October 2019


The desertification of Australian culture

By Alison Croggon
How the diminishing government support for the arts is taking its toll

As I write this, the Amazon – the richest source of biodiversity on the planet – is on fire. Scientists are warning that if another fifth of the forest is lost it will prompt an irreversible cascade leading to system collapse.

Elsewhere, the permafrost is thawing, which will have a potentially catastrophic effect on carbon levels in the atmosphere. The Thwaites Glacier in the Antarctic is showing signs of instability that could trigger an irreversible melt, eventually contributing to a disastrous rise in sea levels.

Meanwhile, the drums of war beat louder as once stable democratic systems crumble. The poor and marginalised are growing ever more disenfranchised as the gulf of income equality expands to an abyss. Political difference is splitting along ever sharper, more extreme lines.

Everywhere you look, it seems, complex systems are accelerating towards breakdown.

It feels fatuous to talk about Australian art and culture amid such overwhelming global crises – and yet it also feels impossible not to note this context. One of the ways we cope with the complexity of contemporary life is to silo issues, but this is also how connections become invisible. We cease to see how the large patterns and the small reflect and influence one another.

This global backdrop frames and influences what’s happening to Australian culture. The same ideologies that accelerate ecocide and political extremism are also destroying our cultural memory, starving our institutions and disenfranchising artists.

American meteorologist Edward Lorenz, a pioneer of chaos theory in the 1960s, illustrated the notion that a small change in initial conditions could have massive and unpredictable implications with the metaphor of the “butterfly effect”. A butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could theoretically alter the course of the weather forever.

If anything is unpredictable, it’s culture. Where we are now doesn’t necessarily map where we are going to end up. But it’s hard to deny that, metaphorically and literally, our cultural world is in crisis, and that it’s part of the crisis engulfing every part of our lives on this planet.

The Amazonian butterfly is burning.

Recently I conducted a straw poll on Twitter on the current health of Australian arts and culture. The prevailing mood was summarised in a GIF of a burning dumpster, posted about halfway through the thread.

Independent artists (which is to say, most artists) – commonly referred to as the lifeblood of Australian arts culture – are exhausted. They feel pessimistic about their prospects. There’s a lot of anger, and beneath it a sense of betrayal. Some complain about the increasing corporatisation of the arts; others point to the rolling funding cuts, which every year see less money distributed to fewer people.

Culture is a complex field of relationships that reaches through every part of our society. For good reason it’s often referred to as an “ecology”: its many nodes of activity, large and small, have an intricate interdependence. And its health depends, as natural ecologies do, on its heterogeneity. Despite a crucial push towards diversification, Australian culture is in deep trouble.

Making connections between cultural phenomena and the bigger picture is difficult in a media world that routinely considers arts and cultural critique as fluff. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s hard to trace the infinite complexities of how cultural fields interact with political, social and economic worlds. Nevertheless, those influences exist: culture is simultaneously an artistic, social and economic phenomenon. And the vectors run in all directions: not just from top to bottom or bottom to top, but laterally across the topologies of all human activity.

In the field of culture, large patterns are replicated in the small, but the small also affect the large, and sometimes with more heft. The classic works of art that the vociferous right-wing defenders of “Western civilisation” like to point to as high points of the canon – Milton’s Paradise Lost or Coleridge and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads – were first published as small-scale works by the avant-garde of their time.

Likewise, who would have imagined six years ago, for instance, that a scandal confected on online bulletin board 4chan, about corrupt relationships in the media coverage of video games, would foreshadow the mainstreaming of right-wing extremist politics? In 2013, at the height of Gamergate, even to raise the question was to invite mockery. It was only video games, right? How could the vicious trolling of feminist and minority games critics be anything but a minor issue? But now, post Christchurch, it is commonly accepted that right-wing extremism is fostered in the febrile corners of YouTube, and on 4chan’s even more toxic offspring, 8chan.

Culture works in complicated and often untraceable ways. But the core of culture is artists: they are the source of the vitality, richness and innovation. Many Australian artists have told me that they’re under severe financial stress, however the pressure on Australian culture is presently being felt at all levels, as a result of the cumulative, largely invisible erosion of support.

Some of this erosion is built into the system. Australia Council funding, for instance, has never been indexed against inflation, which means that since the 1990s it has been falling in real terms. Then there are the decades of “efficiency dividends”, which have cut institutions such as the National Gallery and the National Library to the bone.

This year, the Australian Library and Information Association noted the declining investment in libraries in the 2019–20 federal budget, with seven institutions, including the National Library, slated to lose almost $16.8 million in government funding between them, with the “potential for a long-term damaging impact”. This follows the National Library warning in 2016 that the cumulative effect of three decades of “efficiency dividends” now threatened core operations.

Government cuts are a large part of the story, but they are still only part of it. The Australia Council and other government funding bodies are the research and development core of a much larger, interconnected web of cultural activity. They don’t measure or fund the whole of what’s going on, but nevertheless the effects of what happens with funding bodies ripple out and affect the whole culture.

