The pandemic has been a wake-up call. Today more than ever, the arts are part of our daily lives. It’s not something that only the “elite” enjoy; they are an expression of the human condition.
As part of an interconnected system of collective well-being, it is essential to ensure that artistic practices continue throughout our community and that everyone has access to them.
The arts reflect all of our culture, and our cultures are what make us who we are. When our culture is central to our collective life, appropriate funding and support will naturally follow.
To move away from simplistic concepts, we need to think about what we mean by “the arts” and what they mean to us. What do we mean by “culture” and how does it manifest itself in our lives?
If we start by asking these questions, we can make the debate more meaningful and find a way forward that works in our own unique cultural, social, and political context.
Read more: The year it was all cancelled: how the arts in Australia suffered (but survived) in 2020
There is plenty of evidence to show that government financial support for arts and culture has been drastically reduced over the years. Today the arts are not even evaluate a mention in the title of the government department responsible for it.
Worse still, subsidies have been regularly awarded to marginal electorate communities for partisan political purposes. Yet we know that the arts are a public good and that Australia is a wealthy country that can afford to provide adequate funding for them. So what needs to be changed?
Over the past 20 years, arts advocates have called for a national cultural policy or a national plan for the arts. This was reinforced by the recommendations of two parliamentary committees over the past seven years.
However, apart from the short-lived work creative australia in 2013, there has been no attempt since 1994 to meet the needs of the sector or create an overall plan for the future at the national level.
Read more: Paul Keating’s Creative Nation: A political document that changed us
Relying on the political goodwill of governments to bring about change does not seem to be effective. Policy crafted by one side of politics can be quickly undone when the opposition comes to power, and little bipartisan progress is made.
Creation of an Australian Department of Culture
Many countries solve this problem with a ministry of culture.
An Australian Department of Culture could include the arts, First Nations arts and heritage, public broadcasting, film and cultural heritage within its scope. All of these areas are interconnected through their association with “culture”. Bringing them together in an integrated and central location would help bring “culture” into the political mainstream.
Although there is concern that a Ministry of Culture would extend government control over artistic practice, this could be avoided by using the arm’s length principle in funding and peer review. Political intervention in grant decisions is in no one’s interest and reduces the credibility of the government and the minister concerned.
Under a national cultural heritage framework, all major cultural organizations could then be funded directly by the government from this ministry.
The list would include our major galleries, libraries, museums, archives and other national entities that are already funded directly, such as Screen Australia and the Australia Council.
This could also include major performing arts organizations as they also represent aspects of our cultural heritage. That is to say the state orchestras, the national opera company and perhaps a national theater company.
Having a ministry responsible for everything in the area of culture would ensure that national protocols are in place to protect the national interest against the commercial interests of private enterprise.
All public broadcasting would be part of this ministry to prevent private market forces from dominating the discourse. Entities such as the ABC, SBS and NITV enjoy the public’s trust and are essential to national public debate, freedom of expression and the right of citizens to hold politicians and their governments to account.
They have also been instrumental in showcasing Australian stories and commissioning work from Australian writers, filmmakers and performers.
SBS challenged the homogenous norms of Australian culture and ethnicity and ensured the inclusion of a range of voices in the public space. NITV has given a voice to our First Nations people and has increased awareness and understanding of the culture within the general population.
Medium and small sized arts organizations and individual artists would continue to be funded by the Australia Council; and the film would continue to be funded by Screen Australia.
It could also be useful to establish a new statutory authority, similar to the Australian Culture and Humanities Foundation which was lost in a change of government. 23 years ago. This entity could bridge the gap between community cultural heritage, local history and community arts, and ensure that grants are awarded at arm’s length from political interests.
Obviously, the new entity would not be a panacea, but it would allow the development of a critical mass of shared interests and knowledge that would benefit the country.
A rich country
A plan for the future development of arts and culture is also essential. A plan would set targets and ensure that government decisions are proactive rather than reactive.
The experience of the pandemic has demonstrated that if we do not develop clear policies, then sectors that are excluded from the policy framework, such as the arts, could be sent to the wall.
Australia needs to mature as a nation by taking its arts and culture seriously, and a Department of Culture would provide a central platform for the nation’s identity.
We all have to take responsibility for taking care of our country and our culture. It means placing the arts at the center of our thinking. We can do it – and we must do it – to ensure a positive and creative future for our country.
We are a rich country both materially and culturally. We must recognize this and then act accordingly, to ensure that all future generations can enjoy their culture and practice their arts.
As our First Nations people have told us, arts, culture and country are one.
This is an edited excerpt from New Platform Paper 2: Arts, Culture and Country, republished with permission from Currency House. The full article is now available for free at www.currencyhouse.org.au