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Who’d want to be an arts minister when you’ve got nothing to say?

Whenever a budget is handed down, I, like any self-respecting Australian artist, immediately check to see how much of our country’s investment in its arts and culture has been appropriated to make way for corporate tax cuts.

By recent standards, this latest Federal budget is a good one. We only lost $89 million, and thankfully that only came from our one truly independent source of mainstream cultural production, the ABC.

None of the other areas of our cultural cottage industries – the sheltered workshop we call our independent theatre scene, our virtually non-existent television production industry or our bedraggled film industry – got the chop.

Artists need not worry and can go back to working away in their call centres. Our poets and novelists can go back to their day jobs and our playwrights, well…thank God there’s only seven of them.

The good news is that on top of not making it harder than it already is for Australians to make art or films or anything cultural, we have given a leg up to people from overseas who want to make things here. Now we can go see a super hero movie and know that it cost less than $100 million ’cause a very rich American colleague of our mate Harvey got to make it here. It’s kind of “me too” without the yucky bits.

We can eat our popcorn content in the knowledge that our money helped make Batman versus Marine Boy. Our cinemas will be full of beaming adolescents proudly whispering, “And look. There’s a CGI enhanced bit of The Great Barrier Reef. My mum has pictures of when it really was that colour”.

At least the recent budget announcements bring the arts into line with just about everything else. You can’t keep cutting things without showing a cost benefit somewhere overseas. Someone over there has to be making money out of us, otherwise why are we doing this?

Over the last decade we have gone from having a reasonably buoyant and egalitarian creative sector to a place where close to 65% of all funding for the arts in Australia goes to just 28 organisations.

The arts are now more aligned, thank God, with things like the mining industry. What’s the point of having more liquid natural gas than just about anyone else if you can’t subsidise a foreign company to extract it? Why have public infrastructure if you can’t sell it off to make you look like a good fiscal manager? Why have a well-trained, efficient and talented creative workforce if you can’t farm them out as cheap labour to a foreign film producer?

It’s at times like this I’m glad I’m not an arts minister because frankly, what do you say? We know ministers like making announcements, but what do you announce when you have nothing to announce?

What is it like to sit in a federal Cabinet meeting when everyone’s talking in billions and proposing new ways of selling off the common wealth of Australians to overseas’ entities and it comes round to talking about the arts?

Does Mitch Fifield sit there like he did at the arts debate at the Wheeler Centre after he inherited the George Brandis debacle with a rolled up sheet of A4 in his hand and a benign smile on his face, looking like he’s about to say something interesting? And then when it’s his turn to speak, does he stand up and say “I got ‘nuthin”? Or does he talk about something else? Like the good time he had in Bendigo at the Marilyn Monroe exhibition?

I like to think of Mitch easing into an upright position at the Cabinet table, taking a man breath, and saying: “I’m copping a lot of negativity from the arts community and I have to say I think we might have got this whole arts and culture thing wrong. It appears to me that if we want to create an engaged citizenry, want Australians to be able to make informed choices about complex issues, to be able to speak together about common goals, then we need an active, well supported arts and cultural….”

At which point, I imagine Malcolm would intervene and say: “Listen Mitch old boy. Keep going with that and I’ll give you Indigenous Affairs and then you’ll really know what trouble is. And if anyone else in here is thinking of raising issues about engaged citizenry, clarity of purpose, social equity or any other feel good bullshit that doesn’t involve numbers, I’m warning you. It makes my skin crawl”.

It would be even worse being a shadow minister for the arts. In the shadow cabinet they go around the table and when Bill says, “Arts?”, everyone looks at each other and shrugs.

Tony Burke is the shadow arts minister, but maybe they forgot to tell him. So while Mitch doesn’t seem to say anything because maybe he’s got nothing to say, Tony doesn’t appear to say anything because maybe he doesn’t know it’s his turn.

I’ve made this assumption purely based on my attempts to find any media releases in which Tony talks about arts and culture. The best I could come up with was an old link on his home page that invites me to sign up for arts news from him. Arts news he doesn’t seem to know he’s meant to be circulating. Tony seems to have nothing, just like Mitch, but it isn’t his fault. Actually, it’s not really Mitch’s fault either. I understand. I want a job in London when I retire too.

The Australia Council released a report saying public support for arts funding had dropped because it was seen as elitist. Guess what? It is.

And I’m glad I’m not a state arts minister. I hate spending time in the car. Although here in Victoria, our Martin Foley does have things to say. Martin loves to release things and he’s got it down to a fine art. His many press releases say roughly the same thing, except the numbers get changed.

These statements read like dialogue written by a 25 year old creative writing graduate who is trying to sound warm and connected, yet businesslike and slightly arty with a subtext that reads: “This minister is a little funky, and knows something about life. He’s someone who’s been around the traps. Definitely not your typical career politician”.

