Monday, November 7, 2016

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.

This is the second in a series of two articles. The first one, ‘If the arts are important but not enough people know it, are they really important?’ looks at some of the critical issues raised by the current malaise in the arts and culture sector in Australia. This second article discusses some of the ways available to address it.

Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared vision about what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture.

Without a cultural policy to map out the destination, it's difficult to find the road forward, especially in unexpected circumstances.

Many of our current problems with Australia’s arts and culture come down to a lack of policy. If the Government doesn't have a policy that spells out what it thinks is important about arts and culture – and why – and what it intends to do about it and what that will lead to, then the present ad hoc and inconsistent situation will continue.

This needs to lay out how all the parts of the arts and culture sector are related and how they should mutually reinfoce each other. This includes the Government’s own national cultural institutions, the large major and small arts and cultural organisations and individual artists. It also needs to locate this within the broader society and economy, explaining the role of arts and culture in the bigger picture.

'We need to be able to assess how well they work and how they could be improved and to be flexible about potential changes.'

It also has to be forward-looking, with a long term strategic view and the ability to look critically at what exists now and what could exist in the future, in what are likely to be very different circumstances to those we face now.

It is crucial that everyone involved – the arts and culture sector, government, community organisations, educational bodies and the public – is able to look strategically at how arts and culture is supported in Australia and at the various national and state and territory bodies involved. We need to be able to assess how well they work and how they could be improved and to be flexible about potential changes.

Unnecessary distraction
Ironically the inevitable furore over the half-baked changes to the national arts funding arrangements over the last year or so have meant that this is less able to occur. Far from raising fundamental issues about the respective roles of the Australia Council and what used to be briefly called the Ministry for the Arts in the Brandis era, the changes have been an unnecessary distraction.

At the forum a comment was made that the Minister for the Arts wanted the arts and culture sector to respond to this vacuum by providing him with a suggested policy. The problem is that governments only act on policies if they own them. While the arts and culture sector has a crucial role in suggesting what is needed in a national policy, if a government is not up to the hard work of developing its own policy, it is unlikely to ever implement one.

'Far from raising fundamental issues about the respective roles of the Australia Council and what used to be briefly called the Ministry for the Arts in the Brandis era, the changes have been an unnecessary distraction.'

Unfortunately I doubt we are likely to see an arts policy from this government, let alone an arts and culture policy – it’s not in their DNA. At best, it might be possible to get a general statement of the significance of the arts and an outline of some of the elements that comprise the Government’s approach to them, along the lines of Brandis’ statement in Western Sydney before the 2013 election. This would be something worthwhile, even though it falls short of what is ideally needed.

This is at a time when the Western Australian Liberal Government has just released the long awaited Strategic Directions Framework 2016-2031 for arts and culture in Western Australia. Leading State arts body, the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA, has noted that this represents the first time that a long-term plan for the arts and culture sector has been developed for Western Australia.

Arts Front
At the School of Art forum there was much discussion about where to take all this. It was clear that amongst the relentless focus on jobs and growth, arts and culture was an issue in the last election. Given that, amongst many other fundamental things, arts and culture is also about jobs and growth, this is highly appropriate. The question is where to take it.

One issue that was mentioned was the planned gathering of those interested in the future of Australia’s arts and culture, in Melbourne in November. It was mentioned that the cut off date for expressions of interest in attending had passed but it seemed that the forum wasn’t aware that the organisers had asked those interested to register to mark their broader and longer-term interest.

 'It will be a chance to think and act beyond the limitations of our current systems: what could culture and the arts in Australia look like in 2030 and how do we go about making that vision a reality?'

Under the new banner of ‘Arts Front’, the #freethearts campaign is looking to the future with plans to foster strategic discussions about where Australia’s arts and culture is heading. First up is a three day event, Arts Front 2030, at Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne from 23-25 November. The national, three-day gathering of artists, thinkers and change agents from across the country will help shape the future of culture and arts in Australia. 200 participants and invited guests will come together to work on:

·         Developing a shared vision for culture and arts in 2030
·         Building a national network of collaborators
·         Planning joint campaigns and projects

As the information about the Melbourne event notes ‘Building on the mobilisation of the sector in 2015 it will be a chance to think and act beyond the limitations of our current systems: what could culture and the arts in Australia look like in 2030 and how do we go about making that vision a reality?’

Even though the closing date for expressions of interest to attend has passed, organisers are still encouraging people to register on the Artsfront website.

Just the beginning on a long road
It is intended that Arts Front 2030 will be just the beginning. The involvement will be both face to face and online. Registering will keep those interested connected you with all the opportunities to participate and contribute. Key sessions from the event will be live streamed and resources will be shared through the website and social media. 

The aim is to connect with the next generation of artists and thinkers who will grab the opportunity and create a better future for the culture and arts sector – and for Australia.

Arts Front is not the be all and end all of what can be done in support of arts and culture. The deep creativity of the arts and culture sector needs to be applied to develop a wide range of diverse activity in locations across Australia, activities suitable to each local area. However, it all needs to come together in some way for maximum impact and to ensure that those involved can still keep doing what they do best – creating an Australia culture that interacts productively with the rest of the world while telling Australian stories to ourselves and those in other countries. Arts Front has the potential to be an important unifying element in that effort.

Organisers have asked all those interested to spread the word and help share the information in their networks. The aim is to connect with the next generation of artists and thinkers who will grab the opportunity and create a better future for the culture and arts sector – and for Australia.

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?

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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