The Sydney press is reporting this morning that the NSW state government “has agreed to fund a $1 billion project to finally bring the Sydney Opera House in line with its designer’s vision.” This decision is one that is so staggeringly out of touch with the realities of cultural policy at the moment that it is scary.
Nicholas Pickard over at Sydney Arts Journo has asked the same question that I’ve asked and seemingly everyone involved in this process so far has failed to ask: is this the best we can do with a billion dollars? Even putting aside the obvious case for spending the money on schools, hospitals, public transport and the rest of the state’s clapped out infrastructure he points out and i would agree there are so many far more productive and urgent things that could be done with just a fraction of this money in the arts.
The problem is that we essentially have two art worlds. One is the highly funded, heavily centralised, massively subsidised world from which decisions like this emerge. It consists of funded organisations and institutions whose needs and demands are constantly drawn to the attention of the politicians and policy makers and for whom the logic and consequences of billion dollar decisions make perfect sense.
Beyond that is the vast fertile web of frustrated creators who produce far more with much less. They are not merely without funding but often without a voice. They struggle to get governments to make the kinds of basic, cost neutral policy reforms that would make their life easier. They often fail to have their basic needs register in processes that consistently shut them out – let alone having funding programs that support them.
The billion dollars offered up for the opera house renovations is stark reminder of how the norms of one world clash with the realities of the other. For that much larger community of artists outside government run arts centres and organisations this represents more than will be invested in them for decades or perhaps hundred of years.
As people here will know, I’ve been working on the Renew Newcastle scheme to activate over the empty buildings in the main streets of Newcastle. Newcastle is the second largest city in NSW and has been hollowing out for the last two decades. To date we’ve spent about $15,000, filled 8 shops with artists and unfunded projects and have 10 more on the way. With no funding at all we’ve already started to take make a serious impact in a decline that has has been intractable for a generation. The resources have come from volunteers and credit cards. Though Australia is top heavy with resources for bureaucrats and cultural venues it has few functional systems to bootstrap, seed-fund or support innovation or new cultural initiatives.
After slugging it out for nearly a year Renew Newcastle has just been offered funding from the NSW government. To their credit they were the first level of government to get behind us and we are greatly appreciative of it and we aren’t asking for more money. It is enough to allow us to pay back some debts and pay someone to manage the scheme but it is from a whole other art world to the Opera House announcement. The Opera House’s billion dollar investment would be enough to seed fund sixty six thousand six hundred and sixty six Renew Newcastles or to pay the $50,000 per annum cost of running any one of them for the next twenty thousand years.
There are almost certainly not twenty thousand such schemes out there but there are definately dozens, probably hundreds, and perhaps thousands of projects outside our Opera Houses and state run centres that are crying out for investment or support. Many of them don’t even need money just attention to realities of how space regulation, the tax system, compliance costs and other government decisions far below the billion dollar radar conspire to make it hard to do the simplest of things. Renew Newcastle has been unable to place a single performance project or access a single empty government building becasue the rules that govern them are expensive to administer and impossible to understand. These simple things are vital with limited resources but something that an army of consultants and underlings simply spend their way through through at the cultural institution scale.
At a time when the trend towards decentralising cultural production and diminishing budgets is upending the entire cultural landscape this is the wrong decision at the wrong time. Perhaps a long term plan to restore Utzon’s Opera house vision is a worthy goal but this is not even close to the best use of a billion dollars in the current context. Arts funding and arts policy making desperately needs a radical rethink away from the edifice complex, the arts centres, the photo ops, the opening nights, the operas and the orchestras back to the level where culture is being grown, nurtured and made.
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