Friday, June 30, 2017

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia

The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government.

The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement.

Wynscreen, curated by Alessio Cavallaro, a new public art space in the walkway to Wynyard station, central Sydney.

It was a gap which became obvious as ‘Creative Australia’, the Labor Government’s National Cultural Policy, was being developed, when the case for arts and culture funding needed to be powerful and compelling. The analytical power that has been applied in the area of Indigenous affairs – and which had been utilised to some degree in the Indigenous cultural programs – was needed for arts and culture as well.

National arts funding, research and advocacy body, the Australia Council, has always been an important part of the research work undertaken on arts and culture in Australia, drawing on prominent researchers such as Professor David Throsby. The Council has just released its latest study, ‘Connecting Australians: The National Arts Participation Survey’. The survey is the third in a landmark series delivered by the Australia Council since 2009.

Research role as valuable as funding
I have previously said that while we often think of the Australia Council as an arts funding body, its research role is just as important. This research sits within the Australia Council’s broader research work, the full range of which is available in a new interactive web presence called Arts Nation.

‘It is particularly pleased to see confirmation of the essential role the arts play in daily life, their reflection of Australia’s diversity, and their contribution to a healthy and inclusive public life.’

The report captures Australians’ attitudes and engagement with the arts, demonstrating the significant and increasing personal value Australians place on the impact of the arts. The Council noted that it is particularly pleased to see confirmation of the essential role the arts play in daily life, their reflection of Australia’s diversity, and their contribution to a healthy and inclusive public life. This is timely given the census data released this week highlights the increasing diversity of Australia.

The research confirms that the arts have a place in the lives of 98% of Australians. Since the 2013 survey there has been an increased recognition of their positive impact on our wellbeing and ability to develop new ideas. More Australians now believe the arts reflect Australia’s cultural diversity and that they shape and express Australian identity.

Trends in participation
Other trends include a jump to 7 million Australians experiencing First Nations arts last year, double the number since the first survey in 2009. There have also been increases for a number of artforms, strong trends for participation by younger Australians, and a boom in online arts engagement.

‘Connecting Australians: The National Arts Survey’ reflects the Australia Council’s stated commitment to demonstrating the essential value of the arts to individual and public life. It comments that it hopes this will be a valuable resource to inform policy, programs and investment in the arts and well beyond.

‘Other trends include a jump to 7 million Australians experiencing First Nations arts last year, double the number since the first survey in 2009. There have also been…strong trends for participation by younger Australians, and a boom in online arts engagement.’

The whole report is worth reading to get an idea of trends in arts participation and the scale and range of involvement. It has a lot of data and it is worth comparing the results in this survey with earlier ones. It has been comprehensively covered in Ben Eltham’s excellent article about the report this week. What stands out is the hands on participation. As Eltham comments, ‘We also make stuff. Forty-six per cent of those surveyed “creatively participated” in culture, by making art, playing an instrument, dancing or writing. Thirty per cent of us made art and craft for pleasure, and a fifth of the population pursued some form of creative writing in our spare time.’

Not all is rosy
However, not all is rosy. There has been a worrying drop in overall recognition of the value of the arts and in support for funding the arts. There has been a significant drop in the proportion of people who see that Indigenous arts are an important part of Australia’s culture. Many years of arts bashing hasn’t helped, as well as a neo-liberal aversion for much of a role by government at all.

Eltham also makes a crucial point that I wholeheartedly agree with – that as long as we talk only about art and not culture, we limit the terms of the discussion and exclude those who may be personally involved but don’t see it as such. We might as well abandon any hope of a broad coalition that recognises, acknowledges and values the importance of our cultural life.

I can see only limited value in arts policy that is no bigger than that – in other words, arts policy that is not cultural policy. For one area of cultural activity that is a central part of Australian culture and arts – First Nations culture – arts policy, rather than cultural policy, particularly makes little sense.

I also wonder to what degree, those surveyed are aware of the full extent of Government support for other areas of activity deemed important and worth supporting. Arts and culture would be a relatively small player in the world of government assistance.

‘As long as we talk only about art and not culture, we limit the terms of the discussion and exclude those who may be personally involved but don’t see it as such.’

Rather than going into the findings of the research in depth, there are other questions I want to focus on. We definitely need research to underpin the case for the value of arts and culture. However, it’s a classic situation of necessary and sufficient conditions. The research is necessary to argue the case for why arts and culture deserves support. However, arguing the case effectively will not of itself lead to Government continuing to support art and culture – or even, dare we suggest, increasing support.

Hearts and minds in a divided and changing world
There is a philosophical argument to be won about the proper role of government and a battle for hearts and minds to make arts and culture something that Australian broadly expect to be supported by government. There is also an urgent need to think about our arts and culture as a totality. We can’t continue having it divided into activity supported and researched by the Australia Council, by Screen Australia, by the Department of Communications and the Arts itself, by states and territories, by local government, without drawing this all together into the big picture. On top of this there is also the work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics and that produced by university research units.

‘The alignment between Australia’s arts and cultural life and what is funded by the Australia Council is becoming more and more remote.’ 

Pulling this all together and having and providing a strategic overview might be a job for the Arts Division of the Department of Communications and the Arts . Whether they have the resources or the capability in these straitened times is hard to know. Perhaps with the move to that Department, access to a specialised research unit might make this possible.

The alignment between Australia’s arts and cultural life and what is funded by the Australia Council is becoming more and more remote. The most popular forms of arts involvement mentioned in the report – listening to recorded music, engaging online and reading books – are the least funded. Literature in particular – one of the most widely practiced forms of engagement that involves hands on creative participation  – is minimally supported. Eltham notes that with something as important as online culture, ‘after some pioneering efforts in the 2000s, the Australia Council has almost completely abandoned support’.

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
I don’t want to make too much of the funding issue or of the role of the Australia Council. Sometimes I can't help thinking that the reality of our cultural life and the tiny universe of arts funding have completely diverged. Many important areas of culture probably shouldn't be funded by government. Nevertheless, when I see the massive – often life-changing impact – of existing funding, I am reminded of the value, unsatisfactory as current arrangements are.

Interestingly, the most popular forms of involvement are activities that often happen at home. This parallels the findings of a major study in the UK of the value of arts and culture – the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Cultural Value’ project and its report, ‘Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture’.

The British study found that the main area of cultural involvement and engagement is in the home. It makes the point that research in 2011 estimated that 94% of the viewing of film ocurs in the home, yet all our public discussion of film is about it being shown and watched in theatres. This is why the digital realm will become increasingly important because, for the home, the digital universe is the main window into the world.

‘It requires radical, long-term, broad approaches – and that is never simple. In the Australia of today, divided and indecisive, while we may see some improvement, radical change is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.’

The points about Federal funding could probably also be made about funding by government of all shades, types and sizes. There are many reasons – a long history of government polices and practices; a string of band aid measures instead of serious policy; and pork-barrelling.

There are no easy fixes to this problem but it requires radical, long-term, broad approaches – and that is never simple. In the Australia of today, divided and indecisive, while we may see some improvement, radical change is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

It doesn't help that we have a limited, narrow Government that can't help shrinking culture to art, communities to customers and cultural diversity to citizenship tests. Like most of the issues Australia is trying to deal with, we have to grit our teeth, suffer the mediocre leadership we have and plan for the long-term. Perhaps with some of the positive developments underway in the arts and culture sector, further down the track we’ll finally see arts and culture recognised publically and politically for the central role it plays in Australia’s contemporary life.

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.

Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts
‘I’ve said before that the traditional saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. If anything, there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth’, Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts.

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, from lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding an 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.

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.

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.

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