marcus westbury

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Thoughts for politicians in search of a cheap arts policy

September 27th, 2010 by marcus

Another one of my pre-election pieces for The Age. I really have been slack in updating things here.

THE perception at election time is that politicians can get ahead only by rolling out the pork barrel and spending up big. But while we’d all love more money for the arts, there are a lot of things that could make us all culturally richer for not much more than the cost of political will, taking the lead, changing some rules and tweaking a few settings.

So, in the spirit of trying to get some actual ideas into the vacuum that is this election campaign, I’ve knocked up a list of suggestions for pollies wanting to do — or be seen to be doing — something useful on the cheap.

1. An empty spaces program

The rising cost of property hits every creative person who has to pay for space. Yet, throughout the country, from big cities to marginal seats, many buildings sit empty. Some tweaks to the tax, liability and property rules and a little national leadership and we could open up a lot of it cheaply and easily. I should know: in the past two years I’ve helped broker nearly 50 deals for artists to occupy privately owned empty shops, offices and warehouses, for a few dollars each.

2. Clean up copyright

It’s stupidly complicated, stupidly expensive and doesn’t work very well. The cost and complexity of the system is weighing everything else down. So let’s return to basic principles. We need to pay artists for their work. We need better respect for fair use — particularly of the non-commercial variety that kids do every day. But most of all we need efficiency in administration to make it faster, cheaper and easier for all concerned. It’s microeconomic reform. Fix it and we’ll save money.

3. Put our national cultural collections online

It’s a no-brainer. Our museums, galleries, orchestras, opera companies and state theatres are sitting on rich cultural archives that could be shared online tomorrow. But the confusion of rights makes it difficult, and they often err on the side of caution, meaning these vast resources are lost in red tape. We need the 21st-century equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network. It’s the cheapest education and most effective audience development opportunity there is. We’re spending a fortune on infrastructure, so we’d be mad not to do it.

4. Kill the petty complexities

Ever tried to rent a park, a hall, put on a gig or hold a show? The permits, permissions and red tape involved are where 90 per cent of the interactions between governments and the arts take place. For many artists, particularly those starting out, they are a killer. There is huge potential to lead here. Streamline the permits, slash the insurance requirements, offer meaningful exemptions for small projects and not-for-profit projects and events. Make it possible for communities to create events without the need for capital, lawyers and interminable time lost in the wheels of government.

5. Do something about insurance

The costs of volunteer and public liability insurance are killing small projects. In this litigious arse-covering society of ours, perfectly safe and sensible things aren’t happening as a result. How about cheap, simple volunteer and public liability insurance for those too new, too poor, or too temporary to be a paid, permanent operation? The cost would be tiny relative to the activity it would generate.

6. Tax

The arts are a very lumpy industry in terms of work patterns. We need better deductibility for genuine artists, better averaging of tax and cash flows, and real allowances for the fact that real artists often need to cross-subsidise from other sources of personal or family income to get by. It’s how success stories start.

7. Social security

There’s a huge difference between not being paid for a while and being unemployed. In a world of casualised work, artists, like all employees and contractors, have good periods followed by deep troughs. They need the flexibility to ride them out. If you shunt them off into poorly designed programs halfway through the R&D on a new project, you cost money rather than save it. The most successful creative people I know have gone without income to invest in their future. While we’re at it, making accreditation easier for small arts organisations under work-for-the-dole would help too.

So, need an arts announcement fast? Here are a few suggestions. I’m available for highly paid consultancy work, or to applaud your initiative at a press conference if you want to announce any of the above.

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