Wednesday, October 7, 2015

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’

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 fact over the last five years the unit with overall responsibility for the Australian Government’s arts and culture support, small by public service standards, has been shrinking faster than light vanishes into a black hole. It started with drastic reductions in the process of moving from the Department of the Environment to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from late 2010 onwards and seems to have just kept on, like a bad habit, through the Department of Regional and then Attorney-General’s.

The arts and culture unit circles the public service universe moving from department to department after each election or change in government. It’s like a comet wandering off into the cold distant reaches of space and then reappearing in the same location centuries later, once again unsettling the local inhabitants. When they run out of departments to host Arts the comet reappears. Now it has reappeared above the Department of Communications, which it was with for so long and which it left after the election of the Rudd Government in 2007.

The Commonwealth's arts and culture division - even as its numbers continued to shrink, its title kept on growing

Only a minor increase due to the transfer of a few positions from the Australia Council to the Ministry as part of the establishment of the new National Program(me) for Excellence in the Arts seems to have slowed the downwards trend. Hopefully the process will now have stabilised and we won’t see yet more reductions as part of the move back to Communications.

Oddly the initial contraction happened just as the unit was starting the long haul to finally produce the much awaited National Cultural Policy, back on track after a few false starts.

In the process, the unit has gone through various names, including the Office for the Arts and now, the Ministry for the Arts. Ironically, even as its numbers continued to shrink, its title kept on growing.

This contraction is a pity because in the more than 13 years I spent in the area, I liked it immensely. The work was the most interesting I’ve ever done and the potential to effect change was huge. One small change could have big national impact. It’s like the person who invented peel off vehicle registration stickers, now themselves history. A small boring innovation which multiplied by millions of people every year meant a very worthwhile increase in overall human happiness.

In contrast when I was at the Powerhouse Museum, for example, anything I did only benefited the Museum ­– valuable but limited in effect.

On top of this, working at national level, I got to deal with a vast array of interesting people doing great things – and actually help them sometimes. The public service was far more interesting looking out than looking in. Now it’s far more interesting looking anywhere else.

The problem is that in a public service where moving regularly is regarded highly, if you are a top notch senior public servant you are going to find it difficult to work for very long in a career-limiting backwater like the arts part of the public service. Conversely if you are a talented strategic leader in the arts and culture sector you probably wouldn’t want to work for the public service, except possibly the Australia Council on a good day. For those who both want to work in government and think the arts is important there’s not many other places to go.

This means that the arts part of the public service is not inherently or easily strategic, innovative, visionary or engaged with the main agenda. Maybe that’s a reflection of the public service or is it true of every big organisation or part thereof?

It’s more about rushed band aid fixes to whatever problem arises and unsettles whoever the Minister is at the time or quick responses to whatever bright ideas emerge from a Minister’s office.

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? The whole process of the National Cultural Policy highlighted this problem, just as, at the same time, it showed how strong the support is by a few individual (and commendable) politicians and by large parts (but not large enough, or maybe not unified enough) of the country as a whole.

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. At the moment, with much of the broader creative industries, important areas of cultural heritage (except for the national cultural institutions) and Indigenous culture having virtually slipped from the main attention of the Ministry I think it has become too limited to make much impact on the world.

Someone asked me the other day if there was a change of government, either sooner or later, where I thought the broader cultural programs (particularly the Indigenous cultural programs) managed by the Ministry for the Arts would best be placed. My response was that I would still lean towards a place for all of them in the arts and culture area so long as there is a renewed focus on the knowledge economy and creative industries, culture, intangible cultural heritage and UNESCO. Then it makes perfect sense. Even though the location in the Attorney-General’s portfolio had merit because of the absolute centrality of intellectual property to arts and culture, perhaps we should think about placing it with another portfolio on which our whole future hangs – education.

The choice to move it back to Communications is not a bad alternative. With responsibility for intellectual property issues also moving there, it will be interesting to see what can be achieved, if only the vision is there – within the Government, the Department and the Ministry for the Arts itself.

Then, once again, as has happened for brief periods in its history, this small part of the Australian Government public service responsible for arts and culture could truly have an impact far beyond its numbers, operate on the whole national landscape of the public service and help make it a genuinely comprehensive and effective asset for modern Australia.

Postscript
A further note on ‘Notes from a steadily shrinking universe’: At the October 2015 Senate Estimates hearing, the Ministry for the Arts confirmed the full extent of the reduction in numbers, with staff levels having fallen from 180 in 2010 to a current level of 109.

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.

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.

Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?
‘A policy and the understanding of issues that leads to its adoption, provides arts and culture with a stature that underpins funding by providing a rationale for support. Otherwise funding will always be ad hoc and insecure, piecemeal, project-based, intermittent and at the mercy of whim and fashion. We have to get arts and culture to the stage where it is seen like public health or education and debated accordingly’, Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
‘National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwhile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important’, Arts funding – it’s not all about the money.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts 
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity 
‘Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It helps ensure innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect, differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged. This is essential to the new clever and clean industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. The national Indigenous cultural programs play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture. What is clear is that these programs have been affected by the range of cuts as part of the search for savings since the Coalition Government took office. Funding community organisations for services government would otherwise have to provide is a great way to get things on the cheap. If you don’t fund them at all, it’s even cheaper’, Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity.

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.

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?

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world
‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’, Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

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.

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.

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’ 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 language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

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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