Tuesday, June 7, 2016

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. This article is the first in a series of two about the arts policies of parties in this #AusVotesArts election. This article outlines what they are offering – or not. The second article, ‘Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?’ considers what we need in a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into.

The election we didn’t realise we had to have until it was too late just became a lot more interesting. It didn’t take much because even though there are real issues at stake in this election, they keep being hidden away and drowned in hyperbole and bluster. 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. The others will help to frame the debate and offer ideas for the future.

Election arts policy - something for (almost) everyone.

I’m not going to criticise anyone for taking time to produce their policy. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Better to take time and get it right. Of course, it helps if the policy is produced before the election. Otherwise we might get more of the sort of surprises George Brandis seemed so adept at. I’ve tried to capture any party which has an arts and culture policy – and any major parties which don’t. I even looked without success at the Australian Sex Party policies in search of one, since they have some quite ground-breaking policies on other major (and minor) social issues that take a refreshingly lateral and creative approach. They’ve managed to persuade Professor Ross Fitzgerald to stand as their lead NSW Senate candidate, so they must have serious substance.

Solid, reliable policies
Beyond those players missing in action we have a range of solid, reliable arts policies that will improve the situation from the recent mix of incompetence and amateurism. They all tick most of the essential boxes – arts is good for us all – tick, support the Australia Council – tick, value our creative industries – tick, Indigenous arts is important – tick. Telling Australian stories is great – tick. That’s pretty much the extent of the strategic overview.

‘They all tick most of the essential boxes – arts is good for us all – tick, support the Australia Council – tick, value our creative industries – tick, Indigenous arts is important – tick. Telling Australian stories is great – tick.’

The Labor Party at the launch of its Arts Policy last week reiterated its position that the arts belong to and bring pleasure to all Australians and are part of our national identity and egalitarian tradition. It talked about restoring the essential role of the arts and creative industries to their rightful place at the centre of Australia’s cultural and economic life. Their position sat neatly across culture and economics, noting that the arts chronicle Australian stories while creating jobs across our cities and regions. As a result, they are not just important for Australians as an avenue for creativity but for the thousands of jobs that depend on them. That’s pretty much the full outline of their strategic vision but it’s an election after all where short answers are at least better than the usual three word slogans we are used to.

Initiatives – the Labor Party picks its winners
Then there are a series of specific initiatives. To a degree they are what you expect from an election budget – a little bit for (almost) everybody. Film – tick, music – tick literature – tick, regional – tick. Still some of these are extremely important. Labor’s promise to almost double the Regional Arts Fund by adding $8 million over four years, increasing employment and professional development opportunities for regional and remote artists, is a great step. They note that the program has a particular focus on artistic skills development among disadvantaged communities, including young people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and isolated townships.

‘This is an initiative that is ripe for bipartisan (or even tripartisan) support, as the Liberal and National Parties both would have little difficulty in supporting it.’

Here is a program that has been proven to produce solid results over many years. In fact this is an initiative that is ripe for bipartisan (or even tripartisan) support, as the Liberal and National Parties both would have little difficulty in supporting it. The only jarring note is that in one of its publications about the new arts policy, expanding the Regional Arts Fund is listed as ‘growing regional creative industries’. While arts support would definitely have an indirect impact that would support regional creative industries, I’m not certain that it would be much beyond that. If they wanted to grow regional creative industries, a very different program would be needed to target industry development. This is an unfortunate example of the lack of clarity about important distinctions within the arts and culture sector which can have an impact on the effectiveness of policies. Luckily in the fuller policy on their 100 positive policies page, the description of the Regional Arts Fund is much clearer. However, the indiscriminate use of ‘creative industries’ elsewhere, a trait they share with most other parties, can be confusing.

Something for (almost) everyone
Reversing the changes to the Australia Council, closing the new Catalyst program and providing extra funding of $20 million a year answers an identified shortfall in support, which has been highlighted by recent Australia Council funding rounds. It also reaffirms the traditional Labor emphasis on the Australia Council. At the same time it maintains a role for the Ministry for the Arts, as the Ministry has historically managed the Regional Arts Fund, devolving its application to state and territory regional arts bodies.

Turning to film, the Labor Party will also invest in local production through $60 million for the ABC to produce local drama so that Australian audiences can grow up watching Australian stories on Australian screens. Their aim is to fosters local creative skills development for Australian writers, producers and actors and help to invigorate the local industry, while also providing a boost to local economies where filming takes place.

Government support for Australian music has had a patchy history but the Labor Party has previously seen it as important enough to find some money to support it. This time around it will invest $5.4 million to strengthen Australia’s contemporary live music industry by bringing the Live Music Office and the Australian Music Centre under the umbrella of an expanded Sounds Australia to support the development of Australia’s live music export industry. I don’t know how well the Live Music Office and the Australian Music Centre will sit under the same umbrella but presumably someone who knew what they were doing suggested it. At the same time it will expand the benefits of musical education by supporting more schools to introduce children to music by providing $2 million a year to expand existing school music programs.

