it is only the beginning. David Capra, a western Sydney artist and spokesman for the Western Sydney Arts and Cultural Lobby has written in the Sydney Morning Herald about the implications of the funding changes for the West.

We have to be wary about simply equating population size with the level of arts funding - though I think there is a good argument there. As I’ve said elsewhere, ‘It is also true that not everyone around the country is so enamoured of the Australia Council that they think all arts funding should be channelled through it. There have been numerous charges of it being Sydney-centric. Whether this is true or not is hard to tell, as there is always a tendency for artists to drift to the capital cities and especially the largest one of all. Does the funding follow the artists or do artists follow the funding? New York has been accused of exhibiting the same reputed tendency to become a cultural black hole from which no light escapes, disconnected from the rest of the country like an island with its own critical mass.’

Despite notionally being part of Sydney, Western Sydney shares the same scepticism that others have expressed. While we have to be careful about the risks of directly equating the level of arts funding with the level of population, the argument about relative levels of funding is still a very powerful one. Hiding behind the argument that supporting 'excellence' means some areas miss out only goes so far and leads us into fundamental arguments about the purpose and reach of arts and cultural support and questions about 'excellence' itself.

Ironically the very changes to arts funding arrangements which supposedly address such concerns about the Australia Council are impacting negatively on Western Sydney as well. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is a badly thought through and half-baked attempt to address a possible issue that hasn’t been properly defined and researched first.

I’m sure the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts are frantically working to make sure this whole sorry mess does as little damage and produces as much value as possible. They said as much in the most recent Senate Estimates hearings. The reality is we can’t expect them to produce miracles – at best they will salvage what can be salvaged.

Slush funds, hush funds and 'strategic' projects
At the moment it seems highly likely that much of the funds will end up supporting the expensive international touring of the major performing arts companies. The list of projects funded through the Attorney-General’s Department’s Arts and Cultural Development sub program, traditionally a slush fund for whichever Minister is in office, gives a sense of the sort of things that have been supported recently from existing pools within the Ministry for the Arts. I'm sure they’re almost all worthwhile and some potentially almost exciting, but whether they’d make the cut in a competitive funding round will forever remain to be seen. With a few exceptions, which I will come to next, it’s very much about taking traditional high arts to the country and the world.

What will be supported by the new fund will depend a lot on the guidelines and processes to be established by the Ministry for the Arts. However, given the emphasis of the Minister, which he repeats every time he is interviewed, and the evidence of what’s been funded to date, I am wary of what will be funded.

In a strange twist the new fund being established in the Ministry for the Arts might have a role to play – as long as there is strategic vision and strong community links. The Indigenous culture programs funded a wide range of small strategic projects across Australia from a very small strategic fund which was not part of the much larger annual competitive funding round. Some of the most cost-effective projects with long-term ramifications were supported from this fund. Funding from this pool could potentially have been used to support project development in Western Sydney. That was our thinking at the time, in late 2013. I can see the interest the Ministry might have in such strategic funds, in this case potentially in greater quantities and not focused on support for Indigenous culture only.

Unfortunately, as was apparent in the Indigenous funding area, without a regionally-based presence to provide intelligence and build community links, the effectiveness of the community relationships is questionable. That local presence is substantially diminished almost two years on.

The new fund will supposedly support ‘strategic projects’ as mentioned in the Minister’s media release and in subsequent comments in Senate Estimates hearings. In the list of recent Ministry grants from the Arts and Cultural Development ‘program’ I mentioned earlier, there are some projects which are quite different in nature to support for things like international touring of major or mainstream companies – these are regionally-based activities and projects.

Brandis does have interest in and enthusiasm for regional arts and this is reflected in a very minimal way in these grants, though the overwhelming number are the usual mainstream staid old stuff. This perhaps explains why there might have been some initial ambivalence amongst regional arts organisations about the funding changes. It seems likely that Brandis was, at least in in part, influenced by negative feedback from regional arts bodies about the Australia Council which reinforced his already existing natural inclination to have funding more directly under Ministerial control. 

Much of the support for regional arts activity from the Australian Government is through the well-regarded Regional Arts Fund, which is administered by the Ministry for the Arts and distributed through state-based regional arts bodies. In that regard regional arts organisations have a much closer relationship with Ministry funding than almost any other Australia Council clients, except perhaps Indigenous organisations, such as Indigenous arts centres.

Project funding little value if doors are shut
My major concern with the new fund remains that is is extremely unlikely it will support the long term operational funding of small to medium arts and cultural organisations which traditionally have been supported by the Australia Council from the transferred money being used to establish the fund. The fund doesn’t sound like that in any way. With it’s purpose described in the Minister’s media release about the Budget as ‘to support endowments, international touring and strategic projects’, this will leave these organisations out in the cold. It’s no use being able to apply for extra strategic projects if you can’t keep your doors open so you can deliver your base level ‘frontline’ services.

It’s no accident that the second largest philanthropic fund in the US, the Ford Foundation, has just recognised the importance of operational funding to community organisations by changing its guidelines to prioritise such funding.

The main issue for me is still what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. This is the hard reality of these changes. These funds, which have been so carelessly reallocated without sufficient thought for the consequences, are essential core funding for a whole broad strand of arts and cultural infrastructure which makes possible greatly magnified impacts from the relatively small amount of funding involved. Without this funding what will be lost is not just the immediate effects of the funding but the magnified impact as well.

See also

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum
‘With its extensive collection of design of all kinds, from engineering to fashion to ceramics and jewellery, and with its links to industry, I always had high hopes for the Powerhouse Museum. Despite its fragmented nature, the Powerhouse was a great design museum precisely because it was also a museum of science and technology – and a museum of social history, which could place it all in a historical and social context. In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. That the Powerhouse failed to realise its potential is a measure of the lack of strategic vision, including from successive governments which have never properly grasped the power of culture in shaping society and the need for the long-term substantial commitment to enable it’, The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum.

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts
‘I’ve said before that the traditional saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. If anything, there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth’, Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

‘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.

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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