the s word

keith gallasch on the ecology of sustainability

ART, IN ITS MULTITUDINOUS FORMS, IS AN INHERITED FEATURE OF HUMAN ACTIVITY, GENETICALLY (THE PROPENSITY FOR AND THE NEED TO MAKE ART) AND CULTURALLY (THE FORMS WE INVENT, SHARE, PASS ON AND INNOVATIVELY MUTATE). ART IS DEEPLY TIED TO OUR WELLBEING AND IS INTEGRAL TO HUMAN ECOLOGY: ARTS’ DIVERSE FORMS ALLOW US TO CHOOSE THE WAYS IN WHICH WE CAN MAKE OR ENJOY ART, WHAT ROLES WE CAN PLAY IN AND THROUGH IT, WHAT COMMUNITIES WE CAN BELONG TO. THE SUSTAINABILITY OF ART PRACTICES IS NOT SIMPLY AN ECONOMIC ISSUE, IT’S ONE OF HUMAN ECOLOGY.

Sustainability is a word familiar to us from both ecology and business, and these days its parallel uses are being drawn closer and closer together. Business has become very conscious of the economic advantages of ecological awareness, and there are companies and corporations merging profit-making and environmental responsibility well ahead of more cautious governments, but without the prospect of profit they might be less enthusiastic. Sustainability in the arts refers to the capacity to survive: art as a tradition worth maintaining and growing, art as individuals, groups and companies functioning as businesses, of a kind, and art as an ecology—a complex of local and global networks of learning, exchange and influence. Art is a complicated totality; we need to see it as such, and address its wellbeing as an ecosystem.

sustaining the sector

In A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take?, authors Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw have created a brief guide to how a sustainable arts organisation should function; they report on and compare UK and Australian arts councils’ strategies for building sustainability, including through remedial programs; and they detail changes in funding outside of governments (a gradual but palpable shift from sponsorship to philanthropy). It’s a timely essay, practical in spirit but always mindful that the prevalent business or managerial model for arts funding and management has its limits when it comes to encouraging innovation and supporting the long-term development of artists and their visions, not least in the small to medium sector where much of the future of art is generated.

The strength of the essay is that although still in the arts managerial mode it addresses the ongoing need for government funding as part of arts sustainability and that it sees the art sector as a totality, making some sense of the occasional use of the word ‘ecology.’ While there’s little room for artform detail in an essay, the emphasis on commonality focuses shared dilemmas and suggests the potential of a united vision. This is at its strongest in the essay’s conclusion where the authors delineate the beneficial impact for the arts of the UK National Lottery which “provided the opportunity for a significant change, including a wholesale review of the challenge of sustainability.” The authors conclude their essay “with an invitation to the new Australian Government to initiate a discussion about the establishment of an endowment to create a new funding source for the arts in Australia—a Future Fund for the Arts, financed by the Australian Government in partnership with the state governments and the private sector, through a special tax incentive linked to corporate and individual investment.”

Set up as a foundation this fund would provide support for “artistic and organisational risk and innovation; projects and programmes lasting seven years or more; longitudinal reseach into the long-term impact of the arts.” Hunt and Shaw think that with “state, federal and local government funding focused on the short to medium term and a Future Fund addressing a long term agenda, the sector’s sustainability is more likely assured.”

the 2020 summit

Invited members of the arts community, including Hunt, went to the 2020 Summit with this vision, or something similar, in mind. ACTU President Sharan Burrow called for a future fund for the entertainment industry including investment in multimedia and internet production and what looked like an inspired idea, a “cultural schoolbag” to give Australian school children cheap access to museums, film and the visual and performing arts.

The provisional document that came out of “Towards a Creative Australia” section of the 2020 Summit opens with the ambition “to double cultural output by 2020. To achieve this there is a need to implement policies that will produce a sustainable creative sector and support artists, build educational capacity, integrate Indigenous and settler perspectives and recognise the centrality of the arts and creativity to the whole economy.”

It’s an odd ambition, to “double cultural output.” A better goal surely would have been to make the arts in Australia sustainable instead of setting a meaningless number as your target. It’s like saying to government we’ll double our effort if you give us the money to make us sustainable without saying what sustainability means. It looks like a productivity model rather than one addressing capacity and effectiveness. If artists and organisations struggle to sustain themselves now, how will they fare with doubling their output, however much their ranks increase over the next decade. Richard Letts, in his response to Hunt and Shaw in Plaform Papers 16, reports that “the recent census shows a quite striking decline from 2001 to 2006 in the number of people declaring their main occupation to be [an artist] in the main art forms” by some 20% on average, this after “an upward trend of at least four decades duration.” Whatever the reason for this, and Letts suggests several, all of them disturbing, it’s enough to make you wonder about the viability of arts training courses and the sustainability of careers in the arts. Let’s hope the doubling notion just goes away.

