marcus westbury

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Why governments should do more non-funding the arts

July 31st, 2009 by marcus

IS THE best thing government can do for artists always to fund them? A preoccupation with funding is understandable but it obscures many other things governments can do to foster a rich and thriving culture. There are even things that governments can do that cost almost nothing at all.

Funding is actually peripheral for a lot of artists. The majority of artists and creators will go through their entire careers receiving few if any government grants. Most of them will have little or nothing to do with our funded arts infrastructure, either. Yet the government agencies whose job it is to support the arts, film and culture are almost always referred to as funding bodies.

This year I’ve been involved in a project in my old home town that reminds me that great arts outcomes need not cost much.

Renew Newcastle has taken over nearly 20 empty buildings and made them available to artists. It’s an example of activating dormant resources rather than throwing cash around.

We’ve placed more than 30 projects in what were once surplus spaces. It’s been great for artists, great for the city, and great for the local business community. What is surprising is that it has freed up millions of dollars worth of empty real estate and cost next to nothing to achieve.

Here in Melbourne, there’s a great scheme supported by the City of Melbourne and Arts Victoria called Creative Spaces. It’s a website and a series of resources for artists and creative projects looking for spaces – often from commercial property owners. They’re also temporarily opening surplus government buildings. It’s an approach that costs a fraction of providing the equivalent in any other way. It recognises that government doesn’t always need to build and run dedicated high-end arts centres – it just needs to ensure that the spaces are there and that people can find them.

Yet these kinds of approaches are often thwarted by barriers put up by government itself. Rules and regulations – many never intended to apply to arts projects – can hit artists particularly hard. Every time a rule gets added governing performance and noise, occupational health and safety, licensing, compliance and development applications, the complexity is handballed to artists to figure out.

Creative projects are far more likely to be hit by high compliance costs than most small businesses. They often don’t have much money and they don’t necessarily expect to get back what they put in.

They rarely have access to the lawyers, consultants, health and safety experts, lobbyists and path clearers that business people use. The ratio of what they can provide themselves by rolling up their sleeves and doing it compared with the fixed costs they have to pay can be the biggest factor in whether their project succeeds or fails.

Some governments go out of their way to guide artists through these processes, but many don’t. All of them could go further and abolish many unnecessary requirements that hit small-scale and relatively risk-free cultural activities.

The social security system is also a source of recurring frustration. It wouldn’t cost much to recognise that artists – like farmers and others – have unique issues in their careers. They don’t have “normal” career patterns. They often go through long bouts of unemployment or under-employment, and shorter periods of being very well paid. They also do a lot of research and development.

Just because they don’t have cash flow, it doesn’t mean they’re not working. There can be a long time lag between the investment in an exhibition or performance work or film and the ultimate pay-off. But to get to the pay-off, you need to be able to follow it through. At present, social security encourages artists to give up. A system that encourages people to quit is almost certainly not a good one and probably isn’t cost-effective in the long term either.

The larger issue isn’t about spaces, regulation or social security, but the need to look beyond the funding dynamic at all the other engaged and imaginative ways that governments can ensure a rich and diverse culture.

The challenge for artists is to look beyond all the things that governments aren’t funding to the other things that impact on what they do.

The challenge for governments is to engage artists outside the funding structure. After all, the creative community is full of resourceful lateral thinkers – and governments are in desperate need of more of that.

Originally published in The Age.

Several of the ideas crowdsourced via this thread.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amanda Williams Aug 8, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    And while you’re on the topic of freeing up stuff that artists can use – how about travel? We can’t even get the pensioner rate.

    I, and am darned certain others, would love to get out there. For me it’s trains and the landscape along the way. I’d love to take my sketchbook on the Indian Pacific and the Ghan and others. There’s a body of work out there. Hell, there’s ten years worth of work out there.

    From Perth? $2K on the Indian Pacific: forget it.

    And I’m not even a young artist. Coming into this late I had some capital behind me but ditching the proper job isn’t easy at any time – we’re now a single income family with kids – I’ve sunk everything I had into a space – three years in and there ain’t much left.

  • 2 Hans Alfred Loeffler Aug 10, 2009 at 8:55 am

    quote: “Just because they don’t have cash flow, it doesn’t mean they’re not working.” RIGHT! In the U.S.A. every state (50) has an own “ART COUNCIL” and they should get your article to read, and all the subdivisions “of the arts” too. Everyone should. Your “down-under” voice shall be heard around the globe.

  • […] government grants, a particularly good article has been written by Marcus Westbury on this topic, in which case I do not need to restate that argument […]