marcus westbury

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My submission to the National Cultural Policy

December 20th, 2011 by marcus

Earlier this year, the Federal Government called for submissions in response to their draft discussion paper on the forthcoming National Cultural Policy. Being quite time-deprived at the time i hastily cobbled together a response – somewhat compiled from other things that i written in the past and probably desperately in need of a good editor. I have pasted it in full below…

About you or your organisation

My background is as a festival director, broadcaster, writer, and media maker who has worked both paid and voluntarily across a range of roles in arts, technology and media. My experiences are informed by having worked extensively in the arts, media and “creative industries” but generally outside the institutional structures that make up most of the funded arts sector.

In the late 1990’s I founded Newcastle’s This Is Not Art festival. From its establishment in 1998 to 2002 TINA grew from nothing to Newcastle’s largest annual tourism event and one the largest media arts events in the world. It is a niche, national and international cultural event that is of both economic and cultural significance to a regional city. From late 2002 to 2006 I was the Artistic Director and co-CEO of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival – Australia’s largest curated festival for young and emerging artists – and was a director of Festival Melbourne 2006, the Cultural Program of the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. During this time I co-founded Free Play, Australia’s largest independent computer games creators’ festival which is now an independent annual event.

In 2007 and 2008 I wrote and presented two series of Not Quite Art on ABC1. Not Quite Art was awarded “Best Arts Show of the Year” in 2008 and short listed as of the best documentaries of 2009 by The Sydney Morning Herald. It was variously described as “the kick up the arse Australia’s TV arts needed” (Arts Hub), “the freshest, most illuminating, thoughtful and funny locally made arts program in years” (The Age), “informative, provocative and mind-blowing. Everything the ABC should be proud to be about” (Margaret Pomeranz) and proof that “coverage of the arts can be arresting, provocative and relevant” (The Age).

Aside from the arts I have worked extensively in online media. In 2007, I project managed the howshouldivote.com.au website with GetUp! and Yahoo7 that produced personalised how to vote cards for 150,000 Australians (more than one percent of eligible voters) in the lead up to that election. From 2000-2001 I worked for ABC Online and Radio National developing the online models of forums, interactive programming and audio downloads that are now common on that network. in the late 1990s I was the internet manager and then Creative Director of the Australia Council’s LOUD and Noise media festivals responsible for projects described by The Sydney Morning Herald at the time as “as good as anything achieved on the web in Australia, and probably better.”

I was a member of the Rudd Governments’ short-lived Creative Australia Advisory Panel and have sat on Committees of The Australia Council, Arts Victoria, NSW Ministry for the Arts, The Australian Film Commission and numerous agencies and was a delegate to the 2020 Summit.

I have had some ongoing engagement with policy and research working for The ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation and as a fellow of The Centre for Policy Development. I have written a regular column for The Age and co-written an arts guidebook for the Australia Council. I have written extensively on cultural policy issues in publications such as Griffith REVIEW, Meanjin, Crikey, and my personal web sites. This submission draws at times directly from writings that I have written myself and with others.

Current roles

Founder and Creative Director, Renew Newcastle www.renewnewcastle.org

Renew Newcastle is a low budget, not for profit, DIY urban renewal scheme that has brokered access to approximately 40 empty buildings for more than 70 creative enterprises, artists and cultural projects in my home town of Newcastle, NSW. It is an attempt to both revitalise my home town but also to put into practice the kind of strategies to support small scale cultural production that I advocate in this submission and had previously advocated elsewhere.

Renew Newcastle brokers access for artists and creative enterprises to what would otherwise be empty spaces. These empty spaces provide excellent opportunities to incubate arts projects and creative initiatives (both businesses and not for profit) and Renew Newcastle has succeeded by pursuing the idea that in periods of transition brokering such opportunities can be mutually beneficial to artists and property owners. Renew Newcastle began life as unfunded initiative – falling, as innovations often do – awkwardly between the gaps in guidelines for both government and philanthropic funding. In order to establish Renew Newcastle I worked unpaid for several years and spent tens of thousands dollars of of my own money.

