The vision thing

Sarah Miller

Since the advent of Creative Nation in 1994, there has been an almost tacit consensus that Australian governments, whether state or federal, should have in place some kind of policy framework from which to ‘deal with’ the arts. From an arts perspective it’s not hard to see why the ‘guarantee’ of a formal manifesto, allowing us to assess the value placed on the arts by government, might be vaguely comforting. From government’s point of view, particularly as the arts aren’t seen as having any ‘door-knock’ appeal, an arts policy offers a framework for justifying current expenditure.

A policy document may fulfil several functions but often it’s a form of marketing: a means of promoting the arts to the average taxpayer. Given the profound faith that governments and their variously affiliated bodies have in the efficacy and expertise of highly paid consultants, an arts policy is assumed to be beneficial in and of itself. It establishes a kind of imprimatur. It stands for good intentions. This is despite the fact that while such policies may lead to restructures of varying degrees, they rarely result in real benefits or improved working conditions for the 80% of artists and arts professionals working outside the major organisations. The Nugent Report, of course, focused on the financial woes of the major performing arts companies.

To develop an arts policy, you need a vision. Historically, vision has been understood as a form of imaginative insight, a prophetic apparition or sagacity in planning. These days, vision has less to do with imagination or prophecy and the judges are still out on sagacity. Nowadays, to get a vision you need a committee. To get a committee, you need various forms of expertise. You might draw on people who work in the arts sector and exploit their experience, expertise and ideas. Or you could choose people who are successful in other fields of endeavour (preferably commercial or sporting) and hope that their success rubs off. There should be a formula. There must be a solution. In recent years, ‘youth’ have been a popular inclusion, presumably because young people are distinguished from their elders by virtue of their wild and unfettered creativity, an absolute necessity when developing a vision by committee.

There are several arts policy documents currently in the making. The 2 I’ve been reading are notes from the Australia Council New Media Arts Fund’s Vision Day: Planning for the Future and the Western Australian Ministry for the Arts’ Building Community through the Arts: An eight year strategy. The former came to me in the form of photocopied notes whereas the latter is a 100 page highly produced document. At first glance they don’t have an enormous amount in common.

Cynicism aside, the state based document (mightily flawed as it is) is quite an achievement. This is the first time that the State of WA has articulated a framework and rationale for ongoing support of the arts. At one level, it is a profoundly optimistic document in that it displays no postmodern anxiety over the value and role of the arts in contemporary society. It states, quite unabashedly, that the arts are good for us and that they add value to a whole range of social justice areas. It also asserts (with substantiating figures and statistics) that the arts contribute both cultural and economic capital to the state of WA; that the arts are, in fact, good for business. In its celebration of the status quo, it is a rather conservative document, best understood in terms of ‘strategy’ rather than ‘vision’ per se. It seeks more to redress past and current neglect and to celebrate current initiatives than to provide a vision for the future, and in this lies both its strength and its weakness.

Building Community was developed to provide a case at Cabinet level for improved resourcing for the arts in WA. As such, it looks to quite pragmatic developments to achieve its ends. Its key concerns are described under 3 broad headings: “Engaging the Community”, “Building for Culture and the Arts” and “Resourcing Culture and the Arts.” These might be translated into, firstly, promoting the arts to the broader community in order to increase audiences; secondly, doing something about the poor conditions and inadequate facilities in most arts and cultural venues; and thirdly, money. There are other concerns but they tend to be either descriptive in function or motherhood statements from the statutory authorities that make up the Ministry of Culture & the Arts, including the Ministry Business Units, ArtsWA (funding agency), ScreenWest, the state gallery, state museum and the Library Board of WA.

In December 1999, after much behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Perth arts community, Mike Board took over the arts portfolio from the then Minister and Attorney General, Peter Foss. While Foss saw himself as an exceptionally high achiever for the arts, the general view was that his arrogance, inability to listen and unwillingness to lobby on behalf of the arts at Cabinet level was causing serious and ongoing damage to the sector. Mike Board quickly made it clear that he was ambitious to achieve change on behalf of the arts, to make his mark as it were, and put together a Ministerial Arts Advisory Council, a mix of eminent persons and “key industry stakeholders”, primarily from flagship organisations.

