marcus westbury

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What’s the big idea? Start with the small ones.

April 14th, 2008 by marcus

Newcastle 2020?

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.

A 2 day summit may not be the place to develop answers to these questions but hopefully it will help put them on the agenda.

This post is cross posted with the good folks over at Larvatus Prodeo – see there for other comments.

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12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tamara Marwod Apr 14, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    I like these thoughts Marcus – I think also there is such a strong presence of a marketing or spin culture in large institutions that programming local or risky art just gets too hard – as it is starting from scratch and sometimes words can’t capture it – it really has killed new art – art that is unsure about itself and still playing –

  • 2 Emily Apr 14, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    As do I. There’s also the problem of new art and new people being so far ahead of governments/funding bodies’ 12 months-out timelines – witness the awkward Second Life OzCo grant. As you say Marcus we need a rethink on 100 different levels…

  • 3 Liz Apr 15, 2008 at 6:34 am

    I would definitely agree that the public liability in Australia is holding back so many ideas and enterprises. In NZ they have no-fault compensation and no public liability and I think that is behind the major differences between the two cultures. It’s hard to appreciate how much of a difference it makes until you are in a society where everyone has to be covering themselves to avoid being sued.

    There has been discussion in NSW at least to introduce this in the past but it always stalls, possibly as a result of pressure from insurance companies who are reaping the profits of a litigious society.

    Introducing a similar system in Australia would not only open up new avenues for enterprises in the arts and all other industries as well as freeing up the courts to deal with real issues. Not to mention flying foxes for the kids.

  • 4 marcus Apr 15, 2008 at 7:05 am

    @Emily. The time lag question and its consequences for new artists is a really good one. A lot of the funding structures have evolved in such a way to make life almost impossible for artists that aren’t already receiving ongoing funding or accessing another source of income.
    I will probably do a post before the week is out about the question of a more dynamic and competitive funding environment and what qualities and properties it would need.

  • 5 Sarah Apr 15, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Marcus, there was a comment made by “David” on 774 (read out by Lindy) about how we need to educate children about art in order to create not only future artists but also audiences. Why are footballers are paid so much? Often the reply is that it’s because sport attracts such a big audience. If we had the opportunity to really learn about art at primary and secondary levels we would have a much bigger culturally aware population. My local TAFE cancelled their art program because it was deemed that art is not a subject that would increase employment in the area. Education is the key.

  • 6 Julian K Apr 15, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Check this article over at Crikey

    NSW government is a pain in the arts
    Thursday, 13 March 2008
    Nicholas Pickard writes

    Sydney cares for the arts — as long as there’s a photo op in it.

    NSW Arts Minister Frank Sartor recently announced an enormous funding boon for the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), to the tune of around $38 million. (Was it a last-minute decision? Word on the street is that the MCA didn’t even know that its $10 million was coming.)

    But for the majority of the state’s artists, it’s just more salt in the wound. When funding for the small to medium sector was finally announced in February, almost three months late, it was clear that their budget had been slashed.

    When it comes to the arts, NSW is just not in step with the rest of the country.

    Sartor was unable to attend the recent Cultural Ministers Council Meeting with new Federal arts front man Peter Garrett, which gave his counterparts from Australia and New Zealand the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of a ribbing.

    For the Arts Ministers, who hadn’t met since the end of 2006, his absence presented the perfect opportunity to focus on the rogue state that is going against the trend of all other states and territories.

    Of most concern to the gathering, particularly those representing Queensland and the ACT, was why NSW remains the only state that would not increase its share in national arts initiatives – namely the development of Indigenous arts and culture, contemporary music development and disability access to arts industries.

    At around the same time in Adelaide, artists from NSW were arriving at the 8th Australian Performing Arts Market to try and sell their creative wares to producers, venues and festivals. The lead-up to the market was a bit tense for many of the state’s small to medium companies and independent artists. They’d all expected to know the outcome of the 2008 round of NSW arts grants well in advance of the market.

    It was too much for one person who broke the story in Crikey on the 19 February:

    Does the Minister for Everything in NSW, Frank Sartor, have too much on his plate? Arts organisations around the state are still waiting to hear if they are to receive funding for 08 even though it is middle of February. They usually hear November/December… does he have too much on or just or is it just not a priority?

    Just days later, The Sydney Morning Herald picked up the story and it was all on. It appeared that the NSW Arts Minister had been too flat-chat with the various other problems in NSW to sign off on the funding recommendations – which had been made months earlier.