The Newcastle Herald has described Renew Newcastle as “the miracle on Hunter Street“ and the transformation unleashed by it as “nothing short of outstanding“, and as the city’s biggest news story of 2009, “AFTER years of depression and desperation about Newcastle’s decay, … Young and creative people have helped make the Renew Newcastle project the signature move to get the city thinking positive again.” ABC TV Stateline described Renew Newcastle as having “recycled, reinvigorated, revived, revitalised, recreated and reimagined the city.”  When Lonely Planet declared Newcastle one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 – the first Australian city ever to make the list – they cited the “dozens of disused city-centre buildings occupied by photographers, fashion designers, digital artists and more as part of the inner-city regeneration scheme, Renew Newcastle” as a major factor.

In 2010 Renew Newcastle and its partner the GPT group won the AbaF Partnership of the Year award as well as the state and national Toyota AbaF Community Partnership of the Year awards. Renew Newcastle has been so successful it is now being emulated by creative communities in places across Australia including Adelaide, Cairns, Townsville, Geelong, Queenstown, Parramatta and the Gold Coast. Renew Newcastle continually receives several enquiries a week from towns and communities across Australia seeking advice and support to do the same.

Founder and CEO, Renew Australia www.renewaustralia.org

Renew Australia is a new national social enterprise designed to catalyse community renewal, economic development, the arts and creative industries across Australia. It works with communities and property owners to take otherwise empty shops, offices, commercial and public buildings and make them available to incubate short-term use by artists, creative projects and community initiatives.

Renew Australia is based on the intellectual property, experience, and case study pioneered by Renew Newcastle. Through a simple strategy based on the temporary and low cost creative activation of some of the more than 150 empty buildings in the Newcastle CBD, significant part of Newcastle have been transformed.

Renew Australia provides training, consultancy and support services to business, government and community groups engaged in the creative activation of space. Renew Australia works with local communities and property owners to help establish and manage Renew type projects on the ground. We can develop, promote, recognise, and help to realise a local approach tailored to the unique challenges and opportunities of any community.

Renew Australia has has been founded in response to interest from 60 communities across Australia that have contacted Renew Newcastle seeking information about or support to launch similar schemes. Renew Australia’s establishment has been supported by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and with a loan from ‘The Crunch’ – a social enterprise incubation scheme developed by Social Traders.

Neither Renew Newcastle nor Renew Australia have received any federal government funding or significant policy or in kind support.

Director, ISEA 2013 www.ISEA2013.org

The International Symposium of Electronic Art will be held in Sydney in June 2013.  ISEA is a major international event that moves to a different international location each year. In 2013 it has been secured for Sydney by the Australian Network for Art & Technology (ANAT) with the backing of Business Events Sydney, Events NSW (Destination NSW) and a consortium of Universities and arts industry partners.

ISEA 2013 will bring together over a thousand of the world’s leading artists, researchers and creative geeks to look over the technological horizon and explore the creative possibilities of tomorrow. In 2013 ISEA will consist of an academic conference, a diverse gallery, exhibition and public art program, a festival of digital creativity in all its forms and a public thinkers program.

ISEA2013 is collaborating with Vivid Sydney to use Sydney as the playground where the public is immersed in groundbreaking creative works in and outside of the gallery. ISEA2013 is in negotiations with 23 partner organisations including the Australia Council, Arts NSW, Industry & Investment NSW, UNSW, University of Sydney, UTS, Powerhouse Museum, Australian Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of NSW.  These partners are looking to collaborate with ISEA, each other and international partner organisations to engage in Australia’s largest ever festival of Electronic Art.  With these partners ISEA 2013 will bring workshops and exhibitions into both gallery spaces and the public domain to educate and emphasise how we are all touched by the rapidly evolving creative culture that is changing our everyday lives.

Note: This submission is written as an individual but it is informed by my experiences working in the range of professional contexts outlined above. I also acknowledge potential conflicts of interest resulting from my involvement in the current initiatives outlined above. The views expressed in this submission are provided personally and not on behalf of any organisation.

