Melbourne's La Mama theatre is one recent high profile victim of funding cuts. Pic: Mat Connolley

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It’s time to create a new approach for the arts

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Outlining the ruthless cuts to many organisations previously funded under the Australia Council’s four-year grant scheme, Ben Eltham’s “simple explanation” is that it is a “failure of imagination”.

That may well be so, in which case, let’s not waste any more time bemoaning the progressive dismantling of the Australia Council’s capacity to provide essential support for the arts. Instead, let’s encourage those with flourishing and clever imaginations to work out how to turn this around.

As Eltham says, the reduction in arts funding has been happening for years, and I’d add that it’s been happening with very few challenges (Eltham’s voice is often solo). Not many people who work in the arts are free of the need to toe the line, which is why so few voices are raised to condemn governmental decimation of support for arts and culture, until it directly impacts them. Strong newspapers used to have experienced arts journalists on staff who were able to query and challenge governmental decisions on behalf of the arts sector – that’s pretty much disappeared now too.

The lack of effective challenge from within the “arts industry” has been accommodated (that is, aided and abetted) by the almost complete acceptance of models of accountability that make ticking boxes mandatory. Alongside that is the conveniently worthy-sounding but actually dodgy idea of “sustainability” as a backup reason to condemn some grant-seekers to the “failed” list. Imagine telling Vincent Van Gogh his sunflowers weren’t sustainable!

But I don’t want to go down the track of pointing out the way some of those now stamping their feet and rending their garments may have been complicit, by omission, in the rise and rise of this dodgy, subservient, dog-eat-dog, obsequious and competitive cultural model – sorely tempting though it may be. Instead, I’d like to suggest that, if there’s been a failure of imagination, here’s an idea. Why don’t arts organisations and cultural thinkers right across the spectrum put the brakes on this jalopy running downhill at increasing speed, bumping over speed traps and throwing its passengers into the ditch along the way? Why don’t we figure that, like the energy sources that have serviced society for the last century, the jalopy is, or should be, obsolete?

Yes, the unfairness of who gets what is going to continue to cause despair and I doubt we can expect to change that. What we could change is the idea that cultivating the arts has to be a competition for funds, for audiences, for success.

It will certainly require well-researched expertise and courageous sharing of knowledge to make any idea for change palatable. So entrenched is the dogma that culture is a competition for money, attention, privilege and status, we apply it at all levels and to all “production”. A journal editor referring to other journals as “arch rivals”, as happened in the wake of the shock news about defunding, is a logical outcome.

What we could change is the idea that cultivating the arts has to be a competition for funds, for audiences, for success.

We need to hear from the kind of thinkers who are able to push forward into speculating on a way out of what Ben Eltham calls this “cultural bloodbath” we’re now witnessing. It’s not just a descriptive naming word we need, of course: we need a book, a manual, a treatise. But let’s begin with a word, something that gathers up ideas about mutuality, cooperation, sharing, respect and altruism.

Ah yes, I hear someone say, but it’s human nature to compete. Just look at the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey! When homo erectus saw the value in strong-arming the opposition with a few competitive battles to the death, off we went – the dawn of civilisation, leading to much conflict and loss of topsoil, as well as to opera and poetry.

Maybe we should call that careening jalopy I mentioned “Myth”, and at the same time please can we acknowledge all the brilliant work done by writers on understanding how myths are constructed and why, and for whose benefit. Acknowledge and learn. Why on earth we think “human nature” is immutable when everything else is subject to constant change is a mystery fairly easy to solve. It’s part of the Myth and supports it.

As well as his simple reason for the state we’re in, this failure of imagination as he puts it, Eltham says the more complex reasons for the cultural bloodbath occurring now include “historical precedent, conservative antipathy to arts funding, and enduring beliefs that artists are not really deserving and that culture is not a real industry”.

We’re not going to change any of that by continuing with the same old thinking. Hard on the heels of the Australia Council funding cut announcement the Copyright Council announced the “release” (like a flight of doves) of $375,000, and, yep, “oh phew, goodie, yay” rose the cries from the little crowd of supplicants gathered beneath the palace windows. Soon the same little crowd will start eyeing off the supplicant next to them, jostling with sharp elbows to force their way forward to catch the attention of the Prince-of-Dollars on the balcony above.

Calling the arts an “industry”, and totting up the dollars it adds to the economy, hasn’t worked. Clearly.

