I don't believe, as many do, that making money from art is the right of every person in this country. I do not personally feel entitled to receive money from the government for every creation I make.
I believe any government that doesn't support the arts is shortsighted to the point of blindness as there are manifold economic and social benefits. I believe that the arts as intellectual property could be a much more significant part of our economy if we supported it as we do agriculture, mining and sport. I also believe that arts are a major mental health tool that are not appreciated for what they are for fear it will diminish the work of the elite practitioners.
This current crisis in the arts over funding changes – which, fingers-crossed may change with the new minister – means that there is currently no room to criticise previous arts-funding models while debating the pros and cons of new proposals, and the nature of the internet these days makes mature argument almost impossible. Here’s a test to see if it makes one a pariah to ask aloud if it is possible that there was any valid logic behind Senator Brandis's drastic measures.
As no detailed explanation was put forward by the former Minister for the Arts we may never know the true logic or motivations behind the changes and many pundits bemoaned it as strategic manoeuvring to make it easier for Brandis to give money to his friends – saying that the arts minister was politicising arts funding. The blame game becomes like ping pong when Brandis returned serve by pointing out some examples of direct minister-to-artist funding by previous governments. The ball gets passed back and forth and both 'sides' argue that their way is more fair.
'in both of my terms … in 2007 and from 2013, the single most constant refrain I heard from people … in the sector was the sense of grievance they felt that they couldn’t get through the doors of the Australia Council. So I wanted to broaden access; to broaden access to make it more democratic.' The Australian
Can't this quote be taken at face value? What if the Liberal (right) felt that too much money was going towards liberal (left) art practitioners and that the change of funding method is an attempt redress the socio-political imbalance in said funding? That funding was a club to which few were admitted. If that is the case, since the majority voted the Liberals in we should all accept this as an act of democracy in action. In a democracy we must respect the rights, voices and opinions of the people who vote for others; so if there is a segment of society not being fairly represented in the arts, I support them getting their share.
Now that we have a new minister for the arts, should we take a step back, have a bit of a breather and ask: what is arts funding for? Is it to stimulate an IP economy by creating a stable and verdant ecosystem of individuals, small and larger organisations that work to make the IP pie bigger for all? Or is it a tool to steer our culture in the direction of whatever political party is in power at a given time? Or is it just a nice thing we do for people who want to follow their bliss and get paid for it?
'I always ask, what is the funding ultimately for? The funding is ultimately for audiences. Wherever the funding goes, audiences should benefit. If audiences benefit then I'm happy.' Opera Australia CEO Craig Hassall
In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Opera Australia CEO Craig Hassall has managed to introduce an important aspect of this debate that so often gets overlooked: the audience. What he doesn't do is refer to the audience by its other name, a name that many artists dare not use: the market.
I believe the market is an important factor in determining the value of the arts; not to be disparaged, not to be ignored but also not to be pandered to. Popularity certainly does not determine quality but unseen art isn't good for anyone. It isn't good for the artists, arts bodies or the public to pour money and time into projects that don't get seen or experienced; that is output, without an outcome. It is both disheartening and doesn't contribute to any of the possible goals either side of arts politics propounds. Art unseen is only worthwhile to the artist and that kind of personal art does not require public funding.
It is too simple to say money, and the lack of it, is the problem (that's why it's so popular to do so). All the well-meaning, well-intentioned petitions, councils and conferences have zero impact on the actual problem: not enough Australian art is being consumed. That's it. That is the main game. We have a lot of people wanting to make a living from making art, in a limited market that is saturated with local and foreign product.
One of the key problems of Australian arts is that our market has a prejudice against local producers and a preference for popular foreign content – or local content that a foreign market has approved of. There is an argument to be made that much of the material from overseas is of a higher calibre and quality but if this is the case, I believe this would only be true because of the time and financial investment, over extended periods, that other countries put in compared with our own.
Is there a way of funding the arts that is non-political and respects the multifaceted views of Australian citizens? Is there a way to simultaneously promote the consumption of local arts that would in turn establish an audience that engages with local content that in turn will grow and diversify our intellectual property industry?
What if instead of paying artists, and having all the rigmarole of choosing who they should be, we paid people to consume Australian arts? Sounds ridiculous but it's easier than you might think: make tax deductible the buying and consumption of Australian arts by Australian companies and individuals. We could set up an automated register, as has existed in publishing for decades, that issues unique numbers for true-blue Australian arts products which, when it comes to tax time, people enter into their deductions (just make sure you keep the receipt).
This way the market can support artists large and small, challenging or traditional, old and new, as it deems worthy, and the politics of it would be removed. Some may fear that this might only reinforce already popular art products but in many instances it may tip the balance for a consumer choosing between a local film and a foreign one, a homegrown book or an import, sitting at home or going to a festival. There may be a fear that companies might begin investing in local art at the end of financial year to lower their tax burden – which is fine by me because that money doesn't leave the country, it goes to local artists who might even earn enough to have a taxable income. We might also get an impartial answer on which art forms are valued by the people and which only exist because of expensive life-support systems.
Again I will state that I do not believe the sole aim of arts is to generate income – its true benefit to society is in aesthetics, intellectual stimulation, community building, mental health, personal growth and education – but those who are trying to derive their livelihood from it must surely acknowledge and respect the role of the audience. Art has to take root in the public to have cultural value. With a bottom-up model like the one suggested above, those connections don't need to be argued in grant applications; they will be proven by the audience.
Growing the market means encouraging a change of consumer behaviour by stimulating spending and developing a taste and respect for local produce. Markets and audiences can then grow over time, or not, through repeat exposure and word of mouth. If a product is well received there will be support for the next creation from that producer; there is a willing audience and a waiting market. When the market grows, it can support bigger organisations; individuals can form teams, teams can merge into companies and companies can solidify into institutions. This is the ecosystem we are striving to develop and are always building on shifting sands (and as previously mentioned, the territory is dominated by product from better funded, longer established foreign entities who have spent centuries growing their local markets).
I do not believe any of these facts are lost to either side of politics, in the Australia Council or in the various ministries for the arts at state level, but each has been working with continually changing mandates and resources and never been able to change the pattern – and there is no stability in sight as there is always another election or budget to pass. We should accept that and appreciate what existing funding bodies provide and that they are doing what they can to stimulate the sector. Awards, competitions and festivals can be effective awareness campaigns to promote work that the market may otherwise overlook. Investing in individual artists can often make the difference between developing a successful arts practice and not, in the same way that business grants and tax breaks enable entrepreneurs in other fields to get the start they need.
If our aim is to create a stronger, smarter, more organised arts and IP industry we need to create a market that supports it. Money can help arts survive, but it needs an audience to flourish.