The Federal Government is developing a 10-year cultural policy, and has invited anyone involved or interested Australian art, culture or entertainment to have their say.
If you listen to Australian music, read, watch local-made TV, enjoy going to performances, exhibitions or shows, participate or make any sort of art, this means YOU. Our sector needs as many people to respond as possible to make sure the policy reflects the full diversity of Australian arts and culture.
Based on Creative Australia (the short-lived cultural policy launched by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2013), the consultation is looking for feedback on five key goals.
- First Nations: recognising and respecting the crucial place of these stories at the centre of our arts and culture.
- A place for every story: reflecting the diversity of our stories and the contribution of all Australians as the creators of culture.
- The centrality of the artist: supporting the artist as worker and celebrating their role as the creators of culture.
- Strong institutions: providing support across the spectrum of institutions which sustain our arts and culture.
- Reaching the audience: ensuring our stories reach the right people at home and abroad.
Feel free to borrow or edit anything from my draft submission below to help lodge your own by 22 August 2022.
Or have your say at one of the Town Hall events being held across the country this month.
Part 1. Challenges and opportunities
Recognising and celebrating the centrality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, stories and practitioners was one of the only priorities all parties and pre-policy papers agreed upon prior to the 2022 election, and the first recommendation of Creative Australia eight years ago.
Australia Council’s Re-imagine: What’s Next sector consultation report articulated the importance of self-determination in achieving this goal. Similarly, national cultural think-tank A New Approach also suggested the policy should ‘draw from Indigenous ways of knowing and experiencing, acknowledging the need for closer links between arts and culture and other aspects of our lives.’
This commitment to First Nations-led practice is long overdue, and presents an extraordinary opportunity to increase the visibility of First Nations culture and creators, learn from and embed First Nations ways of working, and begin to decolonise our sector’s prevailing monoculture.
However, we also need to recognise that growing appetites and expectations around First Nations leadership means that First Nations Elders, Board members, consultants and practitioners are being called on more and more often (particularly when so many organisations are starting from a deficit position) – and are often either asked to share their time and wisdom for free.
We need to reconsider our current inflexible governance models in order to pay First Nations and independent Board members, and be able to access a centralised First Nations arts advisory resource and/or new funding to support this vital cultural labour doesn’t become something only well-resourced organisations are able to benefit from.
A Place for Every Story
It’s not news that many Australians don’t have equal access to arts and culture. Addressing this inequity will require the strategic removal of barriers to ensure everyone has the opportunity to take part in all areas and at all levels: from who can participate and what stories they can tell, to where they’re from, what they do, and what roles or art forms they choose.
However, equity doesn’t come from treating everybody equally, it comes from providing whatever is needed to make everyone equal. This was demonstrated in submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry report into Sculpting a National Cultural Plan and includes equity of access for:
- All locations.
- All art forms, types and sizes.
- All points of engagement with the arts.
A new national Cultural Policy needs to work in concert with State, Territory and Local Governments in order to impact and be accessible for all Australians, regardless of where we live. This includes initiatives and investment to address the ongoing disparities between cities and the country, and between Sydney/Melbourne and everywhere else.
It must also be applicable across all traditional, contemporary and increasingly hybrid art forms, across community and professional practice, and across all scales – including directing more investment toward independent practitioners and the small-to-medium sector that outperforms its bigger and better-funded counterpart at every level (except operating budgets).
Existing initiatives to increase diversity still tend to approach the issue from an audience perspective. But the current monoculture will persist until we improve access and representation for all points of arts engagement – from audiences and participants, to artists and artsworkers, leaders and members of our governing Boards.
The Centrality of the Artist
Arts participation is often talked about as a human right, but less is said about the rights of the people making that art. More than ever, we need a national Cultural Policy that addresses practitioners’ precarious and subsistence living conditions (which have worsened during the pandemic, even as we relied more heavily on their work).
This is not just about wages, standards or income support. We need policy settings around arts education and training, protection of copyright and intellectual property (including new protections for digital creation and distribution), support for mobility and export, innovative business models, fit-for-purpose legislative, regulatory, tax and investment incentives, expanded collective bargaining rights, and universal basic income for arts practitioners.
ANA notes we also need to ‘balance legal protections for creative works, in terms of protecting creators’ rights to recognition, compensation and expression, with the potential impacts of the exercise of those rights on vulnerable communities and individuals.’
Without this, we risk homogenising the types of artists who can afford to work for so little return, and make creative practice something only the wealthy can afford.
Governments often measure their legacy in bricks and mortar. Everyone wants the shiny new thing, but a coordinated national approach that maintains and expands existing arts infrastructure and invests in new capital in the areas that need it the most would be both more strategic and more cost-effective.
Strong institutions require significant and stable investment. State and Local Governments have offset some of the last seven years of Federal arts funding cuts, but overall investment in Australian arts and culture still isn’t matching our growing population. By international standards, we rank in the bottom quarter of OECD countries (investing just 0.9% of GDP in arts and culture in 2019)
We need to reverse the ‘slow strangulation’ of the Australia Council and ABC and resist the Parliamentary Inquiry recommendation that the Productivity Commission should consider ‘arrangements which govern funding of artistic programs’, reversing the trend for Governmental overreach interference in these agencies, and returning (and ambitiously increasing) their operating, commissioning and devolved funding budgets.
