Dear Committee Secretary and Members,
I write as Chair of the OL Society Ltd, publishers of Overland magazine, and as an individual with a long involvement with the arts, particularly literature – as a former editor of Overland, organiser of and participant in literary festivals, Chair of the judging panel of the non-fiction category of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, judge in the unpublished manuscript prize of those awards, member of the Creative Development Panel of Arts Victoria, founding member and President of the Small Press Network (formerly SPUNC), university literary studies and creative writing teacher and member of the former federal government’s Book Industry Collaborative Council, among other roles – to express my concern with the federal government’s 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth budget decisions in relation to the arts.
These budget decisions are concerning for two main reasons:
- Taking the delivery of funding away from the Australia Council and giving it to a government department represents a radical politicisation of arts funding and the overturning of the basic principles of arms-length public funding for the arts that were established and have worked very well, with bipartisan political support, over more than forty years. The cultural impact of this government intervention can be expected to be profoundly damaging both within Australia and to the reputation of Australian artists and of Australian society more broadly: speaking frankly, this kind of heavy-handed bureaucratic control of the arts has no place in a free and democratic society.The apparent attempt by this government to avoid any consultation to do with the introduction of these changes does not inspire confidence in the government’s willingness to allow the arts community a say in its own future or indeed to allow the community generally in Australia a say in the future of its arts community.
- These cuts, impacting as they are very disproportionately on smaller and medium-sized arts organisations, can be expected to have and can already be seen having, severe negative effects on the capacity of such organisations to function and survive. This is simply poor policy for at least two reasons: firstly, elite artists do not spring ready-made from the womb. They must learn their craft as even Beethoven for example did within a peer artistic community in which mistakes can be made and learned from and limitations and excesses critiqued or made the subject of constructive advice.It is widely acknowledged that it is in the small and medium-sized arts sectors that much of the genuine experimentation within the artistic world takes place. Such arts bodies are able to reach smaller public or market sectors; often those which feel they lack representation or a voice in more mainstream arts companies.Secondly, arts practitioners in the smaller and medium-sized organisations perform a great deal of work for other artists and ultimately for the society free of charge or for very little money but depend on public funding to enable them to do this effectively. This is graphically illustrated by the experience of Overland magazine, founded in 1954, which has received funding from the Australia Council and Arts Victoria for many years and spent that money on authors while its own staff and supporters have worked for less than average wages and in many cases for nothing. The magazine has palpably strengthened Australian literary development through giving a voice to a huge number of developing and more established writers, encouraging interest in and engagement with matters of literature and culture, and being early supporters and publishers of such luminaries as Peter Carey and Christos Tsiolkas, but it is easy to see that without public funding to pay writers’ fees, the fundamentally public contribution of the magazine and its staff would appear to be unsustainable.
It might be objected that artists and arts bodies should seek funding from private or corporate sources, but while such support is always likely to be valued, it is only the public, via a respected, independent and demonstrably competent institution such as the Australia Council, that can be relied on to guarantee artistic creativity: surely few would wish for a return to the days when artists were more or less purely dependent on a private patron, defined by Samuel Johnson in his original Dictionary of the English Language, from bitter personal experience, as ‘Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery’.
I would welcome the opportunity to elaborate on these matters at the Committee’s forthcoming public hearings.
Writers Victoria have an excellent how-to guide on senate submissions for the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts Inquiry. Submissions close tomorrow, Friday 17 July.