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The yarts debate thingy

Australia's creative revolutionThe Greens are the only major party to publish an arts policy for the 2010 election. Neither the ALP nor the Coalition websites provide even a bullet point on arts policy. It doesn’t rate as an issue. This is both and good and a bad thing. It’s good because there is no suggestion that the arts budget will be cut by either party. Then again, we know that anything is possible once government has been won, especially by the razor-ready Mr Rabbit. It’s also a good thing because the arts, as an issue, is firmly embedded in the national political consciousness as a given, an essential component of our society and culture.

For all his many faults, we can thank Paul Keating for that. It was Keating who, in the 1996 election campaign, bolted the arts onto the federal Labour policy agenda, in the tradition of Whitlam and, before him, Frazer and Gorton for the Libs. Over the years both major parties, to varying degrees, have recognised the value of the arts to a significant proportion of the electorate (check the aggregate attendance figures at art exhibitions, for example) and, significantly, to a corporate business sector increasingly cognisant of the positive brand association messages available through arts sponsorship. It’s not perfect but its an improvement on the past.

One explanation for the paucity of policy from both parties could be their candidates. Reliable reports suggest that the ALP have locked Peter Garrett in a box lined with pink batts for the duration of the campaign. His present disposition has made it very difficult for him to promulgate the nascent national cultural policy initiative mooted during the 2020 talkfest. Mooted and now booted it appears. Garrett joined the wrong party, so it serves him right. And the Libs have the member for Moncrieff (located in that well known arts hub, the Gold Coast), one Steve Ciobo. You could be forgiven for not having heard of Mr Ciobo, perhaps as a result of Liberal Party intent. I’m just saying, the arts is a non-issue for the major majors.

Back in the day, the arts debate was reduced to questions of the size and distribution of the cake. Nothing much has changed on that front. Unsurprisingly, national organisations suck up the majority of funds, with Opera Australia noteworthy for the gap between dollars allocated to the good burghers of Sydney and Melbourne and the public good it fails to deliver. This will never change so live with it. Progress has been made in the state theatre companies and galleries. The theatre companies, especially the STC if I may take a momentary partisan position, have dragged their programming out of the dark ages to present some challenging work which continues to draw audiences. The major arts festivals have proven that Australian audience will lap up innovative programming and the smart people in the state theatre companies have pounced on that trend, so good on them. A survey of arts related activities Sydney-wide indicates things are quite healthy notwithstanding the need to do more. City of Sydney council is proactive in its support of developing the city as a major international cultural hub and has integrated that goal into their agenda-setting Sustainable 2030 plan.

What is missing in the arts is a meaningful, sustained boost to cultural practice at the small end of town. For some intelligent discourse on this subject see RealTime Arts and artspolicies.org (from whom I pinched the graphic for this post, thanks to Chris Madden). In essence, the problem lies in a failure at the policy level to understand the importance of fostering individual talent at the innovative edge of the creative spectrum.

I think of Barry Kosky and Meryl Tankard, artists who, though not everyone, push the borders of creative conservatism into new and exciting territory. Tankard learned her stuff as a young dancer with the Pina Bausch company and for a while had some limited support in establishing her own company. After bashing his head against the wall for ten years in Australia, Kosky just gave up and went to Germany and only occasionally appears on Australian stages. Artists of the calibre of these two need to be nurtured from the time of their emergence and given a well supported trajectory on which to develop their work. Until we do this, we will continue to buy in ooh-ahh festival product from nations like Canada, The Netherlands and Germany that do understand the value of supporting young artists. Another thing: In 1996 Keating drew a valuable link between new media technology and creative forms. The link is in danger of going missing. It’s another one of those areas where policy needs to reflect the scope of creativity in this burgeoning corner of Arts World.

Back to the Greens arts policy. The Brisbane Times reports the following:

ArtsPeak, the confederation of 25 national arts organisations, called for increased support for artists and organisations, including reform of social security to help artists build their careers.

The Greens are the only party to have released an arts policy, promising artists more support through Centrelink and to establish a $3 million fund to ensure artists are paid for their exhibitions and performances.

Mr Rabbit will love this. The eyes of ALP boofheads will deepen their glaze at the prospect. Emerging artists, on the other hand, might think it a very good idea.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer with an interest in theatre, literary fiction and politics. In 2009, he was the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship for work on his first novel.

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