The way forward for cultural policy

Public consultation is underway, but what hope is there for real ambition in cultural leadership?

In mid-May, at the weary end of an already protracted election campaign, then-shadow Secretary of State for the Arts Tony Burke took the stage in the Gershwin Room at the Espy Hotel in St Kilda. The room was more crowded than it had been in a few years; Pub gigs, like so much in the arts, were still recovering from the disruptions of COVID-19. The audience consisted mostly of members of Melbourne’s indie music scene, with a few other curious cultural workers, heads of funded institutions and arts journalists in search of politics, any politics. After years of coalition cuts and rolling culture wars—years in which the Department of Arts itself had been subsumed into a forgotten rump of the Department of Communications and Urban Infrastructure—each announcement of this portfolio offered hope.

Despite extensive campaign coverage, this event didn’t garner much attention: It’s a sad truth that while creative types are the content providers who shape and define culture, their fates and destinies rarely count as news. Those covering Burke’s speech were divided into those who were underwhelmed and those who were merely overwhelmed. Nine newspapers called it a “consult now, pay later” approach; less a policy than a “plan to develop a policy,” a criticism echoed by Communications and Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher. Friendlier committed arts publications – no doubt desperate for something to hold on to – more faithfully repeated Labour’s key talking points: “[getting] the industry quickly back on track”, “game changing” and a “new drive, a new direction and vision”.

It’s October now, and the Albanian government is looking at the barrel of a budget that will leave little room for yet-to-be-announced funding initiatives. The arts could reasonably expect a modest increase in funding – previously committed packages and the recovery of $83.7 million to the ABC – but further announcements to reassure Australia’s struggling creatives are likely to take longer. Speaking in the Gershwin Room in May, the ministerial candidate made a candid confession to the crowd: “I have no answers. You have the answers. And I will listen.”

So it’s time to listen. During July and August, Burke hosted townhall forums asking for feedback from the community. More than 1,200 contributions were submitted to the consultation process – writers and musicians, painters and filmmakers, artists and leading organizations of all kinds – each telling a story of hardship and trying to raise awareness of the challenges they faced. Expert committees and advisory committees were formed. A “comprehensive” roadmap was promised by the end of 2022.

This is not new territory. The government has pledged that its new policy – “to direct the skills and resources needed to transform and protect a diverse, vibrant and sustainable arts, entertainment and culture sector” – will be based on the Creative Australia policy from 2013, which itself is the product of more than six years of consultation. It’s as good a starting point as any. Creative Australia, the first comprehensive attempt to articulate a cultural framework since the Keating government’s Creative Nation of 1993, was long on declarations of motherhood and short on details, but the thrust was bold and declarative. It could easily have underpinned concrete investments in the years following its launch by then-Arts Secretary Simon Crean in March 2013. Unfortunately, just a week after that launch, Crean announced that he was shifting his support from Prime Minister Julia Gillard to Kevin Rudd. The leadership change failed, and Crean was immediately dismissed from the cabinet. Whatever impetus the fledgling cultural policy might have generated had evaporated before the starting streamers and balloons had even come down. At the end of 2013, Tony Abbott was Prime Minister.

After six years of calling for proposals, asking the sector to articulate what it values ​​and what it needs, planning a plan, he was back at the drawing board. Art found its future at the whim of day-to-day politics. And almost a decade later, we’re not just in those starting blocks again. Things are dramatically, drastically worse.

But Burke makes the right noises. In a recent interview with ABC Radio National, he laid out his overarching starting point: “When I talk about cultural politics, I start with the tenet that it’s not just about arts politics; it speaks to all departments … far from being a cultural policy that tells artists what to do, good cultural policy effectively has the art of talking to the whole government and saying, ‘This is how you can do things do better.’”

It is a lofty vision coupled with a set of priorities that build on the 2013 foundations. Not afraid to mix metaphor in search of a solution, this is a roadmap of pillars – five of them: Recognizing and Respecting First Nations Stories; reflects the diverse contribution of all Australians; understanding of the central position of the artist; supporting our cultural institutions; and reach the audience.

There is a longstanding challenge when it comes to advocating for the arts. On the one hand, there is an almost instinctive desire to defend art for art’s sake. We know deep down that art and artists are vital to any society. We reach for metaphor and rhetoric to become heroic about the intrinsic, indelible, inviolable value of the artistic and creative. There is a purity, a righteousness to this line of reasoning. Keep your cheesy neoliberal KPIs and instrumentalist justifications. Let our artists be artists: take risks, be crazy, free your imagination from the prosaic and the forbidden.

But reading the submissions also shows us the opposite instinct: the pragmatist. As much as there is a traditional resistance to reducing the value and funding of art to an economically rationalistic framework—how many people are employed, how many millions of dollars are pouring into the economy—this mindset, embodied by the pervasive “creative Industries,” a solidity that the arts justifies in terms the Treasury could understand.

The challenge for Burke and his advisory group, for journalists covering the consultation process, and for the roadmap itself is to hold these different approaches as equally true, equally valid, and mutually reinforcing. Pillars are fine, priorities matter, but the practical things must follow.

The history of arts policy over the past decade is not only a history of drastically reduced funding – by most calculations we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars – it is also a history of a virtually dissolved Australia Council, shrunken institutions, run-down universities (especially for the arts – and humanities). The new government cannot afford to think only of restoring cut funding, even in the unlikely event that it can find the money to do so. It is long past time to think about how we comprehensively and systemically fund, appreciate and support the arts in this country.

In all art forms, across the country, there is no shortage of structural problems: unreliable and erratic work; the discrepancy between individual artist funding and the funding of large institutions; Questions to assess artistic value without commercial viability. These are not new challenges. But 2022 requires art politics to be articulated in a world completely reconfigured by COVID. Old business models for arts organizations – hardly viable in pre-pandemic times – have been gutted: events have been cancelled, venues closed, audience appetites fundamentally altered. Conversations about the precariousness of work and the cost of living are ubiquitous. For those who work in art, they are inescapable.

The current environment does not reward or support a creative nation. If you are unsure where your next rent payment will come from, you are not taking any artistic risks. In such a context, art can only be made by those with the privilege of a safety net. And the more tenuous that survival becomes for the institutions employing these artists—the publisher or gallery owner, the venue booker or the festival programmer—the more they, in turn, follow their work with both eyes on the commercial. The result is a nation of creative timidity, artistic conservatism, and safe, boring, menial work.

There is room for hope. A sympathetic minister. A consultation. desire for reform. While Australia Council ActIt was not until June 1975 that the charter of incorporation was signed, confirming the legal status of the funding body, the announcement and the first interim appointments were made in January 1973. An ambitious government, responsive to the needs of the arts sector and the importance of reform, cannot be expected , solving great challenges with a single stroke of the pen. It will take time and change will be gradual.

But it would have been nice if, at the recent Jobs and Skills Summit, Labor Relations Secretary Tony Burke had taken the time to chat with his fellow Parliamentarian, Arts Secretary Tony Burke. Because apart from everything else, artistic work is work. As the Albanian government addresses the pressure on the cost of living and how it can support those in our workforce who are at risk of falling through the cracks, it needs to keep our artists in mind.

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