Monday, July 18, 2016

The big picture and the long view – creating a cultural future

The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic cultural policy or overview guiding the Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build wide-ranging alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture.

On the eve of Britain's entry into the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. They could as well have been uttered about World War 2, as fascism transformed Europe. In our times, as the world heads further and further towards the dead end offered by neo-liberalism and the racism and intolerance unleashed in the reaction against it, those words keep echoing in my head. As the whole world makes big choices, let’s hope we can avoid the slippery slope to a place we won’t like and certainly won't recognise – though our parents and grandparents might.

Arts and culture deals with fundamental values for our society and through its economic impact helps put food on the plate - it even designs the plate. The big picture and long view is crucial for its future.

The never-ending election campaign
The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government – for some reason the word 'unrepeatable' springs to mind. If this is a mandate for much at all I’d hate to see what being told to piss off looks like.

Now we’re in a new three year world where anything that looks like a minority is a candidate for discrimination – unless it’s a minority government or a minority party, of course. The mixed result from the elections says a lot about the state of contemporary Australia, confirming something I've repeatedly said - Australia might look like a go-ahead country sailing brightly into its future but it is in fact two countries heading in opposite directions.

‘Now we’re in a new world where anything that looks like a minority is a candidate for discrimination – unless it’s a minority government or a minority party’

The election count dragged on because of the counting of postal and absentee votes and there was endless discussion of their deciding impact on the final result. It’s these votes that sum up one of the key issues of this election, as it was of the Brexit vote – generational differences. Absentee votes, which tend to favour more forward-looking parties, are usually cast by younger voters who are travelling away from home. In contrast postal votes, which tend to favour the Coalition, are cast by older people going nowhere. Perhaps one consolation in this election might be the recognition that in one of those rare bonuses of ageing, it is highly likely that those heading in one direction will die much earlier than those heading in the other.

Drama fit for a main stage
The final outcome was a drama fit for a main stage. While first term governments have been tossed out before, it’s still not that common. When Turnbull became Prime Minister he could have won in a landslide. Instead as it became clear that, apart from nuances, he was not going to change policies at all, his popularity plummetted. What amazes me is the complete lack of insight of many Coalition politicians. Parts of the crazy coalition within the Coalition are convinced that they would have won easily, if only they still had Tony Abbott fighting the good fight at their head.

What they don’t get is that they lost so many seats and the enthusiasm for smaller parties rose to unprecedented levels precisely because they hadn’t moved far enough away from those dead end policies based on unfairness. In fact, without too much effort, you could characterise the policies as fundamentally ‘un-Australian’. Why is there surprise that voters rejected them? Instead they are claiming a mandate – for everything. This includes both good and bad, changes to health, education and research, more hounding of unions and of course, the changes in the arts they have established and entrenched.

‘What amazes me is the complete lack of insight of many Coalition politicians, convinced they would have won easily if only they still had Tony Abbott fighting the good fight at their head’

Let’s just hope that the Opposition, some of the small parties and the independents keep the Government honest and relatively inert. How sad a comment on contemporary government when the best we can hope is that they will be ineffectual, so they do as little damage as possible.

What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? I will try to expand on some of these during the course of the year, but this attempts to give an outline of the overall picture.

Getting by without arts and culture
It was clear from the election that the Coalition Government, while not ignoring the arts and culture sector entirely, thought it could get by without it. Now the same government is back, will it add this group to the range of voters that need to be placated? Probably not. I wouldn’t be expecting any new initiatives any time soon but perhaps more importantly, I doubt there will be any more tinkering over the next three years. In the world of arts and culture, after three years of chaos, the most likely scenario is three years of inertia – unfortunately with the results of the chaos still firmly entrenched.

‘After three years of chaos, the most likely scenario is three years of inertia’

During the election, despite starting with a policy-free zone (see ‘Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?’), arts (though not so much culture) became a reasonably high profile issue – not without considerable work by many. What was missing, though, was a strategic, coherent, wide-ranging approach to arts and culture, which linked it to broader social and economic agendas (see ‘Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda).

Long term strategy and a broad engagement
The need for the arts and culture sector to develop a long term strategy and a broad engagement with Australians is now more important than ever (see ‘Arts fightback – breaking out of the goldfish bowl’). Ironically the changed nature of the national Parliament makes increasingly urgent what should have been happening more broadly all along. The wider need to engage with all Australians is reflected more immediately in the need to engage across the wide range of tiny and micro parties and politicians that now represent Australians, to try to have adopted the best possible positions on arts and culture.

As part of this, we also need to encourage the Labor Party, as the largest party with an arts policy, to further develop the policy, to deal with broader issues of culture and to better integrate it with arts-related aspects of its other policies, such as its Indigenous Affairs policy. A policy that generates a specific reaction to a symptom (such as the run-down of Trove), rather than addressing the underlying cause (the misnamed ‘efficiency dividend’ being applied to small cultural institutions) has room for improvement.

What’s missing and what’s needed
For an outline of what’s missing and what’s needed in terms of the arts policies of various political parties, see ‘Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy’ and ‘Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?