The strong call at the summit for increased art in schools (practitioners-in-residence “via a national mentoring plan”, mandated arts courses, creativity summer schools, in-service teacher arts training) was promptly made real in part with the 2008 Australian Government Budget allocating “$5.2 million over four years to the Australia Council to improve access to quality artistic experiences for students in primary and secondary schools and tertiary institutions.” There will be “grants of up to $20,000 for individual professional artists, and $100,000 for arts organisations, to develop and deliver arts learning experiences through in?school residencies.”

Again sustainability is ignored. While a national artists-in-schools scheme is an admirable goal and a requisite part of any arts education program, how does it mesh with artist availability, training and capacity? How many students will it actually reach compared with, say, the ACTU’s “cultural schoolbag”, where kids might see art where it usually happens? Just how seriously has any of this been thought through? Again it’s superficially attractive—more work opportunities for artists and companies who can accommodate the load or see it as a career option or something on the side aiding survival.

One of the high priorities singled out by the Creative Australia team at the summit was for “A National Endowment Fund for the Arts”, a title rich in irony in these censorious times, recalling the diminution of the US’s National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) triggered by conservative responses to the funding of provocative American artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finlay. Naming aside, it’s a pity that a future fund wasn’t the priority above all others, it’s the only one that could pull all the others together and make sustainability its focus.

the budget

While the 2008 Budget realised some of the 2020 Summit’s Creative Australia arts-in-education dreams long before the government has to announce what it will do with the recommendations, the overall picture is of yet another Australian Government failing to address the sustainability of the arts. Once again programs look like initiative spending, attractive in the short-term but vague in the long. Yes, it’s great to have more emerging artists, and better supported, terrific to have artists in schools, and wonderful to have “creative communities.” But are there the networks, the administrators, producers and the artists (not just the numbers, but their appropriacy and capacity) to realise these schemes, to make them endure?

“A Creative Australia”, the young and emerging artist program, allocates “$6.6m for young and emerging artists and young audiences.” (Perhaps the reference here, otherwise unexplained, to “young audiences” suggests the possibility of the “cultural schoolbag?” idea). On the surface this looks admirable, nurturing the next generation of artists, but for what kind of future? The current generation is not well sustained.

Creative Australia says the budget paper, “will provide support for: performing arts companies to offset the income that would otherwise be earned from presenting better known or more commercial works; projects that support young and emerging artists in developing professional skills, expertise and professional networking; and projects that engage young artists and audiences, particularly in demonstrating best practice in the areas of youth arts and new technologies.”

$10 million over four years will be invested, says the budget announcement, in “a Creative Communities program to improve opportunities for Australians to participate in arts and cultural activities in the places where they live. Funding will be allocated by the Australia Council for high quality participatory arts programs that enhance community wellbeing, encourage innovation and assist communities to find creative solutions to the issues they face.” On the other hand the budget cut of $4.3m from Regional Arts Australia over four years is expected to reduce touring (likewise the National Gallery of Australia has accommodated cuts to its funding by halving its touring exhibitions from ten to five).

It has to be said that while the initiatives for emerging artists, arts-in-education and creative communities look focused and impressive at first glance, the amounts of money are modest when spread over four years. And the Australia Council has to manage new programs while dealing with staff cuts amounting to $2m.

a word about business

Just as Hunt and Shaw temper the art-as-business model (addressing the vocabulary that positions artists variously as supplicants and business people) so did Justin Macdonnell, returning from a successful stint as artistic director of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida and now Executive Director of ANZArts in Australia, a think tank for the creative industries. He reminded his Currency House audience that “the arts are innovative, that is their nature”, but “the chances are you’re stuck with a legal structure, funding model or work practices that belong in another age.”

Macdonnell fears that, “In a world of financial uncertainty, investment is not going to the creation of artists who make new work but to sustain those who interpret old work.” He asks how can arts companies innovate with “unweildy institutions of part-time volunteer boards and full-time burnt-out management…with little left over to devote to such things?” He points out that for “about 50 years in the English speaking world, the arts…have been urged, even compelled by their funding masters to emulate the business model”, not least by having a board made up of managers, accountants and lawyers “to guide and restrain the wilful artist—as though it were the arts that regularly had the corporate crashes, bankruptcies and shady dealings. That push has almost eliminated arts boards’ ability to make informed judgments about the very arts they govern.” It will be interesting to hear what alternative models Macdonnell has in mind. In the meantime, read his paper, Investing in the Future: the Arts and Innovation at www.currencyhouse.org.au; it gives some indication of what Macdonnell achieved in Miami.

sustaining & building arts ecology

The Make it New? papers and consequent programs emerging from the Australia Council’s Theatre Board and Manager John Baylis have addressed the challenges of building networks and freeing artists of various burdens by creating producer and management models that support innovation, thus initiating an ecological approach to sustainability for the small to medium performing arts sector.

