The Getting Of Culture
By Stephen CrittendenApril 19, 2012
Australian culture, once derided as an oxymoron, might emerge with new strengths depending on the focus of a new national policy. We distill hundreds of views from around Australia about what exactly it should include.
An interesting shift is happening in public attitudes about Australian arts and culture. It's probably been coming for a long time. What it boils down to is an increasing recognition of the importance of the "local" and dissatisfaction with "top-down" cultural offerings.
Not only is there a sense of stagnation at the centre counterbalanced by signs of life at the periphery, people outside the centre are increasingly asserting that they too are cultural "makers" who have something valuable to add to the national conversation.
No doubt this is partly a generational thing, emanating from our interactive, digital media culture. But perhaps it's also what happens when arts and culture are neglected and scarce resources are very unevenly distributed for a long time.
It was evident in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney one Friday night last November at an extraordinary “Live at the Village” concert in the Springwood Presbyterian Church Hall — packed to the rafters with locals who had come to hear the first performance of a piece of music they had commissioned themselves with a $9,000 grant from the Australia Council. Composed by Gary Daley and performed by a large band featuring some of Australia's finest musicians, Sanctuary was a mesmerising dreamscape of post-modern folk.
The funding grant was miniscule, little more than a token to help the project get going, and the amount of voluntary labour behind the scenes was immense. At the end of the night the musicians got paid next to nothing (they are expected to live like the lilies of the field). But the artistic standards achieved on the smell of an oily rag in that little church hall in the mountains that night would have done any international festival proud.
The same phenomenon is evident at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in southwest Sydney, where the former director, Kon Gouriotos, once told me people are much more interested in art made in their local community that reflects their own lives than they are in shows brought in from outside.
One of a ring of outer-suburban arts centres built by the NSW Carr Labor Government, Casula Powerhouse has become a creative home particularly for the local Vietnamese community, who began settling in the area decades ago. When I was a teenager growing up in the area, the outer western suburbs were a cultural desert from which I couldn't wait to escape. But the creative face of Australia has changed. Now, every time I go back to Casula Powerhouse, I come away feeling I have learnt something surprising.
The shift in public attitudes about Australian arts and culture is also expressed in the anxiety about whether audiences have been left behind by mainstream performing arts companies. Currency Press founder Katharine Brisbane articulated this in her recent Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture when she criticised Australian theatre companies for failing to carry their audiences with them. And a not too distant sentiment has repeatedly been expressed by the artistic director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, who says opera risks becoming an elitist club and needs to build a new audience that is more reflective of the changing Australian population.
And it's there in the many public submissions the federal government has received during the consultation phase of its long-awaited National Cultural Policy.
Heralded as a 10-year vision for Australian arts and culture, it is surely a measure of the marginal place of the arts and culture in government thinking that it is the first such policy statement since Paul Keating's Creative Nation in 1994.
In that time there has been a massive digital revolution that has affected every aspect of our lives, and we have seen artists and the arts constantly denigrated in public discourse as elitist.
"Now in the 21st century," says federal arts minister Simon Crean, "it is time for a new phase of policy development designed to bring the arts and creative industries into the mainstream of Australian life."
It is expected that the new policy will be unveiled next month, but doubts have been expressed about whether Simon Crean will manage to secure much extra funding for it in the upcoming May budget. In itself, that fear is surely a measure of the marginal position that arts and culture occupy in Australian government thinking. The same depressing truth about the actual value placed on artists and creativity in this country was confirmed in the recent decision of the newly-elected Queensland Government led by Campbell Newman to scrap the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards in order to save taxpayers a mere $245,000.
The federal government's National Cultural Policy discussion paper proposes four major policy goals:
1. To promote Australia's cultural diversity and support indigenous culture;
2. To encourage the use of emerging technologies to support the development of new artworks, the creative industries and greater participation in arts and culture;
3. To support excellence and "world class" endeavour;
4. To strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to society and the economy.
So far, there has been little attempt in the mainstream media to analyse the hundreds of submissions the government has posted on its website. That's a pity, because they represent a remarkable distillation of wisdom and experience from all around the country.
In fact, the overall standard is arguably higher than the government's own discussion paper, which comes across as somewhat naïve in its sense of the real world of the arts and artists. Despite some important lines of disagreement, there is quite a surprising consensus in the vision for Australian culture they express.
