Getting heard: the realpolitik of arts advocacy ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Getting heard: the realpolitik of arts advocacy

Robert Musil (1880-1942), the great German novelist and intellectual, observed once that if there was to be real social change of any kind, what was required more than anything else was not idealists nor intellectuals, but managers: those who knew the nuts and bolts of creating and maintaining organisations, and understood how to change organisational structures.

It's a view that is not exactly popular among artists, and sometimes for good reason: a dismaying large proportion of the hard-won arts dollar goes, not into making art, but into paying administrators. But nevertheless, there is a great deal of sane wisdom in Musil's observation. One example close to hand is the Malthouse Theatre, the fortunes of which were turned around by a radical corporate restructure. The artistic shift was simply not possible without the remaking of the relationships within the organisation, from the Board down to the bar staff.

One of the most useful weapons in an artist's survival arsenal is a practical understanding of how cultural policy and funding work, not from the narrow view of a practitioner applying cap-in-hand for the advantage of his or her project or organisation, but from the wider perspective of the place of culture in political and financial economies. This understanding is often rare among artists, not least because practitioners are too busy practising to have the time to read government reports. I find all this stuff fascinating, but I quite understand why it might make the eyes of others glaze over. But one simple way to glean some understanding is to subscribe to Currency House's Platform Papers, which regularly publishes overviews of public arts policy.

Getting Heard: Achieving an effective arts advocacy, released yesterday, is a stimulating and pragmatic analysis by Chris Puplick of the way Australian arts funding works. In particular, he examines, from his various experience as a politician, Australia Council Board member and Chair of various arts organisations, how Australian culture depends crucially upon the "kindness of strangers": that is, how policy has been driven by the interest of influential individuals, rather than by any broad-based policy.

As Ms TN gloomily noted in the Guardian after the election, arts patronage is not an exclusive policy of the Left. In fact, the arts have often done better under Liberal Governments than under Labor, and there's no reason to believe that the election of a Labor Government means better times for the arts. And one of Puplick's major points is that good arts advocacy ought to be non-partisan.

He also notes the lack of a peak body for the arts, a major problem in this country, since it means that instead we have a bunch of rival bodies squabbling for their share of the pie, rather than looking at the bigger picture and arguing for a better pie. I thought that the 2020 Summit might herald a change in this - the single most valuable part of the exercise was how a lot of people from differing disciplines were brought together and discovered that they had a lot of concerns in common, both within the arts community and outside it.

Puplick makes some valid (and not so valid) critiques about the 2020 Creative Stream. He discusses the way facilitating directed the conversation, and how this caused a mass rebellion, but doesn't take into account how this same facilitation distorted what was reported. For instance, he says one of the Summit's most disappointing aspects was its "deafening silence" on the topic of "soft diplomacy", or using the arts as other countries do as a key part of international diplomacy. This was in fact a topic to which I was assigned with people like David Throsby and Rupert Myer, and our group came up with at least half a dozen recommendations, including the reinstatement of the DFAT touring fund that the Rudd Government axed and the beefing up of the presently inadequate cultural arms at our embassies, several of them "cost-neutral" (as instructed). * But there we go.

Aside from the Bill Henson fracas and the much publicised 2020 letter - the subject, incidentally, of a new book by David Marr, The Henson Case, which is due for imminent release - the possibility of a group which speaks for all cultural interests has not materialised. For which I, for one, am sorry. Puplick could have acknowledged too, in criticising Cate Blanchett for being "partisan", that she was the single international movie star who signed the letter, ensuring that it hit the headlines and letting herself in for a lot of wingnut abuse. It's an act which perhaps makes her partisanship slightly more principled and complex. But enough of 2020.

As Puplick points out, one problem with the lack of a peak body is how culture gets hived off as separate from the rest of society, apparently blind to the needs of, say, hospitals or schools, which contributes to the perceptions of the arts community as an out-of-touch elite. This is a strong, if erroneous, perception which artists are very slack about addressing. (Not that media coverage like this helps; let's face it, there's not a lot of interest in the non-arts media in cultural affairs, unless they involve naked girls, scandals or controversial curmudgeons). And he suggests that we are still stuck in the old ways of arguing, instead of embracing the model of the "creative economy". (I'm not sure that's entirely true - the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, is certainly driving that rhetoric).

In any case, Puplick's view of how arts funding works here, even if it makes Australia sound dismayingly like a local parish, is a very clear and useful document. It's full of need-to-know information, including a list of the major public inquiries into the arts that have mostly shaped Australian cultural policy. It's well worth a read.

Watch out too for news of an upcoming forum at the Malthouse on November 10, when Chris Puplick will be here to discuss his paper.

