Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Arts, Culture and Country - New Platform Paper


Arts, Culture and Country by Josephine Caust. Edited by Julian Meyrick, Harriet Parsons and Katharine Brisbane. New Platform Papers No 2, Currency House, Sydney, March 2022.

Commentary by Frank McKone

Josephine Caust brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the discussion of Arts, Culture and Country, noting  “This year marks my fifty years of employment in the arts. Over that time I have been an actor, artistic director, administrator, program coordinator, policy adviser, academic lecturer, and researcher. And in the process I have also been witness to, and participated in, significant change across the sector.”

The reality of our times is an essential point of departure: “When we think about Australia’s art and culture, we must start with the First Nations peoples who for thousands of years have cared for the land on which modern Australia has ‘settled’. For the First Nations people of Australia art, culture, identity and country are intertwined and interdependent.”  

‘Our times’, of course, cannot avoid the continuing experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Caust’s view is that “the Coalition government’s large-scale financial intervention to prevent economic collapse and protect the community from suffering was a revelation.”  Yet, although “In 2018, the Federal Government itself calculated that the cultural and creative industries contribute A$111.7 billion to the Australian economy, or a 6.4% of GDP, and employ over 600,000 people….In mid-March 2020, nearly all arts activity stopped.”

After detailing the application, in practice, of programs like Jobkeeper, the end of the beginning for Caust, is clear: “Above all, the pandemic has highlighted the political priorities of both federal and state governments. Major sporting events have been supported and allowed to continue, while arts events have been cancelled, sometimes at the last minute.  Football teams have been allowed to circumvent lockdowns and interstate border closures by staying in ‘bubbles’ but artists have rarely been given the same opportunities. The 2020 Byron Bay Music Festival was cancelled before it even opened while only a few kilometres away neighbouring sports events continued. This all points to government preferences for supporting certain activities on grounds very different from economic ones.”

So the questions arise, in this ‘wealthy’ country, Australia: “Professional artists are people who do their creative work because it is central to their being. Their work is a gift to the broader community. Yet they are not treated as equals in our society. Why can’t artists have access to all the normal social and economic benefits, without being slighted and demeaned? Why shouldn’t they be able to access unemployment benefits, as the rest of the workforce does, while searching for work in the professions for which they are qualified: as musicians, actors, artists and writers? Why can’t we institute fellowships for mid-career and senior artists that enable them to continue their work with dignity and respect? Treating the arts community thus, requires a shift in our mind set. It is in society’s interest to acknowledge and respect our cultures and arts practices. It is part of who we are and connects us to our country. It is the real wealth of the nation.”  [My emphasis]

The history – essential reading in my view – of what happened, how it happened and why it happened since the establishment, essentially by the senior public servant Herbert ‘Nugget’ Coombs, of the Australia Council from the late 1960s until its full legal status as a statutory body was recognised in 1975, explains the influence then of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes who had set up the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946.

We were running a bit behind but at least the key idea was that “the arts were fundamental to a healthy society”.  But, by the time the Labor Party took on the mantle of neo-liberalism in the 1980s “Saying that you work in the ‘arts’ can then be seen as elitist and old-fashioned and a sign that you are out of touch: no longer part of the technical, post-modern world in which today’s Australians live.”

So I was apparently elitist, old-fashioned and out of touch as I developed my drama teaching practice, reworked the process and the documentation year after year through the 80s, and increased the enrolments in my secondary college from 14 in 1976 to around a consistent 75 from 1986, needing three of us for the workshop classes and regular full-scale stage productions, which were credited towards students’ Year 12 Certificates.

Yet there the political history stands: it’s really all about economics, but not the Keynesian kind, where “funding for the arts was justified as ‘public good’” rather than its goodness to be measured only in audience numbers, private sponsorship and profit-making by ‘business entities’ in the ‘creative industry’.

Caust takes up the story of the Major Performing Arts Organisations Board established by Prime Minister John Howard in 1999:

“In 2018, after Circus Oz suffered a dramatic reduction in its earned income but was not insolvent, it was put ‘on fair notice’ by the MAPAB. After a review  commissioned by the Australia Council and Creative Victoria, MAPAB recommended to the Circus Oz Board in 2021 that it remove the last of its remaining artists and embrace a completely ‘skills based’ membership (that is non-arts members).

“Instead of recognising that the company was lacking artistic leadership and this had dramatically affected its mission and hence its revenue earnings, the recommendation was to increase the corporatisation of the board.  How would new corporate members renew the artistic vision of Circus Oz when the existing members had failed to grasp its importance? Circus Oz is unique in having a core membership of former staff and performers of the circus. These members elected four board members out of a total of 11.

“The solution to a lack of artistic directorship was to remove these members and replace them with more corporate delegates, even though they were already the majority. The membership refused to agree to this demand, so the board summarily decided to close the company. When the membership resisted this move, the board resigned and, in early 2022, they took back ownership of the company and created a new board.”

By Page 40, Caust notes that “Many countries resolve this problem with a Ministry for Culture. An Australian Ministry of Culture might include the arts, First Nations arts and heritage, public broadcasting, film, and cultural heritage in its ambit. All these areas are interconnected through their association with ‘culture’; and placing them together in an integrated and central location would help bring ‘culture’ into the political mainstream.”

Then “Middle-size and smaller arts organisations and individual artists would continue to be funded by the Australia Council; and film would continue to be funded through Screen Australia. It might also be helpful to establish a new statutory authority, similar to the Australian Foundation for Culture and Humanities that was lost in a change of government thirty years ago. This entity could address the gap between community cultural heritage, local history and community arts, and ensure that grants were awarded at arm’s length from political interests.”

To read the whole of New Platform Paper No2 is fascinating in itself for the many surprising details of what and how in the history.  The importance of the Paper lies in the question of why Australia has gone astray politically, to the frustration of artists across the multicultural landscape.  

Whether a federal government Ministry of Culture for the big picture alongside a well-funded highly flexible cross-cultural Australia Council, linked closely I imagine to state and territory governments, can be successfully put in place, I’m not sure.  The world is in a parlous state just now, socially and environmentally, and I am not seeing a resurrection of Nugget Coombs in any of the parties likely to take up the cudgels in our upcoming national election in May.