In 2015, George Brandis inadvertently catalysed the cultural revolution the Australian arts needs to have if it is to drag itself kicking and screaming into the 21st century.
Aided and abetted by a Senate Inquiry, a Federal Election and the dumping of the aforementioned Attorney-General as Arts Minister, the landscape continues to transform. The decades-long hierarchy that has the Major Performing Arts organisations (MPAs) collapsing as the arts sector develops the intelligence to read culture outside the agendas and received wisdoms of our arts agencies and cultural institutions.
So as the dust settles on the recent Federal Government decision to dissolve Catalyst and return the remaining funds to the Australia Council, it is worthwhile considering the impact of the decision on the revolution’s progress.
There is a strong desire within parts of the arts sector to frame the Government’s backdown on Catalyst as the end of a book they would prefer to close.
One of these is the Australia Council itself whose CEO Tony Grybowski last week attempted to wrest control of the narrative by saying “I would challenge anybody to say that our advocacy has not worked.”
This statement is as close as we’ve recently got to a ‘Kellyanne Conway’ moment. Grybowski pretends that what has happened, has not. The fact is for two years, the majority of the active arts sector, the cultural media and the political culture has said exactly that: the Australia Council’s advocacy has not worked, or worse still, was non-existent.
Here are the facts
Senior political leaders formally criticised the Australia Council’s lack of advocacy
In a Senate Estimates hearing in February last year, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum asked Grybowski for the Australia Council’s response to the Senate inquiry into the budget cuts. Grybowski said he didn’t have one. To which Ludlum replied: “You’re not just sitting back and taking it. Is that what you’re telling me?” Labor’s Senator Catryna Bilyk added: “I think the Council’s been conspicuously silent about the Coalition’s savage attack on it and the arts sector in general.” Grybowski agreed to prepare a response ‘on notice’ – in stark contrast to his readiness to take a performance bonus in a year the agency lost 15% of its budget.
The Australian media persistently reported challenges and itself challenged the Australia Council on its lack of advocacy
Across the spectrum from Ben Eltham in Platform Papers to The Australian’s Mathew Westwood, the consistent view in mainstream and independent media is that the Australia Council failed to advocate on behalf of the arts. Public commentators repeatedly criticised Council’s failure to petition the new Minister Fifield on his appointment. In early 2016, Westwood wrote “the response from the Australia Council was circumspect in the extreme”. In the same broadsheet just two weeks ago, Michaela Boland reported philanthropist Neil Balnaves called for a clear-out of Australia Council leadership for its advocacy failure, a call that inspired Grybowski’s desperate attempt to re-cast history in his favour.
The advocacy of #freethearts directly resulted in the return of the Australia Council funds
Borne out of the small-medium and independent sector in response to Brandis’ incursion, the #freethearts campaign initiated the 2015 Senate Inquiry and activated ArtsPeak as a national advocacy platform which then organised the 2016 National Arts Debate. In between, its nascent, unrelenting advocacy was applauded by Greens Arts spokesperson, Adam Bandt, at a National Sector Meeting for taking down Brandis as Arts Minister. The former Shadow Arts Minister, Mark Dreyfus publicly and privately communicated the primacy of #freethearts in securing the return of the first tranche of funds.
As a member of the #freethearts National Strategy group, I was keenly aware of the Australia Council’s deafening silence and, worse, its reluctance to release statistics favourably comparing the small-medium sector to the Majors before the Senate Inquiry into the Arts.
Grybowski’s assertion that the Australia Council’s advocacy ‘worked’ is an affront to the many Australian artists and cultural operators whose tireless advocacy really did work.
The Australia Council is right to want to close the book on its most ignominious period but attempting the high moral ground when one occupies the lower depths is not the correct way forward. Its behaviour over the course of the saga has seemed, at best, morally wayward and strategically bereft. It would be wiser to admit the truth and give credit where its due.
The Australia Council is the recipient of change brought about by the successful advocacy of others. It is not itself an agent of that change.
The alignment of these facts do more than set the record straight, they circumscribe a narrative of Australia’s arts scene characterised by long-standing fault lines and alliances. Between the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council, a relationship cut from arms-length to shoulder-length with devastating results. Between advocacy platforms, on one side the MPAs constituent body AMPAG and, on the other, ArtsPeak and ArtsFront inspired by #freethearts, which find themselves supporting systems with contesting values.
