In the wake of deep cuts to the Australia Council’s federal funding, the Victorian government has strengthened its peer-review system to ensure innovation and diversity in a broad range of artistic endeavours. By Steve Dow.

Creative Victoria taskforce vows to consult widely

Victorian Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley (front row, centre) with Creative Victoria taskforce members (from left) Shaun Micallef, Mark Madden, Louise Adler, Tony Ayres, Callum Morton, Bronte Adams, Katrina Sedgwick, Dan Rosen and Karen Quinlan.
Victorian Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley (front row, centre) with Creative Victoria taskforce members (from left) Shaun Micallef, Mark Madden, Louise Adler, Tony Ayres, Callum Morton, Bronte Adams, Katrina Sedgwick, Dan Rosen and Karen Quinlan.

Observers say the Victorian government is doing what the federal arts minister, George Brandis, failed to do: consult widely before change. On Wednesday, the Andrews government released its creative industries discussion paper and announced 21 consultation workshops over five weeks – seven public and 14 by invitation – to build a taskforce report by September. 

This wide consultation will shape Victoria’s state budget response next May. The Andrews government was elected on a platform of changing Arts Victoria to Creative Victoria, to account for disciplines including game development, graphic design, fashion, filmmaking, performing arts, publishing, architecture, advertising, media, music, comedy and craft.

The 20-page discussion paper speaks of “decentralising the creative and cultural economy into regional areas”. It says creative excellence needs to be “nurtured”, through a “strong educational base, access to training, mentors and skills development”, because creativity is as important as science, maths, technology and engineering. 

Affordable artist space is a “crucial” priority, the paper says. There is acknowledgement “experimental” creativity is part of creative industry. But new and emerging artists still reeling from the federal government’s drastic cuts last month to the Australia Council – scuppering the council’s ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative and Artists in Residence programs – may struggle to specifically see remedies for them in the Victorian paper’s broad brushstrokes. 

Victoria’s creative industries minister, Martin Foley, speaks of balancing economic, cultural and social priorities, but rationalism is on keen display: Victoria’s creative and cultural economy contributed $22.7 billion to the state in 2013 – $2.9 billion more than construction. Creative and cultural industries, defined as a “broad but interconnected field spanning arts, culture, screen and design”, represented 8 per cent of the state’s economy, generating $1.4 billion in exports. Foley tells The Saturday Paper he is “confident” arts funding will remain peer-reviewed and at arm’s length from government. “I am not interested in being the self-appointed excellence commissar of the cultural sector that Senator Brandis wants to be,” he says.

The taskforce findings will have cabinet support, says Foley. That’s a step beyond the former Gillard government’s moribund national cultural policy, which was launched in 2013 after an agonising six years’ preparation but which fizzled for lack of key ministerial support. 

Yet none of the combined 25 members of Victoria’s taskforce and reference group – both chaired by the politically adroit publisher Louise Adler – is an early career artist. Adler says: “[TV and stage personalities] Shaun [Micallef] and Eddie [Perfect] and [opera singer] Deborah [Cheetham], all of them would say to you: ‘I was once experimental; I was trying it out in my bedroom, you know?’

“To ensure we’re capturing the young people, the experimental, the small-to-medium companies … we are issuing invitations, and I don’t think any individual who wants to contribute via the over-20 workshops as well as online forums will miss out.” 

There is an emphasis in the discussion paper on “access” and “increasing participation and social impact”, but Adler’s stated concern – high show ticket prices – is not mentioned.

Adler also lobbied for the new Book Council of Australia, announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in December, although she doesn’t know if she will have a formal role on that council. Would Adler rather the Book Council’s $6 million funding hadn’t been diverted from the Australia Council? “The Get Reading! program, out of the Australia Council, was seen by the industry as having come to the end of its life. We had a chance to establish a new program to promote Australian writers and writing.” 

The federal opposition arts spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, added Labor’s support to a growing chorus from arts organisations for a senate inquiry into Brandis’s unilateral plan to set up a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts within his own ministry, using more than $100 million in diverted Australia Council funds. 

