Thursday, February 25, 2016

Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left

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 art, 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 increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. Perhaps eventually they will overlap and we will be able to celebrate two Christmases, two Easters and two elections at once, thus saving time and energy. That’s very efficient in the new Malcolm Turnbull sort of way. In the ACT we will be really be having two elections at once – or at least in the same year, as both local and national politicians ask us to tell them how they’ve done.

Pre-election arts forum at local icon, Gorman House Arts Centre.

Last night on a hot summer evening I went to a forum organised by local ACT arts lobby outfit, The Childers Group. Its theme was ‘Vision and support: what’s planned and what’s needed for the arts in the ACT region?’ It was at Gorman House Arts Centre, one of the few old art deco outcrops still surviving on the Canberra urban plain. I was there from personal interest but also representing Craft ACT, since I am on its Board. Of course all the views expressed here (and anywhere, really) are my own.

Achievements – and vision
Three kinds of politicians strutted their stuff. There was Dr Chris Bourke from the Labor Party, who had the added distinction of having recently inherited the mantle of Arts Minister from Joy Burch (as well as picking up Minister for Small Business, no less).

It’s always difficult for an incumbent government. A Minister tends to list specific achievements because, having been in government, unlike an Opposition, they usually have achievements to list. He had also just started in the role of Arts Minister which always makes it harder to spell out a comprehensive vision. He was helped by the fact that Labor actually has an Arts Policy.

His talk ranged across support for diversity and innovation, career paths for artists and those in the creative industries and building partnerships between arts and business. He noted that Canberra residents had the highest spend per capita on culture in the nation. As befitted the Labor Party, which has long had a leaning towards industry development – as opposed to broader support for economic growth, which almost everyone seems to love – he spoke more than most about my favourite topic, creative industries.

One of the panellists, noted Aboriginal artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello, pointed out that a Google search had failed to turn up an equivalent Liberal Party document, though she was assured it did exist. I had also previously tried to find it, so I was relieved and encouraged to search again.

Expect the unexpected
One panellist threw Dr Bourke a thorny question about music venues, noting that some of the best venues in the ACT are clubs – but they are full of poker machines, not music. He was asked how the Labor Party, which depended on donations from clubs, could properly tackle the issue of supporting live music. Unfortunately, because arts and culture is so broad and underpins everything, a forum about it is always going to come up with questions that might initially seem to be about other things, like gambling.

Next up was Shane Rattenbury, who had the distinction of being both the Arts spokesman for the Greens and a Minister (for Education) in the current Government. I thought he had a good practical grasp of what working in the arts meant – the result, he said later, of having quite a number of people in his office who were familiar, though I think he was just being modest. He spoke well about developing the relationship between the key players in the arts sector, such as other government agencies and private sector partners. He understood the links between architecture, public space, public use (like music) and talked about developing defined entertainment precincts to avoid conflict and noise complaints round live music. He had a good practical whole-of government overview and I have always liked that sort of thing. On a more practical note I liked his comment that instead of ordering more of the same old bike racks from China for this increasingly bike-riding city, the Government was commissioning ‘funky bike racks’ from local artists and designers – what’s not to like. He also mentioned that the Greens are currently refining their arts policy and welcomed input.

Lastly, as Opposition spokesperson for the Arts for the Liberals, Brendan Smyth spoke. He certainly seemed to be a man of ideas, not to mention a good hand at presentation. As he said it’s not enough to just have a list but you need to have a vision. He certainly does have a vision, and a broad one at that – fortunately he’s no George Brandis – but what it might mean in practice is hard to say in these early (and, so far, only hypothetical) days. I wanted to ask him if the whole Liberal Party shared his vision. From my days as Director of the National Cultural Policy Task Force I am very conscious that Simon Crean, who was also a man of vision about the important and central role of arts and culture, had a battle on his hands to bring all the Labor Government along with him. Sometimes governments don’t want too many ideas or too much vision.

Proof of the pudding
With whatever party, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and even long-established governments with a good track record have to prove themselve anew in a new term. Brendan Smyth definitely sounded like someone interested in further discussion. I had a couple of concerns because I think some of his statistics on the percentage of the Canberra economy involved in the ‘copyright industries’ being significantly lower than the national average may give an inaccurate snapshot. ‘Copyright industries’ include a very broad range of sectors, some of which are heavily concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne, which would skew the picture mightily. The other concern was when he seemed to suggest that interest in building a new convention centre was a reflection of a community interest in arts and culture. I doubt this is correct but perhaps I misunderstood him. Given that, as Shane Rattenbury commented, the cost of a convention centre is in the same league as the controversial light rail, this could be a serious concern. Hopefully he will clarify this further.