I reckon, as I’ve said before, most of the people who work in arts bureaucracies really do try to be fair, to be helpful and to support culture and the arts. I do think, however, that box-ticking and asking people to match requests to the currently approved expression of worth is a dishonest way of managing funding. A lottery system would be less fraught. If you’ve got credible management in place, into the hat your number goes, and fortune rules the outcome, rather than some spurious calculation of merit followed by even more spurious oversight by bureaucracies under the watch of politicians.

A lottery approach wouldn’t do much to reduce or reverse the Australian suspicion that art is an elitist wank, but it might at least take some of the sting out of failure to get the palace-balcony nod of approval. With that out of the way, maybe a different form of cooperative organisation could emerge and develop, privileging a pragmatic philosophy that works on the language we use to describe whatever we value in the arts. The language we’ve been using is, you’d have to say, a failure. Calling the arts an “industry”, and totting up the dollars it adds to the economy, hasn’t worked. Clearly.

So, either we rat-run the same corridors or we take to the skies. I am sure there are people who can help us think about this, people whose wings haven’t been clipped too hard by working in the arts industry, as we have been convinced to think of it.

We need to take flight. This image, provided by Colum McCann in that superb book Apeirogon, suggests how that might work if we do it as a flock, so to speak:

While in flight, birds position themselves in order to gain lift from the bird in front. As it flies, the leading bird pushes down the air with its wings. The air is then squeezed around the outer edge of the wings so that, at the tip of the wing, the air moves and an upwash is created.
By flying at the wing tip of the bird in front, the follower rides the upwash and preserves energy. The birds time their wingbeats carefully, resulting sometimes in a V-shape, or a J, or an inversion of one or the other.
In storms and crosswinds the birds adapt and create new shapes – power curves and S-formations and even figures of eight.

Upwash: a social method of cooperation applicable to arts and culture whereby, when challenged by storms and crosswinds, arts organisations are able to adapt and create new shapes. Better than washed up, no?

18 responses to “It’s time to create a new approach for the arts

  1. Great insight & many thanks
    With over 55 years experience in the arts, I feel there may be a new way to position Culture& the Arts as a regenerative ecosystem cultures that are core to our progressive Australian Identity I have been in discussion recently with many artists, designers, agriculturists, philosophers , social & urban planners. There is a potential in this collective intelligence
    Perhaps we now can move on with this concept !
    I would enjoy a discussion with you sometime 0408291105

    1. Many are hopeful that the COVID-19 experience will change society. Personally I think the neo-liberal agenda will snapback with force as governments seek to manage increased debts without taxing their ‘mates’. So for me we do now have to ‘fight’ a culture way from the grassroots through encouraging local engaged communities of creatives across the art forms, working with the way arts & culture are part of a thriving and vital local community, with a focus on wellbeing. I am personally working on this idea through my local organisation, BMCAN (Blue Mountains Creative Arts Organisation). If you are interested, contact me: Barbara

  2. “… the Copyright Council announced the “release” (like a flight of doves) of $375,000, and, yep, “oh phew, goodie, yay” rose the cries from the little crowd of supplicants gathered beneath the palace windows”

    Loved this Rosemary. I have been having my own battles with the Copyright Agency and the way the Cultural Fund has its favourites. In fact in a conversation with the woman who runs the Cultural Fund she told me “Well we all make decisions in live” meaning I made the wrong decision to be an artist. What would you expect from someone who worked for Australia Council for 20 years! This woman is far more for literary things than fine art. In fact its only been a year or two since Viscopy was rolled into Copyright Agency. I don’t think the Agency has got to grips with Visual arts.

    With Copyright Agency I have been fighting a losing battle to get them to go after the big art institutions who just refuse to pay Australian artists copyright fees. I mean NGV, AGNSW, QAGOMA, NGA and then right on down the line to Regional Galleries. The Cultural Fund actually gives money to these institutions who actively deprive the Copyright Agency of funds.

    Basically the ways the Institutions float copyright fees is:

    A. They have no contract at all and just won’t pay (AGNSW, NGA, NPG etc)
    B. They get artists to sign for use of the images for “PR and Education” BUT don’t mention For Free and then take this signing of use of images as an out to not pay (NGV, QAGOMA etc.)
    C. The institution is honest and actually asks for FREE use of images (MCA).

    Basically this non payment of copyright fees to individual artists is a prime example of how the Govt Art sector (which is most of Australian Art) feels individual artists are worthless. Just as their huge salaries are maintained. I would love to know what that woman who runs the Cultural Fund is paid! Not For Profits have no scrutiny as they have “rubber stamp” compliant Boards..