Do you support the development of a National Cultural Policy, and why?

Yes. Australia is changing and our cultural needs and priorities are changing with it. The National Cultural Policy is the first time in a generation that Australians have been provided with the opportunity to consider the challenges and opportunities of Australian culture in a rapidly changing world. Changing dynamics require smart policy responses and the development of appropriately designed and resourced strategies to engage with them.

Outside the institutional arts it becomes quickly apparent that Australia’s arts funding and policy structures are a legacy of another era. They were designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore and there is little incentive for them to change. At all levels of government responsibility for Australia’s arts, media and cultural priorities are diffused through dozens of agencies, councils, departments, initiatives, strategies, schemes, corporations and associations. While they are often full of passionate and knowledgeable people endeavouring to do good work, the net effect is collectively dysfunctional. Each operates with limited resources, governed by an internal logic rather than a larger strategy. Each is primarily accountable to a self-defined sector or a narrow set of priorities and pressure groups. Despite several decades of the most profound cultural and technological changes, the structures and strategies of our cultural agencies have remained largely unchanged and unchallenged since the 1970s. The National Cultural Policy is a unique opportunity to articulate a clearer rationale and evaluate their collective effectiveness.

By contrast, the artists and creators who I work with and whose work I value have little choice but to embrace rapidly evolving modes of production, distribution and collaboration across disciplines. Culture is in flux all the time, yet arts funding and support strategies remain immutable and fixed. A healthy creative ecology is one with a capacity to encourage variety and change. More than any other area of our lives culture is in a state of constant reinvention.

Australia’s current arts and cultural structures define our priorities and our systems as though culture trickles down from a select number of fixed organisations built around pre 20th  (and mostly pre 19th) century cultural and organisational forms. While I agree that arts and culture has an important role to play in preserving and building on the legacies of the past, it also needs to remain engaged with the present and the future. Australia’s National Cultural Policy provides a rare opportunity to engage with the challenges and possibilities of now.

What are your views about each of the four goals?

Goal 1: To ensure that what the Government supports — and how this support is provided — reflects the diversity of a 21st century Australia, and protects and supports Indigenous culture

I support this goal. Australia in the 21st century is a diverse nation made up of people with a wide variety of cultural experiences, expectations and backgrounds. In an inclusive democratic society it is important to ensure that these cultural contexts are respected and that the full spectrum of cultural experience is given the opportunity to flourish. It is also important to ensure that all Australians have access to high quality culture that speaks to them regardless of income, social status, disability or geographical location. Just as importantly, Australia’s cultural diversity (and particularly our Indigenous cultures) is a great national asset. Australia’s unique fusions of cultural influences are both central to our national identity and to our economic competitive advantage in creative fields.

However in reading the discussion paper, I would encourage the government to reconsider its strategies in relation to this goal. While the intent to “increase people’s engagement in the arts, irrespective of their socio-economic or educational background or their geographic location” is appropriate and laudable, the strategy falls short of some key issues and challenges. The focus on “arts organisations, cultural partners and local authorities” to identify and build audiences and broaden their activities risks further extending the failures of the current approach.

The discussion paper correctly identifies the need for “new artists and arts organisations” but I would go further to argue that it should also call for new approaches at a government level. Over several decades immigration, the falling cost  of international travel relative to incomes, demographic change, new technologies and communications media have transformed the spectrum of cultural choices available. The large-scale infrastructure and mass subscription model that underpins the logic of most funded arts is poorly equipped to respond to the plethora of new artists, artforms, audiences, genres, and sub-cultures emerging.

Cultural diversity is not simply a failure of audience outreach or unimaginative and un-inclusive programming. Responding to it can not begin with a question of asking how to make more of the Australian community interested in the relatively small number of institutions supported by current approaches but must instead begin by looking afresh at the cultural traditions and expressions that Australians actually value. We must, to some extent, change what we do and not merely how we market it. We cannot just make a fixed set of cultural structures more relevant but must ask instead how we might best support and resource relevant cultural structures. A National Cultural Policy must break the self-referential loop that treats the growing gap between the well-funded arts and people’s cultural interests as an audience development problem and not a cultural shift. By framing the growing cultural diversity and the attendant desire for relevant cultural programs and platforms as a failure of marketing we reinforce a dynamic of exclusion – at times rewarding failure and declining relevance with greater resources and greater subsidies as a means of rectifying it.

