Thursday, May 26, 2016

Arts fightback – breaking out of the goldfish bowl

How can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? These current dire circumstances, where we face a national arts crisis the seriousness of which can’t be understated, may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question. It’s time for the big picture and long view for Australian arts and culture and time to get ready for a long haul effort to win hearts and minds.

We face a national arts crisis the seriousness of which can’t be understated. Looking forward, though, a far more important issue than arts funding is the question of how the broad arts and cultural sector can 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 it’s not important enough and 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. The current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question. It’s time for the big picture and long view for Australian arts and culture.

Election poster from an Auckland, New Zealand street, 2014

Bigger pictures to paint – no less than a fight for the soul of Australia
While there is an important campaign underway around arts funding we shouldn’t get lost in that alone. There are far more important issues affecting the future of arts and culture in Australia that underlie the question of funding. Many issues have been thrown up about which organisations were funded in the Australia Council four year operational funding round. Without getting lost in these, the real issue is how the overall arts and culture budget, except for brief moments, has always fallen short of a serious commitment. On top of this, that limited commitment has been steadily eroded. Even more crucially, Australian arts and culture itself is being threatened, with crucial institutions and traditions and long positive histories being trashed for short term greed and gain.

In this century, we have neglected the maintenance of our physical infrastructure and frittered away the legacy of community action and government response from the 19th and 20th centuries. We are still drawing on the ‘national capital’ of the great nation-building era after World War 2 when Australia needed engineering, learning, science – not to mention migration. The same has happened with our social infrastructure, with assets like the public service, and community assets, like women’s shelters and co-operatives and mutual societies, being run down, sold off or handed over to the best-positioned bidder. Australia’s arts and culture is not immune from this destructive drive.

Two countries going in opposite directions
We might look like a go-ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions? I suppose the only consolation might be that in one of those rare bonuses of ageing, those heading in one direction will die much earlier than those heading in the other – but I’m not sure even that is true. This parallel shadowy land heading the other way is not Australia but Susstralia. Having reached the refuge of Australia at different points over the last 218 years, we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to belong to this land – and how to accept those who were here long before us and others who have come after us to try to do the same.

Arts and culture are part of the powerful impetus heading into the future. This is no less than a fight for the soul of Australia –and who better to embody such a fight over values and symbols than the arts and culture sector and those beyond it who believe in its importance. Sometimes, in a period of radical unravelling, a form of conservatism might not be entirely undesirable. Our long-held and hard-won popular traditions – democracy, cultural diversity and industrial and human rights – while still incomplete in far too many ways, are worth defending. As the Americans say in a much misused expression, ‘the price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.

Making the big picture an even bigger picture
If we are to realise the real potential of Australia’s creativity and the immense promise of our arts and cultural life, it needs to develop it far beyond the level which government currently contributes reluctantly towards – or even recently provided. Current and historical 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. In response to this there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth in what Australia requires to keep pace with its development.

‘National arts crisis the seriousness of which can’t be understated’

It won’t happen as a result of the efforts of those directly involved in the arts and culture sector alone. If those in the arts sector are going to put energy into getting the message out, as much as possible it needs to be directed at mobilising supporters beyond the sector. Lots of people from the arts protesting arts cuts just looks like another interest group protecting its turf. It’s time to get ready for a long haul effort to win hearts and minds.

Cuts upon cuts
If we look at the last couple of years, lots of cuts have occurred and there has been plenty of fragmented opposition but it has had little effect because everyone now expects that it is what government does. Arts is never a big issue in elections – I wonder if the Coalition will even bother to put out a policy on it. However, the way the Government has reacted to policy being pushed forward by the Opposition (superannuation tax concessions, reversal of funding cuts for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, multinational tax) shows that if they are ever going to move, it will be in an election.