Last but not least, Labor notes that the Australian book publishing industry is competitive and highly innovative, with a value that goes beyond economic benefits, fostering emerging Australian authors and enriching our culture by telling Australian stories to ourselves and to the world. As a result Labor promises to tread carefully in considering proposals to adjust the current territorial copyright regime to avoid a serious impact on our publishing industry, authors and Australia’s cultural life. Given the current government has ruled out at least part of the the proposed changes, that would be doubly wise.

Messing with the seating arrangements – the Australian Greens
I’ve mentioned before that both major parties are wary of the Greens eating into their urban vote – and who knows, potentially even their rural vote if country voters get tired enough of being ignored. All along the Greens have played an active role in supporting Australian arts and culture and, like the other smaller independent parties, they throw some wild cards into the mix.

While the Greens won’t be forming government any time soon, they could become crucial in a close election result. At that point, faced with the prospect of three years in opposition, all the promises in the world about not forming a minority government with their support will be forgotten. Similarly, other independents have already played a valuable and positive role in support of an arts and culture agenda.

Like the Labor Party, the Greens are promising to disband the new Catalyst program and increase support for the Australia Council to re-establish programs that were cut. Particularly important is their proposal to increase support for both small to medium arts organisations and individual artists. This involves doubling available support for small to medium arts organisations from 2013-14 levels and providing funding of $20 million over four years to pay artists when their works are publicly displayed. Crucially, they alone seem to be proposing to reverse the ‘efficiency dividend’ previously imposed on our national cultural institutions by both parties.

‘While the Greens won’t be forming government any time soon, they could become crucial in a close election result.’

They also have two other important initiatives. One is straightforward – funding Tourism Australia to promote Australian art around the world and encourage visitors to engage with the arts in Australia. The other is creating an Arts Research and Development grants program to encourage innovative arts projects, with an initial funding allocation of $5 million over four years. Exactly how this might work is hard to tell but the idea of funding arts projects in the same way that startup companies are funded for innovative projects is well worth exploring further.

They also have a mix of various worthwhile smaller initiatives – providing an additional $3 million to the ArtStart program over the next four years, increasing funding by $2 million per year for regional touring through the Playing Australia program until the program reaches $10 million, and then indexing it, and establishing a National Arts Week (originally a proposal of the Arts Party, which they have adopted) and an artist in residence program at Australian Parliament House, presumably so politicians actually get to meet real artists and see their work in practice. Strangely, given I thought there already was one, they also propose an advocacy body for Australian authors.

The Arts Party
Then there’s always the Arts Party. I'm still undecided about the Arts Party because I think the strength of arts (and culture) is the breadth of its reach and the challenge is to build alliances, not stand apart as something special. However, in what promises to be a messy clutter of minor parties with overlapping agendas and special interest causes, it might have a positive and valuable role to play in raising the profile of arts and culture and highlighting issues. For example, it has the most developed policy on creative industries of any party and is the only party that I can see that has responded to the call to refocus the campaign to boost STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). It has also already had one of its proposals – for a national Arts Week – picked up (and acknowledged) by the Greens. I doubt there is any one solution to the fundamental issue that arts and culture is not actually really widely valued in Australia and is still seen as mere entertainment so it will be interesting to see what comes from its presence.

No policy, no vote – Liberal Party and National Party Arts Policies
I’m leaving this heading here just to remind me that there are still contenders in this election who don’t have arts and culture policies. Whether the fact the Greens and the Labor Party have now both announced theirs will produce anything, only time will tell.

‘Given this election has gone from being a certainty for the Coalition to a much more uncertain result and given that there are many small independents vying for all the support they can get, perhaps an interest by every one of them in voters who value our arts and culture might be overdue.’

If the Liberal Party or the National Party or anyone else can’t be bothered putting out an arts policy of whatever shape or content, then why would anyone who values Australia’s arts and culture vote for them? Essentially they are saying, it’s not that important, trust us, it will look after itself. Who knows what they’re saying because they’re not telling us.

Perhaps the national arts election debate in Melbourne this week will provide the opportunity to rise to the occasion, perhaps not. I always like to maintain a position if optimism until forced back to realism. Given this election has gone from being a certainty for the Coalition to a much more uncertain result and given that there are many small independents vying for all the support they can get, perhaps an interest by every one of them in voters who value our arts and culture might be overdue.

Postscript: I just saw that the Nick Xenophon Team also has an arts policy. Given the Coalition are under serious threat in South Australia from them, you'd think that it wouldn't be too hard to add an arts policy to its submarine policy for a few more votes - even if it's just for South Australia.

See the second article on the election, about why we need a big picture policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into and provides a roadmap for government

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?

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.

Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy
‘With the ongoing malaise due to the absence of national arts and cultural policy in Australia, it's worth reminding ourselves what beneficial impact good policy can have. To understand the power of policy to make an impact in the world, it’s worthwhile contrasting two recent major Australian Government cultural policies – the National Cultural Policy and the National Indigenous Languages Policy. This helps illuminate how cultural policy can promote the long view, innovation, breadth and leadership. Both policies showed that more important than funding or specific initiatives was the overall strategic vision and the way in which it attempted to place culture not just on the main agenda, but somewhere near the centre of the main agenda’, Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy.

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?

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.

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