Part of this must involve opening up the funding process to investing in a greater diversity of artists, communities and artforms. Many current artforms and practices do not fit within the siloed structures defined by the Australia Council’s Act and it’s contemporary interpretation – despite their practitioners being internationally renowned and otherwise excellent. This is, in part, due to problems with the process and in part due to limited resources. Despite the oft-repeated stereotype that arts funding favours the marginal and multicultural, when I last checked the Australia Council’s entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts board has less than a quarter of Opera Australia’s funding. More than 90% of Australia Council music funding goes to opera and orchestras despite the Australia Council’s own research consistently showing music as a an area where passionate audiences appreciate a very wide range of forms and contexts. Current funding discourages diversity with a small number of things receiving levels of government support well out of proportion to their audience numbers, their cultural relevance or their creative influence. To take 2007-08 as an example Opera Australia and the associated Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received $17.5 million of Australia Council funding. By comparison, the Australia Council’s highly competitive funds for literature, music, theatre and visual arts between them had a combined budget of $21.8 million spread over 916 separate projects, organisations and individuals. Excellence comes in a variety forms and can be found in a growing diversity of locations and the funding systems need to meaningfully engage with this.

Funding however is only a small part of the picture. The National Cultural Policy must recognise that the overwhelming majority of artists have little engagement with either the funding bodies or the institutions and large scale companies that they support. A National Cultural Policy must facilitate initiative, experimentation and enterprise at the small scale and outside the institutional structures. Many aspects of cultural, economic and social policy actively discourage activity at the small scale and there has been an ongoing failure to be responsive to it. Too often government policy is exclusively abut creating limited scarce opportunities through funding and infrastructure and attempting to select likely winners to take them. There is a role for this but more often it is effectively a constraint.

The logic employed by Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia is one of creating contexts where artists and creative projects with limited capital but high levels of creativity can seed, experiment and – if they are good enough – thrive. To the best of my knowledge few, if any, Renew Newcastle projects have received direct funding and yet this has not deterred the establishment of more than 70 of them. A key aim of cultural policy needs to be ensuring that personal, community, and small-scale creative initiative is viable. A cultural policy must seek to create fertile ground and not merely to pick winners.

A true commitment to diversity requires a cultural policy approach that begins with thinking about the viability of cultural activities at all scales and that accumulates a cultural richness from a plethora of viable and diverse projects and initiatives.

Goal 2: To encourage the use of emerging technologies and new ideas that support the development of new artworks and the creative industries, and that enable more people to access and participate in arts and culture

I support this goal – however the strategies to respond to it require greater consideration. The globalisation and digitalisation of culture challenges traditional hierarchies of creation, distribution and criticism. The boundaries between producers and consumers, professionals and amateurs are becoming increasingly blurred. Australian audiences now have access to vast reservoirs of images, music, words, ideas and inspiration from around the world. Australian creators no longer face the tyranny of distance but instead face growing competition for attention and local and international mass and niche audiences.

I support the strategy that Australia should “recognise and support the development of innovative work which makes the most of new and emerging technologies” however it is important to emphasise that this takes place within both a creative and a commercial context. Australia is a world leader in the media arts despite inconsistent approaches to funding and support and the area being relatively under-resourced compared to other areas of the arts and an ongoing battle for artistic validation.

This is an area is where the definitions in the discussion paper create some ambiguities. The distinctions between of “core arts” and “creative industries” need some rethinking – in my experience there is a continuum and not a divide between these two areas. Many media artists and artists working with technology practice art for arts sake. To the extent that there is a division it is not, as implied in the discussion paper, a division based on form (with “Music, performing arts, literature and visual arts” on one side and “film and television production, broadcasting, electronic games, architecture, design and fashion, publishing, media and advertising” on the other) but instead one based on personal attitudes, communities of practice and the nature of incentives and support structures.

