Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support

With arts support continuing to shrink cultural groups need to hope for the best but plan for the worst – and build broad alliances – what’s happening in the arts and culture realm is just a symptom of what’s happening far more broadly.

In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Australia is not one country but two separate ones heading in opposite directions. One of these countries is heading into a future which is only slowly emerging from the mists created by deliberately ignoring or distorting science and the evidence it relies upon.

Strategic leadership in everything
This means strategic leadership like never before – something sadly lacking across the sector, particularly at the top end where this should be expected and demanded. The relatively limited and mixed response of large cultural organisations to the last few years of budget cuts is a clear sign of this. It should be a moment for them to drastically rethink what they do and how they do it, not tidy the edges.

It could be worse and it is always possible that it could actually get worse, as happened in the United Kingdom following the Global Financial Crisis. As usual those who cause the crisis get bailed out because they are too big to fail while the small arts organisations who had no responsibility for it at all bear the brunt of the crisis because they are too small for anyone to care whether they succeed or not.

The reality is that our senior arts and cultural leadership have failed dismally in providing direction in this challenging environment. They are limited because each of them with few exceptions only understand and speak for their own silo – this is a problem for the whole arts and culture sector, from the flagship cultural institutions to the smaller arts and culture organisations. It really is time to look at the new emerging understanding of a more democratic view of cultural leadership, something that is increasingly being discussed in a range of cultural forums.

Uncoupling from reliance on government
Having said all this, increasingly I have to say there is a limited future for arts and culture unless we uncouple the future from what is so often an uneven and disappointing performance by too many governments that have come and gone and strike out on our own – continuing to demand that government live up to its role but, at the same time, not relying on it. This means building alliances and partnerships in the most unlikely of areas. It may mean working with parts of the large arts organisation sector – where there is room to work. When governments act in positive ways for Australia’s arts and culture we should recognise and applaud it but we can’t afford to rely on it. Even relatively supportive governments can become caught up in other more populist issues that drown out proper consideration of Australia’s heritage and culture.

Much more importantly it means being aligned even more than we are now with Australia’s rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, drawing on Australia’s cultural diversity and linking up with the broader knowledge economy and the creative industries at its heart. It also means allying ourselves with other community areas under threat. This provides both an array of community partnerships and support and partnerships with increasingly important economic allies.

Not happening in a vacuum
The relentless shrinking of arts support is not occurring in a vacuum. It is just a tiny part of a much wider agenda to pare back centuries of social and economic progress and undo the achievements of generations. If you don’t believe there is a role for government in anything – or you think this role should be extremely limited – then you already believe all that is needed to remove support for arts and culture. This is especially so if what is supported involves making arts and culture more responsive to and representative of all our society and supporting arts and culture about and by a broad range of society.

There is no easy solution to this. Arts and culture receive an infinitesimally tiny part of government support. Without broad active resistance, this support will continue to diminish.

Reluctantly I have come to the view that if we think that arts and culture matter and that they should be supported by government, then we have to join the broader movement to change the paradigm of government – in fact, all the paradigms of the relationship between government and communities, between government and citizens, between government and voters. The alternative is that arts and culture will remain a diminishing afterthought, slowly dying. It is already a marginal afterthought, unfortunately it can become even more so.

It’s time to change the world. Artists and arts and cultural organisations have a crucial part to play in this. This is what we’ve always been about anyway. Let’s stop being distracted by the sidelines issues and get to work.

How arts can make a difference
I’d like to mention a couple of examples to illustrate what this can mean in practice. Alex Kelly, one of the key players in achieving Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Policy, has mentioned a striking example in a talk in June 2015. Previously from Australian arts company Big hArt and now working with Naomi Klein of 'This Changes Everything' fame, she cites the People’s Climate March which saw 400,000 people on the streets of New York City.

Under the slogan ‘To change everything we need everyone’, artists were not just ‘cake decorators’ on this march – they didn’t just make it look pretty. As she outlines, there were such things as design competitions and a puppet building warehouse, but artists were actually closely engaged in the design and makeup of the march itself. She points out that ‘the three minutes of silence ritual which I found so completely profound was devised by artists.’ She goes on to comment that increasingly the way in which events and marches are organised is being referred to as ‘movement choreography’ and notes that we can see an increase in arts thinking applied to movement organising.

Another example, similar in many respects to this, is the series of locally organised ‘create-a-thons’ around the theme of a Universal Basic Income in the United States. In these, in a weekend marathon, writers, artists, videographers, developers, musicians, and other creative people come together to create content and media around a social theme. In this case its a Universal Basic Income, a social solution increasingly being discussed as a way of addressing the rise of automation and the steady disappearance of unskilled and sem-skilled work.

At a more general level, design, that most practical of arts, is being applied to social challenges, including designing the actual process being used to address the challenge or solve the identified problem.

Seeking a better future
People talk about socially engaged art. But to my mind all art is socially engaged – it’s just that some is more explicit about it and some is more or less positive in its engagement. Some art seeks a better future and some wants to hold it back. It’s all about reimagining the world and teasing out how it could look and how we could get there. It’s not a matter of research or data or analysis. That is already there. It’s easy to just ignore it or distort it, as has happened with climate change. Originally there was a debate about whether human actions had caused global warming. Then the whole discussion became debased – not without considerable help from those with a deep self-interest in the matter – into one about whether global warming actually existed. The story had changed completely.

Beyond the facts of the matter there is the way people respond to it. If there seems no alternative way of living that can actually be imagined then people will fall back into trying to made the best of what is already there – as unsatisfactory as that is.

Artists have a role to play in designing a different future than what’s on offer and writing the story of a different future. Those social movements that are most powerful are the ones where arts and culture embodies and carries forward the essence of what they stand for. Think of the power of ceremony and ritual in the world – that is ultimately the power of art at work.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary 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’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

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?

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.

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.

Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?
‘In the flurry of recent changes to national arts funding arrangements we need to be concerned at what might be the beginning of a bigger trend – the tendency for government to withdraw from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding. This creeping trend makes it ever harder for organisations to find the long term operational funding which small arts and cultural organisations need to keep their doors open so they can deliver base level frontline services’, Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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