What is the difference between a 1920s and a 2020 summit?
It’s not a joke. It’s the question that I have been mulling over since my last minute call up to the “Towards a creative Australia” stream of the 2020 summit next weekend. The seeming disparity between the stated goals and the mix of people that are being asked to discuss them inspired it.
Culturally, the difference between the 1920s and now are stark. The sheer diversity of cultural platforms and networks and the scale, speed and scope with which cultural activities take place has changed dramatically. Australian culture comes less from a small number of large institutions and more from a massive number of large and small scale companies, individuals, production houses, collectives, web sites, networks and initiators both here and around the world.
It is a cultural landscape made up less of fixed structures and more of fluid and dynamic forces. The key question is how to channel those forces so they flourish?
The answer to that question is easily sidetracked by the unrelated (but often legitimate) issues and ambitions of our professional companies and major cultural institutions. Half a century on from the Whitlam era few Australians would be convinced that a 2020 cultural vision focusing on innovation and initiative will be found in shovelling bigger buckets of money at conservative major institutions. Expecting it to trickle down through the layers of management to actual risk taking artists is naive at best.
Many of the comments posted here over the last few days either explicitly or implicitly acknowledge this. While many argue directly for a more diverse, competitive and dynamic funding environment the aim is less for grand, centralised and expensive top down public programs than for attention to the impediments and practical barriers that make it hard for creators to create, to find audiences, to take risks and to innovate.
Attention to those details is a key missing ingredient from our cultural policy mix. While tackling them is ambitious in scope and imagination it need not be costly in anything other than political will. The will necessary to identify the elements that hinder people from creating things and put in place the local, state and federal government strategies that facilitate them.
For fear of sounding decidedly un-arty, the program is essentially one of cultural microeconomic reform: a systematic approach to identifying the opportunities and barriers, the efficiencies and inefficiencies, the incentives and impediments that thwart or encourage cultural innovation and production.
The significance of this is to be found in the unique properties of creativity. Creative industries aren’t like most other industries. They aren’t really industries in the traditional sense at all. They’re rarely driven first and foremost by profitability – they’re driven by passion, enthusiasm, imagination and ambitions greater than simply making a buck. One of the consequences of this is that in their embryonic stages they’re often extremely limited in the capital that they have available.
(As an aside: I’ve long speculated that the incredibly limited access to capital in this environment is the key reason why the whims of philanthropists and doctors wives are such significant factors in the art world.)
Most innovative creative endeavours whether they are bands, exhibitions, theatre companies, gallery spaces, short films, websites, festivals, conferences, performance spaces, animations and installations begin life with pooled funds, sweat equity and comparatively little cash. They aren’t good investments because they mostly fail and they mostly expect to ultimately fail in economic terms. As a result, the ratio of things that creators can provide in kind (primarily labour, skill, sweat and enthusiasm) to the fixed costs that they cannot avoid is probably the single largest factor that propels or thwarts cultural initiative.
An understanding of that process is vital if the aim is to foster culture of creativity, initiative and innovation.
The ratio of compliance costs to capital is more stark than in the creative industries than anywhere else is society. The entanglement of public liability insurance, risk assessments, liquor licensing, legal costs, copyright compliance, licensing fees, noise regulations, place of public entertainment licensing and the myriad of other issues involved in creating anything is massive and growing. Not to mention that artists are subject to all the general issues involved in running any kind of small business. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make, show, or sell anything without a massive investment up front to clear these hurdles.
I’d confidently estimate that most of Australia’s professional arts companies spend more on these costs than they do on artists or artworks. Any not-yet-professional group will be killed off more quickly by these costs than by ridiculing reviews – indeed companies with great reviews, audiences and potential with shallow pockets often fall over while those with deeper pockets and less talent persist. The web of consultants, fees and the threats of heavy fines have thwarted a lot of cultural activity before it ever started.
Debates about cultural initiative almost always get bogged down in questions of funding. Everyone – including me – has plenty of ideas for more funding, better funding, smarter funding and we all have our own pet initiatives but in reality funding is often a solution of last resort to these kinds of practical problems.
These issues are urgent and legitimate ones. The focus on professionalism in arts funding has led to a focus on a handful of large scale major companies and a consequence is that the entire system is caught in a bad feedback loop that isn’t about innovation at all. The issues and ambitions of our professional companies and major cultural institutions are mistaken for those of the creative community as a whole.
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