Adler says she is “not with the majority on the Brandis question … There’s no reason to presume that those programs that are going back to the ministry of the arts federally are not going to be determined at arm’s length.”

But the Australia Council has lost 27 to 28 per cent of its discretionary spending, says the executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, Tamara Winikoff, who argues Brandis has “seriously damaged” the Australia Council’s “brand and image”.

Winikoff welcomed the Victorian creative consultations as “chalk and cheese” compared with the Brandis approach: the Victorian government was “declaring their intentions well in advance in a thorough process, bringing the community along with it”. Brandis’s move was “extremely problematic”, with “no consultation or research”.

Winikoff says Brandis is “endangering the whole underpinning of production and communication of the arts in privileging what he is calling ‘excellence’, and what we can surmise he means by excellence is the major organisations”.

Shaun Micallef says he joined the Victorian taskforce because he is seeking paid internship funding for “fresh blood”: young fledgling television comedy writers, particularly sourced from university revue alumni. He accepts the absence of emerging voices on the taskforce, but does not view this as a problem. 

“…I guess, as Louise points out, we are all versions of that,” he says. “In a way, you’ve got that young, struggling artist nestled away among everyone in there.”

Is calling this a review of “creative industries” reducing the arts to cold hard economics? 

“I think there has to be some level of public accountability when you’re dealing with public funds,” he says. “Government – federal, state or local – is there to provide access to education, health and, I would argue, art as well. No one has unlimited funds. Some money has to be spent making things accessible, for those who can’t access it. Once you’ve provided accessibility, then you have to say some judgement has to be made about quality or merit, and that’s always a difficult thing to do.” 

How would Micallef compare the Victorian creative industries process with Brandis’s sequestering of Australia Council funds?

“We’re ever hopeful,” Micallef says, cautiously. “Let’s face it: arts funding is never the central plank of any election campaign, is it? I can’t remember the last time anyone was exclusively an arts minister. It’s a marginalised thing.”

Deakin University research fellow and cultural journalist Ben Eltham says the Victorian creative policy “could be good, but the jury is still out. It’s obviously better than [Brandis’s] calculated Machiavellian raid bent on the destruction of the major funding agency.” 

Renew Australia founder Marcus Westbury, a member of the Victorian reference group, says the consultation is “happening quickly, and on the upside that means momentum and energy”. There is a “genuine intent to consult far and wide”. 

Westbury hopes to draw threads between art, creativity and regional economic development. “The danger of looking at the arts in silos is you miss so many connection points,” he says.

Taskforce member, artist and head of fine arts at Monash University, Callum Morton, says the consultation is a chance for all Victorians to have a say, and artists’ voices will be heard “loudly”. The federal government has taken the “opposite” approach, he says. “The Australia Council is a vital organ of our democracy and was set up precisely to be at arm’s length from government.” 

Morton has met figures across politics with strong ideas about what is best for artists. “What seems to me to be at work in many of these figures is that they simply do not like the idea of difference. They cannot absorb that creative practice comes in so many forms, from so many places and communities. It threatens their taste and their moral core and so they want to destroy it.”

Film director Tony Ayres, also a taskforce member, says the review spans the breadth of creative industries. “It’s a very democratic intention,” he says. Ayres says the Brandis approach is “a bit baffling, because I don’t understand how it’s going to work. Are they going to duplicate what the Australia Council already does?”

Ayres notes a difficult time already for screen content-makers, given the 2014 federal budget heralded four-year cuts to Screen Australia and the Australia Council, as well as the ABC and SBS. The cuts “will have an impact on our industry in 12 to 24 months’ time. It certainly will be felt. In an age where media and screen content is exploding, a contraction of the infrastructure is short-sighted”.

The Victorian approach, meanwhile, promises to value creative excellence – and the discussion paper recognises that excellence needs to be fostered in future innovators, not just big companies. The paper promises to “take the lead” from London and New York to make “long-term commitments to stimulating creative industry entrepreneurship, innovation and investment diversification”. 

Of course, whether that means serious long-term investment beyond annual top-ups to make artists’ and other creatives’ dreams reality is an open question.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2015 as "Creative accounting".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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