Some strong themes emerge from the submissions.
There is overwhelming support for the idea that diversity and indigenous culture need to be strongly promoted in the new policy.
Eastern Riverina Arts expresses it most succinctly: "As a statement the goal is unarguable."
But a number of submissions go on to argue that the arts are not doing enough to reflect that diversity. The chief executive of Kultour, Magdalena Moreno, a member of Simon Crean's National Cultural Policy Reference Group, says affirmation of Australia's cultural diversity "is manifested more prominently in other industries such as health and sport". And Fairfield City Council says Australia will know it has a policy that truly reflects the diversity of the 21st century "when we see more diverse faces, bodies and locations on Australian television and media."
There is also cynicism about the government's commitment to indigenous culture. The Commonwealth Public Sector Union chides the government for its "shameful" defunding in the 2011 budget of the language digitisation project run by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It calls for funding to be restored as a matter of urgency. And freelance arts consultant Mary Travers says indigenous culture should be central in an Australian cultural policy, "but please don't patronise them by going overboard and then not delivering at least a doubling of the Aboriginal Arts Board budget."
There is significant disagreement about whether or not the arts should occupy the central place in the new National Cultural Policy.
The biggest problem with the new National Cultural Policy is that it is trying to be three different things at once: an arts policy, a cultural policy and an industry policy for the so-called "Creative Industries" — a relatively recent concept, commercial in its focus, and encompassing the media, film and television, radio, software, video games, architecture, and even — apparently — marketing and advertising.
The risk in trying to shape such a complex document is that competing sectors end up in dispute or some sectors find themselves being overlooked. And that is exactly what has happened.
Australia's major collecting institutions, including the libraries and museums, feel they have been neglected. "This is in no sense a cultural policy," thunders the chief executive of the Western Australian Museum, Alec Coles, "it is a policy for the arts and creative industries."
Meanwhile, behind the scenes there has been a strong push to dislodge the arts from the centre, or to "de-privilege" the arts.
Some of those advocating on behalf of the so-called "creative industries" — such as Professor Terry Flew of the Queensland University of Technology — even want to suggest that the government should stop talking about the arts altogether and focus instead on "culture" or "creativity".
On the other side of the argument, there are those, including Professor David Throsby of Macquarie University, also a member of Simon Crean's National Cultural Policy Reference Group, who have been arguing for a model that places the "core arts" at the centre of a series of concentric circles that move outwards to embrace, film and television, and other creative industries. The Arts Council of South Australia also presents this view, arguing: "Arts and culture is the epicentre, engine room and research and development arm of creativity. Arts and culture is not an adjunct or sideline to the wide creative industries."
Of course, if there were to be a significant shift in emphasis away from the arts, this may have serious funding implications over time for our major arts institutions.
But so far, if there has been a strong push to shift the focus away from the arts, it seems not to have succeeded. Minister Crean has spoken recently about bolstering government support for Opera Australia, and when Australia's federal and state arts ministers met in Melbourne earlier this month they agreed to even more funding for Australia's major performing arts companies.
Also evident in the submissions is a powerful fight-back for "heritage" and "cultural memory".
The nation's libraries and museums feel the government's discussion paper has neglected the role of the country's collecting institutions and the importance of its cultural heritage. The Australian Institute of Architects adds that the discussion paper has nothing to say about Australia's built environment — surely the most neglected area of Australian cultural life.
A number of organisations have written strong submissions arguing the concept of heritage is deserving of far more attention.
The Council of Australasian Museum Directors cites the British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor: "There's an extraordinary public that goes to Australian museums, enormous numbers. The percentage of the population has to be the highest in the world."
The Council says it finds the government discussion paper's "relative lack of policies and agendas dealing with cultural memory, and the individuals, organisations and institutions which support it, to be surprising given its centrality to community life."
Perhaps that's to be expected when you stop thinking in terms of the communities that make up a nation and think instead about commercialising culture. The Council's take on "culture" is conceptually far richer than that offered in the government's own discussion paper.
"Culture as a concept is much broader than the arts alone. Culture covers both the tangible and intangible aspects of life which give us our identity and sense of self. It includes belief, traditions, memories, languages, practices and knowledge — as well as their artistic expression — but most of all it encompasses cultural memory and the cultural expression which flows when people engage with culture past and present, national and international," says the Council's submission.