    For the artists on the ground wanting to know if they could still develop shows they wish to sell at the Adelaide market it was all a bit too late – especially when they found out hours before that funding for the small to medium sector had been substantially cut for many.

    For the unhappy contingent from NSW, morale was further sapped when they met with their delightfully chirpy colleagues from the other states, quite satisfied with how things are growing – especially those from Victoria and Queensland.

    The problem that both artists in NSW and the Cultural Ministers Council have in common is they don’t have the splashy, firework-starting initiatives that the NSW Government likes to support.

    NSW Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa like big bangs for their buck. They will happily hurl millions at the established institutions at the most opportune times to give the impression that they are all arts savvy. Last week’s additional $38 million and a couple of million to the Sydney Festival to fund their opening night party are just two examples.

    The other side of the coin of course is that the areas where arts practice is created, the areas where artists develop — small to medium and community arts organisations — are all bearing the brunt of the major cuts.

    But what with Wollongong corruption scandals, s-x charges against an ex-Minister in Newcastle, public health inquiries, babies dying in toilets, energy industry privatisation, an infrastructure crisis and poker machine gambling addicts, there probably isn’t any real need for further arts funding… The theatrics are already down at Macquarie Street.

  • 7 TimT Apr 16, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    P’raps there’s a place for big ideas and small ideas? Both are good and worthwhile, and big ideas don’t necessarily start out as small ideas. I know that talk of small ideas segues in nicely with a kind of post-postmodern cultural vision about the fragmentation of the arts, the increasing individualisation of society and the rise in individual skills, hobbies, and interests. But I like a Beethoven as well as my garage bands.

    I noticed that in the Age today there’s a piece by Cate Blanchett and Julianne Schulz outlining the agenda for the cultural summit.

    It’s startlingly vacuous and spiked through with exactly the kind of snobbish, elitist, vaguely authoritarian notions of artists as ‘leaders’ who tackle community concerns and are at the cutting edge of social innovations. Well yeah. Sometimes they are. But probably not as often as that article likes to suggest; the ‘community’ are definitely not as malleable or predictable as Blanchett and Schulz would like to think.

    At the moment it strikes me that the longstanding relationship between Government and arts organisations, the comfortable flow of taxpayer money through to the organisations has encouraged this kind of cosy elitist view – that there are artists who are ‘leaders’, and the rest of us will blithely follow.

  • 8 Ali Smith Apr 17, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Good infrastructure with a mix of community-driven and artist-driven programming can address some of the barriers to making stuff that artists face.

    Artists need time to develop work and build audiences. Well run, effective infrastructure can provide that context.

  • 9 Nicholas Roberts Apr 17, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    What you are really asking for is less concentration of decision-making and finance. A participatory democracy, a participatory economy. Pretty radical position to take to Canberra, the capital of centralisation, with Rudd, the ultimate control freak in power. I’ve often found myself coming to the conclusion about Canberra: shut-it-down. Canberra is the ultimate government subsidy. Canberra is not Australia. Australia 2020 is the ultimate community panel, a technique much favored by the PR industry.

    From PR Watch
    “How should companies deal with ‘tricky’ people on the panel?” asked one workshop participant.

    “That is why the selection of your core members is so important,” Woodhouse said. “You pick three or four people that on a bell shaped curve tend to be right here in the middle. Then you ask them to help you find people that not only fit with the middle of that bell curve but represent both ends. What happens is that that middle part kind of keeps the two end parts from getting too radical on you. About the time they start going off in some direction that seems too weird or unbelievable, you’ll find the rest of the panel will bring them back in. It’s not quite as bad as trying to herd cats. It’s a little bit easier than that,” he told the audience.

  • 10 Julian K Apr 17, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    The Age article is awful…. It reads like a high school essay and has quaint phrases such as ‘marvellous orchestra’ (what about kickin’ breakcore?) and dubious phrases like ‘from the grass roots to the elite’. I wonder if Rank Sinatra will get a look in at the elite end. Possibly not?

  • 11 Katherine Giles Apr 18, 2008 at 10:57 am


    Arts Law agree that the Prime Minister should be the Arts Minister. We desperately need a champion and to put arts in the spotlight!

    1. Introduction of Resale Royalty Rights

    The Rudd government has promised to implement a Resale Royalty Scheme (Scheme) in Australia. This Scheme operates to pay visual artists a royalty every time their work is sold on the secondary market, and recognises the discrepancy between the initial price paid for a work, and its subsequent value on the secondary art market. Since its introduction in the UK in 2006 it has raised £5 million, and has had no affect on the UK secondary art market.

