Monday, October 31, 2016

If the arts are important but not enough people know it, are they really important?

As the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture emerge in the post-Brandis era, we are starting to see how organisations are adapting and the issues they are facing in doing so. To a lesser degree we are also seeing how artists themselves are responding. It seems clear that the absence of any overall strategic approach to arts and culture – whether from the Government or from the arts and culture sector – is having a deadening effect.

This is the first in a series of two articles. This one looks at some of the critical issues raised by the current malaise in the arts and culture sector in Australia. The second article, ‘Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture’, will discuss some of the ways available to address it.

We are starting to see what the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture will begin to look like post-Brandis and his merry band of bright ideas. Now he’s no longer Arts Minister he can turn his full attention to the legal system – but at least the arts might be spared more havoc.

'Advocating the arts' forum panel at Canberra School of Art.

The week before last I went to a forum at the Canberra School of Arts about advocating for the arts. It covered a wide range of topics but I thought there were several things that emerged that are worth noting. I had planned to publish this article earlier but I’ve been distracted by all the events that have been on or are about to happen as part of Design Canberra 2016. I’ve been covering some of those but the implications from the presentation at the School of Arts are long term and worth considering more closely.

Two of the speakers were from organisations – the National Association for the Visual Arts and the Canberra Contemporary Arts Space – that controversially had not had their funding renewed in the recent Australia Council multi-year organisational funding round. In a way that was a pity because it would have been illuminating to hear from both organisations which were successful and those not.

'We are starting to see what the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture will begin to look like post-Brandis and his merry band of bright ideas.'

I also wish that organisations would not keep referring to being ‘defunded’, as though the funding somehow belonged to the organisation forever. If arts organisations are funded in a competitive funding round and they have to apply to be funded again for future years, but are unsuccessful, they have not been ‘defunded’. This applies no matter how good they may be and how deserving of support.

How arts funding is allocated
Perhaps competitive funding rounds are not the best way to decide which organisations should be supported – or perhaps they are – but that’s a different issue. There was some discussion of this at the forum, with the point being made that a weakness of competitive funding rounds is that they are reactive. Instead, it was argued, there also needs to be room for proactive funding, where funding is one aspect of a bigger story, and strategic considerations may override or augment competitive assessments to a greater degree than they currently do. There’s no questions that this already happens to some degree, the question is to what degree should it, and does it, happen?

Having managed funding programs myself, this is an important question for any program. In the Indigenous culture programs, during the years I was involved, the bulk of funding was allocated through competitive rounds. However a small pool of strategic funds was used for promising areas that might not otherwise have been able to be funded, providing small amounts of funding in a highly targeted way.

Responding to loss – freedom to struggle
It was interesting to hear the strategies the organisations present were using to respond to the loss of funding, as it is a situation all arts organisations could reasonably expect to face at any time. The strategy to respond to the loss of funding seemed to mainly focus on trying to expand their membership base, relying on the inflow of funds from this. However, as was pointed out, it requires a large number of new members to match the funding that used to be received.

On the one hand, it was noted that there is a degree of freedom in not being beholden to a funding body. However, the impact is deep. Even if organisations are somehow able to survive, it may become difficult to continue to do important things, like pay artists for their work. On top of this organisations can end up spending much of their time raising money, rather than on the core business for which they exist.

‘It was interesting to hear the strategies the organisations present were using to respond to the loss of funding, as it is a situation all arts organisations could reasonably expect to face at any time.’

The impact flows more broadly from the organisations which are not funded. Funding provides a springboard for organisations to attract much wider support and its effects are amplified through a large contribution of volunteer effort. This often comes from artists who already underpin Australia’s arts and culture through major donations of their time and effort, as members of boards and through donations of their artistic work. For governments the scale of funding ‘savings’ that can be found in the arts area are small, whereas for artists, the significance of these small amounts of money is huge.

Mere entertainment or lifestyle
The cuts to funding are not occurring in a vacuum and they are reflected in a broader loss of understanding of respect for the importance of the invaluable role arts and culture plays in our society and economy. The recent changes to arts training courses eligible for Government subsidies is a drastic example. The underlying default view in our society that culture is mere ‘entertainment’ or ‘lifestyle’ and involvement in arts and culture is a lifestyle choice is breaking through the thin veneer of illusion that we have always been and continue to be a forward-looking and innovative society.

