Thursday, September 10, 2020

Endless attrition at major collections institutions undermines our long-term cultural future

The endless attrition of the ‘efficiency dividend’, with its long-term debilitating impact on our major national cultural institutions, continues to do harm. With the periodic announcement of job losses, more and more valuable expertise is increasingly lost and important programs affected. This will undermine the ability of these institutions to care for our heritage and to provide access to their collections for Australians across the country. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. At some point Australians will ask where valued and important programs have gone and how critical institutions have managed to diminish to the point where return will not be possible.

The most recent news in the ongoing decline of our major national cultural institutions was that the National Gallery of Australia would shed staff due to a range of pressures including the ongoing impact of the ‘efficiency dividend’. However, this is a long-term, ongoing decline. More and more valuable expertise is increasingly lost and important programs affected.

 Canberra vista showing many of the national cultural institutions.

Ironically this occurred just as the Government announced a well-overdue $250 million rescue program for the badly battered creative sector, a program that while generally welcomed by the sector, was described by corruption-busting journalist, Michael West, as ‘chicken feed’. Two and a half months later not much seems to have happened. The announcement of the job losses occurred at the same time as the Government began spending around $500 million on a questionable extension to one single cultural institution, the Australian War Memorial. 

‘Much of what is happening to these national organisations is also occurring at state level to state cultural institutions of national significance. The disappointing and badly thought through changes to the once-esteemed Powerhouse Museum are a good example. This museum was particularly well-placed to engage with the creative industries which are so important to the future of the New South Wales economy.’

 Our major cultural institutions, especially the national ones of the Australian Government often have clearly defined roles and responsibilities set out in their guiding legislation. Essentially they comprise the National Library of Australia, the National Museum of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Portrait Gallery, the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Museum of Australian Democracy. At various times, depending on the ever-changing shape of the Arts portfolio, they have also included the National Archives of Australia.

Much of what is happening to these national organisations is also occurring at state level to state cultural institutions of national significance. The disappointing and badly thought through changes to the once-esteemed Powerhouse Museum are a good example. This museum was particularly well-placed to engage with the creative industries which are so important to the future of the New South Wales economy. 

Different to departments

These organisations are very different to Government departments, which have much more room to adjust to major cuts. They have very specific requirements to operate effectively, including a body of highly specialised expertise, with staff with long-established international and national professional networks to facilitate their roles.

‘The harsh truth of what might look like small percentages with these ‘efficiency dividends’ is that they are cumulative, like a reverse form of compound interest. Each percentage cut is a percentage cut on a cut which is a cut on every cut before it.’

These responsibilities have been expanded by the changing demands of the digital world and the public expectations of ever broader access to their collections, knowledge and expertise. This is compounded by a growing population. They have an important role in the new clean and clever industries of the future which comprise the growing knowledge economy.

Operational funding provides certainty and stability for core business

In what can seem like a contradiction, these organisations often receive extra funding from Government, even as the efficency dividend gnaws away at their core establishment. The problem is that the extra funding is for specific projects the Government deems important and it doesn’t remedy the ongoing erosion of the operational heart of the organisations.

‘In what can seem like a contradiction, these organisations often receive extra funding from Government, even as the efficency dividend gnaws away at their core establishment. The problem is that the extra funding is for specific projects the Government deems important and it doesn’t remedy the ongoing erosion of the operational heart of the organisations.’

 In 2015, the second largest philanthropic fund in the US, the Ford Foundation, recognised the importance of operational funding to community organisations by changing its guidelines to prioritise such funding. The Foundation announced a major overhaul of the support it provided community organisations, including arts and culture bodies, moving its focus to building social infrastructure through support for operating expenses. Coupled with greater flexibility about what could be funded, this refocus made the fund much more effective.

Cumulative impact

The harsh truth of what might look like small percentages with these ‘efficiency dividends’ is that they are cumulative, like a reverse form of compound interest. Each percentage cut is a percentage cut on a cut which is a cut on every cut before it. Try this exercise with your savings and see how rapidly they evaporate.

‘The harsh truth of what might look like small percentages with these ‘efficiency dividends’ is that they are cumulative, like a reverse form of compound interest. Each percentage cut is a percentage cut on a cut which is a cut on every cut before it.’

