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The problems that plague Australian arts and culture long predate 2020, but this year's crises have thrown them into vivid relief. By Alison Croggon.

A different hope

Opera Australia musicians protest staff redundancies in September.
Credit: Ida Ioannou-Marsh.

In 2008, when I was but a humble arts blogger, I was – somewhat bafflingly – invited to Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit, which lured a thousand of Australia’s “best and brightest” to Canberra to thrash out a blue-sky vision for a future Australia.

Back then, the year “2020” had the gloss of low-grade science fiction. And although not one delegate imagined this year’s dystopic realities, when I look back it seems very clear that the failures that led to 2020’s successive calamities – the global environmental emergency, the pandemic, the worst crisis for Australian arts and culture in half a century – were all embedded in that very strange weekend. And nowhere does it seem clearer than in our cultural policies.

The summit occurred shortly after Rudd’s election, in that brief period of national optimism. The previous decade under John Howard had seen the most profound shifts in global power since the end of World War II: his was the age of the “war on terror”, a new Islamophobia, the political spin of “children overboard”, increasingly repressive national security laws, and continual hostility to any action on climate change.

Kevin ’07, the farm boy from Nambour, promised a new hope.

I was approximately 1 per cent of the summit’s “Towards a Creative Australia Stream”, which provided photo-op glamour with Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman. As with many of the other creative delegates, this was my introduction to the concept of “corporate facilitation”, a bewildering world of whiteboards, breakout sessions and exhausting discussions in which complex problems were boiled down to anodyne bullet points. None of it seemed to have anything to do with art.

After years of conservative embattlement it was a fillip to see arts and culture – an industry that, after all, represents 6 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product – recognised as a crucial area of national policy. But a weekend of wrangling industrial quantities of butcher’s paper under the helmsmanship of Blanchett and Jackman revealed that the summit was essentially an exercise in pacification.

We were, on the one hand, instructed to boldly imagine a new Australia. On the other, there were strict limits on what could be imagined: a key phrase was “cost neutral”. The bullet points presented on the final day, the intellectual fruit of the “best and brightest”, had a curious tendency to align with existing Labor policy. Some of the ideas, clearly added later by whoever was drafting the documents, hadn’t been discussed at all, prompting a minor revolt among the Creative delegates.

It’s depressing to review those 2008 conversations and remember that the widening fault lines in Australian arts and culture were already visible. None of the problems exposed through this year’s escalating crises is new.

There was a broad awareness among delegates, for example, that too many Australians felt disenfranchised from arts culture, because of either social exclusions – prohibitive costs, or the perception that art is only for “elites” – or geographical or cultural isolation. Education was seen as the major way to combat this alienation, as a way of fostering communities open to new ideas, and of demonstrating in the only way that counts – in the fabric of people’s day-to-day lives – what the arts have to offer.

There was a lot of discussion about access, about placing First Nations culture at the centre of Australia’s national identity, about the need to rethink long-held assumptions about what art and culture are. There were also concerns about the impacts of climate change, the increasing bureaucratisation of the arts, the global trend of decreasing cultural funding, and issues around intellectual property and the internet.

People pointed out that while the creative economy supported hundreds of thousands of jobs, from arts administrators to ushers, artists themselves often barely scraped a living. But even before the discussions began, it was made clear that an idea such as a living wage for working artists was completely off the agenda. That wouldn’t be “cost neutral”.

The one positive of the summit was the informal discussions between people who might otherwise have never met. I vividly remember a conversation with a nurse who told me how desperately they needed artists in their institutions – how art made a material difference to people struggling with ill health or neurological disease or ageing. Educators discussed the importance of the arts in childhood development, and regional leaders told us how crucial they are to community life in country Australia. These connections – unmassaged by ALP wonks – were probably the most valuable aspect of the whole exercise.

Since 2008, the problems raised during those summit conversations have almost all intensified to full-blown crises. The single cultural policy that made it through from bullet point to actualisation was a dedicated children’s television channel for the ABC.

As we know, the “Creative Australia” of 2020 turned out to be a battlefield. Cultural industries, along with tourism and hospitality, suffered worst in the pandemic, losing a third of their workforces through March and April. The performing arts were the first to close down as Covid-19 hit Australia, with some companies losing 90 per cent of their projected revenues for the year.

But the pandemic merely escalated deeply embedded structural problems that, as with climate change, predate the election of Tony Abbott, although 2013 marked a severe turn for the worse. For all Rudd’s courting of celebrities, his instrumental technocracy was only a superficial improvement on the Howard government’s indifference, which mainly ignored the arts but still felt the shadow of an old-fashioned Liberal attachment to cultural prestige.

During the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years, the major cultural policy achievement was years of consultation on the Keating-esque Creative Australia, which was launched by a doomed Arts minister, Simon Crean, in a last-ditch shot at bipartisan support for a national arts policy shortly before the ALP was voted out of office.

When Abbott was elected, it was easy to put the boot into a cultural infrastructure that almost nobody in government cared about – aside from, perhaps bizarrely, George Brandis, who would go on to become the most destructive Arts minister in Australian history.

