The government: defunds the arts. The arts: fund government services.

As the colony limps toward the end of a long, hot, depressing summer, it’s tempting to look for the silver lining in the cumulonimbus. Though the smoke still has a stranglehold in the cities, and on the fireground trees are smouldering with red-hot embers, there’s been no rest for the volunteers risking life and limb to save lives and property, and wildlife and country have been decimated; however, the pendulum swung to mythmaking rather than revolution. Countless words have been printed critiquing the government’s inaction on climate change, but an even louder narrative has emerged celebrating the widespread, record-breaking response by ordinary Australians: land of the fair go, neighbours helping neighbours, the great volunteer army. In the absence of meaningful government action, altruistic individuals stepped up.

The money poured in from ordinary people and, later, from the wealthy, with newscasters and social media mavens breathlessly announcing the latest figures, all of us hoping perhaps that we could smother the country in enough cash to put the goddamn fires out. 

We emptied our wallets, waited and watched. 

When designing the posse with whom you’d like to face the apocalypse, a common mistake is to omit artists wholesale. After all artists are flaky, their financial precarity is judged as failure to launch, and they’re patently self-involved, as though art is solely a pursuit of an individual’s reputation rather than anything resembling life-sustaining practice. But as the past few months have demonstrated, there is nobody more equipped to jump into action in a crisis than independent artists, a group who’ve become expert at making do with rapidly dwindling resources, turning sawdust into glitter.

When the extent of the impending firestorm became apparent, the arts activated. It was a matter of hours before social media was awash with fundraisers, from comedy gigs at the local pub to stadium-worthy line ups. At Sydney Festival last month, every show I saw ended with an announcement that the actors would be outside with buckets. ‘We know you’ve probably donated already,’ they implored us, ‘but please, come say ‘hi’.’ #AuthorsForFireys, an online auction where everyone from world-famous writers to emerging talent offered signed books, dinner parties and mentorship sessions in exchange for donations to bushfire relief, raised more than $500,000. Millionaire musicians made massive donations, and a single Facebook post from comedian Celeste Barber broke fundraising records for the platform.

‘The govt: defunds the arts. The arts: funds govt services,’ I tweeted at the time. It was snark, yes, but underneath it was a niggling resentment; the government’s predilection for funding cuts is familiar for anyone who trades their labour in the arts (or domestic violence prevention, Indigenous health and education, scientific research … ), but something about volunteer fire-fighters needing donations to buy masks so they wouldn’t, you know, die whilst volunteering, felt even more off than usual. 

We dropped off lip balm, eye drops and hand sanitizer to an RFS collection point, shut our windows, went to the fundraisers. But behind the scenes, reluctantly, shamefully, I also started to worry about the low ticket sales at my January shows. I had hushed conversations with other artists about how to reverse the trend. Promote the fact we have aircon at the venue? Could we cope with that level of climate change cognitive dissonance? Arts workers for bigger companies in private group chats discussed adjustments to their fundraising strategies for the year. How can we ask for money for the arts when all these people have lost everything, when everyone has given so much?

The last decade has seen government support for the arts plummet, from the ‘Black Friday’ cuts of 2016, to the horrifying move late last year of absorbing the Department of Communications and the Arts into the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, and Regional Development. After Tony Abbott appointed himself Minister for Women and accepted a job as a special envoy for Indigenous Affairs, the lumping of arts funding in with highways shouldn’t really have come as a surprise.  

The arts in Australia contribute billions to the economy each year, but the tyranny of distance and the relatively small population in this rather large landmass means the industry relies heavily on funding to exist. Rural communities – those impacted most by climate change and the recent fires – have arts centres that need government support to stay afloat. Even ye olde racist imperialist warmonger Winston Churchill was clear on the importance of this: ‘The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them.’

Prior to any government assistance for artists, art lived and died by its ability to attract patronage from the wealthy. Wealth defined what art was, and what art could be about. Since the advent of the Australia Council in 1975, and with incredibly hard work by artists from under-represented backgrounds, we’ve had a whiff of change in Australia, but the more the arts relies on philanthropy and market forces to survive, the less likely we are to achieve any continued growth. I’d like to say we are regressing to cultural hegemony, but in reality, it’s perhaps where we have stagnated. 

The millions donated for fire relief may seem disconnected from all of this. It wasn’t just the rich and powerful donating, it was everyone. But that philanthropy, a sort of mass patronage, filled a vacuum created by a government unwilling to do its job, and though the image was one of baffling incompetence, there’s method to their madness. The pointy end of this philanthrocapitalism sees the mega rich maintaining control through large foundations, ostensibly set up for social good but retaining the ability to make ad hoc political donations and lobby for self-interest. Donations made by you and I are not immune from politics either, our choice of beneficiary swayed by popularity contests, marketability and social media algorithms.

We have attributed the generosity to and taken solace in the Aussie spirit, or notions of mateship, but we are celebrating a stopgap for a government dedicated to serving only the ruling class. Funding should be based on need and transparent accountability, not marketability or pork barrelling.

After a harrowing time in his electorate during this Black Summer, Andrew Constance – the NSW Minister for Transport, appeared on the ABC’s QandA freely expressing his personal trauma, and that of his constituents. ‘It’s just so incredibly overwhelming but people need to know that it is OK to say this is wrong and we are hurting,’ he said. He went on to urge people wanting to donate to the bushfire recovery effort to consider giving to Lifeline. Perhaps, instead, we should be demanding our political class stop outsourcing the basic tenets of their responsibilities to the goodwill of a tired and frankly underfunded populace.

Yesterday, Senator Sarah Hanson Young moved a motion to condemn the government’s continued attack on the arts sector, calling for the Federal Government to restore funding to the arts and acknowledge ‘the deep and valuable contribution of the arts to the Australian spirit and sense of community, which is in desperate need of repair after this summer of devastating fires.’

The motion was voted down by the Coalition.

Maeve Marsden

Maeve Marsden is a writer, performer, producer and theatremaker. She directs national storytelling project Queerstories, curates Queer Thinking for Sydney Mardi Gras, tours internationally with critically acclaimed cabaret productions, and in 2020, will be a member of Belvoir Theatre’s Philip Parsons Writers Lab for Early-Career Playwrights. She has been published by the Sydney Morning Herald, Guardian Australia, Junkee, ABC, SBS, ArtsHub, Daily Review, Archer Magazine and Audrey Journal. She tweets from @maevemarsden.

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

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