I think there are some important points to bear in mind:
·         It is absolutely essential that this does not become a matter only of the Australia Council and the organisations it supports or even of arts funding in general. We have to focus on the long term future of the broad cultural sector and think about this particular issue within that context.
·         The changes to the Australia Council are only a small part of a series of actions which have impacted the broad arts and culture sector. The Creative Industries Innovation Centre closed its doors last year after the Government declined to support it. This centre played a major role in support for Australia’s creative industries.
·         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. 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. This provides both an array of community partnerships and support and partnerships with increasingly important economic allies. In this group I’d underline that Local Government is an important – and active – voice.
·         The arts and culture sector are a crucial part of the knowledge economy but the degree to which all the different parts of the creative core of the knowledge economy recognise each other is hard to assess.
·         Both mainstream political parties are starting to recognise that the growth of the knowledge economy is already having an impact on their political constituencies and planning how to deal with this.

Those in the arts and culture sector are adept at communication. We deal in the expression of fundamental values for our society. Our tools of trade are language and images, stories, symbolism and emotion. One of the reasons the British monarchy has survived and thrived so long is that it understands the full power of symbolism and art and culture.

‘demand and welcome recognition and support by government, but not depend on it’ 

Turning around the terms of discussion
We have to slowly and steadily turn around the terms of the discussion. How can we begin to do that?
  • Encourage everyone we know to enrol and vote. Spread the pain to politicians.
  • Talk to our local Member of Parliament about why support for the arts is not a sideline issue for us and our friends and why it needs to be bigger than party politics. Your organisation may be in a marginal seat or it’s impact may extend to a neighbouring marginal seat – use it.
  • Identify local champions of the arts who aren’t directly involved in the arts and culture sector and encourage them to speak out – and in, that is behind the scenes, to decision-makers they know.
  • Tell stories about how arts changes lives and promote case studies as widely as possible, practical examples of how the arts make an impact like nothing else.
  • Arts and culture is not the only important area being cut back. We have to find allies in other community organisations and groups which are facing the same thing.
Engaging with grassroots voters
In the approaching ACT election, the union movement is planning to use an approach they have adopted from grassroots campaigners in the United States and used successfully in the Victorian elections. It provides much food for thought because it brings politics back to everyday issues and the people who deal with them every day, and its asks for a commitment, however personal or small in line with what each person personally values. Arts campaigners could think seriously about whether there are possible ways to apply the approach that are suitable to how the arts and culture sector functions. For example, I could imagine that youth theatre worker who are in the thick of the local problems facing youth in remote, regional and outer suburban areas, might find ways to engage with those in the area who see the work as valuable, even crucial.

At the same time we have to carefully expand the broad base of support we already have – demand and welcome recognition and support by government, but not depend on it. Whether it’s crowd funding, expanding donations, membership schemes, philanthropic or private sector support, charging for organisation services, generating more artist income from copyright payments or fees or raffles or jumble sales – or probably all of them – it will stand us in good stead in the hard years ahead. The amount of effort involved in finding, applying for, reporting on and fighting to defend government funding, once focused elsewhere would have to produce worthwhile results. For a start it would be good to hear the success stories from everyone about how they have done it already – even if only to a small degree. We have to broaden our options and while hoping for the best, prepare for the worst. Part of this is becoming clear about how to work together with as wide a range of partners as possible to ensure the worst never gets to arrive.

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.

Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?
‘In this election Australians are voting on a great range of important issues. It could be a moment where we choose between the future and the past but it is never as simple as that. In this mix it’s all too easy for Australia’s arts and culture to come in second best – or probably more like third or fourth best, or worse. The problem is that while we have good solid policy offerings by those parties that actually have arts policies, no-one seems to be painting the big picture, one that threads arts and culture through the whole array of policies in an integrated way. We need a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into’, Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?

Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy
‘In the arts, from a virtual policy-free zone, we’ve now got policies – not as many as we could have hoped, but enough to be going on with. Some of them might even get implemented. Importantly, the others will help to frame the debate and offer ideas for the future. Those parties that have arts policies offer good solid and productive proposals which, if implemented, would lead to definite improvement for Australia’s arts and culture. However, that’s just the starting point’, Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy.

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?

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?

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support 
‘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 – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

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.

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.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment