If we wanted a new cultural policy for Australia, is this it?

A working lifetime spent in the knowledge of what happened to the arts in the former Soviet Union has made me leery of cultural policies promulgated by governments. As Minister Crean correctly said in his Press Club speech announcing the new policy, governments are there to enable creativity, not to shape or frame it. Creativity comes from the ground up, not from the government down. I‘ve written about this matter before, and the Minister’s speech and the accompanying policy statement offer no challenges.

We human beings have an urge to create. Among the earliest records we have of human existence are cave paintings, and human creativity today takes an extraordinary variety of forms. Gardening is an example, as is sport. Playing the piano, painting, making pots, making jewellery, fashion, interior decoration, design generally, architecture, furniture, urban form, machines and utensils, dance, film, animation, food and wine, writing and reading poetry, novels, stories, plays, acting the latter — all of these activities are creative, and can be highly creative. We take part in such creativity because it is good for us as individuals, and good for us collectively. Engaging in creativity is an important part of our quality of life. People highly engaged in creative activities are uncommon in prisons, seem rarely to be vandals, binge drinkers or socially destructive, and possess supportive social networks. We all know this; it is part of conventional rhetoric.

And most such creativity exists independently of government. In the 19th century, to the best of my knowledge, government funding of the arts in the colony of New South Wales consisted of some government funding for and the facilitation of the building of both the Public Library and the Art Gallery in Sydney. Yet, in the late 19th century, according to the Australian Encyclopaedia, a visitor from Europe thought that there were more pianos in the colony per head of population than was true in France or Germany. My mother’s family, working class to the core, all sang, and played the piano. Her father, a railways blacksmith, was a competent fiddler. Amateur theatricals were common. People drew and painted (mostly in water colours).

Government funding for the arts first took the form of providing facilities that no private citizen or group of citizens could easily establish, and that remains a key role everywhere. Then, as our country grew wealthier, government moved into recognising and supporting ‘excellence’, and ensuring that there were ‘world class’ opera and ballet companies, theatres, art galleries and museums. Government departments and private corporations became patrons of the visual arts, acquiring art and sculpture for their buildings. Given Australia’s federal nature, six states and two territories help to provide a fertile province for imitation, so most of what occurs in NSW and Victoria, for example, has some kind of counterpart elsewhere, even in the ACT. But much human creativity is a private matter, and benefits from no explicit government funding. Nor should it.

Most of what Australian governments do is of a facilitatory kind. In Canberra, the Cultural Facilities Corporation is explicitly of this kind, but the Tuggeranong and Belconnen Arts Centres are also good examples, as are the Glassworks, Gorman House, and the Ainslie and Manuka Arts Centres. You can see government support here as being a sort of subsidy, similar to the funding of ‘key arts organisations’, and the support of festivals and other arts programs and events through grants funding.

Why would governments fund such private activities? Well, a crass response is that it is a cheap form of social insurance, and provides good social outcomes. It is consistent with providing education, both to children and to adults. Governments don’t really need to fund major sporting events, since people will usually pay to attend them anyway, but here too governments facilitate that form of social activity through making land available for sporting facilities, and even building stadiums. Some of that expenditure, like the support of opera and ballet, serves national or local pride as well. An obvious example is the Australian Institute of Sport.

I don’t know why it took so long for this new cultural policy to be announced, for in truth there is nothing new in it. There is no new perception of the importance of creativity, which will be no more central than it was. The Australia Council gets to be reformed but given more money, peer review remains the mechanism for disbursing money, and the other major arts organisations are given some more income. If it looks a bit like an election bid, well it probably is, and that might explain the timing. If it had been announced last year there would be cries for more funding by now. The added money probably compensates for the money that had been lost over the last few years through efficiency dividends.

I haven’t gone through the paper line by line, but I can say that I am not deeply impressed by the fact that Federal MPs will be given a total of $8.1 million to establish a ”Creative Young Stars Program” in their electorates, which has an unhappy ‘whiteboard’ sound to it. There are some other tidbits that just might have electoral appeal, too, but it would be unworthy of me to suggest that that was their purpose.

And of course all this has to go through the budget process, and then survive an election campaign and the likely election of the Opposition parties. My guess is that it won’t be high on their priorities should they form the Government after September 14th.


Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    The arts have been starved for aa long time, and sport over-assisted. Perhaps generous tax breaks for arts would be less like soviet-style support, and would help those who wanted to set up their own theatres, galleries, companies, and printeries.

  • Fay Thomson says:

    I sponsor an art competition to do damage to the tobacco industry through art , sort of the reverse of what the tobacco industry with the exciting ads we used to see on the screen, did through the 20th century.
    IT does get a bit expensive entering the accepted submissions which is free to the artist, but I have enough for that.
    North Sydney Council have decided that they will assist in getting this project better known around Australia. It seems that there are many countries around the world interested too.
    One thing that is desirable is that there is an exhibition by photograph of all the art in public spaces around Australia. Could that be a money making concern for Australia and of interest for tourists? Could Keep Australia Beautiful be interested?
    Of course for this part I do not have money. Will I have egg on my face if this /these exhibitions do not happen!? I’ll have to keep my shoulders broad.

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