marcus westbury

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Creators make culture not bureaucracies

August 31st, 2009 by marcus

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WHERE does culture actually come from? It’s a question that we don’t usually ask but it’s one with some major implications.

We should ask it more often. Conversations with audiences, artists, creators and administrators have convinced me that our basic assumptions about culture are wrong. We mistake the major arts centres, theatres, festivals, galleries and museums where culture ends up for the places where it actually comes from.

Of course galleries and institutions play a vital role in the whole creative ecosystem as presenters, collectors, inspiration and vital outlets for the work of creators, but they’re rarely places of actual creation. Yes, they can commission and develop new work but it’s not, and probably shouldn’t be, their core purpose. If the whole arts and cultural funding system were really interested in creation, we would need a different model.

The arts world has become a very top heavy place. It is heavily bureaucratised — full of people whose job as curators, directors, bureaucrats and administrators is to select, pick winners and administer while the creators themselves almost always do it hard. Even our large performing companies are only peripherally creators. They play a far greater role in keeping alive and reinventing our collective memory than in producing original new work.

I wonder whether Australia’s European cultural history has somehow left us wanting to keep the artefacts and trappings of European culture while skipping the forces that led to it. Most of contemporary Europe is as concerned with practically and financially supporting artists to create as it is in building museums.

To me any system — such as ours — that places its priorities on building grand arts centres, impressive museums and large-scale galleries ahead of nurturing artists is an exercise in placing culture at precisely the wrong end.

For most artists, creation is a series of tasks to be completed at street level: finding somewhere to play, somewhere to rehearse, somewhere to exhibit, somewhere to work with relatively limited capital. Finding somewhere to print or publish or enough money so you can do it yourself. Finding somewhere to sell your work or somewhere that is cheap and flexible that you can afford not to for a while.

At heart I am an initiativist and not a bureaucrat. I believe in initiative, experimentation, entrepreneurship and innovation. I believe in creation and not administration and I’d like to think that that spirit could be closer to the centre of our cultural thinking.

Art is created in the intersection of our actions and our ideas. It is not an academic exercise. We create both art and culture; as consumers, propagators, as carriers, as hosts, as fans, as commentators and — most importantly of all — as citizens.

Arts centres, however, don’t create culture. They are the net that catches it as it falls. They hold it up for us to reflect on and look at it. But it is people in studios, with cameras, in bedrooms, in small companies, in garages, on laptops, in offices, and in broken-down rehearsal venues who actually create it. What do they need to do it better?

We should flip the traditional hierarchies over. Rather than place our culture centres at the top, it makes far more sense to think of them as at the bottom. It is time we placed far more emphasis on creation and development than reproduction, middle management and bureaucracy by thinking about those street-level tasks and challenges. Time to recognise that culture — and, by extension, art — is not large and grand but small, dynamic, co-operative and competitive creation and to nurture it right at that point. Time to flip the system over and put the bureaucrats and administrators on the bottom and put the creators back at the top.

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12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chris Aug 31, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Marcus for President!

  • 2 sancz Aug 31, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    if it’s top heavy – wouldn’t it be easier to flip over?

    mix metaphors aside, i disagree that the ‘cultural heirarchy’ should be flipped. that would simply create another heirarchy (albeit arguably a more democratic one).

    However your point about the spaces of creation is well made – given the broad scale of what defines ‘culture’ i’d like to posit that Culture=Conversation. So Australian culture has a very public conversation about sport, and to an extent, the arts gets some off the press too. As you suggest the majority of this conversation revolves around the mainstream arts scene, STC, Opera Australia, MTC (etc).

    Not much of the conversation is about fringe artmaking or the street level creativity you mentioned. what is said is vastly outweighed by the range of creative activities going on out there. And the various arts writers and critics (not to mention their editors) appear to have no interest in pursuing this important cultural phenomena on a street level.

    So it’s up to us to create that interest in each other’s work so ALL the arts in this country becomes a part of our conversation, not just the chosen ones.

  • 3 naomi downie Aug 31, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I second this…finding somewhere to paint non-stop for 3 weeks 24/7 was a blessing last year…having Kevin Rudd give some money out of the blue helped me publish my dream come true
    book of art and poetry. Art centres are wonderful to vist and celabrate art which is established and popular and accepted into
    our public consicousnes. But is the grinding of the underground
    that the real shakes of new thought and ways of begin emerge

  • 4 marcus Aug 31, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Hi Sancz,

    I am not suggesting that we create an inverted hierachy, only that we reverse the assumptions and the value chain.

    What i would pick you up on is your use of the term “mainstream” arts to describe the well funded arts. By what criteria are they “mainstream”? I’d argue that by just about any definition they are niche and subcultural artforms and companies and no more represent the mainstream than any number of other niche and subcultural activities.But that’s a different argument for another day!

  • 5 Angus Smallwood Sep 1, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Marcus, I’ve been following your argument on this area since your ABCTV show, Not Quite Art. I’m an actor and a writer who has worked in mainstream TV and radio as well as AD’ing a fringe theatre company in inner city Melbourne for four years. I’ve also had federal and state funding from the screen bodies (see website).