What you end up with is something like this recent release announcing a whopping $17,000 in support for four regional arts councils and groups to put stuff on:

From a theatre performance in a sports club, to gigs in a former grain store – we are proud to support our small regional presenters with grants that will make a big difference to their community arts scene.”

Yeah. Gigs. Big difference. Proud. 17 Grand. Right on. Now we’re talking. And sadly, not a hint of embarrassment But it doesn’t make Martin sound like he’s been around the traps. It makes him sound like someone who still thinks petrol is 28 cents a litre.

I kind of hope that one day Martin will stand up in the Cabinet room and say: “You know, if we had just given Creative Victoria an extra $3 million a year for independent artist grants instead of allocating all that extra $78 million in our last budget to buildings and things, we might have actually changed the cultural landscape of this state”.

Now we in the creative community can jump up and down and whinge and complain about the lack of funding, but we are largely missing the point. And the point is that these people either don’t know or they don’t care. Face it folks, the tiny percentage of funds given to artists here points to the sad prospect that these men don’t seem to know we exist. We are not even  a mild pain in their collective arses.

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So if I’d rather not be an arts minister. What job in arts policy could be worse? Well, possibly a position on the board of the Australia Council.

The Australia Council Act of 1975 states its intent was to establish a “Council for purposes connected with the Promotion of the Arts” and that part of its role was “to provide and encourage the provision of opportunities for persons to practise the arts”. Well it ain’t. Unless you’re a special person.

Over the last decade we have gone from having a reasonably buoyant, reasonably egalitarian creative sector to a place where close to 65% of all funding for the arts in Australia goes to just 28 organisations known as the Major Performing Arts companies (these MPAs include orchestras, opera companies, the Australian Ballet and the state theatre companies). That’s up from 50% in 2009.

Looking at the numbers without even dressing in a suit it makes pretty clear reading. Since 2011 the Council’s funding budget has gone up by $12.5 million or roughly 5%. Not big numbers. In that time, the grants to independent artists have dropped from $29.7 million to $24.8 million. Down 17%. Grants to the MPAs have increased from $97.3 million to $109.1 million. Up 13%. Or to make the maths simpler, someone has begrudgingly increased the Australia Council’s budget by $12.5 million and given it all to the Majors. Then some.

We shouldn’t be surprised, because that is consistent with the broader sweep of current government policy; taking from the poor and giving to the rich. But as governments keep finding ways of trimming arts and welfare budgets and just about any other budget, so they can keep mining tariffs down and not annoy Gina, how is it that no one on the board of the Australia Council has stood up and publicly said: “This isn’t enough to provide the provision of opportunities for persons to practise the arts”? Of course, if they did, they would have to add: “This isn’t enough to provide for persons to practice in the arts unless they’re making the stuff we go to”. Given that the Council’s board has only one artist among the mining executives, accountants and arts administrators sitting around its table, this is hardly surprising.

We can’t continue funding arrangements that benefit just a select few. It’s time the creative community stopped dreaming and did something about it.

So when the Australia Council recently released a report saying that broader public support for funding of the arts had dropped because they saw it as elitist, guess what? They’re right. It is elitist.

We have virtually guaranteed that most funding will only be available to things Malcolm, Mitch, Tony and Martin’s friends might like to see, and we have made sure we fund it to an extent that ensures it will be at a price that only their friends can afford.

Part of the difficulty is that while arts and culture have grown rapidly as a sector in the last 20 years, government support for them has not. The money we give the major organisations is not very significant compared to other OECD countries, but it is rapidly becoming all we have. The lack of increase in the overall level of funding simply can’t meet the needs of modern cultural production. Do we just make less? Yes. But only less, it would appear, for some.

We can’t continue with public funding arrangements that benefit just a select few. And it’s time we in the creative community stopped dreaming and did something about it.

So rather than fantasising about what a minister might say or imagining a day when someone at the Australia Council will wake up and decide they don’t want to be an apologist for the government, perhaps it is time for one of us to put on our grown up pants, stand up and say something.

Something like: “I’ve lost confidence in the Australia Council. And Creative Victoria and whatever other supposedly arms-length agency is following this path. Which is all of them really. I think we’ve got a serious problem here.”

We know our pollies won’t get rid of the Australia Council because if they did there’d be an uproar in Vaucluse. But if the Ozco and state arts funding organisations are going to continue to exist, they have an obligation to operate for the benefit of all Australians.

I’m not saying get rid of the Major Performing Arts organisations – they are an essential and valuable part of a vibrant creative ecosystem – but if politicians want to keep them at the expense of the rest of the arts sector, then they should fund them directly. We can’t continue with public funding arrangements that benefit just a select few. And it’s time we in the creative community stopped dreaming and did something about it. Because in truth, if a society can’t rely on its artists to fight for fairness, what hope has it got?

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10 responses to “Who’d want to be an arts minister when you’ve got nothing to say?