    1. Hi Scott
      I worked in Rights & Reproductions with two leading museums (including one you’ve cited) for a total of 15 years. My main responsibility was licensing images (of both collection and loaned works) for reproduction. You seem to be suggesting underhand dealing on the part of many museums, implying that artists are being taken for a ride. Unless things have gone downhill rapidly since I left the sector five years ago, I would say museums deal in good faith with artists re copyright and usage: directly via a non-commercial use licence (which generally requests free use for a listed range of purposes), or through their agent/gallery, or through Copyright Agency (Viscopy as was), if they are signed with them, paying the scheduled fees. I would be both surprised and saddened if this is no longer the case. Many colleagues and I worked very hard to set up best-practice procedures in this area.
      Best regards

      1. Hi

        Firstly I want to thank Daily review for publishing my comment in full. I honestly didn’t expect it as I am “strident”.

        NO Alice! I have NEVER received a payment from an Art Institution such as AGNSW, NGA, QAGOMA, NGV etc. EVER! AND I have many images online just look. AND I was with Viscopy for some years. I once got a very generous payment from Logan Art Gallery for the use of one of my images on a banner for a show they had.

        I do charge these Publicly Funded Institutions with underhand tactics. Proof is many just won’t answer emails at all. However the NGA thanked me for bringing the issue to their “attention”. I contacted the Federal Ombudsman and also some State ones to varying success. The NGV dodged the overall issue and just spoke of my own individual case and told me to contact Copyright Agency…to no avail. I refuse to go cap in hand to Copyright Agency so they now ignore me…in their ivory castle and high exec wages.

        “..a non-commercial use licence (which generally requests free use for a listed range of purposes)”. NO. ONLY MCA used the actual word FREE in correspondence with me, at least they were honest. The wording for QAGOMA, NGV etc is something like “Can the images be used for education etc purposes” THERE IS NO mention of FREE in these contracts at all. That would have raised a red flag to me as the MCA did for me and many others it seems.

        SO I stand by everything I said in the first comment. To me this state of affairs mirrors exactly what Govt waged art people and their masters think og individual Australian artists. That we are worthless!

  3. From the late 1960s when the Gorton government began to tentatively assist the arts which was prompted by the new wave of Australian story telling in drama, fine art, writing, we have had to fight for recognition. In the beginning, new Australian drama was seen as unusual, a novelty, a breath of fresh air, provocative, all these things but never secure.
    As neoliberalism became more and more entrenched within the halls of power, conservative forces have resented promoting a government assisted Australian culture. It has increasingly been an inconvenient presence within the conservative portfolio. For free marketeers funding the Arts just does not make economic sense. The idea of a living wage for arts practitioners has always made politicians uncomfortable.
    We lot who have endeavoured to make a living in this industry have always had to fight for recognition. That is the nature of the beast. However over the past decade or so our representative rank and file organisations such as Equity, NAVA, the Australian Society of Authors, the Australian Writers Guild, the Australian Directors Guild and others have either become exhausted or bored with fighting for a respectable recognition. This might be as a result in some organisations failing to attract new members or perhaps the new generation have been too passive and individualistic.
    Whether we like it or not, it is always going to be a fight for survival. When the dust settles from the COVID-19 crisis we might have to take to the streets again just as we did twenty years ago. It is simply a case of just how strongly we feel about our industry and how important we feel it is to us and vital to a modern Australian dreaming.

    1. What I keep puzzling over Bruce is what it will take to take back the initiative from those conservative forces. I read absolutely brilliat RESPONSES to the mess we’re in, but it’s arguing on terms that are created and controlled by the “opposition”. Yes please, let’s take to the streets but it has to be done in new ways; otherwise, it’s nostalgia that can’t apply pressure in a very different “ecosystem, as Sue Clark puts it. Thankyou so much for responding here. A modern Australian arts culture is vital, as you say.

    2. Look, the “arts” has devolved into a bastion of “professionalisation”, meaning more and more Uni grads want jobs in Arts admin etc. This is where most of the $$$ goes now. The $$ rarely goes to the actual cultural producers. The tail now wags the dog.

      I will give an example. In the early 80s The Institute of Modern Art in Bris (then the leading “progressive” space) had two paid staff, the Director and the Secretary. Maybe some people were paid casually to help install and gallery sit BUT I think it was mainly volunteers who did that. The IMA then did many MORE shows that the IMA puts on now. AND certainly the quality was the same. This mirrored how Contemporary Art was then, a much smaller “space” where real interaction happened.

      NOW the IMA has ten paid staff and does less shows a year. This one fact says volumes about Govt priorities. You see Govt likes institutions and full time waged staff as that’s “real jobs”. Artists don’t have real jobs so….