It’s a view that we have already seen, with living in remote Aboriginal communities also characterised as a lifestyle choice. The view of arts and culture that is gaining prominence is a symptom of a much wider malaise in our society. It’s not dissimilar to a view that science is a matter of opinion.

This is why focusing too minutely only on funding – or even more seriously, only on Australia Council funding – is a risk. The Government has a role in arts and culture far wider than funding and these broader social and economic currents affect this in many subtle and not so subtle ways.

Funding – not the beginning nor the end
The Government’s involvement includes a direct role in the arts and culture sector through its own agencies, such as the national cultural institutions, its place in education and training subsidies and through its own arts training bodies, accreditation frameworks and curriculum, through tax incentives or deductions, schemes like the lending right programs that compensate authors for the use of their publications in public libraries, frameworks for intellectual property rights and payments, local content regulations, and the setting of standards and protocols that govern such things as Internet content.

‘This is why focusing too minutely only on funding – or even more seriously, only on Australia Council funding – is a risk.’

This doesn’t even include the myriad of other ways in which Government agencies which are not mainly concerned with arts and culture, intersect with the arts and culture sphere.

In a recent article about the Australia Council, I suggested that it could apply its strong research capacity to see how organisations that weren’t successful in the multi-year funding round are faring. I noted that the 62 organisations which are currently funded under the previous Australia Council scheme have funding until the end of 2016.

The question will be whether in the meantime they can access enough Australia Council project funding plus cobble together sufficient wider support to keep operating in some way or other. Some will inevitably close. Some won’t and it would be valuable to know who manages to keep operating and who doesn’t and, most importantly, why and how.

This could give us all useful insights in how to plan more effectively for the arts landscape of the future, with which we all have to deal, sooner or later. I would have liked to have heard more from this forum but too many other topics intruded.

Organisations and artists
Much of the discussion to date has centred around organisations, their funding, their role and their response. There has been much less discussion of where individual artists fit in this. This forum was useful in starting to discuss some of these issues.

One suggestion was that artists could play an important and proactive role in explaining what their work involved and making arts practice a concrete reality for those, including politicians, who might have no practical sense of what it meant. Someone even suggested that artists ‘adopt a politician’, inviting them to their studios to see their work.

‘Much of the discussion to date has centred around organisations, their funding, their role and their response. There has been much less discussion of where individual artists fit in this.’

I had to ask: if it was clear that a much broader part of Australian society than the arts was also facing the same cuts, what opportunities were arts organisations identifying to build alliances with other community organisations? During the development of the National Cultural Policy a very broad range of arts and cultural organisations made an unprecedented effort to provide comments. They were not alone – strategically important organisations such as the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, also made submissions. Where do they fit in this brave new world of arts cuts and indifference?

There was some useful discussion about this at the forum, touching on the experience with the Cultural Industries Federation in the UK and sketching out possible areas of affinity – such as science or urban development. The point was made that there is much happening along these lines in rural and regional areas. This is a much bigger discussion to be had over the next few years as these alliances are built in practice.

Dividing up the crumbs while the cake steadily shrinks
One of my concerns is that there is a risk that focusing on how the existing funding is divided up –important as that may be – could detract from addressing the steady and relentless decline in national government support for Australian arts and culture across the board.

‘Since all the statistics show that most Australians are engaged in one way or another with arts and culture – even more than with sport – why can’t that be translated into effective political impact?’

This includes funding for small organisations, artists and our large cultural institutions. It also includes some of the other ways the government supports the arts that I have outlined, often far more important than direct funding, such as loans to students undertaking arts training, currently seriously under threat.

I can’t help thinking that since all the statistics show that most Australians are engaged in one way or another with arts and culture – even more than with sport – why can’t that be translated into effective political impact? Why doesn’t it lead to a more widespread understanding of the importance of policy and programs that support arts and culture? Most importantly, what is needed for this to happen?

What is needed is a major, broad effort to win hearts and minds, utilising the many hearts and minds that have already been won. Perhaps what we need is to take the cue from the health sector – that no-one disputes provides an essential service – and have more arts emergency departments, where you turn in moments of crisis, when you need a heart or mind transplant or a small dose of inspiration.

See also

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.

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture
‘Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map’, Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture.

Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding
‘Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. It’s not so much directly due to the transfer of funds from the Australia Council but more a matter of new applicants applying in a competitive funding round, with an expanding sector, yet limited funds and a shrinking arts budget. Planning how to operate in the arts landscape of the future is something everyone needs to do. Having a Plan B and Plan C will be critical’, Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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’ 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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