Cultural policy in Australia has long suffered from a poorly drawn distinction between “art for art’s sake” and for-profit cultural products created by the entertainment industries. Public funding for the so-called “high arts” is often justified by the artistic merit of artforms such as literature, theatre or orchestral music, and by the argued inability of these arts to exist if left to the workings of the free market. In this worldview, government support for popular culture is often frowned upon as a “dumbing down” of standards, and in any case unnecessary, because the market already provides these products. In the real world this is a false divide. The “high arts” can at times be boring, unoriginal and pretentious, while so-called “popular culture” can display high standards of creativity, originality and artistic craft – and vice-versa. Similarly, heritage artforms such as Wagnerian opera or Shakespearean theatre can be immensely popular and highly remunerative, while many types of popular culture can be very unpopular indeed and yet provide works of enduring value and the research and development phase of future commercial trends. Valid and original work can be found in every artform and genre and our arts funding structures should support open-ended exploration and the artistic imperative across both traditional and contemporary forms.

It is true however that artists and creative people working with new technology excel in areas of experimentation, research, tinkering and investigation that often lead the commercialisation and ubiquity of technologies and tools by years if not decades. Artists are often innovators who fail to capitalise on and profit from their own development of tools and technologies. My role as the Director of the forthcoming 2013 International Symposium of Electronic Art has reminded me that electronic artists have a long tradition of exploring ideas, technologies and concepts across locative media, augmented reality, sound and video manipulation and mixing, robotics and interactivity years before they become commercial and ubiquitous. Artists often peer over the horizon and provide insights into sunrise ideas and industries well before they approach the mainstream. They also often fail and follow ideas that lead nowhere. Government policy should encourage open-ended experimentation while also providing practical channels for commercialisation and cross-pollination between art and business wherever possible and appropriate.

However the role that technology plays in enabling “more people to access and participate in arts and culture “ goes beyond artists working with digital technologies – the disintermediation unleashed by technology has dramatically changed the capacity for creative production. More and more Australian creators now make work that finds its audience without passing through any of the infrastructure offered by our cultural agencies.

This effect can be seen most obviously in the recent surge in creative participation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2007 about 3.5 million Australians – or 22 per cent of the adult population – were engaged in some “professional” work in arts and cultural activities. Most of these artists will never work for, in, or with the major arts companies, festivals and organisations that have traditionally been the focus of government policy. From 2004 to 2007 (the last period for which detailed data is available) there was a 117 per cent rise in people working professionally in photography, 93 per cent in drawing, 93 per cent in computer-based art, 76 per cent in painting, 96 per cent in textiles and 113 per cent in other craft and an astonishing 204 per cent in jewellery. These people should be a key practical and political constituency of the National Cultural Policy.

These are the people that have been targeted by Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia. These are creators spread across Australia’s cities, its suburbs, its regional centres and remote locations working on their micro record labels, crafts, jewellery, fashion design, art and music creating quietly and with little engagement with arts structures. They are, in most cases, neither “excellent” nor often “professional” as defined by the Federal Government through the Australia Council (the ABS and the Australia Council use radically different definitions) and yet they represent the most significant constituency of creative activity in the nation.

It is the defining feature of 21st culture that small niches of specialised work are finding an international audience. Today’s bedroom musicians have global audiences, our suburban handicrafts are international exports. Despite the lack of government support there is a growing plethora of support networks from DIY guides, to forums to global marketplaces such as Etsy.com. They have seeded not just a change in consumption but of cultural production and initiative. Whereas once being creative in a small town or a regional city could be an isolating and even eccentric activity it is no longer. It is now connected with support networks, communities, appreciative fans, markets and economies of scale that reach well beyond the physical boundaries of any place.  It is a culture that defies much of the attempts to pigeonhole the simple divide between “core arts” and the “creative industries.” It is space of constant innovation and yet it is motivated less by economic returns and more by the economically irrational motivations of creativity and possibility.