* I checked the Final Report of the 2020 Summit (available since May) and found the relevant bit on "Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy", which follows for anyone interested:

The group discussing soft power and cultural diplomacy was asked to identify strategies whereby Australia could project ‘soft power’ internationally through cultural and other creative endeavours. The concept of ‘soft power’, as enunciated by Joe Nye, was discussed and its elements enumerated—such as arts and cultural exchange, promotion of Australian ideas, and media and other people-to-people contacts. Better projection of Australia’s creativity and cultural strength should augment Australia’s international credibility and influence. There would be domestic benefits within Australia because such a strategy would send to Australians a strong message about the nation’s values, achievements and confidence.

Indigenous culture was acknowledged as especially relevant—indeed, ‘central’ to international promotion of Australian culture given its distinctiveness, quality, high impact, international appeal, and importance to Australian identity. It was emphasised that it was ‘hard to curate a national vision’ or to choose the themes for promotion internationally. Australia’s international image and engagement was a composite picture, influenced by many factors. There was some criticism of the government’s decision to cut the funding provided to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for its international touring and other cultural programs, and there was a call for more cultural attaches to be placed in Australian diplomatic missions and consolidation of resources allocated across various departments and agencies. (Italics mine).

The group endorsed the value of cultural exchanges and residencies such as those arranged by Asialink, noting the importance of casting the net widely to include relevant institutions such as universities in these programs. There was discussion of the role of arts festivals in Australia and overseas in developing productive international links between Australia’s creative community and international counterparts.

The economic dimensions of international cultural promotion were canvassed. One speaker highlighted the export potential of Australian culture, arguing that other economic activity often followed cultural connections overseas. Another participant raised the challenges faced by Australian writers given the continuing British dominance of the international book-publishing market by virtue of its possession of British and Commonwealth rights from US publishers. Globalisation was seen as raising other challenges, such as displacement of Australian cultural activity by international products and other influences. Others saw new opportunities for outward looking engagement in a global domain. The key was to strike the right balance between national and local on one hand and international on the other.


David Williams said...

Hi Alison,

I liked Chris' essay, and like you found it informative, useful and mildly depressing. Puplick is a well-informed observer of the arts who operates very much at the public policy level, so many of his expressed disappointments about the limitations to date of arts advocacy BY ARTISTS should be read in that light. That is to say that I think he intends these observations as helpful suggestions for future improvements, rather that chastisements. I also think that the focus of the Rosemary Sorensen article in today's Australian distorts his argument somewhat by framing it as an 'attack' on Blanchett's enthusiastic embrace of Labor. Personally, I found his point well made and quite measured - we do need to ensure that the arts remain, as far as is possible, non-party aligned.

His comments about his perceived limitations of 2020 notwithstanding, I found this possibly the most interesting Platform Paper to date. But then I do tend to read a lot of inquiries! (there's another one about the relationships between the various tiers of the subsidised theatre sector to be released by the MPAB of the Australia Council very soon, which is an interesting read). Sydney readers might be interested to know that he is also doing a public forum at the Stables next Wednesday 8th October at 4.30pm. Should be lively.


Rodney Robbins said...

When I was a Music Video Production major in college at Lenoir-Rhyne College, I annoyed my professors by proclaiming that real artist pulled their own weight and did not EXPECT funding from the state. I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is by writing and promoting POPULAR musicals, but I now see the need for some level of state support. Hey, cities pay for pools, boat ramps and bike paths. The federal government pays for national parks and helps fund airports, so why not theaters, galleries and schools?

I just hope other playwrights will keep in mind that if nobody is coming to their shows, it might be from lack of publicity, or it might be because the audience wants to be entertained FIRST and enlightened SECOND. Paying audience or public patronage--it doesn't pay to bite the hand that feeds you.

Alison Croggon said...

Yep, I agree with you David. I hope you weren't reading this as a defensive review... it certainly isn't meant to be. It also, on a personal note, made me think about the 2020 thing, which I realise I've been studiously avoiding the past few months because of precisely that sense of disappointment. The irony being that the Henson thing, to my mind, demonstrated how much cultural affairs here need some go-to spokesbody, and how effective it can be when there is (I'm not alone in believing that the 2020 letter changed the terms of the public debate, which was its intention). But blah.

But I certainly share his feelings that artists let themselves down badly. And you're dead right, Sorensen's article distorts the debate. As, in fact, does any mentioned of Cate Blanchett. It's a kind of magic, he black side of stardom: suddenly all context disappears.

Thanks for your comment, Rodney. Governments. as we have seen recently, are prepared to pay trillions to help out bankers who have been systematically bleeding the economy dry, or to pursue dodgy wars in foreign countries, and the arts budgets - as Puplick also points out - are absolutely neglible in terms of other government figures. And what if people bite the hand that feed them and people LOVE it? It's not unknown...