This concept of "cultural memory" counters those intellectually thin, highly individualist and commercially-focussed approaches that tend to view the past as another country and culture as something that happens only in some kind of permanent present.
But the Council of Australasian Museum Directors opens up an even more interesting conversation, about who owns cultural capital. "Museums are amongst the most democratic of cultural institutions….Their collections are drawn from and belong to all people across Australia — they tell their stories, memorialise their triumphs and tragedies, preserve their traditions, nourish and encourage their thirst for knowledge and knit together different generations and communities through common understandings."
Professor Brian Fitzgerald, Cheryl Foong and Kylie Pappalardo of Queensland University of Technology Law School take up one implication of this democratic ideal — arguing that the "default" position in relation to digitising the nation's cultural collections is that access should be free and unrestricted. After all, this is material already owned by us all.
There is a very strong focus in the submissions on what it means to be able to participate in culture.
Clearly the public is not satisfied with a view of culture as something that comes to them from somewhere else.
The Cultural Development Network says active engagement and participation is the frontier issue for arts policy: "For too long, the artistic aspirations and activities of ordinary folk have been trivialised, overlooked and undervalued."
The chief executive of the Western Australian Museum, Alec Coles, agrees. In one of the feistiest of all the submissions, he says of the government's discussion paper that "the policy is predominantly expressed in terms of the output of 'producers' and receipt by consumers. There is little sense of shared cultural capital created and owned by the many rather than the few. Nor of participation and co-production."
This insistence that culture is not something delivered "top-down" comes through most strongly in submissions from rural and regional Australia. The Braidwood Regional Arts Group (BRAG) in southern NSW says that funding major companies from the big cities to tour in regional areas at the expense of adequate funding for the regional arts themselves is "doubtless well-meant, but seems patronising to institutions and artists trying to function at regional and rural level.
"BRAG does not deny the importance of Bell Shakespeare's schools program. Nor that, for example, Opera Australia's touring program is high standard and is much enjoyed when it briefly passes through…. NCIs [National Cultural Institutions] are important and deserve the large amounts of public and private sector money already spent on them. But extra funding for regional programs would be far better spent within the regions themselves rather than being laundered via the NCIs."
So, what does the emergence of "Creative Industries" mean for Australian arts and culture?
It is clear that technological development, increasing productivity and connecting with international markets are major priorities in the government's new National Cultural Policy.
In short, the arts are now expected to become a driver of economic growth.
Simon Crean says artists need to be prepared to think of themselves as an industry:
"If they want their profession, their reputation, their talent and their reward to grow, I think they do need to think in those terms. It isn't just a lifestyle, it's a business," he recently told ABC Radio National.
The strongest push for more recognition of the so-called Creative Industries comes from the Queensland University of Technology's Creative Industries Faculty. Professor Stuart Cunningham canvasses the idea there is a distinction between employment growth in the "creative services" sector and stagnation and decline in what he calls "cultural production".
"The growth [between 1996 and 2006] is found in creative services (business to business activities like design, architecture, digital content, software development, advertising and marketing) at around 4.5 per cent. That's a plump two-and-a-half times the growth of the rest of the economy…..It's a different story for cultural production [film, television, and radio, publishing, music, performing arts and visual arts] where employment has plateaued or declined."
The clear implication is that we need to shift public investment to where the jobs are.
What about the artist as a person?
There is precious little in the discussion paper or the submissions that focuses on the artist as a person, let alone on the incomes necessary to make a sustainable career.
One exception is a submission from Rupert Myer, Chairman of the Myer Family Company, as well as a leading philanthropist. He chaired the Commonwealth Government's Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry in 2001-2.
He says: "The centrality of the artist must be the foundation of the policy if it is to be embraced by the creative community. If the policy does not speak to and for artists, it will have no meaning or value for them and the value for the broader Australian community will be significantly diluted."
Myer goes on to mount a defence of art for art's sake that might have been written to address Simon Crean's apparent obsession with measurable outcomes:
"In my view, contemporary policy making about the arts and creativity in many, but not all, Western democracies has tended toward the view that the arts should not be valued or supported unless they can continually demonstrate tangible and immediate social and economic benefits….This approach is clearly an outcome of increasing and competing demands on limited government resources, a narrowing of the definition of the public interest and a short-term, risk-averse approach to policy making."