  1. Tony Burke spoke very eloquently about the role of Actors Equity and the importance of arts activism at the Lifetime Achievement Award presentation to Noeline Brown. His heart is definitely in the right place although Labor’s track record in recent governments has been lacking. I think it has to come from the top, witness Gorton, Whitlam and Keating.

    1. Hey David

      Martin Foley also spoke passionately last night at the opening of the St Kilda Film Festival. But words do not a sustainable independent creative sector make. You cannot keep repeating how important things are without providing or at least advocating policy that will sustain it. And we are just talking about money.

  2. Neil, firstly the Australia Council Act was rejigged in 2013 in its own rendering of itself as an ‘untouchable’ and endorsed by the Labor art elite. Secondly, Brandis blew the whistle on the elite closed shop, and the sector chose to ignore this opportunity for change (and desired more of the same) and condemned the messenger. The sector was hijacked again by the peer review fundamentalist.
    This ad nauseous issue of elitism in the arts has become decrepit insanity, review after has pointed out the weakness of ignoring arts being more open. Still Ozco ignores this.
    Recently, 501 regional public persons asked for Ozco assistance to match their financial contribution to address a major need based cultural social issue, and were ignored for the 30 year in a row!And were rejected. Yet Ozco could still find some $1.2million of discretionary funds to do nonsensical arts for arts sake in the same region. The public were ignored and devalued by Ozco staff, the investment of the public displaced.
    So, we feel, our very own Ozco holds Australia responsibilities and obligations under the Unesco Convention in contempt. Perhaps Ozco needs to be under review by the Productivity Commission.
    What’s the Australia Coincil’s problem with democracy?

  3. How about, rather than this whole charade of involuntarily taking payments (tax) off artists (and everybody) and giving it to a select few arbiters of taste (who are at the mercy of political will) so they may dole it out to a select few recipients (and as you point out – mostly an elite group)-we just allow artists to keep their own money so they have greater ability to produce and create their own work -and not have to beg for a few crumbs back?
    I say crumbs, for it is estimated that after government poli-tics (many blood suckers) their cronies and paper pushing bureaucrats take their cut -only 20c on the $ is returned back to the citizen in services.
    Funding for the arts is in fact and system where the artist is knee-capped by the politician and the politician gives you a crutch back in return – for which you should be grateful.
    All significant art comes creative individuals (alone or in co-operation). Or, if you fancy, it comes from ‘the street’. Culture is a spontaneous and organic creation. Placing the arts into a top down hierarchical system for a few to decide on who wins and looses, is antithetical to good art.
    Those artists who put up their own money (and time) or who can convince other to voluntarily support their projects, those who develop a community/audience/clientel/patronage should be rewarded in real world feedback – not through the begging of a grant with its political attachments.
    Centralised control of art funding is even more dangerous however!I would go so far as to label it a cultural sublimation. Arts in many cases challenge social norms and cause political instability. It serves the state to use soft power and propaganda rather than the iron fist to deal with any threats. Having a controlled filter in allowing controversial art into approved cultural projects allow the government to disempower it the provocative nature of the art by giving it the official stamp of approval. Those artists who then receive the plunder of the state are likely to tame their criticism or even play ball.
    Public art serves only 3 purposes – it is cultural sublimation, propaganda and social engineering.
    Public art is in fact too dangerous for a free and creative society to tolerate!

  4. “I’m not saying get rid of the Major Performing Arts organisations…” I am! Get rid of them. They have nothing to say to any of us trying to survive and their promotion keeps bedazzling our eyes. Get rid of them, look out and see the wasteland that exists beyond. OK. Now we can start talking . How do we get out of this mess.? Where do we sign up for the Revolution? Let our anger show at last!

  5. We have fallen among barbarians! From Newman to Brandis, neo-lib politicians make Attila the Hun look positively cultured.

    Don’t know much about the current shadow, Tony Burke. He was Minister for The Arts in both the Gillard and Rudd regimes,
    wghich suggests he at least has an interest.

    Anyhoo, back to the neo-cons. What do you expect?

  6. Neil is absolutely right that the vast majority of politicians only see the arts as the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to budget cuts. If you cut a huge percentage from the minimal overall percentage you give to the arts it makes you loook fiscally responsible and after all who really cares. Politicians whose interest in the arts goes beyond opera first nights like Keating and the great Jennie Lee whose advocacy transformed the British arts scene in the sixties are few and far between. But what is not helpful is for those interested in the arts to fall for the divide and conquer that present funding encourages. There should be no question of funding the Major Performing Arts organisations less. The fight should be all about getting more overall funding for the arts.

    1. Sorry Joan. An oversight but a sad one. To find that Tony has made two press releases about sort of art things in the last 6 months only reinforces my point. Yes I know music festivals are important but I need Tony to do something a little more constructive than reiterating what we all know. They’re always telling us how important we are. Now is not the time to be sticking up for people just because they seem like good guys. I like Tony. Ive never met him but I like him. He has a nice smile.

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