I’ve spent the last couple of days at an Australian Academy of Science hosted event in Canberra where 50-odd very impressive thinkers, scientists, business leaders, former politicians, even military leaders and came together to basically talk about scenarios for the future. It was great and I learnt a lot. There were also a few arts and culture people there and at one point as we grasped with scenarios of uncertainty, I found myself connecting some dots about the inherent contradictions in forward thinking and embracing unknowns.
Recently we found out that Arts NSW will not be funding Renew Newcastle this year. Their reasons were varied but they followed on from some very mixed messages: on one had there has been an active attempt to change the guidelines so as to make programs like ours ineligible, and on the other hand Arts NSW has an entire section (linked to from the front page of their web site) boasting about supporting and encouraging others to develop programs like ours. A couple of years ago they were sending me to every corner of the state to try and drum up interest in this kind of approach. Now they want nothing to do with it.
As it transpired our application did manage to get past the new eligibility guidelines. It was was considered but unsuccessful. The reasons given are a mix of fair, confusing, and — in one case which i want to explore here — a really interesting policy question. Officially the reasons were that they got more good applications than they could fund (undoubtedly true), another was apparently Renew lacks “evidence of community support and engagement” (I disagree with that) and that there is a “lack of private support for the program” (again, this is confusing as the program has won the highest award in the country for business/arts partnerships) but for the purpose of this exercise I will take those three reasons at face value and assume the committee genuinely believed all those things for whatever reason.
The final major reason, was, essentially, that they couldn’t work out how they evaluate a program like ours looking forward. Evidence of our program looking backward is pretty impressive. I will happily compare it to any organisation, festival, or institution that receives $50k per year or less in total government arts funding. But looking forward, how do you compare the curatorial approach of Renew — which is essentially responsive, immediate, collaborative and about leveraging the momentum and initiative of others — with that of, say, a gallery or a theatre company? They work with fixed infrastructure. They close off opportunities for spontaneity and responsiveness but in return have the luxury then to be able to run a chronological, predictable program of events in a room or to plan two, three, four shows in a years time. They actually can pick and choose what they will have on in 18 months time and know with some certainty that they can deliver it.
Renew Newcastle is not that. It essentially an enabling mechanism. It is an entity designed to facilitate, in a timely and efficient way the works and ideas of others. It is not a programming structure it is an enabling structure. What i have come to realise is that funding systems are incapable of grasping with enabling mechanisms. Indeed, i will go further and say interaction with funding bodies actively destroys enabling mechanisms when they engage with them. The culture clash forces the enabling mechanisms to morph into ones that centrally plan and direct their activities in order to get funding.
In Newcastle alone i have been involved in starting three organisations — all of which exist to this day — that were designed initially as enabling mechanisms for independent cultural producers. The first was the organisation that has become Octapod back in 1996, the second was the festival that has become This Is Not Art (and many of the festivals that make it up or once made it up) in 1998 and 1999 and the final was Renew Newcastle which began a decade later in 2008. Renew came, in part, from the lessons learnt from the first two.
Essentially, conceptually, all three platforms began from the same premise: that there are a large number of artists, creative producers and culture makers of various kinds who want to act on their ideas and inspirations but, for whatever reason, they are finding it too hard. So the aim of the entity is to create a legal, practical and logistic framework that allows people with ideas to plug into appropriate infrastructure. That was a space, a community and an auspicing entity in the case of the original ‘pod, a logistical structure, a program, venues, and an audience in the case of TINA’s relationship to the independent festivals that make it up, and, finally space that would otherwise go empty and support navigating the legal complexities of accessing and using it in the case of Renew.
All three succeeded as enabling entities. Indeed they all grew quickly and with a vibrancy and a dynamism that would simply not be possible in a traditional top-down structure. That’s why they worked. Eventually they were rewarded for it with funding. Then it becomes awkward because they are expected to morph into something else. Their enabling functions weren’t really part of the package but they managed to sustain them by scraping off resources allocated for something else or exploiting ambiguities in how you talk about and deliver what you do.
Today, its interesting to look back and see what happened to that enabling capacity: Renew very much still has it but as noted above in order to maintain that we have effectively rendered ourselves unsuitable for arts funding, TINA still has elements of it but it’s enabling capacity has dramatically diminished, Octapod has morphed into more of a conventionally led arts organisations and probably doesn’t see itself as an enabler any more than most small to medium organisations do. But looking back, to the extent that they have lost that capacity, it has largely been from the pressure of funding expectations to stop enabling and start “directing” or “programming” from the top down because enabling uncertain and not yet existent initiatives doesn’t score well on funding applications.
Perhaps this is an entirely theoretical problem or simply the reflections of a disgruntled and (repeatedly) unsuccessful applicant but i think it’s actually a bit more than that.
It’s a core policy issue for a few overwhelming reasons. The first and most obvious problem is that we are increasingly living in a rapidly changing and disintermediated world. Many artists and cultural organisations are operating in an environment where flexibility, spontaneity and adaptability are more critical than ever but they can’t respond to it.
Most artists and cultural producers are — whether funding bodies like it or not — independent creators of the type who need enabling more than they need bureaucratically acceptable infrastructure. They can only rarely be programmed 18 months ahead. There is clearly massive unmet demand out there for this kind of practical help — based on my experiences sitting on cultural committees Renew Newcastle probably gets as many applications for opportunities as many state funding bodies get for funding.
The second problem is basically a simple value for money one. Enabling rather than directing or demanding simply gets more bang for your buck. You can do a lot more with a lot less by identifying and supporting creative initiative than you can through old fashioned, top down, institution-centric models. But in order to do that, you need to admit, that the opportunities to be enabled will vary from day to day, week to week, month to month. You can only vaguely know what they will be in 18 months time which is the typical frame in which funding applications are asking you to say what you will do.
So, i’d like to round this off with what i think is a modest proposal that could potential solve this problem. To be honest given that the stakeholders for most funding bodies are ones that are already funded, it is quite likely that this is not a problem anyone wants to solve. But on the off chance that you might a subtle reconfiguration of the funding paradigm could be in order.
Essentially, the trick is to change the form of the question that asks “what is your program going to be?” to something more along the lines of “what is your approach going to be?” Tweak a criteria that says or implies “Evaluate the calibre of the artists in the program named in this application” to “evaluate the likelihood that this approach is going to lead to quality outcomes.” There is a subtle but important distinction between the kind of approaches those questions allow for — a subtle shift to the latter should do nothing to exclude a good quality fixed program but it would at least allow for the possibility that responsive, dynamic, contemporary enabling structures can form part of the spectrum what arts programs can actually fund… if they wanted to.
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