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How new arts minister Mitch Fifield can lead though innovation

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We now happily have a government for the 21st century. The Prime Minister is calling for innovation, no doubt with innovation in industry top of mind.
Innovation in industry is born of innovation in culture and society. And that is born, in important part, from innovation in the arts. People inventing art can give their whole being to creating something from nothing, seeing the world differently, breaking old rules and discovering new ones.
Senator Mitch Fifield, the new Minister for the Arts, is also the new Minister for Communications. On both counts, he needs to be knee-deep in innovation. The Communications portfolio depends on invention, especially of the problem-solving type. Through the arts portfolio, he can stimulate invention of the creating-something-from-nothing kind. He could harness thousands of our most creative minds to re-envision Australia both through specific works of art and through opening up the way that Australians think and live.
Alas, so far as the arts are concerned, Minister Fifield is also knee-deep in molasses. The previous Minister, Senator Brandis, has over the last two budgets cut the Commonwealth’s funding to the most creative body of artists by about half. Earlier this year, he took nearly 30% of the funds previously designated for Australia Council support to creative artists and placed them under his own direct control. His purpose was to give additional assistance to the major performing arts companies. These companies are important but not very innovative because of the financial realities of serving large, cautious audiences.
The possibly unintended consequences of this redirection of funds are dire. A new Australia Council briefing anticipates that the number of key (i.e. most important) organisations funded will approximately halve from 147 to 60-80. Imagine the effect of halving the number of football teams or buses, schools, supermarkets. Only about 10% of project funding applications will be successful. Most of this damage will not be repaired through Senator Brandis’s new fund because it is not intended to support such activities.
We would like to see the new Minister take charge of his Arts portfolio and to an extent align it with the government priority for innovation. He has the prerogative of setting broad policy for the Australia Council. He can introduce an important priority for the Council: to support innovation in the arts and in their influence on people and society. This can be given renewed emphasis in the Council’s overall strategy. He can restore the funds taken from the Council so that it has the capacity to implement the policy. The Australia Council should be the conduit for implementation of as much arts policy and funding as possible so that there can be an overarching national strategy that is well managed and has outcomes that can be monitored.
As Minister for both Communications and the Arts, Senator Fifield can effect some coupling of policies in the two portfolios. Increasingly, the arts are created and delivered digitally. The NBN will create opportunities for artists, even performing artists, to live and work outside the cities and serve both local and distant audiences. (It will also be able to deliver arts education, expertly formulated and managed, of a quality mostly now available only in private schools. This could have input from the arts portfolio.)
Minister Fifield could take up one of Senator Brandis’s ideas: to set up a consultative committee with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to tour Australian art and artists overseas. There can be three members of the committee, each representing a different objective. DFAT would wish to build Australia’s reputation as a highly sophisticated nation through presentation of our best artistic accomplishments (as do most advanced countries) and in the same way, support Australian trade initiatives. The Australia Council would seek to build the international reputation of Australian arts and artists and additionally, ensure that the projects and artists are chosen with a view to building international careers and market penetration. The Arts Minister could retain some of the Brandis funds and assign them to this program; he could serve as honest broker, attempt to build the DFAT investment and bring in the specialist viewpoint of the Communications portfolio.
The new government offers opportunities for new beginnings. Minister Brandis was at best careless of the concerns of his arts constituency and its audiences. But there is no reason that the government and the artists cannot share objectives. There are wounds to be healed but a positive approach by Minister Fifield could have a dynamic result.

5 responses to “How new arts minister Mitch Fifield can lead though innovation

  1. I’m sorry but it is naive in the extreme to think that simply taking Australian art overseas will somehow help in trade. The international art market has a surplus of art product! Google Fiona Hall at Venice, her work seems to have hardly made any interest at all except for a new pavillion. Look again at the NGA Australia at the Royal Academy London! Nothing. Ben Quilty at Saatchi Gallery….not a sausage! As for huge and expensive international exhibitions past well I work in Berlin and no one can name any Australian artist except Tracey Moffatt and that was from years ago.
    So giving OzCo back its money will NOT cause innovation. Restored funding will just mean back to the same decision making that has failed individual Australian artists for decades. I call upon the new Minister for the arts to conduct a proper inquiry into what has been a national systemic failure by public servants for decades! Take a look at our art journals. Why would any international possibly want to look at those?! And that’s just the beginning.
    Innovation!! You certainly won’t find it in Aaustralian art!

  2. It is pointless speculating about what or what not Senator Fifield will do with the Arts portfolio. On the public record, he has said ‘you can’t just isolate tax, or welfare, or work reform – you really have to do all three.’
    Why would Fifield restore the cuts to the Australia Council or – as the author suggest – increase public expenditure – without looking at taxation arrangements for the arts as well?
    This line of thinking reminds me of the Save Super Art campaign in 2010. At one of the first industry meetings, a well-known gallery owner urged us to change the name to Expand Super Art! But at the end of the day, the only reason the government did not ban artworks from super funds outright was because at the last minute I was able to draw up audit guidelines to allow artworks to be treated as investments. Those audit guidelines have never been followed, however five years later, the same industry figures are complaining about the same issues without addressing their business practices.
    As boring as it may sound, enforcing professional standards for both arts practitioners and ‘art market professionals’ (it is difficult to type that without laughing) is a necessary prerequisite to engaging in fantasies about how innovative Australian art is.
    A good start would to be legislate Status of the Artist laws to stop all the poseurs out there pretending they are artists. This should be accompanied by mandated standards for dealers to make sure they have trust accounts, are covered by professional indemnity insurance and undertake continuing education. These are the sorts of things that other industries in the 21st Century require of their participants.

    1. Hi Michael
      Personally all I want is the freedom to, not have ‘special status’ as an ‘artist’. I buy stuff, do work on it , sell the results ( and pay my tax), the rest of it is no business of government imposed definitions etc.
      Art ceased to exist, as a meaningful category , a long time ago. The whole idea of the Arts as a official government category is so out of date as to be, almost , reactionary.

      1. Hi John,
        I take your point about your practice. I am less concerned about artists than dealers. Have a look at a recent decision in the AAT (15-266MR) where a Sydney accountant was banned from providing financial services for 6 years for:
        – making investment decisions without a licence
        – had a lack of appreciation for the regulatory framework
        – provided information likely to mislead or deceive
        In the art market, consumers only have the common law or criminal courts to redress similar malfeasance.
        In relation to whether art is a product, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. One thing I know though is that a lot of people are involved in the buying and selling of artworks and they aren’t all doing it for the love of art.
        My point is that, in the year 2015, surely we can do better to protect consumers and encourage more people to engage in the art market – whether they are buying to decorate their apartment or building a collection.

  3. Thanks, Richard, for your words. Senator Fifield could look at and repeal a big mistake: guaranteed funding to the Major Performing Arts Group. (That this was put into place before Brandis muscled in doesn’t matter. No-one’s ever made any case for it.)

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