Building Community is the outcome of nearly 12 months work undertaken by the Council with some input from Perth’s arts advocacy group, Arts Voice. “In looking at the future facing the arts and cultural industry, the Council was concerned [as well they might have been] about the ability of existing structure and programs to sustain outcomes into the future. The age and state of cultural venues and facilities were identified as high priority issues.”

In financial terms, the objectives are to “broaden the base of support for arts agencies and cultural events; expand the scope and scale of private sector support for the culture and arts industry; and encourage a shift in perceptions about arts funding from arts spending to an investment in the arts” (my italics). The latter, presumably, is to allay potential anxiety about increased spending and to rationalise research and development as opposed to the interminable emphasis on marketing.

One of the key initiatives is the proposal to index funding to those “major subsidised arts organizations not covered by the Major Performing Arts Inquiry funding initiative”, most of which (including my own, PICA) have been functioning on static funding and diminishing resources for more than a decade. The question now, with a state election almost upon us, is whether the proposal to translate this strategy into real dollars and action will ever be realised. Mike Board is keen to realise substantial change. It appears, however, that the state coffers have all but run dry, meaning that whichever party wins government, massive cuts to recurrent spending or tax hikes are infinitely more likely than increased spending in the arts. Both major parties are fixated on the election winners: ‘family friendly’ and ‘law and order’ policies. Labor has not, in any case, been forthcoming in declaring their support for the arts. For Labor, the arts seem to carry the ‘taint’ of both Keating and strangely enough, Kennett, both understood as election no nos. Interesting times.

Notes from the New Media Arts Fund’s Vision Day are rather more art and artist focused despite, ironically enough, a recurrent sense that ‘artists’ as a group and ‘art’ as a practice may well have had their day. Participants included artists, curators, producers and artistic directors alongside Australia Council staff and Chair of the Fund, multimedia consultant John Rimmer.

This group was concerned with developing a shared vision for the future of new media arts. The questions seemed to focus on envisaging the year 2010. What will be hybrid in 10 years? What will be driving change? What will make change? It seems an impossible task. Who can forget Creative Nation’s misplaced belief in the CD-ROM as the driver of technological change? Perhaps what is most disturbing about this document, however, is the assumption of the leadership role to be taken by the Australia Council. Certainly, many of us have urged the organisation to take a more effective role when it comes to advocacy and lobbying government. It is, however, simply hubris for the Australia Council, whether at Council, staff or Fund level, to assume responsibility for determining the future of arts practice. What seems clear is that the day offered a wonderful opportunity for people to talk about current artform issues and ideas; there should be more of them, more often, with more participants. What is less clear is what policy or decision-making framework exists to translate all this talk into action and how much freedom practitioners really had to determine the day’s agenda.

It would be premature to comment definitively on the outcomes of the various artform Vision Days. Ultimately, they will no doubt lead to the development of the next set of funding priorities (see your forthcoming Australia Council handbook). Here too, it seems unlikely that new policy initiatives will be accompanied by any increase in funding, making the future look a lot like the movement of deckchairs on the Titanic. Past experience, and a healthy degree of cynicism, suggests that such visions simply mean more hoops for artists to jump through; well that’s my prophetic vision. It is to be hoped, however, that the Australia Council restrains its somewhat programmatic tendencies and retains the flexibility to respond to what artists and organisations are doing rather than just what the Australia Council thinks they should be doing.

In the long run, if there’s no money to back new ideas and initiatives it won’t matter a damn whether it’s a ‘strategy’ to resource and enable the imaginative insights of artists or a ‘vision’ created by an impeccably credentialed committee. Without money, all those meetings, all that talk, all that ‘vision’ and ‘planning’ will become nothing more than an expensive waste of time.

Discussion Drafts from the Australia Council’s Planning for the Future Vision Days are available for public comment (by April 10, 2001) at http://www.ozco.gov.au/issues/ppf [link defunct]

The Vision Thing Forum – An open discussion for artists on vision and funding is the next of the ongoing RealTime-Performance Space free forums. Performance Space, March 26, 6.30pm.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 11

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001