Thursday, March 23, 2017

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 is what 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.

The real danger for the future of arts and culture in Australia is not so much big cuts to funding by government. Though they are always possible, expenditure on arts and culture is so small relative to the rest of government spending, that there aren’t really the savings to make it worth while,

Drawing on the strengths of the communities underpinning Australia's cultural diversity can help provide partnerships and support and build a truly broad and representative contemporary culture.

Much more likely and more dangerous is that the arts will stagnate and decline by being ignored or sidelined, with support steadily eroded. That’s where the ‘efficiency dividend’ is so dangerous.

Four long-running factors add up over time
The decline of Government arts and culture support – and hence a negative impact on Australia’s arts and culture – can be attributed to four long-running factors, what I have called a quadruple whammy. Get to know them well because they will be closing or limiting an existing service or preventing the startup of a new service near you at some stage in the immediate future. The process is already well underway.

Firstly, there’s the fact that Government arts and culture funding is generally not being consistently adjusted for inflation – the so-called indexation of funds is no longer taken for granted and hasn’t been for a while. In effect this is the same as a cut.

‘The decline of Government arts and culture support – and hence a negative impact on Australia’s arts and culture – can be attributed to four long-running factors, what I have called a quadruple whammy.’

Secondly, there’s the cumulative impact of the efficiency dividend on Government arts and culture agencies, like the national cultural institutions – including the National Library, Museum, Film and Sound Archive and Gallery and the Australia Council. Small organisations like these are less able to absorb it than a large Government department. This is particularly damaging because of its cumulative effect, in the same way compound interest works, except in reverse. Each reduction is a reduction on the previous reduction. For more detail about how it works, my article about its impact on the national cultural institutions spells it out, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

‘While arts and culture funding is stagnating – or dropping in real terms – Australia’s population and economy continues to grow steadily, further reducing the ability of organisations involved in arts and culture to respond to the larger demands of a bigger nation.’

Thirdly, there seems to be an emerging tendency for governments to move away from organisational or operational funding support towards one-off project funding. For an outline of the implications of this, see ‘Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?

Fourthly, there’s the fact that while arts and culture funding is stagnating – or dropping in real terms – Australia’s population and economy continues to grow steadily, further reducing the ability of organisations involved in arts and culture to respond to the larger demands of a bigger nation. For a discussion of this, see Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts.

Cumulative and compounding
Over time all four of these factors will stack up and mutually reinforce each other. Combined with a distate for ‘experts’, that is learning and enquiry, and a running down of our research and education capabilities, we are in for a rough decade – or more.

At the time of the last Federal election, distinguished Australian author, Frank Moorhouse was even driven to pen a public letter urging the Government to rethink the damage it is doing to Australia’s arts and culture. He copied it far and wide, even including the Queen, noting ‘you may remember me, you have given me a couple of medals and I met your late sister, Margaret’. I’m sure with Brexit she has problems enough of her own.

‘Combined with a distate for ‘experts’, that is learning and enquiry, and a running down of our research and education capabilities, we are in for a rough decade – or more.’

As a result of many decades of writing, he knows the national cultural institutions well and has a broad historical vision about Australia. In his letter he covered arts and culture but he was really concerned much more broadly with the whole field of ideas and intellectual enquiry in Australia. He referred to the cuts to the CSIRO and the Australian Research Council and the state of publishing and journalism. 

He also placed crucial emphasis on the importance of the NBN, noting the ‘reach, speed and quality of a national broadband network is the foundation stone for any succesful digital economy’, pointing out that ‘Australia currently ranks poorly in this area – 60th in the world for internet speed – and…our relative position has not improved.’ 

He noted that ‘such wide expression of grave alarm for the national culture at a federal election has not happened before in my lifetime and I reckon I have consciously followed about 20 federal elections.’

No strategic Government policy or overview
Within this broad and troubling strategic environment, all four of the factors negatively impacting arts and culture are occurring in a context where there is no strategic Government arts and cultural policy or overview to guide decisions or initiatives, see ‘Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less’.