Renew Newcastle has demonstrated just some of the possibilities of engaging in this space. It has demonstrated that it is possible to create relevant opportunities for such people, that there is enormous pent up demand (at last count Renew Newcastle had received more than 400 project proposals) and that doing so can unleash triple bottom line value in our communities.

Finally, while I support the desire to “Strengthen the capacity of artists and performers to manage copyright and intellectual property, particularly in relation to online content” this is a small part of a bigger picture. In the context of the National Broadband Network, it is important to remember that it is the policy settings and incentives and not just the fibre-optic tubes that will determine whether the NBN meets its cultural potential. How the NBN treats local content, how and on what terms we will be able to access material from our cultural institutions and the rules that govern what Australians can make, remix and share online are all key cultural questions. Copyright in this context requires us to return to some first principles: cultural life is a good thing; that creators are encouraged to create; that access to creativity, education and our deep national heritage is an opportunity too good to pass up. The government needs to find ways to support this while devising appropriate means of remuneration for artists and creators.

Goal 3: To support excellence and world‑class endeavour, and strengthen the role that the arts play in telling Australian stories both here and overseas

I fully support the commitment to Australian stories and believe that striving for excellence should remain a key (but not the exclusive) goal of a National Cultural Policy. However this should come with an insistence that “excellence” in this context is plural. While the commitment to excellence is broadly supported it has often been used as a means to validate and resource established companies and artforms and invalidate others. A particularly exclusive interpretation of excellence has often been used at the primary justification for the grossly unequal distribution of funding and government support of the arts in Australia.

To the extent that excellence is about ensuring that Australian artists across all forms are supported and resourced to be the very best that they can be I think this is a vital goal of a National Cultural Policy. Excellence in this context must be interpreted with an inclusive, Australian and international 21st century definition and not an exclusive, 19th European century one.

Furthermore, the aim of promoting “excellence and encourage world-class standards in Australia’s major funded organisations” must require some rethinking of the support model of those companies. Excellence cannot come from supporting a select range of companies well to do what they have always done. It will not come from a starting assumption that each state should have a roughly identical infrastructure: an orchestra, a major theatre company in a secure financial position without some pressures to innovate.

Under the current model, AMPAG companies operate very differently to the rest of the arts sector. They are in many respects effectively exempt from peer review, transparency and competition. We must hold open the possibility that all companies – and not just the major ones – can be rewarded for their excellence by elevation to something like “major” status. Equally, those companies that rest on their laurels and under perform must justify their positions against the competing demands and opportunity costs of all the smaller companies who currently have no access to anything like the same pool.

AMPAG companies need a far greater degree of transparency and more clearly articulated rationales that allow for genuine comparisons of their artistic outputs, cost structures and value for money against their local and international competitors and peers. Their position must be tested against their own ideal and the competing claims to excellence and new and innovative models and approaches.

Goal 4: To increase and strengthen the capacity of the arts to contribute to our society and economy

I support this goal both in social and economic terms. I particularly support the strategies around education and connection to other areas of government. However this comes in the context of reiterating a concern about the misplaced boundaries between “core arts” and “creative industries” that are the premise of the discussion paper. I would be concerned if this or a future government took this goal as a rationale to pick economic winners rather than invest in areas where there is significant market failure in the commercial sector.

It is a paradox of creative industries is that they are often more successful the less they behave like industries. Artists can be good business people but for the great ones money is rarely what drives them. Thinking of them purely as economically rational players motivated by the desire to maximise their profits can be a recipe for failed industries and terrible art. As a recent analysis of Film Finance Corporation showed over 20 years of “commercial” investment in film had yield a negative 80% return. Any cultural policy motivated by picking financial winners is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. You can’t pick the next cultural movement in an environment when last year’s trends are next year’s clichés. Approaches that attempts to do so often combine the worst features of both government and the private sector.

Government does however have a key role to play in investing in R&D, adding value, creating incentives, developing a culture of excellence (in the broad sense) and removing barriers. Fields such as design, architecture, contemporary music, mass media, digital media and video games have a cultural significance that far outstrips the impact of the high arts and need to be embraced as part of any comprehensive cultural policy. It must be accompanied however by an understanding that at their core they also exhibit some of the properties of what the discussion paper defines as “core arts” forms – they can not be treated exclusively as cash cows. They demand to be taken seriously because at their best they have intrinsic worth both socially and impact beyond their economic value.

