Sometimes in this country it feels like we’re scared to succeed. We have a world-class scientific research institute that, amongst many other achievements, invented Wi-Fi, and we’re slashing its funding. Our universities train world-class renewable energy engineers and researchers who then flee overseas because we don’t actually invest very much in clean energy here. We have internationally renowned museums that we’re converting into hotels and luxury apartments. And we have a vibrant, exciting arts sector that we’re now gutting.
Most other countries would be proud to lead the world in the arts, science, education and research. But in Australia it seems like we’re scared to celebrate success or scared to demand better, which leaves our politicians free to gut our cultural industries without fear of retribution.
Today it was announced that scores of small arts organisations and advocacy groups were defunded by the Australia Council, the body that distributes arts funding on behalf of the Australian government.
But in Australia it seems like we’re scared to celebrate success or scared to demand better, which leaves our politicians free to gut our cultural industries without fear of retribution.
The cuts to specific organisations follow a $30 million reduction in funding to the Australia Council. Some of the cuts seem small and insignificant but the impact they will have on Australia’s arts sector are massive.
The Slingsby Theatre Company in Adelaide has also lost its funding, throwing the organisations existence into jeopardy.
Express Media, the only youth focused writing and literary organisation in the country, has also lost its funded. It’s unclear how, or if, it will continue to operate.
Peak bodies, whose role it is to advocate for the arts sector have also been defunded.
Altogether nearly half of the 145 small to medium sized arts organisations that were previously federally funded have lost their funding. We are witnessing what is likely the biggest collapse of Australia’s artistic and literary sector in history, and it is entirely self-inflicted.
Australia’s arts and culture sectors didn’t simply magically appear one day. Like our premiere scientific and educational institutions, they have been built up over decades. Publications like Meanjin have provided a crucial platform to some of Australia’s most successful writers and have kick-started important social debates. Express Media has nurtured scores of young writers and editors, many of whom have gone on to find great success in the literary world.
Our creative arts sector is the ultimate expression of who we are as a society, yet we’re watching it vanish before our eyes.
We’re a country that on the one hand obsesses about past literary icons like Banjo Patterson to the extent that we feature them on our currency, yet at the same time we’re creating an environment that will make it much harder for future talents to emerge.
By no means is our arts sector perfect. There have been raging debates about the upper middle-class, Anglo-centric nature of our arts sector. And perhaps that’s one of the reasons we currently find ourselves in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be mass support for the arts. But here’s the thing: Any diversity problems the Australian arts sector has won’t be fixed by slashing public funding. In fact, the problems will just get worse. The less we fund the arts the smaller, and more insular the sector will get. The more likely it will be that the only people with the time and resources to write, tell stories and create art will be those from privileged backgrounds.
Any diversity problems the Australian arts sector has won’t be fixed by slashing public funding.
To make matters worse it’s not just our governments deprioritising the arts. Fairfax Media, publishers of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, have gutted arts writing in the latest round of cutbacks and redundancies. The dual blow of cuts to arts writing and arts funding is going to be very difficult to recover from.
In many ways our culture is conservative. Outside of cricket, there’s not a lot Australians are particularly desperate to “win” in. We don’t really care about having the best education system. We don’t care about leading the world in new technologies and industries. We don’t really care about having world-class museums and cultural institutions. And we don’t seem to care about the fact that we might not be producing art for much longer either.
We have this weird, totally undeserved “she’ll be right” attitude. Many, many things about Australia aren’t right yet we seem pretty comfortable in our mediocrity. It might have to do with the fact that our national values of “mateship” and the “fair go” are vague to the point of meaningless. In some ways it’s quite unique. American culture, for example, places great weight on industry, commercial and personal success. Many European countries are proud of the internationally regarded status of their visual arts sectors and museums. It isn’t quite clear what we as Australians prioritise.
In some way these cuts reflect the fact that most Australians don’t prioritise public funding of the arts. But I don’t think that tells the whole story. Australians do consume art. We read books, we listen to music, we watch film and TV inspired by literature, we visit museums and galleries, and many of us actually create art as well. Perhaps what the cuts really show is a failure to link the importance of our arts organisations, and the public funding that underpins them, to our society’s cultural fabric. I don’t know when or how the arts community will rebound from this fundamental shift. But I think if we want a strong arts sector, or really if we want to lead in any sector, we need to stop wallowing in mediocrity and be prouder and more supportive of what we create.
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