Worst of all about this decline is that it’s not as if any of these programs or organisations have ever been massive ones by any measure, so these cuts have been made to what are extremely modest and lean programs and organisations to start with. The long-term structural weakness in the national budget has not resulted from over-spending by any of these programs or organisations. If and when that structural weakness is corrected, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see these programs or organisations being increased again to their former level.

Government takeover breeds failure
What we are seeing is the result of the steady long-term colonisation of Government thinking over many decades by neo-liberal ideology. With this approach to the economy and society, any significant role for government is denied and the market is elevated above all else. Citizens and voters become customers of just another business.

Lately we’re seeing a drastic (and nostalgic) reaction to this, both in Australia and overseas, as voters become increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians. As they turn away from the genuine advantages of globalisation and economic liberalisation – because the process has been so badly managed – the accepted ground rules of contemporary politics are changing dramatically to adapt to a new era.

‘Once we accept that Government support for a certain activity is worthwhile, then funding community organisations to deliver it is a very cheap way to do it.’

Yet governments need to be involved in this area. While businesses at the creative industries end of the arts and culture sector may be commercially viable, most nearer the other end are small community organisations or individual practitioners. They provide broad community benefit through arts and culture and generate content which often flows through into uses that are more commercial.

They are unlikely to ever be economically viable without Government support. It’s like funding long-term research and development, which can then be picked up for wider uses. If Government didn’t fund it, no-one else would unless they could see immediate practical benefits and maintain a tight grip on its use, which defeats the purpose of encouraging broad-based innovation and application.

Expansion, not a starvation diet
If anything this support needs to be expanded. The reality is that, with both an expanding population and economy, any high performing arts and culture organisation is going to be expanding its range, scale and reach. The approach of almost all governments for many decades, and one which is increasing, is to keep most organisations, especially smaller ones, on a starvation diet, which barely keeps them limping along.

‘For this to happen, however, a complete and radical rethink of the purpose and practice of government support needs to occur.’

If organisations are expanding their work and impact, government support needs to increase to keep pace. The reality is that as this expansion the occurs, the increase in government support can decrease proportionately to other forms of support. This is because successful, growing organisations are more capable of attracting broader support, whether it is subscriber or box office income, donors, philanthropists or private sector sponsorship, whether cash or in-kind. As a result it represents an increasingly cost-effective form of government investment. For this to happen, however, a complete and radical rethink of the fundamental purpose and practice of government support needs to occur.

As former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Professor Peter Shergold, has argued, once we accept that Government support for a certain activity is worthwhile, then funding community organisations to deliver it is a very cheap way to do it. The sticking point is the major problem that arts and culture faces now – even though there is both broad and deep involvement in arts and culture across the population ­– is there is a political culture inimical to it and at the same time too many people do not accept that arts and culture should be supported.

Success needs to breed success
I want to look at one telling example. A decade ago, when I managed two important Indigenous cultural programs, the Indigenous Culture Support Program and what came to be called the Indigenous Languages Support Program, this issue was a practical and immediate one. I used to liaise closely with Gillian Harrison, who at the time worked for ArtSupport Australia.

As a direct result of Government funding provided through both programs to the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land, she was able to attract far greater levels of philanthropic funding. This was a result of three factors – her expertise and networks, the fact the philanthropic bodies had an interest in supporting high performing Indigenous cultural organisations and the fact that the high performance (and even higher potential) was recognised by the fact that Government was prepared to fund them. Without this final crucial factor, obtaining the philanthropic support would have been much more difficult and quite likely impossible.

‘As a direct result of Government funding provided, she was able to attract far greater levels of philanthropic funding.’

Yet one argument at the time was that with a higher level of applications for funds than funds available, because the organisation was able to attract substantial funding, we should progressively reduce funding for the organisation. It was a plausible argument but I disagreed with it. In my view precisely because the organisations was so successful, we needed not only to maintain its level of funding but increase it.

