Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It’s Culture, Stupid! – National Arts Summit 2013 and Platform Papers No 34

It’s Culture, Stupid!  Reflections of an arts bureaucrat by Leigh Tabrett is Currency House’s quarterly essay in the Platform Papers series for February 2013, serendipitously contemporaneously launched the day after the National Arts Summit 2013, which was held at Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music, Canberra on 12 February, ably MC’d by ABC ClassicFM stalwart, Christopher Lawrence.

Commentator: Frank McKone

“It’s my job, and it matters!”

With an efficiency dividend in mind, in this election year, I thought it best to consider both of these together since so much of Tabrett’s analysis has bearing on what was said by the Federal Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett and the other speakers –

Robyn Archer (Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra);
David Throsby (Professor of Economics at Macquarie University);
Lisa Colley (heading up business advisory services through the Enterprise Connect Creative     Industries Innovation Centre);
Hugh Mackay (well-known social commentator, former Deputy Chair of the Australia Council and inaugural Chair of the Australian Capital Territory Community Inclusion Board);
Don Aitkin (historian and political scientist, Foundation Chair of the Australian Research Council, former Vice-Chancellor of University of Canberra, and currently Chair of the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation and the National Capital Authority);
Monica Penders (Director of ScreenACT);
Richard Gill (cuurently Artistic Director of the Education Program for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Founding Music Director and Conductor Emeritus of Victorian Opera among many posts in a long and distinguished career);
Claudia Visca (Professor of Voice, University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, Austria);
Deborah Stone (Editor of artsHub Australia);
Julie Dyson (National Director of AusDance).

There was even a poem about a magnificent fart by Les Murray, Australia’s larger than life most ascerbic poet of the small indignities of human existence.

We needed the laugh, when, for example, the people near me were aghast as a music teacher in a Canberra Government high school explained that her budget to run a music department including two bands, with all the purchases and maintenance of instruments (including one instrument needing $300 for repairs) for 35 students was $1000.  I remember my budget for some 120 drama students, including managing a studio space and a 250 seat theatre was $4 per student per year – and then only after I put on a typical drama queen tantrum in the school’s finance committee.

It seemed to me, at this Arts Summit, that nearly 20 years since my retirement from that fray, little has changed.  Robyn Archer, as only she can do, made a rousing speech about courage in the face of the natural fear of performing, the inspiration “in a miraculous way” of the arts, and how they drive us to the great moral, ethical questions.

But I thought, in the whole morning’s talk, it was Deborah Stone’s report of the artsHub’s National Arts Survey that brought us to the greatest question, encapsulated in the quote from the practising artists, of whom, according to Don Aitkin, 99.9% “do something else for a living”.  They say:

“It’s my job, and it matters!”

The question is “What can we do about the community attitude in this country which accords the artist such a low status – despite the fact that everyone benefits from what artists do, from the design of the clothes you wear to the heights of the Opera House; despite the fact that participating in creative arts literally makes sad people happier (and even alleviates pain in hospital patients); despite the fact that the arts industry is economically huge.”

This was the issue that was clear from all the speakers.  But I thought another key concern was not articulated at the Summit.

Minister Garrett touched briefly on how the arts can be a medium for cross-cultural understanding, but did not develop the point that for a multicultural society to be successful, the arts – that is, all people having the opportunity and support for actively creating and appreciating arts – are essential.  Our multicultural success, which we love to pat ourselves on the back about, is under pressure from right-wing forces.  If multiculturalism gets no further than the Multicultural Festival we have just had over the last weekend in Canberra – largely still just a folkloric affair – then watch out for the next Cronulla Riot, and the continuing horrifying rate of deaths of Aboriginal people in jail.

Though one has to be cynical about political leadership, we can only hope that the Minister’s insistence that the combination of the Gonski reforms in education – to give every child fair resources across the country – and the full implementation of the new National Curriculum, in which every child will have continuing arts education (with a little help from our friend, the National Broadband Network), will make the difference for the next generation.  So long as the State Governments, who are constitutionally responsible for schools, he pointed out, come to the party.

Which, of course, raises the question of the other party who might win the next election in September.

And even then will we ever reach the stage, described by Richard Gill, of Finland?  There, he says, only those in tertiary music schools who are not good enough to be selected  as teachers, are then diverted into training as performers.  Imagine what that does to the status of arts teachers.  And down the track what it would do to the status of artists in the community.

Which brings me to the practical conclusions reached by Leigh Tabrett in It’s Culture, Stupid!  Reflections of an arts bureaucrat.

This is about the development of the National Cultural Policy.  She writes: “Unfortunately, our political system tends to put a very limited life on any policy developed by a single government.  I will try to suggest some mechanisms which might be more enduring than such a policy, and which might provide a basis from which national, state and local policy can be developed, and collaboration across levels of government can take place.”

To move towards a culture which is not so stupid, Tabrett suggests what we can do.  Check out www.currencyhouse.org.au for the full story.  I hope all political parties will have the sense to take up these suggestions:

A nationally agreed statement on the importance of culture and the purpose of public investment in culture.

And then, agreed statements on

Support for both makers and consumers;
A framework on the scope of arts and culture;
An accord between the Australia Council and the States [and Territories];
A change of focus in support for organisations;
New ways of using funds, and new sources of funds;
If we really want ‘whole of government’ involvement;
 And finally – A language of cultural value.

However ‘bureaucratic’ these sound, Tabrett, former Deputy Director-General of Arts Queensland from 2005 to 2012 explains what was not discussed or very much thought about at the National Arts Summit: that bureaucrats must work from policy documents which political institutions (in other words, politicians in parliaments) agree on.

We can only hope that the commonsense of a bureaucrat combined with the perspectives – and factual information – of the National Arts Summit speakers can be put together by a Federal Arts Minister who has himself (he told us so) had the experience of starting in his church choir, moving on to the folk scene and then becoming a successful (though probably still not very rich) pop-rock singer who presented himself as a person of conscience and concern for our relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the environment.

And before September, if possible.

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