The looming quadruple whammy
We are entering a period where there are a range of major factors which will impact adversely on Australia’s arts and culture. These are:

1. Government arts and culture funding has been steadily trimmed over the last three years. On top of this it is generally not being adjusted for inflation – the so-called indexation of funds is not happening and hasn’t been for a while. In effect this is the same as a cut on top of cuts. See ‘Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding’.

2. There seems to be an emerging tendency for governments to move away from organisational or operational funding support towards one-off project funding. For an outline of the implications of this, see ‘Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?’

3. The cumulative impact of the efficiency dividend on Government arts and culture agencies, like the national cultural institutions, is cutting deeper and deeper. This is particularly damaging because of its cumulative effect, in the same way compound interest works, except in reverse. Each reduction is a reduction on the previous reduction. For more detail about how it works, my article about its impact on the national cultural institutions spells it out ’Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy’.

4. While arts and culture funding is stagnating – or dropping in real terms – Australia’s population and economy continues to grow steadily, further reducing the ability of programs and organisations involved in support for arts and culture to respond to the larger demands of a bigger nation. See ‘Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts’.

All four of these factors are occurring in a context where there is no strategic Government policy or overview to guide decisions or initiatives. See ‘Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less’.

Cumulative and compounding
Over time all four of these factors will stack up and mutually reinforce each other. Worst of all about this decline is that it’s not as if any of these programs or organisations have ever been massive ones by any measure, so these cuts have been made to what are extremely modest and lean programs and organisations to start with. The long-term structural weakness in the national budget has not resulted from over-spending by any of these programs or organisations. If and when that structural weakness is corrected, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see these programs or organisations being increased again to their former level.

‘Over time all three of these factors will stack up and mutually reinforce each other and the damage will be disastrous, cumulative and compounding’

Combined with a growing distaste for ‘experts’, that is for learning, intellectual enquiry and creativity, and a steady running down of our research and education capabilities, we are in a for a rough decade.

Here’s my suggestions for surviving the future and building a culture Australia deserves:

1. In our own arts and culture backyard always focus far more broadly than ‘the arts’ to consider things like cultural heritage, cultural diversity, intangible cultural heritage and Indigenous traditional cultural expressions, including languages, and creative industries

As part of this the focus on the economic role of arts and culture needs to be seen as similar to the focus on its community role – both spring from recognition that arts and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.

For how the central role arts and culture plays in Australia’s social and economic life makes it imperative it is included on the main national agenda, recognising its integral relationship with major economic and social factors such as economic development, education, innovation, community resilience, social and community identity and health and wellbeing, see ‘Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?

For why recognising the importance and all-encompassing nature of intangible cultural heritage is crucial, see ‘Valuing the intangible’.

For how our national cultural institutions are being wound down, see ‘Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy’.

For how creative industries and Indigenous culture are interrelated, see ‘Real jobs in an unreal world.’

For the importance of the community movement maintaining and reviving Indigenous languages, see ‘The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement’ and ‘The hidden universe of Australia's own languages’.

2. Beyond the arts and culture sector, aim to build the broadest possible alliances with other social and economic groups, whether community organisations, organisations working in the area of health and wellbeing, human rights organisations or businesses for whom creative industries have relevance

For the absolute centrality of looking beyond the arts and culture sector to build broad alliances, see ‘Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture’.

For the importance of arts and culture and creative industries to the knowledge economy of the future, see ‘Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities’.

For the potential role of arts and culture and creative industries in strengthening regional communities, see ‘The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival’.

For how the major political parties are recognising the changing impact of the knowledge economy on their traditional voter base, see ‘Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

3. Above all, never forget the fundamental values of democracy, cultural diversity, human rights and respect for Indigenous cultures which underpin the history, meaning and aspirations of arts and cultural life in Australia

For how Australia was once seen as the democratic hope of the world and can be again, see ‘Land of hope’.

For why Australia is not one country but two going in opposite directions, see ‘A navigator on a Lancaster bomber’.

For how we can’t understand Australia’s arts and culture without recognising the way its history is intertwined with Indigenous cultures and languages, see ‘The Magna Carta – still a work in progress’.

4. Taking this perspective forward, the arts and culture sector can draw on its immense creativity and power to imagine a new kind of world and to prepare the ground by expressing imaginatively the ideas which could underpin it

This needs to happen in conjunction with the partners of the arts and culture sector from other crucial social and economic sectors. This is not simply about analysis and logical arguments but about a combination of those and the force of emotion. It’s not enough to argue the case for a new way of dealing with things, people have to believe it is possible and feel in some way it is likely.

For why strategic policy is crucial, rather than simply ad hoc and unreliable funding support from governments, see ‘Arts funding – it’s not all about the money’.

For the importance of engaging broadly, keeping our gaze firmly on the big picture and looking for future sustainability beyond government, see ’Arts fightback – breaking out of the goldfish bowl’.

For how arts and culture can contribute to new ways of seeing and doing things, see ‘Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support’.