A National Cultural Policy needs to celebrate the creative imperative in all its forms. It needs to provide fertile ground for creative people and encourage and support them to take risks, experiment and innovate. It shouldn’t matter in that context whether you are a painter, a sculptor, in a rock band, a theatre maker, an architect or a computer-games designer.

Cultural Policy should promote the long tail of activity and innovation for its own sake while also seeking to provide concrete platforms, strategies and opportunities for commercialisation. Cultural policy should strive to create a diversity of opportunity for enterprises, community and creation but not prematurely force them into a rigid business model as the price for that support. It should ensure that creative industries have access to necessary capital – through direct investment at times but also through incentivising the tax system to invest in creativity – but it should also recognise that in the absence of capital, there are real economic and structural barriers to both their entry and to their ultimate success on both artistic and economic terms.

What strategies do you think we could use to achieve each of the four goals?

Recognise that “cultural policy” is about more than funding for the arts. Cultural Policy needs to be a true whole of government approach. It must recognise that cultural policy exists at the intersection of frameworks across government including media policy, education, copyright and censorship law, tax, urban planning, liquor licensing and R+D. Perhaps the most concrete example in this context is to look at the negative and positive effects of changes in liquor licensing and Place of Public Entertainment laws in NSW (and other states). Over a period of decades a combination of Poker Machines (and the inflation in licensing costs that came with them), restrictive place of public entertainment laws that made it relatively harder to promote live performance and relatively easier to promote gambling and televised entertainment, and increasingly restrictive noise impact regimes caused a massive loss in the number of live venues. Despite the massive impact the arts funding agencies did virtually nothing as it had little impact on the funded arts sector. After decades it took a concerted effort from outside the funded arts and an agenda from another area of government (National Competition Policy played a major role) to create a catalyst for changes that have seen a renaissance in the number of live music venues, an explosion in the diversity of live performance, and most importantly a significant change in the types of performance that are economically viable. This example is both an indictment of the failures of the current processes and a clear sign that the low hanging fruit of cultural policy is to be found outside the existing Arts policy approach.

A Cultural Test on all areas government policy. Following on from the previous example, cultural policy outcomes are often seen less in the application of arts policy than in the indirect effects of other forms of policy – from licensing laws, to tax policy, to the building code. Currently there is no process at a government level that measures the cultural impact of these decisions or other decisions of government on arts and culture. There is no channel within government through which such things can be reconsidered or challenged on a cultural basis. In advocating for this, I am not suggesting that all areas of government policy should be subservient to Cultural Policy but that they should consider and weigh it up against other factors and that there should be an advocate within government for cultural consequences. The absence of such a mechanism is an oversight and one that needs to be urgently addressed.

Reconsider the false divide between high art and popular culture. Art and culture of all different genres and types can be popular or unpopular, and good or bad. Cultural policy should not be based on preconceptions about which artforms are “worthy” of public support, but on cultural values that can manifest themselves in many ways, across many forms and genres. There are legitimate distinctions to be made and different approaches that follow from them however making these distinctions around form and not content or intent falsely draws these boundaries in ways that are counter productive. This approach must be reconsidered.

Cut the red tape that affects culture. Many artists and cultural organisations are constrained by access to appropriate infrastructure, like venues and workspace, as well as capital. For most artists policy settings that allow them to create, perform, present and share with limited capital are more important (and effective) in ensuring their success than direct subsidies. Cultural policy is no more or less in need of micro-economic reform than any other sector however the need for this has been largely lost in the top down, funding-centric model that has been pursued – almost exclusively – by Australian governments to date.

Create an agency for contemporary Australian culture. In order to facilitate the strategies outlined above Australia needs a new government cultural agency with a contemporary brief: to ensure that we are a nation that is a creator and not merely a consumer of culture, and that Australians are active and enabled participants in the global cultural pool. The Australia Council, while serving a legitimate function, is not an organisation capable of this or of becoming this and it would be counter productive to its other roles to add this brief.