    On the whole, I think your idea has merit and I remember when I first heard you express it that I thought you were spot on; but the question is how to implement it. There’s two stumbling blocks that need to be overcome, one venal, the other more administrative.

    Firstly, government funding is always going to tend towards impressive bricks and mortar because in a three year election cycle a politician will be able to stand in front of an edifice and say “look, we did this: we are funding the arts”. It’s nowhere near as sexy to stand in front of ten scruffy creators and say “we’re paying these guys to be clever”.

    My wife is doing a PhD on the design of contemporary learning environments and as part of her research has tracked how government money has continually been spent on new school buildings rather than the ongoing training of teachers and how this has caused various design and pedagogical revolutions to fail or stall. It appears that the federal government is doing exactly the same thing right now, pouring billions into new buildings but doing very little to support ongoing teacher training.

    Secondly, if the government is handing out tax dollars, these need to be administered so that these funds don’t end up paying for sports cars and cocaine.

    So, here’s my challenge for you: find a way to overcome Edifice addiction and a simple, cheap, less administered way to show me my tax dollars are being used appropriately. I think you’re inside the tent now, Marcus: time to stop complaining about how things are and give us some practical suggestions for how things could be.

    Big fan. Long time listener, first time caller.

  • 6 Peter Anderson Sep 1, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    I agree we need to shift the focus of our attention from infrastructure to artists. Take the injection of funding to the visual arts that followed the Myer Inquiry. As the occupation figures from the 2006 census show, while there’s been a fall in the number of artists, the number of curators has gone up. Is this because the additional resources have mostly gone to infrastructure?
    While we hear a lot of talk about the expansion of the cultural sector, and the booming cultural industries, we’ve heard almost nothing about the decline in artist numbers and incomes that shows up in the 2006 census figures.
    As you know, I’ve looked at this in some detail in an article in the latest Art Monthly – “The Numbers Game – On Counting The Arts” (my old school approach means you’ll find it in print on a newsagent’s stand).
    If we are going to reverse the focus from infrastructure to artist, one good thing to do would be to look at the incomes and work circumstances of artists. An Inquiry into Artists’ Incomes was promised before the last election … but so far, no action. I’m not even sure it was an issue at last year’s 2020.


  • 7 sancz Sep 2, 2009 at 1:37 am

    hi Marcus
    i know that’s not what you meant, but ‘flip’ was too err, flippant a term to ignore a good pun for the taking!

    yes, it’s pretty relative what’s ‘mainstream’ or not… i’m basing that off the distinction about culture being defined by the extent of public conversation around a given event. So mainstream arts culture (for example) might involve a front page cover story in the Spectrum on Cate doing Tennessee Williams, with five or six pages of ads(!) for STC & Opera Australia – and nary a glance of column space at the fringe stuff happening all across town (to use Sydney as an example)

    you’re right it gets tricky to define though as the cultural conversation in the long tail of the blogosphere has opened up more channels of discussion around fringe events (for want of a better word)

    perhaps we should abandon these terms for the new model ?!
    thx for the article is food for thoughts

  • 8 Zippy Sep 2, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    *claps and cheers from the cheap seats*

    Pointless edifice building and ineffectual middle management seems to be the defining traits of our culture – the only way I can see it ending is to cut funding altogether.
    If arts bureaucrats can’t hack life on the dole and without a city office and they all disappear it would be no great loss, and the creators will still keep creating without the dangling funding carrot.

  • 9 Ben Eltham Sep 8, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Marcus, it’s always easy to attack arts bureaucracies and expensive museums. And I think in certain respects you are right to point out that the Australian cultural sector has become top-heavy with cultural mediators and government curators.

    But there’s a few problems with this idea, aren’t there? For a start, many artists work days jobs in the cultural sector to support their art practice. Isn’t it better for an artist, say, to work in a cultural sector than in something unrelated?

    Then, there’s the role all these bureaucrats play. Presumably we like giving artists grants. Well, someone needs to collate and assess those grants, and report on them to the Treasury and generally keep the bean-counters happy.

    Some of those bureaucrats are also actually delivering services – performing arts centre and art gallery administrators, for instance. A lot of arts infrastructure is also pretty highly utilised, even if we might question the quality or relevance of the actual art that goes on inside the black boxes and white cubes.

    Finally, some arts centres do actually commission works, so it’s slightly disingenuous to claim they only catch it as it falls.

    But in the substance of your argument, of course, I don’t think we differ. There should be much more funding given to working artists and creative groups, and much less devoted to the infrastructural and administrative “tail”.

    But then again, if you don’t have something for a politician to cut a ribbon in front of, how interested are they going to be?

  • 10 Ross Sep 12, 2009 at 10:24 am

    I agree with you Ben. It’s too easy to turn it into a competition of them and us. The point is – one needs the other, needs the other. I argue that arts administrators know more about the creative process, than artists know about the infrastructural process.

  • 11 Kelly.T.Pearce Oct 25, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Yes….Flip them over, loose the heirachy, and start again from the ground up.. Although, was thinking, could we flip them over and take the cheque book..? That way we could show the big wigs how to look after the little creative people.,,..

  • […] reminds me of a post last year by Marcus Westbury about how “creators make culture, not bureaucracies”, after a comment I made in response, he took me to task about my use of the word […]