    Arts Law Centre is confident that the Government will continue in its commitment to introduce this scheme and we emphasise the following (1) that it is introduced as a matter of urgency and (2) that the legislation is crafted in such a way as to recognise the unique Indigenous art market in Australia. In recognition of the cultural and economic importance of this market to Australia’s art market, stock buying of Indigenous artwork should not, like the UK model, fall outside of the scope of the Scheme, since this practice is one of those contributing to the large disparity of first and second sale Indigenous art prices.

    In recognition of the system’s success in now over 70 countries, Australian legislation and administration of the Scheme should ensure that:

    1.1 the administration of the Scheme is made as streamlined and efficient as possible to ensure its effective implementation;
    1.2 the threshold above which the royalty is collected is as low as possible (eg $500) to ensure maximum benefit to Australia’s artists;
    1.3 the definition of artwork is broadly interpreted so as to incorporate as many expressions of contemporary art as possible, and not limit the royalty to fine artists only;
    1.4 liability for payment of the royalty fall either solely on the auction house/gallery, or jointly on the auction house/gallery and buyer to avoid the Scheme being ineffective where the identity of sellers/buyers is hidden.

    2. Tax Reform
    The taxation system does almost nothing to encourage creativity and reward artists for the financial sacrifices they make in order to work in their arts practices. Most artists, across all art forms, cannot survive without working other jobs. Whilst there is some recognition of this in the tax laws it falls way short of any significant support. At a minimum the Government could make 3 changes to tax laws which would have some small financial benefits for the arts:

    2. 1 Current non-commercial loss provisions need to be extended so that all professional artists can offset losses from their arts business against other income. Currently only available if an artist earns less than $40,000 (probably excludes any artist living in major city or who has a family).

    2.2 Tax free grants – Government has recently announced that new literature grant will be tax free. Why not make all grants to artists tax free?

    2.3 Tax concessions for all NFP arts organisations – most arts organisations are only eligible for tax concessions if they have charitable status. A few are able to get recognition as a Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) which enables them to receive tax-deductible donations if listed as a cultural institution. The whole tax concession framework is clumsy and burdensome for NFP arts organisations (and most other NFPS as well). This system should be simplified so that it is much easier for arts organisations get the same concessions as DGRs and Public Benevolent Institutions (PBIs) which would potentially giving them some financial benefits eg salary packaging for staff; tax-deductible donations, exemption from payroll tax.

    3. Public Sculptures – Amendment of Section 65 of the Copyright Act
    Section 65 allows commercial reproductions of a sculpture or works of artistic craftsmanship displayed permanently in a public place without the permission of the copyright owner. This means that others can commercially exploit images of a public sculpture without getting the permission of the artist sculptor, and that the artist does not get any income (e.g. licence fee) from that exploitation.

    Arts Law has campaigned for the need to amend section 65 of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Last year we sent letters as follows: (1) 10 April 2007, letter sent to the Commonwealth Attorney-General, The Hon Philip Ruddock MP Attorney-General; and (2) 21 June 2007, letter sent to the NSW Minister for Arts and Sports, The Hon. George Brandis S.C.

    Arts Law believes section 65 should be amended so that only non-commercial, two-dimensional reproductions of sculptures or works of artistic craftsmanship be permitted without permission of the copyright owner.

    Section 65 as it currently stands:
    3.1 unfairly discriminates against creators of three dimensional artworks in its exemption of two dimensional reproductions of permanent public sculptures or works of artistic craftsmanship from copyright protection. The original rationale for section 65 – the impracticality of controlling the two dimensional copying of public artwork – did not contemplate widespread reproduction of public art for commercial purposes and is less persuasive in the context of widespread digital reproduction and the advent of copyright collecting societies.
    3.2 does not accord with Article 13 of the TRIPS agreement
    3.3 creates uncertainty:
    3.3.1 as two dimensional reproductions of permanent public artworks may still infringe an artist’s copyright in the design drawings for a particular artwork;
    3.3.2 publication under section 68 may not include uploading a non-infringing reproduction of a public artwork; and
    3.3.3 the 2003 amendment of the definition of “work of artistic craftsmanship” may mean that section 65 also now applies to two-dimensional public artwork.

    Reform in this area of copyright law has widespread support from Australian sculptors and visual art collecting societies including Viscopy Pty Limited.

