Sunday, November 8, 2015

Paying the Piper: There has to be a Better Way by Cathy Hunt

Paying the Piper: There has to be a Better Way by Cathy Hunt.  Platform Papers No 45, Currency House, November 2015.

Commentary by Frank McKone

There are three aspects of Cathy Hunt’s detailed essay which need discussion:

What are The Arts for?

What roles have Australian governments played in the past?

What should Australian governments do next?

Her concluding section 7. Changing the paradigm: The Money Story begins:

“If we truly want our artists to succeed and to be recognised at home and overseas for their excellence and if we want our citizens actively engaged in arts and cultural activities in building strong healthy communities, then we need resilient organisations and a stable environment from which to create, experiment and grow.”

This is what The Arts are for.  I begin by wondering if mental boundaries are being set up here which don’t suit the amorphous shape of human art – should I be singing “Don’t fence me in”?

But then I think about what Aboriginal people call ‘culture’.  I’m an outsider to that culture, though I’ve been entertained and educated by Aboriginal artists in many forms.  It seems to me that their arts are so integrated into daily life that each artist (and this seems to mean most members, at least in more traditional communities) both works within cultural boundaries and also as an individual creating new interpretations which move boundaries in new directions – even across the major boundary dog-fence of the overwhelming invasion of the country and into the lives of the invaders, including me.

Have Aboriginal people ever needed to pose the question “If we truly want our artists...then....?"  I think not.  Art has just been there, always, and always will be.  If “we” have to pose the “If we want” type of question, we are presupposing that most people in our culture are separated, maybe “divorced”, from being artists. 

I think this goes to the heart of the issues raised in Cathy Hunt’s paper about what governments have done and might do in future.  For Aboriginal peoples, culture is central and all-encompassing in all governance matters.  Our Governments confine our arts to a small box at the bottom of a jumbled pile of supposedly much more serious weighty concerns. 

This was particularly harshly demonstrated in the recent Abbott-led cabinet arrangement where The Arts, usually at least a minor attachment to some vaguely related portfolio like Sports and Education, was given to the Attorney-General, would you believe?  At the A-G’s whim, money was hived off from the Australia Council to set up his favourite thing (you can sing this while dancing across green mountainsides)  the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Since the change in leadership, The Arts are now with Senator the Hon Mitchell Peter (Mitch) Fifield, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Government, Minister for Communications, Minister for the Arts, and Manager of Government Business in the Senate.  Note the order of the boxes in this pile.

Good luck, I guess, to Cathy Hunt’s very sensible proposals about what our government should do with its money, but I have doubts that the core cultural paradigm is shifting.  I doubt our political decision makers will really understand that The Arts are central to everybody’s life, not to be mentally boxed and paid for simply to achieve political ends like being “recognised at home and overseas for their excellence” or “building strong healthy communities”. 

The Arts are an end in themselves.  Historically they do build communities, but who’s to say what “healthy” means?  Or what “excellence” consists of?  Glib words, but should governments be determining definitions?

I’m not criticising Cathy Hunt here, because her business-like analysis is concrete and realistic, reaching probably the best conclusions we can expect of our society.

I recall the excitement of establishing the Australia Council at arms length from political interference in 1967, the time of flowering of the rumbustious new wave in Australian Theatre.  Hunt usefully compares us with UK and Canada, but that bit of governmental history made us unique.  That peer-to-peer administration in The Arts (not ‘of’ The Arts), even though the money was never enough, was what made my small contribution more than a self-indulgent lifestyle choice (to quote one-time PM Tony Abbott, talking about outback Aboriginal communities). 

For nearly 50 years we have had the freedom to push against artistic boundaries, bend them and cross them, and the result is an Australian arts community writ large in a way that seemed impossible when I began teaching in 1963.

So where are we now after this year’s self-indulgence on the part of the Attorney-General.  According to Hunt, George Brandis in the May 2015 budget “announced that $123.3 million would be removed from the Australia Council budget allocation over four years, of which a proportion would be placed at the disposal of the Minister himself for the purpose of creating a new National Program for Excellence in the Arts.”

This is where Cathy Hunt excels.  She states firmly: “I don’t believe we need a review of the Australia Council and what it does. That has been done, a new governance model established and a new strategic plan developed based on extensive consultation with the sector and endorsed by the sitting government [before the May 2015 budget], and it was on the verge of being implemented [including an innovative six-year funding program]. The Council’s need for additional investment to undertake the work required was clearly articulated through that process.  But we may need a very different type of organisation from the one that is currently legislated for—one that can:

• Plan effectively for the future and for its entire budget and operations, without fear of unilateral intervention from the responsible Minister;
• Rely on diverse sources of financial input, so that it itself is less vulnerable to change, through partnerships with the private sector and the development of new investment mechanisms;
• Provide a range of different investment opportunities for the sector beyond grants,
working with other finance providers to create specific products of benefit to artists and arts organisations;
• Invest in the long-term resilience of artists and arts organisations without always requiring direct immediate program outcomes in return;
• Work with a new industry body and policy institute on research which will report on the impacts of the sector, provide the best possible advice to government on how best to invest in the sector and provide the best value for money;
• Be at the forefront of reporting its achievements through an integrated financial reporting mechanism which can measure all aspects of cultural, social and economic value from its investments to all partners.”

And, Hunt asks:

“So what are the conditions required to enable that vision for a ‘culturally ambitious nation’ to be fulfilled? There are three core ideas for any federal government action that I want to reiterate here:

• Take a whole view of the broad cultural economy as expressed in the UNESCO
framework. Stop treating the arts as a marginal venture. Establish a cultural ministry, which will, as one of its first steps, contribute to a Productivity Commission inquiry into the scale, contribution, and support systems required to facilitate that economy.
• Adopt contemporary funding and financing practices where collaboration is key. Bring together some of the best financial minds in the country to develop some concrete proposals along the lines proposed in this paper, from new forms of taxation to developing a significant endowment or ‘Future Fund’ for the arts.
• Build the Australia Council into a body which can truly invest in and develop a ‘culturally ambitious nation’ in partnership with the states and territories and the growing philanthropic sector in Australia; with access to diversified streams of funding as with Arts Council England and the Canada Council for the Arts.  Fund for resilience not for dependency.”

If there is any chance of shifting the paradigm, it seems to me that Cathy Hunt lays down for government the practicalities of how it may be achieved.  And, as her final sentence says:

Let the actions of the last few months be a wake-up call to all concerned with the future of Australian arts and culture.

BRISBANE: Launch of PAYING THE PIPER: There has to be a better way with Cathy Hunt in conversation with Professor Judith McLean
   When: 6pm, Thursday 12 November 2015
   Where: Brisbane Powerhouse, Park Mezzanine, 119 Lamington St, New Farm
   All welcome. Essential to book at

MELBOURNE: Launch of PAYING THE PIPER with keynote address from Cathy Hunt at the Victorian Theatre Forum and in conversation with Julian Meyrick
   When: 11am, Tuesday 17 November 2015
   Where: The Coopers Malthouse, Sturt St, Southbank
   Media welcome. Contact Nicole Beyer

Media enquiries to Martin Portus  or 0401 360 806.