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Budget 2019: What is Australia’s Cultural Policy?

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Last night’s federal budget documents offered stark insights into our nation’s culture by setting out Australia’s political priorities in financial terms.

In the absence of a written policy, how do these political decisions reveal the unwritten values that frame our cultural life? asks arts industry advocate Esther Anatolitis.

Surprisingly, identifying those values is much easier than you’d think.

Between last year’s budget and this year’s, our government have shown us that it understands cultural value primarily in military and colonial terms. This hasn’t just been manifest in the virtue signalling that peppers its rhetoric. It’s manifest in dollar terms.

Committing half a billion dollars to an unnecessary expansion of the Australian War Memorial is the biggest investment in a cultural institution in Australia’s history. Following justifiable outcry from veterans, Budget 2019-2020 has committed half that amount – $278m – towards improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families.

In dollar terms, this tells us that sensationalising the War Memorial with “live crosses to current defence personal as they go about their daily work” is twice as important as redressing poor physical and mental heath and the growing number of suicides among veterans.

It says a great deal about the political stance taken by the conservative media that a renewed three-year commitment to a specific ABC budget line item was reported as a “funding reprieve” by The Australian when the commitment was revealed yesterday afternoon. The Sydney Morning Herald called it “funding relief” and the Brisbane Times called it a “win”.

There is, in fact, no end to the funding freeze and no return of past cuts; this is just a three-year commitment to the ABC’s enhanced news service. Early reporting of budget details is, of course, signs of a leak. What this tells us about the Government’s values is that it understands the electoral value of ABC support enough not to make further cuts, but not enough to actively champion Australia’s most trusted public institution.

In choosing not to value artists, the Australian Government tells us a great deal about its own values.

Excellent public education, public health and public broadcasting: “these are the things that give our nation dignity”, said Wesley Enoch in responding to Budget 2019-2020 on ABC’s The Drum last night. “And the more you take away from that, the less dignity we have.”

Some arts announcements were hidden in other areas of the budget papers, which is itself an indication of how those areas of investment are understood and valued. The $1.5m investment in Dark Mofo, for example, is a tourism measure, as is the $50m commitment to unspecified “iconic tourism infrastructure”. Elsewhere, we find the already committed $85m for an Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery listed under Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities as part of the Adelaide City Deal.

At last week’s AAH Cultural Data Summit at the National Library of Australia, the funding of cultural institutions as tourist attractions was a hot topic: it’s a value judgement that stifles research and innovation, reducing cultural value to foot traffic and bums on seats. This colonises diverse artistic and intellectual value into homogenous measures of aggregated value.

The half billion dollars for the War Memorial expansion dwarfs the Budget’s every other cultural measure.

Finding these commitments littered across the budget is a solid argument for why cultural policy is needed. A strategic approach that required relevant portfolio areas to debate and develop their cultural impacts would edify government and enrich our lives.

We can also draw conclusions about public values from what hasn’t been funded. Despite consistent industry advocacy for an additional $25m per year for the Australia Council and $2m per year for the Regional Arts Fund, neither commitments appear in the papers. Both investments could easily have been supported without making even the slightest dent on the $7.1bn surplus.

The half billion dollars for the War Memorial dwarfs the Budget’s every other cultural measure. In choosing not to value artists, the Australian Government tells us a great deal about its own values. But can that be right? Surely our government understands culture as what we create? Or is culture what we conquer?

Why can’t a $7.1bn surplus fund a $7.1bn vision for Australia’s future?

Esther Anatolitis is executive director of the national artists’ rights body National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA).

5 responses to “Budget 2019: What is Australia’s Cultural Policy?

  1. WELL YES! Australian Art is Government Art; due to a fragile art market Australian art relies on continuous Federal, State and Local government support to survive at all. Most people working in the arts in Australia rely on government wages and are therefore public servants.

    Individual artists are usually excluded from this continuous flow of wages and generous government superannuation. Malcolm Turnbull once said that artists acted with “vicious ingratitude”1. Nothing could be farther from the truth. By taking low or no wages OR even funding the making of art themselves, it is artists who FUND the entire Arts industry. We see this in the fact that QAGOMA is paying international art star Olafur Eliasson, many $100,000s for an artwork whilst the Australian artists in the same show get $450. This is entirely the fault of the Qld Palaszchzuk Labor Government who believes Qld artists are 3rd rate and that only International “names” can result in cultural tourist dollars. We also saw this misguided belief at work in the selection of an International art/ architect duo to waste $3.1 Million on that public art disaster currently on the Gold Coast H’way.
    Individual artists and indeed all individuals cannot possibly compete with Government money and the authority that comes from controlling that money, that public money. It is as if Qld artists are somehow subhuman, 4th rate citizens in their own State with their own money used by Government AGAINST them.

    Breaking through this situation is very difficult especially when local arts writers seem almost in the employ of the QAGOMA PR department such is their disgraceful sycophancy. All Government Art is a Closed Shop. Unfortunately we must remember that NAVA and the Copyright Agency are Govt run and therefore have limited power. For example the Copyright Agency has been UNABLE to force the National, Federal and Local Art Institutions to pay copyright fees for the use of local artist’s images, I am sure such Institutions pay International artists fees. AGAIN another example of local artists funding the whole industry.

    I myself made a sculpture outside GOMA for a total budget of $200,000. The NZ artist who made another had a budget of $1 Million and the Comm Games work/ fiasco on the Gold Coast H’way was $3.1 Million!! I had a large show at QAG and got a pittance and had to sell the big new works at below production cost AND 3 were given to QAG under the Cultural Gifts Scheme! QAGOMA just wanted to spend all the money on International “name” artists for a big show they were doing concurrently.

    LOOK unless NAVA and the whole Industry work to get in place firm rules of engagement local artists just will be continuously SHAFTED. Federal Labor is just as bad…WORSE as artists would primarily vote Labor. I SAY JUST WRITE ARTIST ON YOUR BALLOT AND FORGET THEM ALL.

  2. @Scott Redford. Sadly, you speak a lot of truth about the arts in Queensland but it is not something limited to the current Labour government but is seemingly more systemic. I have attended Brisbane City Council events (currently LNP led) where councillors have celebrated their victory in poaching artists from the southern states, as if Brisbane artists were somehow not worth the investment or sub-standard. Yet, the only reason why Melbourne artists have such strong following or are able to provide evidence of quality outputs (or any outputs) is because of the strong support that the various councils show through generous grants programs for arts festivals and individual artists. If Denmark was the state of arts policy in Australia, then Shakespeare would well remark that there is something rotten and has been for over a decade. Arts funding has been corporatised in that organisations get the cash, not individuals.

    1. Yes but Labor is meant to be artist-friendly and the Qld Labor Govt discriminates against Qld artists. Using generalities isn’t helpful when you want actual action. BUT its the artists own fault for still voting Labor AGAINST there own interests.

      Just see how the recent Museum protests by artists OS have yielded at least some change. I mean the ones against Oil Comp sponsorship and those against the Sackler Family over Oxycontin deaths.

      It would take many artists to make the Qld Labor Govt change.



    Professor Smart is an acclaimed contemporary artist and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. She serves on the Board of the National Association of Visual Artists, the peak body representing artists. Professor Smart will bring significant knowledge of and experience in the contemporary visual arts sector to the Council.

    The Australian Government has appointed Mr Michael Gannon, Ms Terri Janke, the Hon Richard Alston AO, and Professor Sally Smart as members of the Council of the National Gallery of Australia for three-year terms.

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