Friday, May 13, 2016

Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?

In response to steadily diminishing support for arts and culture by government, it's crucial to recognise that Australia's arts are central to everyday life and should be firmly on the main national agenda. Apart from their value in maintaining a thriving Australian culture, the range of social and economic benefits they deliver and their role in telling Australia's story to ourselves and the world make them an essential service.

Like it or not, we’re all part of a double disillusion election, and an early one as well – as if we need any more of them, given some of the disastrous outcomes of past ones. Somewhere in the noise and dust, Australia’s arts and culture future could well be lost.

Tobacco drying sheds, North East Victoria: The creative industries are too important to become just another industry overtaken by history.

Many thousands who are part of the arts and culture sector have been affected by the Budget and will be further affected by decisions that politicians of all shades of grey make in the coming months. The whole arts and culture sector has had an uneven treatment from government in the past. It’s as though everyone recognises that it’s important to Australia and Australians but no-one is quite sure what to do about it. Whether it’s about telling Australia’s story, making cities more liveable, starting children on a lifetime of capability or opening doors for the young from remote Aboriginal communities, arts and culture keeps coming up in the conversation.

'arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda'

Cumulative corrosive effect of arts cuts
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 arts support. At the time of the transfer (and then partial return) of large amounts of funding from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts, the public budgets of the Ministry for the Arts over the last few years revealed that the transfer masked serious reductions in overall Ministry program funds over several years. Comparisons are difficult because of the continual change of departments but the historical trend is clear. There are odd blips but the overall trend is clearly down.

Worst of all about this decline is that it’s not as if these programs have ever been massive ones by any measure, so these cuts have been made to what are extremely modest and lean programs to start with. The long-term structural weakness in the national budget has not resulted from over-spending by any of these programs. If and when that structural weakness is corrected, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see these programs being increased again to their former level.

Cuts based on static view of economy and population
Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. The cuts – both recent and older – are based on a static view of the economy and population. But Australia’s economy and population are both growing. While there have been concerns about the economy slowing, it still grew by 2.5% in the 12 months to the end of the September 2015 quarter and population grew by 1.4% in the year to the end of June 2015.

Economics writer, Matt Wade, in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Budget 2016: The emptiest words in politics are “record spending”’ has challenged the distortions of talking about spending without referencing population growth. It’s lazy economics, lazy politics and just plain distortion. He writes, ‘The combination of inflation and population growth means public spending will always be hitting records. If it doesn't, essential services are likely to deteriorate and congestion worsen.’ He goes on to point out that ‘In February Australia’s population topped the 24 million mark having added the latest million people in record time – two years and nine months. Australia is likely to add another million people within the next three years.’ The implications of this are profound – for all public services, not just arts and culture, and for the Governments that deliver them and the politicians who talk about them.

'Creative industries … are a central part of projecting Australia’s culturally diverse and democratic story to ourselves and to the world'

Expansion not reduction needed
There needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding (and support for other essential services) to cope with the growth. Coupled with the decreasing ability of arts and culture organisations to service a growing population they already had difficulty servicing before, we are facing the prospect of an increasing inability to deliver what we have come to expect from them.

In this extremely disappointing climate for arts and culture I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit this sorely mistreated but essential part of our daily life, our national character and our democratic aspirations. Here are my suggestions:

An arts agenda for the future – central to everyday life and on the main national agenda
  • We want to see arts and culture recognised for the essential central role it plays in Australia’s social and economic life, with it included on the main national agenda, recognising its integral relationship with major economic and social factors such as economic development, education, innovation, community resilience, social and community identity, and health and wellbeing. Research, including extensive case studies, make this broader benefit clear. As far back as 2004, ‘Art and wellbeing’ an Australia Council publication by Deborah Mills and Paul Brown, examined this in detail. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community which involvement in arts and culture provides. It’s no exaggeration to say that in many cases it changes lives. The experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government was that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. This is true of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.
  • The focus on the economic role of arts and culture is similar to the focus on its community role – both spring from recognition that arts and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.
  • These changes to the economic life of the nation due to the growth of the knowledge economy are also beginning to transform the political landscape of Australia, throwing it to established political parties to rise to the challenge.

Knowledge economy, creative industries, arts and culture
  • Increasingly 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. They are mainly service industries that make up the knowledge economy, based on intellectual enquiry and research and exhibiting both innovative services or products and also new and innovative ways of doing business.
  • At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.
  • The creative industries are underpinned by the arts and culture sector and the artists and arts and cultural organisations, mainly small, that make it up and create the content which feeds into and inspires other sectors.
  • A central component of the creative industries, which intersects with the other parts of these industries, and a large proportion of the artists who feed into it, is the music sector.

Australian culture – what it means to be Australian
  • 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 and are a central part of projecting Australia’s culturally diverse and democratic story to ourselves and to the world. ­– they help channel those who write the stories, make the video clips, paint the pictures and dance the dances that tell our story.
  • In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors of the knowledge economy do not. As part of Australia's culture sector they share the critical function of managing the meaning of Australia and what being Australian means, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy.

But wait, there’s more – addressing social challenges
  • Arts, culture and creative industries also show promise in helping address central social challenges Australia faces, such as responding effectively and productively to cultural diversity and tackling Indigenous disadvantage in a practical and positive way. These industries depend on innovation and innovation occurs where cultures intersect and differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged and assessed.

That’s not a bad start – let’s see where that might take us and how many of those seeking our votes in this #AusVotesArts election mention any of it.

This is an article that I was asked to write for the fortnightly newsletter of Music Australia. Music Australia is the only body in Australia devoted to music in its entirety. Established in 1994 to provide a unified voice in Australia for all forms of music, over the last twenty years it has brought people together from across the music sector to work with a common purpose to advance musical life in Australia. In breaking news Music Australia was one of the smalls arts organisations waiting to see if it has been successful in its request for four year funding from the Australia Council. Along with so many other small arts organisations, it seems that it has been unsuccessful.

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.

Why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy? 
‘Can Australia successfully navigate the treacherous and confusing times in which we live? Understanding the crucial importance of our cultural diversity to our cultural, social and economic future will be essential. Applying that in the policies and practices that shape our future at all levels across Australia can ensure we have a bright, productive and interesting 21st Century. An important part of this are the political parties, major and minor, that are increasingly negotiating the compromises that shape our world. The recent launch by the Labor Party of a new group, Labor for the Arts, could be an important development. Combining as it does a focus from an earlier time on both arts and multiculturalism, it could potentially open the way for some innovative and forward-thinking policy’, Understanding why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy?

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?

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.

‘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.

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.

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