Fund artists and production, not institutions. Ordinary working artists and small-scale creative practitioners are the forgotten people of Australia’s cultural policy debate. Their average income is well below median Australian wages. Yet individual creators and artists are the life-blood of Australian culture. Where new funding is created, it should be directed towards individuals and small companies – not large institutions. While much is made of the leverage generated by investment in major organisations, in my experience it is dwarfed in relative size by the resources, labour and effort in kind that makes up the majority of most small scale arts projects. In this area small amounts of funding, invested using efficient processes can go a very long way because the multipliers are massive.

A national empty spaces initiative. The rising cost of property hits virtually every small-scale creative initiative. In most cases work, exhibition and performance space is the largest single cost after labour (which in practice is often provided in kind) for creative projects. Equally throughout the country, from big cities to regional centres many buildings sit empty. Renew Australia is working to activate these spaces in ways that develop triple bottom line value for communities. This process needs to be funded and resourced at both the local and national level. Furthermore government needs to apply the cultural test outlined above and tweaks to the tax, liability and property laws so as to provide appropriate incentives and protections for creative activities. Government also needs to lead by example as the largest owner of empty and underutilised spaces in Australia. While Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia have led to over a hundred projects in privately owned empty shops, offices and warehouses at a negligible cost, the potential has barely been explored.

Copyright reform. Current copyright laws have been designed around the increasingly inappropriate extensions of regimes from one form of media to another. The cost and complexity of the system – which requires high-level legal advice to negotiate much of the time – is weighing both creative and economic activity down. As creative production becomes increasingly decentralised the legal frameworks in which creators sit need to operate at scales appropriate to the project. A system where the legal costs are the most significant cost in the project is inherently unsustainable and discourages creativity. I would encourage a comprehensive review based on a 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.

Digitise our cultural collections and provide a generous digital lending right. With the arrival of the NBN, the digitised collections of our galleries, companies, broadcasters, orchestras and archives in Australia could be shared into every home, school and library in Australia. 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 these organisations often err on the side of caution, meaning these vast resources are lost to the community. We need the 21st-century equivalent of public lending rights on the national broadband network. It is both the cheapest education and most effective audience development opportunity there is. If managed mindfully of a capacity to pay it is also a potential source of revenue to institutions and creators. Promote local content on the NBN. How will the network treat local content? The local content mandates applied to radio and television have no place on the NBN, but the design and operation of its pricing structure could encourage us to develop locally made and hosted media. A well designed mechanism that exempts local content from potentially prohibitive download quotas — as some, but not all, ISPs do now for the ABC’s iView service — could make a huge difference to local producers and encourage offshore producers to place at least some of their technical infrastructure here. If this provision was extended to the cultural institutions outlined above it would gently incentivise the use this material in Australian homes.

Tax and Social security.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. The social security system is also a source of recurring frustration. 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.

How can you, your organisation or sector contribute to the goals and strategies of the National Cultural Policy?

I am personally keen to engage in processes around the design of cultural policy and initiatives and believe that I have useful experiences and perspectives.

Renew Australia is developing a range of strategies and research projects designed to bring practical, successful cultural and economic projects to regional centres and are actively seeking to partner with the federal government to design and deliver these initiatives.

Are there any other goals you would like to see included in the National Cultural Policy?

Yes, but I am happy to limit my comments to the contexts above.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Dec 21, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Publishing and to a lesser extent Authors, are one of the relatively few areas of Australia’s culture to be well subsidised. CAL is a government authority that redistributes well over 100 million to publishing (first) and authors (second), the public lending right distributes a additional few million a year and we have quite a few variations on the Prime ministers awards to authors. The long standing import restrictions protecting our book industry also cost the public a fair bit and thus the combined public subsidy to ‘literature’ is almost certainly bigger than the total Ozco budget.

  • 2 john walker May 12, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Marcus any thoughts on ; Cultural Policy postponed?