    4. Protection of Indigenous Cultural Heritage
    Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property (ICIP) refers to the right of Indigenous peoples to be able to protect and control their arts and culture. ICIP covers a whole range of cultural heritage including writing, music, art, languages, tangible cultural property such as sacred sites and burial grounds. It also covers intangible cultural property like oral stories passed on, as well as documentation of Indigenous peoples’ heritage such as documentaries, reports and sound recordings.

    At the moment, the Australian law such as copyright & moral rights, designs law, trademark law, trade practices and the law of passing off only protect a limited amount of ICIP. Australian copyright law only protects the material expression of an idea such as a painting, a song that has been written or recorded. This protection only lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years and the subject matter must fall under one of the categories of works to afford copyright protection.

    Australian law does not protect other aspects of ICIP including the underlying idea that is put in a work such as the story told in a painting, a style or method such as cross hatching or dot painting and oral stories and unrecorded dance performances.

    Consequently, there is desperate need for sui generis (stand alone) legislation to be created so that Indigenous peoples can control their cultural heritage such as the right to be paid for the use of their ICIP and ensure that traditional laws and customary obligations are respected. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) is in the process of developing international instruments that will protect traditional cultural expressions.

    In 2003, the Australian Government drafted a bill called the Indigenous Communal Moral Rights Bill which attempted to give Indigenous communities’ moral rights protection on their artworks. However, the Bill was too onerous on Indigenous communities as it placed unrealistic obligations on communities to be able to gain moral rights protection for their artworks such as appointing an individual to represent an entire community. Arts Law stated that these onerous obligations were unsatisfactory as communities should be afforded moral rights protection automatically like the current moral rights legislation for individual creators. To date, there has been no further discussion about the Bill.

    In late 2007, the Rudd Government announced that they would ratify the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. Article 31 of the Declaration specifically states that Indigenous people have the right to protect and control their cultural heritage. If and when this ratification eventuates, it will be interesting to see how the Government will implement this right of the Declaration into national legislation.

    Other countries like Taiwan, Panama, Brazil and Thailand have been able to create and implement sui generis legislation that protects their Indigenous cultural heritage. It seems that under the current political climate with the apology to the stolen generation and Rudd’s promise to improve Indigenous peoples’ living standards and health, now seems like the best time to introduce sui generis legislation that protects ICIP in Australia.

    5. Public Liability
    Arts Law is aware of artists and arts organizations that are forced to cancel events as a result of the difficulty with obtaining public liability insurance. Most venues, including art galleries, require artists using the venue to obtain their own public liability insurance. Arts Law is even aware of art and music teachers, teaching casually through arts centre who are required to obtain their own public liability insurance. This is an unworkable environment for artists. In the past the insurance costs would have been covered by the venue, however venues are increasingly shifting the burden onto individual artists and organizations. When the insurance premium represents the entire profit from an event or the event will not make a profit, the premium becomes so prohibitive for many artists and arts organizations and as a result they often opt out of even being involved. Arts Law proposes a shift in the burden of public liability or the development of a national arts industry scheme to assist artists and arts organisations.

    6. Welfare Reform
    Arts Law supports the Government’s policy position (as set out in Peter Garret MP, New Directions for the Arts: supporting a vibrant and diverse arts sector, September 2007) to implement ArtStart and review the current state of artists’ incomes and welfare for artists. Arts Law believes that start up assistant for emerging artists and a recognition that being an artist does not mean that you are “unemployed” is an important first step in supporting and encouraging the growth of the arts sector in Australia. The media slammed Garret’s plan when it was announced in 2007 and questioned why artists who are on welfare need more time to create art. This response fails to recognize that many artists are working part-time, full-time or multiple jobs, or receiving very small welfare payments to enable them to continue being creative. A new system which recognizes that creating art and being an artist is legitimate should be supported. At present, if an artist is self-employed and their income falls below a certain level they are eligible for welfare payments, however they must be available for and actively seeking work. This can pose difficulties for artists who may be required to take up non-artistic work. Artists should be supported so they are able to continue creating art and developing their own successful arts business.

    The idea of welfare support for artists should be approached as an exciting way to assist artists, to create an Australia where creative and artistic practice is supported above and beyond the grants system. An environment where being an artist and being creative is recognised as a legitimate pursuit.

  • […] and as with the period leading up to the 2020 summit (you can see various posts about it here, here and here) I would strongly encourage input from you […]