The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. In three years, six years, nine years, Australians will ask where valued and important programs have gone and how critical institutions have managed to diminish to the point where return will not be possible. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history, when it is trying to recover from both a season of intense bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic

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

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy
‘Survival in the creative sector in a post-COVID world will require enhanced literacy in the opportunities of the new industries of the future, the clean and clever knowledge economy which is altering our world on a daily basis. Now a new short course delivered completely online in the new digital universe we are all increasingly inhabiting will look closely at the creative and cultural economy and the broader impacts of creativity and culture, both economic and social. It will outline the role of the creative sector in managing meaning and explain how telling Australian stories puts us on the international stage in an increasingly globalised world’, Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy.

Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck

‘In its response to the pandemic the current Government came a long way in terms of its narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government. However the longer history of neglect of the creative sector shows how severe the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date. It has missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. It's most recent actions have merely compounded a seven year history of neglect and damage,’ Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck.

Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector
‘The last few months have been a wild ride. First the national bushfires and now global pandemic. In February people were being encouraged to visit fire-ravaged regional centres to help boost local economies. By March they were being urged to stay home to help reduce the spread of pestilence. I’m quietly seething at governments which knew this was coming, but just didn’t have a fixed date, and thought they could make savings by pretending it wasn’t coming. Now the Australian creative sector has largely been infected as well, but without the ventilators required to keep it alive,’ Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector.

Out of the ashes – art and bushfires
‘While the current bushfires raging across much of Australia are unprecedented in their scale and severity, they are a reminder of how people have responded after previous fires, rebuilding communities and lives in the affected areas. They have also focused attention on the impact of the fires on creative practices and business and on how those in the arts and culture sector can use their skills to contribute to bushfire recovery into the future’, Out of the ashes – art and bushfires.

Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture 
‘Understanding, assessing and communicating the broad value of arts and culture is a major and ongoing task. There has been an immense amount of work already carried out. The challenge is to understand some of the pitfalls of research and the mechanisms and motivations that underpin it. Research and evaluation is invaluable for all organisations but it is particularly important for Government. The experience of researching arts and culture in Government is of much broader relevance, as the arts and culture sector navigates the tricky task of building a comprehensive understanding in each locality of the broader benefits of arts and culture. The latest Arts restructure makes this even more urgent.’, Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture.

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture
‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world
‘If you are losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years, this is a summary of all 133 articles up until mid July 2017, broken down into categories for easy access. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian arts and culture’, See also – indefinite articles in a definite world.

Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity
‘When I was visiting Paris last year, there was one thing I wanted to do before I returned home – visit the renowned French bakery that had trained a Melbourne woman who had abandoned the high stakes of Formula One racing to become a top croissant maker. She had decided that being an engineer in the world of elite car racing was not for her, but rather that her future lay in the malleable universe of pastry. Crossing boundaries of many kinds and traversing the borders of differing countries and cultures, she built a radically different future to the one she first envisaged’, Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity.

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.

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda
‘There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

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.

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. 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’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

Applied creativity
‘I have been dealing with the issue of creativity for as long as I can remember. Recently, I have had to deal with a new concept—innovation. All too often, creativity is confused with innovation. A number of writers about innovation have made the point that innovation and creativity are different. In their view, innovation involves taking a creative idea and commercialising it. If we look more broadly, we see that innovation may not necessarily involve only commercialising ideas. Instead the core feature is application—innovation is applied creativity. Even ideas that may seem very radical can slip into the wider culture in unexpected ways’, Applied creativity.

Creative industries – applied arts and sciences
‘The nineteenth century fascination with applied arts and sciences — the economic application of nature, arts and sciences — and the intersection of these diverse areas and their role in technological innovation are as relevant today for our creative industries. From the Garden Palace, home of Australia’s first international exhibition in 1879, to the Economic Gardens in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens these collections and exhibitions lay the basis for modern Australian industry. The vast Garden Palace building in the Sydney Botanic Gardens was the Australian version of the great Victorian-era industrial expositions, where, in huge palaces of glass, steel and timber, industry, invention, science, the arts and nature all intersected and overlapped. Despite burning to the ground, it went on to become the inspiration for what eventually became the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences — the Powerhouse Museum’, Creative Industries.

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