Wednesday, October 19, 2016

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.

Government can do some very important things, but usually doesn’t. Sometimes in despair at the shortcomings of government, I’ve been forced to comment that it’s better if government is ineffective, so it does less damage.

The power of policy to connect - in an increasingly interconnected world it's crucial not to miss the boat.

However, when it works, even if it only moves the world one centimeter, because it is able to move everything that one centimeter, it can change the world. When I worked as Membership Manager for the iconic Powerhouse Museum in Sydney I was able to achieve some very useful things but they were mainly only of value to the Museum and its supporters.

'Government can do some very important things, but usually doesn’t'

In contrast when I worked for twelve years in the arts and culture agency of the Australian Government – under the various names and in the assorted departments through which it travelled – the policies and program I was involved with developing had an impact across a whole country.

There is much to learn about policy from the experience of two major Australian Government cultural policies I was closely involved with - the National Cultural Policy, announced by the Australian Government in 2013, and the National Indigenous Languages Policy, the first such policy in Australia, announced by the same Government in 2009. Consideration of these two very different policies will illuminate the role of cultural policies in promoting vision, innovation, breadth and leadership.

Overall strategic vision
One of the most valuable lessons of the National Cultural Policy was that what was most important was not the funding nor the individual initiatives supported, but 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.

'Most important was not the funding nor the individual initiatives supported, but the overall strategic vision'

One of the difficulties in dealing with support for Indigenous languages within the arts agency of the Australian Government was that in Australia there is still a tendency to see languages through the lens of culture and culture through the lens of art – whereas in fact a better approach would be to look through the lens in reverse. This tendency has been reinforced since the Coalition has been in government.

'There is still a tendency to see languages through the lens of culture and culture through the lens of art'

In contrast an ambitious, over-arching cultural policy, like the National Cultural Policy, can emphasise the critical inks between art, culture, innovation and the broader knowledge economy which is shaping the future of the world.

Knowledge economy of the future
Increasingly the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape are both clever and clean. They are mainly service industries that make up the knowledge economy, based on intellectual enquiry and research and exhibiting both innovative services or products and also new and innovative ways of doing business.

'Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they share the critical function of managing meaning, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy'

At their heart are the developing creative industries which are based on the power of creativity and are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, in most cases centred on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.

Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not. As part of Australia's culture sector they share the critical function of managing meaning, which distinguishes this sector from other parts of the knowledge economy.

Facing central social challenges
They are also closely linked to central social challenges Australia faces, such as responding effectively and productively to cultural diversity and Indigenous disadvantage. These industries depend on innovation and innovation occurs where cultures intersect and differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged and assessed.

'If in developing its cultural policy, government effectively draws upon communities to provide a solid content for it, then the policy reverberates with communities as well'

If in developing its cultural policy, government effectively draws upon communities to provide a solid content for it, then the policy reverberates with communities as well. For example, the National Indigenous Languages Policy was developed in government as a government policy but was intimately tied to the decades of research, planning, strategy and action by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in maintaining and reviving their languages.

The Indigenous Languages Support Program which funded activity within communities across Australia provided a link to the communities and ensured the policy, while still far from ideal, was well-grounded. Once adopted by government, communities were able to use the policy to argue for changes across government, in critical areas like education.

Leadership role
A strategic framework like the National Cultural Policy has most impact by changing the way the role of culture is understood and by revealing the complex relationships between culture and other social and economic dynamics. It can then play a leadership role in affecting how a wide range of government bodies develop policy affecting their areas of focus.

'The alternative when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles...is constant chopping and changing and shifts of position for no apparent reason'

Unfortunately the National Cultural Policy, developed with a great deal of care and consultation, did not survive for long as the demise of its architect, Arts Minister Simon Crean, was followed soon after by that of the Gillard Government that introduced the Policy. However, like proposals for papers or ideas for artworks, no policy is ever really dead. The ideas in the policy and the organisations which contributed so much to it still continue. The development of ideas and of policy is never a straight line.

The alternative when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs is constant chopping and changing and shifts of position for no apparent reason. This is what we have seen in Australia over the last two years.

Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through positions. What happens is that, without an overall framework that provides a rationale and a guide, even genuine attempts to fix a problem or improve a situation don't ever really succeed.

This discussion on the importance of cultural policy is based on what was originally an unsuccessful proposed paper for the 7th World Summit on Arts and Culture from 18-21 October 2016 in Valetta, Malta. The last summit was held in Chile in 2014 and the summit before that was in Melbourne in 2011, at the very time the National Cultural Policy was under development. Like many big conferences, these events can make your eyes glaze over with their use of buzzwords like ‘leadership’, ‘world of change’ and its theme this year, ‘at the crossroads’.

Despite this it is possible to use them to focus on central issues for the arts and culture sector and for Australia generally. The proposed paper looks at the role of government and public policies is relation to the Summit theme of ‘National arts and cultural policies: how do they promote vision, innovation and leadership?’ The location of the Summit in Malta is as fascinating as the topic. Malta sits at the crossroads of cultural diversity. In our time it is right in the path of the streams of refugees fleeing North Africa for Italy. It was part of the world where Arab and European culture intersected and co-existed as the modern Europe we know was being formed.  

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

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.

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.

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