  4. Whitlam’s threefold contribution to the cultural sector in Australia was not just relaunching the Australian Council for the Arts, created by Holt as an advisory body, and rebranding it as the Australia Council, it was empowering the Council to make grants of public funds and, decisively, moving decision making into the hands of art-form specific boards, largely composed of practioners. It was an organisation not only ‘for the arts’, but ‘of the arts’.
    The Whitlam government implicitly said the cultural sector could be trusted to disperse public money in a purposeful and responsible manner. The Council is no longer ‘of the arts’, and, in recent years, as it has put proselytising for the arts to government to one side, arguably not longer ‘for the arts’.
    Unlike many government agencies, the Australia Council was specifically empowered ‘to furnish advice to the Government of the Commonwealth, either of its own motion or upon request made to it by the Minister, on matters connected with the promotion of the arts or otherwise relating to the performance of its functions. (Australia Council Act, 1975, as amended, Section 5 (c)).
    The Australia Council Act 2013 made extensive changes to the Council, including the elimination of the art-form specific boards and, as crucially, eliminated the authority of the Council to proselytising for the arts to government. This authority was replaced with the rather limp instruction to ‘to provide information and advice to the Commonwealth Government on matters connected with the arts or the performance of the Council’s functions’ (Australia Council Act, 2013, as amended, Section 9 (f)).
    At the time of the amendments, Mr Rupert Myer, Chair of the Australia Council, said ‘The new Act updates the Australia Council’s functions and governance structure in a manner that reinforces the centrality of the artist in the programs and support we provide.’
    His optimism was misplaced. The present organisation seems increasingly, not fit for purpose, at least as Whitlam saw it as ‘a council of the arts’ and ‘for the arts’.
    There is now no trust in the cultural sector to make autonomous decisions in the interests of Australia culture: artists have been reduced to supplicants, and those that raise voices of protest, have their public funds cut.
    Regrettably, in the present political climate, change is unlikely under either a Labor or LNP government. Though many more people eke out a living in the cultural sector today, is Australia culturally richer today, after almost fifty years of government benevolence to the sector?

    1. Thanks Vincent, Good to some insight around those very questionable changes in Australia Council Act 2013 (under Labor Arts Minister Simon Crean.) that abandoned ‘policy’ development for just more feudalisation of the sector.

      1. Let’s face it Labor is now just totally uninterested in Arts. Last election Tony Burke came up with something for popular music because…he likes it.

        Only The Greens now take the arts and artists seriously

    2. WELL why does no one mention the absolute scandal of Australia’s Fine Arts Venice nepotism. I don’t need to recount it here as the brave and brilliant John Kelly has on this very site.

      AND John’s commentary is echoed here.

      I also complained to the Fed Ombudsman about this but it seems that Australia Council’s absolute denials were enough to stop any scrutiny. REMEMBER WE all let this nepotism happen.

  5. The Times newspaper recently reported on extensive self censorship in the Arts in the UK. Only correct ideas get funded. The Australia Council is a keystone of the Art Academy here, effectively contributing to a monoculture of ideas and projects.

    1. Yes. Nurturing those people and projects that have, in our colonialist past, been completely left out of cultural thinking is important, and the first priority. Balancing that against tradition and heritage expertise as well as risky innovation shouldn’t be impossible, you’d think. But maybe the problem has been that the value-system behind the structuring of our Australia Council is out of date, so the contemporary model is on unfirm/infirm foundations. Oof, sorry Mark! you got me thinking…

    1. I couldn’t agree more. The desire to change the hijacking of arts subsidy in Australia by elites has occurred across some 30 years, with many opportunities for change repeatedly ignored by the colonial cultural behemoth and its patrons – the government arts sector supplicants.
      Every effort to include mechanisms for wider access thwarted by the arts elite, again
      The Foundation for the Artist (failed, 2010) – the work of an impressive team of cultural thinkers – could this be resurrected and implemented? But importantly, why didn’t it get up?
      Events in 2014, to address ‘the closed shop’ regime, thwarted by advocate ‘group think’ to sustain the ‘closed shop’…. little wonder a public increasingly not fond of supporting government funded arts – you have to ask why?
      ‘A New Approach’, (think tank launched in 2018) what a disappointment that has been, academics duplicating Australia Council spin, and ignoring public patronage funded testing of ‘high order public value’ modelling for cultural production. Ever tried engaging with this little club, they have all the answers, with no change in sight.

      I recently returned from refreshing meetings in Berlin and Paris, to discuss our local discovery trialling of civic works, which reclaim the arts and reshape democracy and our engagement was acknowledged and connecting around innovation and ideas.
      I’m so thankful of those peers in Europe,

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