There is something slightly disingenuous about the spin that came with the Australia Council’s More than Bums on Seats: Australian Participation in the Arts survey released last week. At the very least, it’s a double-edged sword. At the superficial headline level, the report shows that Australians love and value the arts. But dig a little deeper and it asks some pretty tough questions of the Australia Council’s priorities and the federal government’s role.
The core of the problem is that by the Australia Council’s usual standards, the report takes an improbably broad definition of “the arts”. It shows that a massive majority of Australians value and participate in the arts, from reading to music to theatre to visual and digital arts.
For lovers of the arts and creativity in all its forms, the report is a vindication. In surveying more than 3000 people, it finds that most Australians genuinely love the arts: they love writing, music, visual arts and crafts. As such, it provides great ammunition in the case for governments taking art seriously and investing in it.
Yet, for the Australia Council, this also presents a challenge, namely because what the survey reveals is that the public often disagrees with it about what “art” is. As such, it serves to seriously undercut the council’s own funding priorities. While it demonstrates Australians have an obvious passion and engagement with a wide spectrum of creative and cultural pursuits, it fails to justify a policy that elevates, nurtures and funds such a tiny proportion of them. In effect, recognising that Australians are enthusiastic participants in the arts does not justify policy priorities that exclude most of them from the council’s dated and deeply dysfunctional definitions.
Take music as an example. Australians love music. The report finds that nearly two-thirds of us “participated” in music last year. Slightly more than one in 10 attended classical music, more than two in 10 attended music theatre or cabaret, yet more than four out of 10 attended “other live music”, which covers everything from pop to rock to country and dance. Where, then, is the justification for the Australia Council spending more than 80 per cent of its music budget and nearly a third of its total budget on orchestras?
Orchestras have a role, but if contemporary music is what Australians value, who is taking up the real role for government here?
At a federal level we’ve dropped the ball on the continuing crisis and upheavals of the music industry. Peter Garrett should recognise this. How much of the informal infrastructure that supported Midnight Oil’s rise to critical and commercial success has been obliterated?
For decades, the very pubs and live-music and cabaret venues and small theatres through which Australians engage with live music have been lost to poker machines, real estate prices and rampant regulations. Yet the Australia Council has done almost nothing.
Local radio stations have vanished and are lost to networking risk-averse and formulaic content, and technological upheaval has upended the music industry. Even now, new technology is offering up new opportunities and threats, yet the nation’s leading cultural policy body struggles to identify let alone engage with them.
The Australia Council should not be guided by simple populism, but it should at least be attuned to what is culturally significant. It should strive to make the full spectrum of Australian culture as successful as it can be. It is not about subsidising commercial markets but recognising that the market fails to support many forms and infrastructures not just opera and orchestras and arts centres.
This report is being presented as a marketing tool for arts agencies. But it’s not; it’s a road map of cultural values to be taken seriously in forming new policy approaches and priorities. It shows that the world is changing. It shows participation in the arts — particularly the digital arts — is surging. It shows that patterns of consumption and production are far more diverse than the funding programs and policy approaches currently cater for.
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Tags: Arts Funding · Arts funding spin · australia council · Australian Government · contemporary music · definition of the arts · midnight oll · More than Bums on Seats: Australian Participation in the Arts · music in Australia · orchestras · Peter Garrett6 Comments