Monday, August 29, 2016

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity

Cultural diversity is critical to the richness and energy of Australia's arts and culture life and has a crucial role to play in innovation, that favourite word of the era. Where cultures intersect and different world views and perspectives meet, innovation is far more likely to occur. Unfortunately the importance of cultural diversity to our cultural life is not always reflected in what government chooses to support in the arts sector and how enduring that support is. As Parliament resumes after the election, talk will turn to the need for savings and the importance of innovation for Australia's economy. This is when clarity about the role of Australian culture is essential.

Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It creates an exciting country which is enjoyable to live in. It also ensures innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged.

This innovation, and the creativity that underpins it, 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 Aboriginal Memorial, 1987-88 Ramingining, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, natural earth pigments on wood. An installation in the entrance National Gallery of Australia of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal memorial was created in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, which marked 200 years of European settlement. This is the single most important work in the Gallery and a powerful expression of the centrality of Aboriginal culture to Australian culture.

Culture and creative industries are pivotal to jobs and to income. For Indigenous communities in particular one of the most important economic resources they possess is their culture. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam in the long term – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal.  

'It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam in the long term – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value'

But how does government help cultural diversity grow – or not – through its support for culture? 

Instead of seeing the investment value of arts and culture, from its very first budget in 2014-15, the current Government has introduced a series of measures that will have a severe impact long into the future.

In the 2014-15 budget there were a suite of cuts, far wider than culture but of great importance for it, which combined and continued over several years will have a compounding effect far more damaging than first appears. These included cuts to government departments and agencies, practiced by previous governments as well, such as ‘efficiency dividends’ and a pause to indexation of program funding, which freezes funding so it no longer increases to reflect inflation.

'Instead of seeing the investment value of arts and culture, the current Government has introduced a series of measures that will have a severe impact long into the future'

One budget line ‘Arts programmes – reduced funding’ predicted stripping out $4.4 million in 2014-15, rising to $5 million, then $9.8 million in subsequent years and then for 2017-18 was listed as a massive $14.6 million. This budget line includes the relatively small number of programs managed directly by the Ministry for the Arts, rather than its agencies.

This was further reduced at the time of the Government’s second budget in 2015-16, when it removed $13 million over four years from arts and culture programs run by Screen Australia, the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts. This included $2.2 million from the arts programs of the Ministry. Amongst these arts programs are the Indigenous cultural programs.

The Indigenous cultural programs, supporting languages, culture and arts play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture. A network of community-based Indigenous arts centres and an array of cultural activity across Australia have been fostered by these programs. They have often provided the only positive balance to a focus on deficit models of Indigenous capability supported by both major parties.

'The Indigenous cultural programs, supporting languages, culture and arts play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture'

It is difficult to assess how current funding of these programs compares to previous levels, because, often quite sensibly, they have been rolled together. 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.

Cuts have affected both departmental funds, for staff who work on programs, and program grant funding itself. At the latest Senate Estimates, the Ministry for the Arts noted that staff levels had fallen to 109 from 180 in 2010, reflecting substantial cuts in departmental funds. Many of these have come from the regional Indigenous network.

Since then, even though the search for savings seems to have slowed, the impact of these cuts will continue, compounding over time. The risk is that these measures cut programs without stopping them outright. Instead they peter out slowly over a number of years, by which time it will be too late.

Where can Indigenous cultural organisation turn? There is the bucket of Indigenous funding through the Prime Minister’s Department, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, but this funds all things Indigenous and culture would be a minnow in a giant pond.

'Since then, even though the search for savings seems to have slowed, the impact of these cuts will continue, compounding over time'

There is funding from states and territories, unreliable where it exists and usually only a sideline.

The most worrying option is the Australia Council. Funding for organisations like Indigenous arts centres has come from the Ministry. With the Australia Council severely affected by funding reductions itself, another large group seeking funding would overload it.

This will hit Indigenous organisations hard because they rely on small amounts of funding from year to year merely to continue their base operation and many have been supported this way for decades, with no increases for inflation or growth in demand. They have used government funding to attract much broader support, driving the government dollar further. 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.

In November 2015 I was commissioned by NAVA, the National Association for the Visual Arts, to contribute to its monthly bulletin, on the theme of diversity. The article is about the crucial importance of cultural diversity to our arts and cultural life and its integral relationship with innovation. It is a topic which has become even more urgent and topical since then.

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?

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

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.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

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.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

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