Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?

In this #AusVotesArts 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. This article is the second in a series of two about the arts policies of parties in this election. The first article, ‘Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy’, outlined what the various parties are offering – or not. This article considers what we need in a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into.

The range of offerings from the political parties in this election that actually have arts policies are good and solid and valuable. If they were implemented they would lead to a definite and measurable improvement for Australian arts and culture. They are probably as good as we are going to get – and probably as good as we deserve unless we can somehow produce a deep change in popular views of the role and significance of arts and culture.

Looking from new Parliament House back to old Parliament House. Are our potential contenders for government looking forwards - or back?

Comprehensive strategies and specific initiatives
I think one of the great weaknesses of governments of all kinds is that they tend to have a particular kind of approach to policy. There might be a brief strategic overview, explaining why the policy area is important, but essentially what everyone expects is ‘initiatives’ and, of course, funding to undertake the initiatives. Policy then becomes a quick introduction followed by a list of initiatives. In the worst case it’s just a mish-mash of initiatives.

Unfortunately that approach is shared by voters. It’s what everybody involved – government and voters – expect from government. In the arts it’s exactly the same. Identifying the suite of initiatives – and the source of funds to pay for them – is what helped delay the announcement of the National Cultural Policy and meant it’s initiatives had minimal impact and were easily rolled back.

This makes it hard for government or an opposition trying to put forward new policy that will appeal to a broad range of supporters. It’s easy to get lost in the nitty gritty, in the funding for one group or another. In general governments tend to promise new sporting stadiums or highways to every marginal seat. In the arts it tends to be a bit for film, a bit for music and a bit for artists via the Australia Council.

‘Asked if they would prefer to have an Indigenous focus within each strand of the national strategy being developed or a separate Indigenous strand, the Indigenous languages groups present replied “both”’

Once we start focusing on a list of initiatives it’s easy to identify gaps. For example the Labor Policy makes a point of how crucial Indigenous culture is, yet has no specific initiatives to support it. It’s clear that all the initiatives offered will have benefits for Indigenous culture. Yet I am reminded of the discussions organised by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority about the new national curriculum. Asked if they would prefer to have an Indigenous focus within each strand of the national strategy being developed or a separate Indigenous strand, the Indigenous languages groups present replied ‘both’. For an area of our culture that has been neglected for hundreds of years, a multi-pronged approach makes sense. It offers more likelihood of getting some momentum quickly.

All this policy is good but it’s also all a bit ho hum. I like it but I can’t get excited about it. What’s missing is a comprehensive policy that outlines how arts and culture is part of everyday life and relates to all aspects of our society and economy. Arts and culture has a lot to contribute to issues of health and well-being, for example. It can shape the way we live our daily lives in our communities, in cities, regional and remote areas. Arts and culture is a part of our economic life, just as it is part of every other everyday activity we live, eat and breathe. Ideally I’d like to see a comprehensive vision that explains the initiatives rather than a general statement of importance. Such a strategy would become a plan for government, used to link disparate parts of its activity for improved impact.

Planning roadmap for government
However, maybe that’s the role of a National Cultural Policy developed by government once in power, drawing on its election policy. At the moment, if the Labor Party was elected, I can’t see that the Department of Health, for example – or any other department other than the Department of Communications and the Arts – would feel compelled to integrate some focus on arts and culture into its planning. For that to happen, there would have to be some mention – however brief – of arts and culture across a range of policies. It’s a big ask but as good as having an arts policy is, to really reflect the multiple aspects of arts and culture and its impacts, ideally there needs to be cross-referencing across policies. To take just one example, the Indigenous Affairs Policy and the Arts Policy should overlap. In the Indigenous policy, there is an excellent promise to double the number of Indigenous rangers as part of the Working on Country program, This initiative is integrally connected to arts and culture policy yet the connection is barely hinted at or even not mentioned at all in the two policies.

‘Does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is all that important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth?’

Will the Labor Party Arts Policy be translated into a new National Cultural Policy if it is elected? We don’t know. Somehow I doubt it. Maybe, with Creative Nation and Creative Australia, they’ve produced their life-time quota of grand, overaching cultural policies and that well is dry. We’ll see, possibly sooner rather than later. To what degree might it be influenced by the policies of the other parties that have arts policies?

In the end the problem before us is does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is all that important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? The whole process of the National Cultural Policy highlighted this problem, just as, at the same time, it showed how strong the support is by a few individual (and commendable) politicians and by large parts (but not large enough, or maybe not unified enough) of the country as a whole. To change that we have to be prepared for a long haul campaign to change hearts and minds.

We’ve got both kinds – arts and culture
Why does this discussion always seem to be about art rather than culture? Every so often it strays into something else, usually creative industries – which is all too often conflated with any form of arts activity – or perhaps Indigenous cultural maintenance or languages.

There are important issues in the sphere of arts and culture which have not been mentioned at all by most, if not all, of the parties. I mention two areas because I have worked on both and have come to appreciate their importance for Australian culture. In the National Cultural Policy there were elements which did not have a high profile at the time of the launch. Better support for the maintenance and revival of Indigenous languages was included and funding was attached – hence it was noticed. On the other hand, a more considered approach to dealing with traditional knowledge and its cultural complement, traditional cultural expressions, had no associated funding and was overlooked in commentary at the time. Yet both these elements of support for culture have important cultural, social and economic implications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

‘There are important issues in the sphere of arts and culture which have not been mentioned at all – better support for the maintenance and revival of Indigenous languages, a more considered approach to dealing with traditional knowledge and its cultural complement, traditional cultural expressions, a serious approach to those parts of the arts and culture sector that actually are industries.’

The National Cultural Policy reflected the fact that a broad focus on culture, including language, rather than arts is critical to any sort of effectual engagement with Indigenous Australia. Indigenous languages and the broad community-based movement to reclaim and maintain them are central to this. Languages are living systems of knowledge shared by communities and passed down from generation to generation. They carry the shared memory of a community through all aspects of its everyday life in its particular local setting. They are tightly tied up with culture, with country and with the identity of communities and those who make them up. Language is a part of strong culture and healthy and well-functioning communities and the stronger a language is, the more this is the case.

Perhaps I’ve missed it in the tide of policies out there, but I haven’t seen a reference to the relationship between arts policy and the revival and maintenance of Indigenous languages. In fact I haven’t seen much about support for Indigenous languages at all. The Greens mention it in the overall principles and aims of their arts and culture policy (and they call it an ‘arts and culture’ policy) but not anywhere else in the policy (or in other policies, from what I can see). More generally, the whole issue of safeguarding our intangible cultural heritage seems to have slipped from view except for brief mention by the Greens.

Talking about broader impact
Similarly, if we are to be serious about ‘creative industries’, parts of the arts and culture sector that actually are industries, like design, architecture, some of the craft sector, major events and performances, the music and publishing industries, then we need to have a cross-referenced arts and culture policy and industry policy that both encompass this. Perhaps the arts policies of some of these parties are their industry policies, or at least the basis for them – then we’d be talking.

It’s much harder to talk about the whole question of a broader role and impact when we talk only about art, rather than culture. This is also why we see blurred distinctions between art and culture and creative industries. All art and cultural activity has some economic presence and impact, just as it has social impact, but it is not all creative industries. Without discussion about these distinctions we are unable to understand the complexity of this sector and to grasp its productive interrelation with other sectors of society and the economy and the potential this offers for genuine innovation and collaboration. We also reduce our ability to produce policy to reflect this and take it forward.

See the first article about what the various parties are offering

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.

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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