The arts and culture sector is adept at communication. It deals in the expression of fundamental values for our society. Its tools of trade are language and images, stories, symbolism and emotion. One of the reasons the British monarchy has survived and thrived so long is that it understands the full power of symbolism and art and culture. This is an equally crucial understanding needed for our times and our country. There’s one last thing. Since calls for Royal Commissions seem to be flavour of the month, I suggest a much better one – a Royal Commission into the neglect of our arts and culture.

See also

Why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy? 
‘Can Australia successfully navigate the treacherous and confusing times in which we live? Understanding the crucial importance of our cultural diversity to our cultural, social and economic future will be essential. Applying that in the policies and practices that shape our future at all levels across Australia can ensure we have a bright, productive and interesting 21st Century. An important part of this are the political parties, major and minor, that are increasingly negotiating the compromises that shape our world. The recent launch by the Labor Party of a new group, Labor for the Arts, could be an important development. Combining as it does a focus from an earlier time on both arts and multiculturalism, it could potentially open the way for some innovative and forward-thinking policy’, Understanding why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy?

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future 
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, caused by lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding and falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy
‘With the ongoing malaise due to the absence of national arts and cultural policy in Australia, it's worth reminding ourselves what beneficial impact good policy can have. To understand the power of policy to make an impact in the world, it’s worthwhile contrasting two recent major Australian Government cultural policies – the National Cultural Policy and the National Indigenous Languages Policy. This helps illuminate how cultural policy can promote the long view, innovation, breadth and leadership. Both policies showed that more important than funding or specific initiatives was the overall strategic vision and the way in which it attempted to place culture not just on the main agenda, but somewhere near the centre of the main agenda’, Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy.

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity
‘Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It helps ensure innovation flourishe, because where cultures intersect, differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged. This is essential to the new clever and clean industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. The national Indigenous cultural programs play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture. What is clear is that these programs have been affected by the range of cuts as part of the search for savings since the Coalition Government took office. Funding community organisations for services government would otherwise have to provide is a great way to get things on the cheap. If you don’t fund them at all, it’s even cheaper’, Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity.

Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?
‘In this election Australians are voting on a great range of important issues. It could be a moment where we choose between the future and the past but it is never as simple as that. In this mix it’s all too easy for Australia’s arts and culture to come in second best – or probably more like third or fourth best, or worse. The problem is that while we have good solid policy offerings by those parties that actually have arts policies, no-one seems to be painting the big picture, one that threads arts and culture through the whole array of policies in an integrated way. We need a big policy that ties together all the disparate areas that arts and culture flows into’, Vote 1 Australian arts and culture – who is painting the big picture?

Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy
‘In the arts, from a virtual policy-free zone, we’ve now got policies – not as many as we could have hoped, but enough to be going on with. Some of them might even get implemented. Importantly, the others will help to frame the debate and offer ideas for the future. Those parties that have arts policies offer good solid and productive proposals which, if implemented, would lead to definite improvement for Australia’s arts and culture. However, that’s just the starting point’, Arts, culture and a map of the future – the limits of arts policy.

Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?
‘A policy and the understanding of issues that leads to its adoption, provides arts and culture with a stature that underpins funding by providing a rationale for support. Otherwise funding will always be ad hoc and insecure, piecemeal, project-based, intermittent and at the mercy of whim and fashion. We have to get arts and culture to the stage where it is seen like public health or education and debated accordingly’, Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?

Banish the bland – Kim Williams spells out a positive Australia 
‘Australia needs more far-sighted strategic vision and discussion and less of the self-serving waffle we get from too many of our politicians. The creative and intellectual capacity of our people is central to a bright, ambitious and optimistic future and essential to avoid a decline into irrelevance, according to Kim Williams, former media executive and composer. He is an Australian who values ideas and his vision for a positive Australia is firmly focused on our artists, scientists and major cultural and scientific institutions’, Banish the bland – Kim Williams spells out a positive Australia.

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity 
‘Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It helps ensure innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect, differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged. This is essential to the new clever and clean industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. The national Indigenous cultural programs play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture. What is clear is that these programs have been affected by the range of cuts as part of the search for savings since the Coalition Government took office. Funding community organisations for services government would otherwise have to provide is a great way to get things on the cheap. If you don’t fund them at all, it’s even cheaper’, Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity.

Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding? 
‘In the flurry of recent changes to national arts funding arrangements we need to be concerned at what might be the beginning of a bigger trend – the tendency for government to withdraw from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding. This creeping trend makes it ever harder for organisations to find the long term operational funding which small arts and cultural organisations need to keep their doors open so they can deliver base level frontline services’, Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support 
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
‘National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwhile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important’, Arts funding – it’s not all about the money.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding ‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

2 comments:

  1. The past year has shown that the 'arts' (whatever that term means) is in political and economic terms, a whole lot smaller than it thought it was.

    If the arts was even half the size of 'Whyalla' the pollies would have been throwing money at it.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, I doubt that. When a government cuts arts funding to an extend as it has been done under George Brandis, the underlying question for me is, 'if government only favours big productions that can promse a return on investment, do they misinterprete arts as a business?' If the answer is 'yes' (which I believe it to be), the outcome would have been exactly the same.

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