Infrastructure, operational and project
All the speakers talked about infrastructure and capital works far too much for my liking. I know that infrastructure is important but I keep thinking of my days in local government as a Community Arts Officer, when road, rates and rubbish was the rule, with roads the main emphasis. The controversy over the changes to arts funding at national level have shown that it is all too easy to underestimate the central importance of operational funding for arts and cultural organisations. This makes for greater consistency and sustainability, enabling these organisations to leverage their funding to attract far broader support. What politicians often fail to see is the dynamic interrelationship between three levels of funding – infrastructure, operational and project funding. Operational funding is a form of organisational infrastructure funding and, to my mind, is far more important than physical infrastructure. Politicians find it easy to talk about infrastructure because buildings are very concrete and very visible. They are things you can point to and say ‘I built that’.

The other thing that everyone talked about too much was public art. Public art is important and when it works well it can be phenomenal. However, too often it is an add on which isn’t intrinsic to a public space and the multiple uses to which it is put. Much better to think more broadly about the built environment and place public art in the much bigger picture of life in cities and architecture, town planning and design. This is the essence of what DESIGN Canberra, one of Craft ACT’s initiatives, is all about.

Better synergies – local, regional, national and international
What everyone did mention and what is a pressing issue for Canberra is the need to build better synergies between the local arts and culture sector and the activities of the large national cultural institutions which loom over us. It is something Craft ACT has tried to do with initiatives like DESIGN Canberra. Unfortunately, the recent cuts (called ‘efficiency dividends’) they suffered in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook process has drastically curtailed their ability to reach out locally.

There was also some useful discussion about the importance of seeing Canberra as a regional hub, a pivotal part of the regional arts and culture sector and the regional economy. In fact Canberra is unique, as a national capital, with all the international links, including diplomatic presence, that brings, but also with a strong regional identity. In that sense it is very different from Sydney which is a black hole which is far too big to have a regional presence – getting past it’s extensive suburban presence to a regional one is well nigh impossible.

Finally the one thing speakers definitely mentioned but didn’t talk about nearly enough was creative industries. Unlike dry martinis, where one is never enough and two is always far too many, there is always room to talk about creative industries. They are founded on the creativity that produces our arts and culture and they are a central part of the new knowledge economy which, with its clever and clean industries, represents the future of Australia – and particularly of the ACT. It’s all very well to talk about building partnerships between the arts and business but what about when the arts themselves are a central part of business?

See also

An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future
‘My blog “indefinite article” is irreverent writing about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. Over the last ten years I have published 166 articles about creativity and culture on the blog. This is a list of all the articles I have published there, broken down into categories, with a brief summary of each article. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, the cultural economy and creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian creativity and culture’, An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future.  

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘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. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

Why Australia still needs a cultural policy – third time lucky? 
‘It’s no longer the pre-election campaign we had to have. It’s become the election campaign we can’t avoid. We are spiralling inexorably towards election day and Ministers and members have been plummeting from the heights of the Coalition Government like crew abandoning a burning Zeppelin. We may wake on 19 May to find we have a national Labor Government. With Labor pledging to implement an updated version of the short-lived ‘Creative Australia’, its national cultural policy, first promised by the Rudd Government, it’s a good time to reconsider its importance’, Why Australia still needs a cultural policy – third time lucky?

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.

Banish the bland – Kim Williams spells out a positive Australia 
‘Australia needs more far-sighted strategic vision and discussion and less of the self-serving waffle we get from too many of our politicians. The creative and intellectual capacity of our people is central to a bright, ambitious and optimistic future and essential to avoid a decline into irrelevance, according to Kim Williams, former media executive and composer. He is an Australian who values ideas and his vision for a positive Australia is firmly focused on our artists, scientists and major cultural and scientific institutions’, Banish the bland – Kim Williams spells out a positive Australia.

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.

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda
‘There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

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.

The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions – Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do
‘We’re all used to the great big blockbuster exhibitions with all their wow and flutter. What’s really intriguing though is the world of tiny exhibitions, a babbling brook of activity that flows away – often unnoticed – under the tall timbers of the big institutions. At Craft ACT you can get four of them at once – in one smallish gallery space. These are artists who are likely to go on to produce better plumbing and lighting (always a good thing), design theatre costumes with a life of their own, produce unique fabric or jewellery such as you have never seen before, hinting at a history stretching far back, and give you furniture that can be folded simply and put away, but not forgotten’, The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions – Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian 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.

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.

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.

National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes 
‘I am not too concerned who manages national arts funding. Both the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts have long managed numerous funding programs. I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs much sooner. Well- known and respected figures in the arts and culture sector have been expressing this concern sharply’, National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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