Freelance arts consultant Mary Travers has done a lot of work on artists' incomes in the past. In 2009 she co-authored the report Arts Plus: New Arts New Money. In her submission, she sounds a note of practical warning about the sustainability of artists' careers:
"Their payment and conditions are in continual decline. The size of grants for established artists to have the time to make work is small…Of course there is never going to be a bottomless well of public money but as it now stands, the administrators, support workers, producers, public servants etc. engaged in the arts are all paid more than the precious talent upon which their existences are based."
Some submissions reflect concern about the fragmentation of government responsibility for the arts.
One of the key intentions of the new policy is that culture and creativity should become a whole-of-government concern.
This is something that is long overdue, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for it in the submissions. As Currency Press founder Katharine Brisbane puts it: "A meaningful cultural policy needs cross-cabinet action." The Cultural Development Network even goes so far as to suggest that "cultural impact statements" should be attached to all new policies, regulations or legislation.
But there is also widespread concern about fragmentation, gaps, and duplication in government responsibility for the arts across the three tiers of government in Australia.
Mary Travers says: "It is time some of the institutional arrangements are streamlined to reduce the amount of money spent by middle persons, and redirect that money to the cost of actually making art. In particular the co-funding of public broadcaster drama production by a number of agencies. If for instance the ABC had an adequate budget for drama, producers would not have to spend a great amount of time and money convincing Screen Australia and state film agencies to also contribute. What is the benefit of this?"
Perhaps one of the most neglected areas in the government's discussion paper is the role of local governmentin supporting the arts and culture in Australia. Local councils spend more than $1 billion a year on the arts, some 70 per cent of which goes to libraries.
Freelance arts consultant Anne Dunn argues in her submission that while many councils accept that they have a key role to play in the arts, many "continue to see this as activity only to be supported if it is paid for by another sphere of government….The Cultural Policy should explicitly identify that Local Government, in planning and building their communities, has a major role to play."
What is the proper place of technology in the policy?
Simon Crean has described the $36 billion National Broadband Network as "the largest cultural infrastructure project Australia has ever seen", and many of the submissions on the National Cultural Policy express optimism that it will help break the tyranny of distance experienced by people in regional and rural Australia. But there is a surprising amount of scepticism expressed about the role of the new technology. Arts Northern Rivers (NSW) says "Technology is not the answer to everything."
Katharine Brisbane says: "Investment in new technology to the detriment of other investment could put the live arts at a severe disadvantage. Technology is a tool to improve product but it can never replace the core knowledge and skill that belong to every profession…. Venues like Gertrude Street Gallery in Melbourne and Rex Cramphorn Studio in Sydney — these places are where art begins. Technology comes later."
Rob Robson of Baw Baw Shire Council in West Gippsland says of the NBN that "It is crucial that the emerging technologies not be used to simply increase the passive reception of ideas, but they should open up opportunities for active engagement, art making, and participation" in regional and remote areas. Chips Mackinolty from Artback NT says bluntly that "For technology to be relevant, people need to have access to the infrastructure to support it and most indigenous communities do not."
The government champions the NBN but has done little over the years to help museums and libraries digitise their collections. According to the Commonwealth Public Sector Union (CPSU), Australia's largest public research library, the National Library in Canberra, has managed to digitise only about two percent of its collection over the past 10 years. The CPSU recommends establishing a national digitisation fund with a national digitisation strategy to coordinate and prioritise the digitisation of Australia's national collections.
Global interaction seems to be an important theme too.
Many submissions are interested in cultural exchange, and there are arguments for far more support for national and strategic international touring programs, as well as views about the role culture and the arts should be playing in Australia's diplomatic efforts.
The Australian Publishers Association suggeststhat Australia should consider increasing support for book translation. "The British Council, Alliance Française, Canada Council, and Instituto Cervantes are good examples of how to promote a nation through the soft power of culture and deliver an economic dividend at the same time….To project Australian culture overseas will cost money but there are no shortcuts if the Government is serious."
Theatre critic Alison Croggon introduces the important concept of "cultural citizenship" in a submission of the Australian Theatre Forum: "Most of all, a National Cultural Policy must recognise that nurturing our culture is fundamental to nurturing our citizenship, not only of Australia, but of the wider world in which we live. In the 21st century, we are not only citizens of this country, but of the globe."
Stephen Crittenden is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Australian Museum.