Our sector needs the independence and transparency of the Australia Council. We need the expertise that only a room full of knowledgeable, representative peers can provide. And we need to stop wasting limited resources on duplicating unnecessary decision-making processes (often with confusing, inconsistent or inferior results, as the Catalyst and RISE funding models have revealed).
With such low expectations and belief in anything more than Governmental disinterest or disdain, simply stopping the annual hemorrhaging of Federal arts funding may appear like a win. But the sector needs a strategic and significant increase in arts funding – at all levels, but particularly multi-year operational, administrative and capacity-building support.
Over the past 20 years, Commonwealth Governments have asked artists and arts organisations to focus primarily on the economic value of our work. Yes, our sector has a strong economic case to make – but it’s more than a singular story. Moreover, this approach hasn’t worked: the rise of neoliberal justifications has occurred over the same period that Federal investment in art and culture has reduced.
Not everything that counts can be measured, but the countless benefits of arts engagement are already well documented. The Parliamentary Inquiry report agrees ‘the value the cultural and creative industries provides to Australia cannot be measured in economic value alone. It provides an unquantifiable cultural and social value to our health and wellbeing, society, education and Australia’s identity in the world.’
We can use these different stories to appeal to different audiences, but should resist the urge to simplify the multiplicity of our success. ‘The benefits which flow from a healthy arts industry have never been needed more keenly than right now, as Australia emerges from living with the COVID-19 public health emergency,’ the Parliamentary Inquiry notes.
This builds the case for multi-agency support of arts and culture. ANA has proposed a plan informed by existing 2030 plans for agriculture, sport, innovation, tourism and defense technology based on 21st Century priorities for Australian arts and cultural policy. This includes ‘using arts and cultural activities in existing and new initiatives across all relevant portfolios, especially in placemaking and community-building, to mitigate loneliness, social exclusion and isolation.’
Reaching the Audience
Necessary digital innovation and distribution has catapulted Australian arts practice forward over the last several years. Much of this work represents paradigm-shifting steps forward by the artists and organisations involved, as demonstrated by the hundreds of extraordinary case studies from all parts of the country, across all art forms and audience groups.
Almost overnight, artists and organisations could reach more (and more significant) markets, including non-traditional arts audiences. And those audiences found more ways to engage than ever before. Importantly, those previously denied access to our programs and services were suddenly only a mouse-click away.
The change also happened in a way that frustrated many Deaf, disabled and regional people in particular, as well as those with caring responsibilities. After years of community-led advocacy and self-led access (with slowish and smallish results), Australia’s arts and cultural sector suddenly got a lot more accessible the moment city-based non-disabled people needed it to. In the main, change-makers also failed to consult with or draw on the expertise of these communities, even though they have become (through necessity) some of Australia’s leading experts on overcoming barriers to engagement with the arts.
Now, the panic and pivots of COVID-19 have depleted our sector and left us all exhausted. For those returning to our venues and offices, it’s tempting to go back to the way things used to be. As artists and organisations move towards a new-new-normal, however, we have an opportunity to draw from the best of this recent experience, improve the parts that caused us problems in the past, and reimagine how we make art work onsite and online – in ways that are more flexible, accessible and better for everyone involved.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that inclusion has never been more critical. Making our work more accessible means more (and more diverse) people can participate in all areas and at all levels of our work – be that as artists, arts workers, audiences or other roles within the sector.
But the issue of digital inequality was brought into sharp focus by COVID-19.
Digital platforms may have made our work more accessible and affordable, but we can’t assume users have the devices, bandwidth or knowledge to access them or that our teams have the skills and equipment they need to deliver our programs online.
Many of us share devices or fight for bandwidth with other members of our households. Some use shared equipment in libraries and internet cafes we can’t access as easily anymore, or haven’t been provided with the new skills we need. Some can’t afford increased data plans – particularly if our work hours have been reduced. More than two million Australians aren’t online at all, and the ‘digital divide’ between those with the highest and lowest levels of income, education and employment is widening, not shrinking, over time.
There’s a digital divide between our organisations too, with those who already had digital infrastructure in place over this recent period faring much better than those without existing resources, capacity or skills.
All of which means that we can’t ditch the digital and need to avoid returning to poor practices because it’s ‘the way things have always been done.’
We can address digital inequality for team members by having ongoing conversations about remote working expectations and cost-sharing.
We can address digital inequality for artists, participants and audiences by budgeting for access from the start of the year or project. Or presenting a combination of work online, onsite and outside at a range of price points (including for free). Or making the technologies needed to experience our activities available for use or hire.
Finally, we can address digital inequality for our broader sector by considering how we can share technology, skills or capacity with less well-resourced artists, arts organisations or collaborators.
Watch this space
Part 2 of my draft submission will be coming soon.