The retreat from government
As a result of the long-running factors eroding our cultural life, government is increasingly ceasing to be able to deliver much at all, except the odd subsidies for already profitable businesses. In response, community organisations are looking beyond government for solutions.

In practice this means building alliances and partnerships in what often may seem unlikely areas. It means working more effectively with other arts and cultural organisations and moving beyond the silos of artform limitations and interest. Much more importantly it means:
  1. Drawing on the strength of the communities underpinning Australia’s cultural diversity, which can help provide an array of community partnerships and support.
  2. Recognising that the arts and culture sector is only one of many community areas which have been adversely affected by decades of rationalisation and poor policy. Other areas share a common concern about where Government is going. They are also likely to respond to the message directed at the whole community, because it also underlines the direct and indirect value of arts and culture for their specific areas of concern. This can help provide a broader range of allies, often with more experience in political campaigning and battles for heart and minds than the arts and culture sector. In this group I’d emphasise that Local Government can be an important member.
  3. Linking up with the broader knowledge economy and the creative industries at its heart. This will be harder than it looks. The arts and culture sector is a crucial part of the knowledge economy but the degree to which all the different parts of the creative core of the knowledge economy recognise each other is hard to gauge. This component can provide partnerships with increasingly important economic allies.
‘Whether it’s crowd funding, expanding donations, membership schemes, philanthropic or private sector support, charging for organisation services, generating more artist income from copyright payments or fees or raffles or jumble sales, it will stand the sector in good stead.’

At the same time as building alliances and partnerships, there is a need to carefully expand the broad base of support the arts and culture sector already has – demand and welcome recognition and support by government, but not depend on it. Whether it’s crowd funding, expanding donations, membership schemes, philanthropic or private sector support, charging for organisation services, generating more artist income from copyright payments or fees or raffles or jumble sales – or probably all of them – it will stand the sector in good stead in the hard years ahead.

Lessons for others
I’ve said before that the amount of effort involved in finding, applying for, reporting on and fighting to defend government funding, once focused elsewhere can’t but produce worthwhile results. For a start it would be good to hear success stories about how it has been done already – even if only to a small degree. How are those established organisations which were not funded in the last Australia Council organisation funding round coping, and how? What lessons are there for other arts and culture organisations and artists?

‘There are many decades of steady decay of community economic, social and cultural infrastructure to reverse.’

It’s necessary to salvage the community infrastructure already there and stop the erosion of it from a mix of Government neglect and Goverment action. I don’t mean by this mainly physical infrastructure such as buildings, but networks and connections, social practices, different types of organisations and partnerships and alliances. More importantly, more needs to be built. There are many decades of steady decay of community economic, social and cultural infrastructure to reverse.

It can be done. Much of it will happen without any government involvement at all, as artists and community organisations replace, consolidate and expand forms of organisation and interaction and establish the economic foundations that make this viable. In the political realm gains can be made as well, even though while they may be important, they may not always be major ones. The virtual demise of the disastrous Catalyst scheme shows that a failing Government embattled on too many fronts and with a new Minister prepared to respond will retreat and cut its losses. There is little point in making the arts yet another area of little political gain and much loss.

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?

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.

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.

3 comments:

  1. Another excellent article that has given me a lot to think about. What does the 1.6m preference votes for the arts party at the last election say about Australians's perception and opinion of arts & culture in oz? I assume most have no knowledge of the state of sector funding and govt support, or their shrinking opportunities to engage..

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    1. All the research shows that there is broad involvement - way beyond the actual arts and culture sector itself. The catch is turning that into conscious political positions and decisions. The Arts Party is an important start - but it's still just a start. We have a way to go yet. I can't help but repeat one of my earlier articles, ‘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’, http://cassarticle.blogspot.com.au/2016/10/if-arts-are-important-but-not-enough.html.

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    2. PS. I hope you find my articles useful. One of the main reasons I write them for this blog and for my complementary Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/indefinitearticle) is to develop arguments that can be used to press the case for the importance of arts and culture and the broad benefits they have across Australian life.

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