Although controversial, the Board’s funding of producers seeks to reinforce and develop the growing networks for touring, resourcing, presenting and commissioning that have sprung up in recent years, providing artists with producers who know the terrain and the niches here and overseas where works will fit and prosper (we’ll have more on this with reports from Australia and the UK in RealTime 86).

The Theatre Board’s recently announced MAPS (management and production services) scheme aims “to bring more independent theatre and dance works to the stage” by “provid[ing] independent Australian theatre and dance artists with subsidised production, management, touring and marketing support.” One of the key points in Make it New? and one in line with Macdonnell’s thinking, was that the ‘one model fits all’ approach to management and governance for small groups was cumbersome, inefficient and un-creative. Australia Council for the Arts chief executive Kathy Keele said in a press release that MAPS, a partnership between the Australia Council and arts funding agencies in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, “provides a flexible support structure that frees these artists from administration so they can focus on what they do best—creating work. Through MAPS they will be able to tap into the skills, networks and infrastructure normally only available to artists working for established arts organisations.” MAPS will be delivered by Performing Lines in Western Australia, Strut & Fret in Victoria and a partnership between Metro Arts and Brisbane Powerhouse in Queensland.

In New South Wales, Arts NSW and the Australia Council have announced the Regional Performing Arts Centre Partnerships scheme. Part of the Local Stages initiative, it “aims to develop hot-houses for the performing arts in regional communities…Based at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre and Griffith Regional Theatre, the partnerships will support residencies, workshops, performance nights and funding for local creative projects. Each performing arts centre (PAC) receives $100,000 per annum towards the costs of a dedicated producer/animateur position and a production budget for that person to support local professional theatre-making.” Like MAPS the aim is to reduce administrative pressure on artists, make better use of existing facilities and improve local government investment, growing networks and developing creative hubs, thus improving sustainability for innovative artists. Which artists get the support and how will be a key issue and, as Hunt and Shaw remind us, what might make all of this work is a willingness to adopt a long-term view after more than a decade of politicians leaning towards short-term initiative funding.

despoliation & rights

While 2020 Summit ideas were being debated and promulgated and the Budget for the arts largely, if mysteriously, praised, artists were otherwise on the receiving end of a good thrashing. The Age headed its report on Summit 2020 participants’ message to Rudd about the Bill Henson censorship fiasco, “Arts elite attacks Rudd over images”, recalling the 1996 election campaign Liberal Party assault on artists as ‘an elite.’ On other fronts, Michael Duffy in the Sydney Morning Herald announced “the disappearance of significant Australian artists, in any art form”, declaring that “the dead hand of subsidy” was stifling artistic greatness. A report to NSW Arts Minister Frank Sartor recommended the closing down of the states regional writers centres, suggesting that “[b]etter outcomes may be achieved by addressing the needs of regional writers on-line”! Sydney Writers Week banned a student magazine covering the event. An exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary of what Palestinians call al Nakba (the catastrophe) at Leichhardt Public Library (Hebron and Leichhardt are sister cities) was visited by New South Wales counter-terrorism taskforce sedition unit the night before it was to open. The library then shut down the exhibition. And it goes on.

It seems that we need more than an arts future fund to make Australian art sustainable. David Throsby argued for an Australian Cultural Policy in Platform Paper 7. And beyond that we need an Australian Charter of Rights. The 2008 federal budget includes $2.28m over two years to consult on and implement various human rights legislations and treaties. Hopefully, the anti-sedition laws that John Howard’s government strengthened in 2005 (see Jonathan Biggins, Platform Paper 10, Satire or Sedition: the threat to national security) will be removed but, more importantly, freedom of expression given its proper place in our constitution. You can’t sustain the arts with money and practical policies if it’s vulnerable willy nilly to censorship and ministerial interference. Or make it sustainable only in terms of what its functional value is. As Richard Letts reminds us, our first responsibilty is to art for art’s sake—”it’s much closer to the core than art for the sake of business or the economy.”

Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw, A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take, Plaftorm Papers, No 15, Jan 2008, Currency House, Sydney

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 12, 42

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2008