Between the Australia Council and the MPAs, a wholly incestuous alliance founded on privilege and entitlement, and where we find the narrative element most corrosive to the other players.
MPAs: Precedent or Opportunity
In directing the return of the funds, Minister Fifield’s statement ‘provides scope for the Australia Council to address specific recommendations from the National Opera Review’. This has been distilled into allocating $3million to struggling members of the MPAs. Such action sets a dangerous precedent in the post-Brandis world: whenever an MPA organisation finds itself in financial difficulty, the funds for its salvation come directly from the Australia Council’s uncommitted funds, the pool that services the independent and small-medium sector. This situation provided an excellent opportunity for a display of leadership from the MPAs whose silence and inaction over the last two years has been interpreted by some commentators as shameful and by others as complicity.
In the interests of re-building confidence and a sense of community in the arts scene, the MPAs, through AMPAG, should have immediately refused this offer and been advised to do so by the Australia Council. To date, there is no indication that this has even been considered. It would require a degree of evolution that seems not to exist in this space. Today, the MPAs, their supporters in Government and their minder, the Australia Council, do not have the capacity or vision to appreciate the meaning of such a gesture.
They are the dinosaurs in Australia’s Jurassic Arts Park. A protected species. Brandis’ buddies. Trump’s elite.
Unsurprisingly, and apart from a couple of MPA-wannabes, for Australian artists and cultural operators the MPAs symbolise all that is wrong and inequitable in the current rendition of Australian culture and its funding apparatus. The implicit relationship between the MPAs, the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts – underwritten by last century’s Nugent Report – is the mechanism by which the independent and small-medium sector is subject to ever-decreasing funding poverty. It should be noted that Nugent also chaired the National Opera Review.
Ultimately, this nexus exhibits those characteristics that separate the arts from the rest of society and leads to the ‘elite’ descriptor. More importantly, it prohibits the arts from doing its job: creating significant, progressive social change. If it is to keep up with the rest of society, if it is to develop the capacity to create broad-based changes in society, the cultural revolution now underway within the arts scene needs turbo-charging.
Progressing the Revolution
Let’s start with some fundamentals
Step 1: Dismantle the current funding system
Let’s dissolve the protection and privilege that the MPAs currently enjoy, and create a system based on equity and fairness employing fundamentals such as artistic merit, social influence and agency, international reputation, audience numbers and reach. If the evidence put on record at the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Arts is anything to go by then according to these criteria a far greater share of funds will be distributed to the independent and small-medium sector.
Step 2: Re-make the Australia Council
This is now non-negotiable. The 2012 Australia Council Review failed to re-structure the agency with the resilience it needs to deal with a Government attack on the arts sector, which no longer has confidence in the Council’s capacity to navigate the terrain ahead.
What is required is a new approach that acknowledges the forgoing of two key platforms – policy development and advocacy – and allows it to execute the more straightforward task of funding. This will of course require it to revise its current corporate values, a condition which did not cause but certainly enabled the astonishing inequity in the existing funding model.
Step 3: Campaign to Value The Arts as a Public Good
Arguments for funding the arts as a public good are numerous and powerful. However, few have real traction in the cultural imaginary. The effort of the arts sector in the 2016 Federal Election made some headway but a broad-based, long-term public campaign is required to groove into the Australian mind-set the value of the arts as a public good. A corollary is the idea that the arts is an adhesive that sticks society together, particularly in the educational sector but also the economic. This interconnectedness is what distinguishes the arts from most other human activities. It is not a reductive agent. It is an amplifying one. This needs to become received wisdom for the arts to evolve.
Step 4: Think Big
Underscoring these steps is the need to attract and discuss big ideas. Whether it be Brazil’s scheme of providing a Culture Stipend for all workers to expend on cultural activities, or abolishing all funds to institutions and allocating the whole arts budget to artists or imagining a cultural policy in which money plays no part which Ben Eltham proposed at a Dance Massive Conversation.
The intellectual deficit the arts has laboured under for decades has stunted its growth. This deficit lies as much in the quality of listening as it does in the quality of ideas.
Listening, campaigning, advocating, dismantling, re-configuring and creating, these are the key action words for the cultural revolution the arts needs to undertake on its own account, if it is to have any agency in 21st century Australia. Oh yeah, and courage.
THIS REVIEW WAS WRITTEN WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE