Victoria, when are you going to support your arts?

'Save art' -- by hmmlargeart This year I have harshly come to the realisation that our government doesn’t care about art, well, not unless you’re Tim Winton, Nicole Kidman or the Australian orchestra. To them, emerging artists are just the people on the sidelines who should get their act together and get a real job. We are the annoying buskers on Bourke Street outside Myer, the poet reading at shady pubs in front of ten people, the TAFE students who should be getting serious and studying at university. After all, isn’t university the place artists go to become ‘real’ artists? To learn all the rules there is to learn on how art should be created? Then all of us artists can keep producing and reproducing and regurgitating the same art again and again and Australian culture can stand still forever. Yes, that’s exactly what we need as a society: to be unchallenged.

What a shame. What a damn shame it is to come to the understanding that what you thought was your lucky country isn’t so lucky for your chosen profession. Although being an artist isn’t a chosen profession in the same way being a bank manager is, it’s what you do because without it you cannot exist. There are other options to suppressing your art, like taking anti-depressives for example, and sadly that seems like the preferred option for the government these days. We live in a country where favourable outcomes come to us only when a political advantage is to be gained: save ‘The Tote’, shut the artists up, smile for the cameras and move on.

Every stream of art is suffering. Literature is suffering. When the Brumby government revamped the training system last year, they put TAFE art courses out of reach for many Victorians. If you are a mature age student and have a previous higher qualification you are ineligible for a government subsidised place and you must fork out fees equivalent almost to that of university fees. A survey conducted by Ernst & Young found the reforms had led to reduced enrolments at more than half the TAFEs surveyed. This is a huge loss to the arts because many people don’t embrace their artistic selves until they mature into adulthood, and at a wiser age, perhaps. Most of the students accepted into RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing diploma, a diploma highly regarded in the publishing industry, are of a mature age, and because of the skills reform changes, this course is now suffering a slow and painful death.

But apparently we writers shouldn’t complain. Apparently we can just take out an exorbitant loan, bankrupt ourselves even further, and go study at university. In fact, many in the university sector see TAFE as just a stepping stone to university, places where students rejected from university go and study in the hope of eventually gaining a place at a university. Being a mature age student myself, I couldn’t disagree more. I have a higher qualification in computing and when deciding where to study writing, I didn’t even look at university. University is regimented and set in its ways; TAFE courses are fluid and suit the study of art by allowing a comfortable classroom environment where students learn from each other, creating and flourishing together (rather than being preached at from a lectern in lecture theatre on what art is). Art, I think, is self-expression; it cannot be taught.

The government is getting a little panicky though. In August, Skills Minister Brownyn Pike, in response to an Age article where Paul Keating raised concerns about skills reform, announced she would be undoing the damage for mature-aged apprentices. So if you are a mature-aged apprentice, you can count your lucky stars. You are in the professional goldmine, whereas artists, we’re not really held in the same esteem. Apprentices build things. Artists merely produce art that people can escape to. We create films so people can go the movies and relax, a book to cuddle up with, a painting to inspire. We play music in pubs or as people stroll down Bourke Street, although that’s changing now with the new laws that require buskers to have a permit .

But where would society be without the escape of art? Probably at Crown Casino playing poker machines, but I’m guessing the government would much rather people doing that so they can collect their tax on the pokies. They would much rather invest millions in the Grand Prix – and have a $50 million dollar tax payer loss – than invest in art and feed the cultural soul of Australia.

So where does all this leave the emerging artist? Well, we could apply for an ArtStart grant. But you have to have graduated from a degree or diploma to get funding for that. You could try your luck in for a highly competitive Australia Council grant, but you’re more likely to get one of those if you play in an orchestra – last year Opera Australia received more funding from the Australia Council than all the applicants from other art forms. But that’s hardly a surprise, our government is big on funding the rich. You could send your manuscript or short stories out to competitions and other organisations like Varuna who support emerging writers. But with minimal or no funding, these organisations are forced to charge the emerging writer a fee to have their work considered. Fifty bucks here and fifty bucks there, it’s difficult not to bang your head against the wall to be honest. The Tote may have been saved, but live music venues are struggling and slowly dying. The iconic Arthouse is set to close next year, Brisbane’s celebrated venue The Troubadour is closing next month. But I’m not giving up. A true artist keeps going, keeps producing art, despite the obstacles and ignorance of the government. But by no means will I stay silent in the struggle, not when the government is so blatantly unsupportive of the arts.

Koraly Dimitriadis

Koraly is a widely published Cypriot-Australian writer and performer. She is the author of the controversial Love and F**k Poems. Koraly received an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She presents on 3CR radio and has a residency at Brunswick Street Bookstore. Her 2013 La Mama show is Exonerating The Body. She is mentored by Christos Tsiolkas.

More by Koraly Dimitriadis ›

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  1. This is a constant frustration for me, the lack of financial support to pursue writing and without that support I am stuck working a full-time job that takes up time I could be spending writing.

    I think the government sees that art doesn’t produce value for them, unless its so shove “Australian culture” and nationalism down our throats.

    To them, it doesn’t matter what value it is to the artists that produce it or the people who receive it.

  2. An interesting article Koraly, and I have to say generally positions I agree with, however I’m keen to know your thoughts on a couple of things:

    1. Why do you think that ‘the arts’ as presented here deserve to be government subsidised? Why shouldn’t there be some requirement for them to be popular enough to support themselves, the way that say a fashion designer or popular (i.e. not classical/opera) musicians need to?

    2. I agree that the changes to the TAFE system are restrictive. But I don’t think this is a change that effects only artists, (although I understand your point about art being something that people come to later in life so the effect is disproportionate) or for that matter shows the government is disinterested in arts funding. I think rather it shows that they are not interested in re-skilling anyone in any field.

    3. What gives you the right to judge classical music and opera Australia as unfit for grants? You surely have to argue to an increase in arts grants/funding across the board rather than a redirection from one form to another. Or is your contention that Opera/Classical music get more than there ‘fair share’ and if so how do you determine what’s a ‘fair share’?

    Question three I think you find is the where a lot of the problems for the government come in. With something as subjective as arts how to they decide what is worthly and what is not? One man’s art instillation is another man’s smelly guy sitting on a newspaper with three cans of baked beans and a inflatable fish whilst quoting Pauline Hanson.
    In a world where the Herald-Sun is ready to jump on any frivolous government spending (and let’s remember even ‘mainstream’ and previously safe artists like Bill Henson can cause uproar) it’s a brave government that would increase spending on the arts.

    Which is to say we should always demand brave governments.

  3. Leon:
    1. why does ANYTHING deserve to be government subsidised? Why does the grand prix deserve to be subsidised? We pay taxes so that the government can invest in this country, but to me, it seems the government are keen on funding the rich and funding sports. If people didn’t have art to escape to, to get pleasure from, where would they find their escape? Humans need art to survive. It’s good for their psychological wellbeing. It seems the government are happy to say that Victoria is the UNESCO city of literature, and we have great writers like Christos Tsiolkas, but where did Christos start? They are happy to hold writers up as trophies when they have succeeded, but they aren’t interested in investing in the culture they so proudly promote. They are happy to say ‘yes, Victoria is the place to be in the arts, we are thriving in the arts’ but in reality, they have had little to do with that success, it is the struggling artists themselves which have created their own success. In the meantime, times are getting harder, just have a look at the live music scene – art is suffering, yet they turn a blind eye, because artists don’t bring in the big votes.
    2. Regarding the TAFE changes, their are exemptions, eg if you are an apprentice. My point is that there should also be an exemption for the arts, since TAFE is better suited to the arts than university. Please re-read my article(above) if you need re-clarification.
    3. Regarding the classical/opera, yes, I do believe they get more than their fair share, which proves my point: who goes to the opera? the rich. There should be more of an even spread, or the money should go where it is needed. The opera don’t seem like they are suffering to me. Live music is. Why not put more money into helping live music venues? Oh, I forgot, why would they? The rich want them all closed down so they can sleep better at night. In determining who gets what money, there should still be an application process, but at the moment it is convoluted, for emerging artist you have to have graduated and you can only get money for courses, or equipment, it’s ridiculous. Most literary prizes from the government are for published writers – they are already published! They have money! Besides the premiers award for an unpublished manuscript, there are no other literary awards, awarded by the government, for an emerging writer.

    We need more money into the arts before they dry up and die. Less money into the rich, more into the struggling. Less money in sports, more money in art.

  4. I wouldn’t dismiss university programmes so readily. Sue Woolfe, who teaches the fiction workshops at Sydney Uni, is excellent and insightful.

    In response to Leon’s point above that arts should be self-sufficient – this has never been the case. Without government sponsorship we would have no Shakespeare, for instance.

    The root cause of the lack of funding is the philistinism and vulgarity of the Australian national character.

  5. It’s pretty simple really. We live in a capitalist world. What brings in the money for the government? Sport. See this article on another view on the indirect benefits of the $50m investment in the GP:

    Just look at the AFL. A tiny little sport that probably about 4-5 million people (if you’re lucky) are interested in can generate $780m of TV revenue for 5 years, predicted to be $1b from 2012. And that’s just TV revenue and only to the AFL, what about all other organisations/governments associated with the game and all other revenue associated with the game? If someone writes a book that sells 4-5 million copies, how much would they and make? $5m @ $30 = $15m, that’s 2% of the AFL’s TV revenue. How will the arts ever be able to compete in the capitalist society when it is so much harder to make money?

  6. I think Anon makes an interesting point here. Why is it that the public don’t support the arts more? Why is society happy to plonk down $16 to go see the AFL game, but not $16 to go see some highly talented band at the Northcote Social Club?

    It may seem harsh but we do live in a Capitalist society, where the ‘worthyness’ of many things are determined by the revenue they bring in. Which by the way is why governments pay for roads, and subsidise education and yes even the Grand Prix, whatever you think of its appropriateness the reason they fund it is that it supposedly brings in more money than it costs. It’s a good investment.

    I certainly agree that Art is needed by society, society needs the inspired and challenged, but there are two issues here, not everyone is inspired by art, some prefer sport, or religion a hundred other things. Art doesn’t need to be funded to challenge or inspire, I’m just as likely be inspired by grafetti on a wall, or a photo of Flickr as a picture at the NGV.

    Of course there are arts events that bring in huge money to the economy. I have a recollection that if you look into it The Melbourne Comedy Festival, the Melburne Film Festival or the NGV’s Winter Masterpeices are all better attended than the GP and all generate millions of dollars for Victoria. Why? Becuase they are all popular arts.

    Much like the way a government is not willing to fund a road which no one drives on, the government seem willing only to fund popular arts such the NGV. If they spent money on a unused road we would be up in arms, yet we seem to demand funding for arts attended by a handful of people.

    What I’m interested in is what artists think they personally need to make their art more popular, or is the concept of being a popular artist actually just the ultimate insult, being a ‘Sell Out’ ?

    Rather than spending time whinging that the government isn’t giving them money I wonder if the energy would be better spent working hard to get there art out there, they way that a business person has to risk financial ruin to make a sucessful business.

  7. Leon and Anon, I think the public don’t support the arts more because there is a barrier, and to be honest, I think many are unaware of what kind of art is out there, because here in Australia we are flooded with American art(music, books, film). The consequence of that is society is evolving and reflecting American culture and soon we won’t know the difference between us and America, which is sad really.

    The problem with local art is accessibility. For example, I didn’t realise local live music was so good until a friend I had met who was really into music took me to a gig. Or when people think of poetry, they think poems on birds and trees and have no idea just how hip, entertaining and confronting spoken word events can be. The government funds films but then there are no incentives for movie theatres to screen these films so they make a one week appearance in some limited release form them disappear into oblivion and people don’t even hear about them even though they are really good.

    Yes our country is very sports orientated and capitalist, but that’s not an excuse for the government to neglect to help artists bring their art out to the people. Eg they should offer incentives to movie theatres to screen Australian made films. They could put some funding into poetry events. I think there is a lot of money to be made in the arts. A friend of mine was telling me the Jersey boys, a musical, made more money than the grand prix(does anyone know of a newspaper link for this?) It’s a bit of a cop out to say that art doesn’t make money so lets move on when local art is the heart of our Australian culture and identity.

  8. It is disappointing to not have my craft recognised and supported by the state government, but honestly it’s a bit of a relief as well. At the risk of sounding pretentious, It would be grotesque if the kind of disruptive art referred to here was encouraged by the same system it (should) be trying to undermine. If people don’ care about expression, it is the artist’s job to force them to care. Money, life, and politics be damned.

    1. Hi flamingleg, you raise an interesting point, and in a way I agree, because I don’t want to have to answer to government bodies when it comes to my art, I want to be independant from them, so I can say and do what I want, but surely there should be some sort of middle ground. I am not saying that all artists should be funded for all of there projects, but when, for example, live music venues are drying up and dying, surely the governemnt can give some assistance to preserve our local art.

      1. If live music venues are dying then I’d lay blame for that squarely on declining interest. The government should have more important things to worry about in my humble opinion. Every cent that the government spends on art is a cent it hasn’t spent on education or healthcare (i get the feeling this is going to make me very unpopular here). So while I can sympathize with the lack of public support, and with the artistic struggle more generally, I prefer to frame it as being a sign to try harder to rekindle the interest of an increasingly apathetic public.

        1. Oh, so then all the money for the grand prix should have gone to heathcare or education? Please. There is a certain amount of money that the governemnts spends on preserving culture and that money is being spent on sports and the opera. And your comment on lack of interest in live music couldn’t be further from the truth. More people go and see live music than attend the grand prix. Who attends the grand prix? The corporate rich. Who attends live gigs? The working class. There’s your answer right there.

  9. Koraly,

    Jersey boys would definately have bought more money to the Victorian Economy than the Grand Prix, but I assume you are not calling for greater funding for shows like Jersey Boys. (Or any funding for that matter, I’m happy to be corrected but I would think that apart from some ‘in kind’ stuff like posters around the city Jersey Boys wouldn’t have got any government funding).

    I think the ‘Barrier’ you speak of in being enjoying the arts is an interesting concept. You say that people don’t know what is out there, and I would agree, but does that make it the government’s problem? Is it possible that the problem is actually with how The Arts are marketed in Australia?

    When was the last time you say an advertisement for an Australian author? or a substantial advertising campaign for an Australian Film? When did you see a gig advertised anywhere beyond Beat or street posters? When did you ever see the publishers, or the promoter, or gallery owners doing anything to appeal to anyone outside of the usual arts community.

    I know you will say that artist/publishers/promoters don’t have money to pay for advertising, but it’s the risk you have to take. It really is like any new business, you have to spend to get customers in the door.

    But then again the public are trained to think that the Arts should be free, they expect free admission to galleries, free books at the library, free music on the internet.

    Why do we offer these things for free? Is it because the art is more important than the money? If this is the case should we be concerned about the lack of money we get to do what we love?

  10. Just look across the Tasman though. The Kiwis are just as sport-mad as the Aussies; they are into American stuff; but the support for local arts is far stronger than it is here. And New Zealand has a capitalist economy, same as here.

    I don’t think the government, while partly to blame, is the root cause of the problem. Let’s not patronise the general population as poor misguided darlings who would surely love the arts if only they had the chance. The wilful ignorance dressed up as anti-elitism in mainstream Australian culture is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fewer people associate with the arts, the more it does become a minority interest, and is thus easily portrayed as elitist, continuing the vicious circle. The actual moneyed elite, meanwhile, tend to prefer arts which give them prestige and soften the reality of status based on cash with pretentions to culture: thus the opera isn’t short of funds.

  11. No Leon, I am not calling for more money for the Jersey boys, I am merely making the point that the arts can make money, to agrue Anon’s point that there is no money in the arts. The arts have no money to market themselves the way the grand prix is marketed. And since when does the public believe art to be free?

    Yes, art is a business, to the artist thmselves, but what art represents, and what it contributes to society and culture cannot be compared to what a local fish and chip shop contributes. Art is about culture, not about business, and if the governemnt want to preserve our culture and stop America flooding it, they need to support the arts.

  12. Interesting discussion, thanks Koraly and all. Ah TAFE, what a balls up – I lament the effect of the new fee structure on RMIT PWE. Ah, Artist. Patrons have always had their agendas. Now power is money rather than the grace of God. Ah Emerging Writers … poverty-stricken little grubs that we are, smooching about in the slime inside the cocoon…

    Orchestras and Operas are expensive to run and pretty extraordinary collaborations and I don’t begrudge any artists their money. More for all, I say. Let’s spend the war budget on art instead and replace combat with art-inspired peace missions of repair and generosity.

    Mmm pondering.

  13. Arts audiences are growing, not shrinking.

    We pay our taxes so that the government can support the things that are not profitable. Roads. Hospitals. Education. The arts. They sell assets like roads and public transport and even hospitals and our taxes do not go down. When the tax base increases they do not devote more to the arts. Even when their popularity increases.

    Opera companies and orchestras have falling audiences. And then they ask the government for more money and a bailout. And then they get it. While the smaller support organisations and all the artists get very little. It is a double standard that is designed to keep the elite elite.

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