In 2015, Brandis removed a third of the discretionary funding from the public accountability of the Australia Council for the Arts to the inscrutable black box of the ministry, to fund his notorious National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. He was reportedly baffled by the united fury that this decision unleashed – anger that reached across the spectrum from individual artists to major subsidised and commercial companies. It culminated in a senate inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 budget on the arts, which attracted a record 2718 submissions.

The Morrison government brought more of the same, with continual cuts in real terms masked as “increases”. In 2013-14, the Australia Council’s budget – even then widely acknowledged as inadequate – was $220 million. In the 2019 forward estimates, the budget peaked at $222 million in 2022-23. But this was only $2 million more than a decade earlier – a massive decrease in real terms. 2020, of course, knocked this budget to pieces, and the federal arts rescue package of $250 million – most of which is yet to be seen – is widely considered as too little, too late.

It’s incontrovertible that our cultural institutions have been badly let down by the federal government’s glacial response to 2020’s serial emergencies – the $75 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) fund, belatedly announced in June after increasing pressure, only announced its first trickle of funding late last month. This has prompted yet another inquiry – the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions – although it’s impossible not to wonder whether it will be any more effective than all the previous attempts at consultation.

 

It’s been fascinating to watch how different organisations have responded to Covid-19. Some – such as Melbourne Fringe, which in the teeth of one of the longest and hardest lockdowns in the world produced an innovative festival with 250 events – focused on how best to help artists make new work. The tiny Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney dug into reserve funds to honour the contracts of cancelled shows and to keep its ancillary staff.

On the other hand, Opera Australia – by far the wealthiest arts company in the country – sacked 25 per cent of its permanent staff in September, despite significant government assistance through JobKeeper. Oboist Mark Bruwel told Guardian Australia that the sackings were part of an opportunistic plan to casualise the company’s workforce and expressed “an ideological as well as a financial agenda [that] very much took advantage of Covid-19”.

The Morrison government’s decision to exclude public universities from the JobKeeper program has had a catastrophic effect on the arts programs at these institutions. Monash University, Australian National University, Griffith University, University of Sydney, UNSW Sydney, La Trobe University, Flinders University and RMIT have announced major mergers of arts departments, redundancies or even cuts of entire departments.

This largely invisible decimation – against a backdrop of an estimated 21,000 university job losses by the end of this year – will have an incalculable effect on our cultural future. University arts departments have nourished countless vocations, given institutional support to fertile experiment and research, and – not incidentally – provided day jobs for thousands of arts workers. The connection between tertiary institutions and the wider culture is profound and crucial.

“Without theatre at universities, there’d be no Barrie Kosky,” critic and theatre-maker Robert Reid pointed out in Witness after Monash’s respected Centre for Theatre and Performance was shut down in September. “Without theatre at universities, there’d be no Melbourne Theatre Company. In one form or another, through theatre courses and student theatre companies, theatre at university has been the bones and flesh of our industry.”

It’s hard to look beyond the devastation. Nevertheless, I confess to a strange, perhaps perverse, sense of optimism.

In the wake of last summer’s bushfires, when the Morrison government was mostly focused on photo opportunities, artists stepped up to help, leading the public appeals for relief for those who’d lost their homes, businesses and livelihoods. The atomisation and loneliness of lockdown highlighted the importance of communities – of people – and in some cases galvanised them. As the Morrison government once again dragged its feet on helping even our major cultural institutions through the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, people started thinking about other ways to make and think and be.

This rethinking of the possible is what art is for. But, as with the Australia 2020 Summit, for too long in Australia the horizons of cultural speculation have been strictly limited. Some artists, as writer Jinghua Qian reflected upon in un Magazine last month, have given up on cultural institutions altogether. “Arts funding is a cancer,” Qian said. “Applying for it has become its own job, a job no one enjoys or wants … For all its faults, JobSeeker is easily the most effective arts funding program in this country.”

A lot of artists are questioning if the regulation-heavy, administration-heavy arts infrastructure that we’ve been living with for decades is the best way to make art. They’re wondering if it might not be the best way for artists to find their audiences. Some strongly suspect that art in Australia happens in spite of these institutions.

While nothing mitigates the billions of dollars that drained out of the cultural economy and the hardship that has followed, 2020 has been a time of radical contemplation. Many arts workers took the chance to reassess their priorities, to ask themselves why, in a time of global crisis, making meaning might matter.

Melbourne Fringe, defiantly and joyously present despite everything, was one flicker of resilience in the darkness of the pandemic. The Sydney Theatre Company’s unanimously acclaimed The Picture of Dorian Gray – developed under Covid-19 restrictions – might be another, signalling the rewards of programming fewer but more rigorously thought-through works.

More profoundly, the burning anger unleashed by this year’s naked exposure of endemic inequalities – as other critics outline in this issue of The Saturday Paper – has set ablaze energies that have long been stifled by the bland neoliberal proceduralism of governments and corporations. It won’t be easy, but the future of our culture might be much more interesting than we have any right to expect. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "A different hope".

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Alison Croggon is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.