Wednesday, 03 September 2014

Arts, artists and Australians

Written by

In the words of OscarWilde “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

Sadly, in Australia in 2014, a great many artists and artistic companies will be forced to see things as they really are and may simply cease to exist.

The Abbott government’s May 2014 budget brought in perhaps the most stringent cuts ever seen in arts funding. And yet those in the arts were reminded how very lucky they were not to be more severely treated.

Discussing the budget in May, PM Abbott said of Arts Minister George Brandis that he “has very substantially protected arts funding generally-and literary funding in particular-from the stringencies of these times and in doing so has made himself deeply unpopular with his colleagues”. It begs the question of how far many of Brandis’ colleagues wanted arts cuts to go, with hints of Genghis Khan’s hordes running amok at a Quaker meet.

But, whether or not Senator Brandis did indeed protect the arts from further privation, it’s important to look at the facts.

Labor’s Creative Australia policy in 2013 promised to invest an extra $200 million in the arts. Instead, this government has reduced arts spending by a conservative $128 million-and that does not include cuts to The ABC or SBS.

Let’s start with The Australia Council. They lose $10 million out of their $222 million budget this year alone and a further $6. 4m in cuts each year for the next 3 years, amounting to cuts of almost $30m. This prompted The Australia Council’s CEO Tony Grybowski to say that this will mean “fewer and smaller grants to individual artists and cuts to small arts organizations”.

At the launch of The Strategic Plan for The Arts Council, Aug 18 2014, Senator Brandis said:

Creative genius, artistic ambition, cultural endeavour does not just live in the capital cities of our land. It lives in smaller cities, in the towns, among people from metropolitan areas of Australia and from country areas of Australia as well.

Well, it may live there now, but with massive cuts to The Australia Council, it may not live there much longer.

In direct contrast to Brandis’ statement, in an open letter to the government in May this year, a veritable who’s who of Australian writers said:

Cutting the support The Australia Council offers will mean the loss of libraries, galleries, museums, concerts, regional tours, writing centres and community and regional arts centres. In 2009, 11 million people visited an art gallery.

To put that in context, 11 million exceeds the combined total of people that attended AFL and NRL matches that year. Yes, the arts do matter to Australians.

And then there’s the $38 million cut to Screen Australia. That is a huge loss to a tiny and struggling industry that was already suffering from the high Australian dollar and languishing studios

Actors Equity director, Sue McCreadie, said that the cuts threaten the recent “renaissance of Australian drama…. Australians want to see local content on our screens, everyone loves it”. Well, they may love it but, they’re likely to see a lot less

And with $120 million cut from The ABC over the next 4 years who knows what that will do to high quality ABC drama, documentaries, comedy and arts shows. Not even The ABC knows, although managing director Mark Scott was adamant that “The government gave repeated commitments before and after the election that funding for the Corporation would be maintained”.

It was a tough budget and few sectors avoided hurt, but was there a political agenda in why the arts suffered particularly harshly? The arts community is, by its very nature humanist and left leaning and not beloved of conservative governments. But was there more? Certainly Greens leader Christine Milne thought so when she said “Senator Brandis is trying to dish out heavy-handed punishment to the arts community for speaking out on what is an immoral and cruel asylum seeker policy”.

Whether or not you believe there was a political agenda, the very idea that artists and art companies should seek their funding from corporate money is both insulting and compromises the very concept of what art should be - independent and creative thought and endeavour. And the arts do in fact give a great deal back to Australia financially. Australian Bureau of statistics figure show that in 2008-09, the arts contributed $86 billion to Australian GDP. Again for some context, the mining sector contributed only $121 billion, and the mining sector employs far fewer people and receives greater government financial support at both federal and state levels.

Every branch of the arts will suffer drastically from the severity of the budget’s 2014 cuts - in particular the small and regional companies, galleries and artists. In recent news, even Community TV, perhaps the least restricted and most creatively vibrant medium, is likely to be hit. They are unlikely to have their digital licences renewed in December this year and will be forced to purely online broadcast.

Regardless of political affiliation, the position of the arts in Australian society is greatly threatened in 2014.

As opposition Arts Spokesman Mark Dreydus said, in commenting on the arts policy of this government:

They have turned their backs on the people who tell our stories, who enrich our lives, who make us who we are as Australians.

11 million Australians visiting a gallery each year can’t be wrong. The arts are important to Australians and not just to our cultural identity, but to our economy as well. Politics should never get in the way of that.

Richard Aspel

Richard Aspel is an Englishman but long time resident of Australia.He has a BA hons from Melbourne University and a post graduate diploma in performing arts from Mountview Theatre School,London.

Richard has written and had two plays performed,been a radio broadcaster,actor and narrator,winning two Audie awards for audio books.

He is passionate about the arts,politics,sport and good food and wine.And his 17 year old Jack Russell, Cleo.