marcus westbury

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Killing culture with mad beuracracy

February 18th, 2010 by marcus

The Tote

HOW often does it have to happen? How many times has government – in order to solve one problem such as late-night violence and antisocial behaviour in notorious nightclub zones – implemented a crackdown that inadvertently sideswipes a whole range of people who had nothing to do with the problem in the first place?

Call it the law of unintended consequences. The liquor licensing crackdown that has caused the closure of the Tote is just the latest in a long line of botched decisions, bureaucratic entropy and poorly-thought-through policy impacting hard on artists and creative communities. It has got to stop at some point, surely?

Surely we could start to think about this stuff before we pass stupid legislation? The sad thing about unintended consequences is that they are rarely unpredictable. It was obvious from the moment that the new licensing regime was mooted that it would hit cultural venues far more harshly than mega-nightclubs. The Tote fiasco has unfolded more or less as I predicted in these pages back in November.

Remember the crisis of public liability insurance a few years back? A litigious culture, buck-shifting down the government chain and ludicrous over-regulation caused a wave of festivals, venues and events to close as liability premiums skyrocketed. The reasons behind this had little or nothing to do with artists or arts festivals – in more than 15 years, there hasn’t been a single claim against any event that I’ve been involved in or attended. Yet I can think of plenty of events and organisations that would have spent more on insurance than on paying artists in that time. It killed the ambitions of a lot of young artists dead. How many more potential drawcards or community events never made it into being for the overinflated cost of an insurance policy?

Even established events are constantly being upended by changing rules. It’s almost an annual ritual that the Melbourne Fringe Festival suffers a new round of zealotry that kills off street parties, forces venue and licensing crackdowns or reshuffles shows. Yet how often is violent, unsafe or antisocial behaviour seriously associated with Fringe events?

I’ve had so many insane interactions with bureaucracy that I’m pounding the keyboard as I think about them. Safety rules sensibly designed for industrial workplaces enthusiastically and cripplingly misapplied to small art galleries. “Best practice” building codes lumping performance venues with six-figure bills to move a perfectly functioning door barely an inch. Crippling compliance rules gradually destroying the live music and performance scene while comparatively lax and lucrative incentives encouraged pubs to put in poker machines.

There’s a real reason why cultural venues and events are hit hard by institutionalised stupidity: most people running them aren’t really out to make money. Mostly they are trying not to lose money. They are trying to maximise the cultural value of what they do and not maximise the return on their financial investment and as a result, they don’t have money to burn.

A good thing it is. If there weren’t people trying to make the world interesting, every shopfront would have become a chain store and every pub would have become an apartment block years ago. Consequently though, cultural activity is often economically marginal and cultural venues will disappear long before strip clubs, meat markets and booze barns when a major new cost like increased security is applied indiscriminately. They will always struggle when tone-deaf governments fail to recognise that regulation should be proportionate to risk and impact.

Unfortunately, artists fail to lead in this area. Generally, they take regulatory issues for granted while second-division issues such as funding programs and capital works grab the lion’s share of the attention. It’s back to front. In any truly vibrant culture, the main game is how easy it is to put on show, play a gig, or start a venue. If the culture is healthy at that level, then it will be vibrant and dynamic. If it’s not, then all the architect-designed arts centres, funding programs, application procedures and guidelines in the world won’t save it.

If governments can’t twig to the policies, maybe they’ll twig to the politics of what communities value. If the government can’t spot the difference between the Tote and a King Street nightclub, perhaps people will let them know at the polls.

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