By any measure, culture is a major Australian industry. According to the Department of Communications and the Arts, cultural and creative activity contributed $111 billion to the economy in 2016–17, with the arts alone furnishing $4.6 billion (2015 Australia Council figures). By the gross value added metric – a different measure from the gross domestic product – the contribution of cultural and creative industries to the economy in 2016–17 was $86 billion, or 5.2 per cent (Australian Bureau of Statistics). That’s almost twice the contribution of agriculture, fishing and forestry ($48 billion), and more than half that of the mining industry ($148 billion in 2017–18). Yet, cultural spending represents just 0.5 per cent of the federal budget – approximately $2.6 billion, which includes funding for the ABC, SBS, galleries, archives, films, museums and libraries, as well as the beleaguered Australia Council.

For comparison, according to a study by the International Monetary Fund released in May this year, subsidies to the Australian fossil-fuel industry alone amount to $29 billion a year.

It’s unsurprising, given its meagre support, that activity in the cultural sector, as a proportion of GDP, has for the past decade been in decline.

Part of the problem with conveying the urgency of our present cultural moment is that the issues are both complicated and long term. Arts funding is arcane and complex, and the worst problems faced by our cultural institutions are incremental and cumulative. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the detail.

Stress in the arts isn’t new: the cultural economy has always been under-resourced and over-worked. But in recent years a combination of digital disruption, economic downturn, political mismanagement and ideologically driven funding cuts have shifted struggle to crisis.

Funding cuts are a global trend: over the past couple of decades the model of state arts funding – invented when the Medicis devised proportional taxation and used it to finance arts patronage in the 1400s – has been under pressure throughout the Western world. The postwar notion of art and culture as a public good, as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, is being abandoned in favour of “user pays”. Art is increasingly considered the fiefdom of the wealthy and privileged, instead of the birthright of everyone.

Culture is in part an expression of what a society values, and claims about what is valued are the fuel of culture wars. Cultural funding, and arts funding in particular, is heavily politicised: the relatively small amount of federal funding that supports culture often attracts disproportionate headlines. The vastly greater government support for industries such as defence or mining often goes unmentioned.

In 2016, for example, according to finance journalist Michael West, defence department contract spending tripled to nearly $60 billion. Much of that didn’t go out to tender, and most of it went to multinational companies that don’t pay tax. It dwarfs what was spent on arts and culture, yet attracted barely any press scrutiny.

And it’s interesting to consider another kind of cultural spend: the controversial $500 million upgrade of Canberra’s Australian War Memorial. Some kinds of lavish cultural investment, it seems, are just fine.

As with all complex systems, it’s difficult to identify the initial conditions that spawned the current critical situation. By the time the effects became noticeable, the causes were lost in the confusion.

An easy marker is the election of the Abbott government in 2013, which ushered in a predictable wave of cost-cutting across many government expenditure programs, including culture and arts. Another notable moment is the 2015 decision by the then arts minister Senator George Brandis to raid the coffers of the Australia Council to fund his vanity project, the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA).

Unlike the ongoing “efficiency savings”, this wasn’t a funding cut as such. Opera Australia chief executive Craig Hassell in fact welcomed Brandis’s decision, pointing out that the government was still spending the money on the arts – in particular, on Opera Australia, which received $26 million, more than any other single arts organisation. It highlighted the problem with Australia’s two-tier funding model: the money was taken from the Australia Council’s discretionary budget, so  the poor were robbed to feed the rich.

After a Senate inquiry that attracted a record number of submissions from every sector of the Australian arts industry, Brandis was removed from the arts portfolio. Under the next minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, the much-mocked NPEA was transformed into a funding program called Catalyst and some of the money returned to the Australia Council. Catalyst was eventually abandoned altogether, although $25 million from the initial raid still remains unaccounted for.

Through the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts framework, the budget for Australia’s 28 biggest arts companies was ringfenced. In 2016–17, that represented $109 million out of Australia Council’s total budget of $177 million. (Which, if it felt like security for the big companies at the time, may be short-lived: the program is currently under review.) The remainder – $68 million – funded everything else: the hundreds of small to medium organisations and individual artists that create the majority of Australian culture.

The shockwaves of the Brandis debacle continue to the present moment. The more insidious effects are undramatic and harder to track, like the invisible melt beneath a glacier. Since the Coalition gained power in 2013, cultural spending has become less and less transparent, with many payments – such as a $30 million grant to Foxtel in 2017 – hidden under “commercial in confidence” clauses.

Undoubtedly, though, the biggest impact of the Brandis raid and the ongoing cuts has been on individual artists, which particularly means writers and visual artists, who tend to work alone. Between 2013 and 2016, the number of Australia Council grants for individuals dropped by a staggering 70 per cent, from 1340 to 405.

In its latest annual report the Australia Council said it supported 762 individual artists through grants and “strategic activity” in 2017–18, which sounds like a significant increase until you realise that strategic activity includes “participation in the Council’s peer assessment process” and “capacity building exercises”.

Earlier this year the Australia Council removed the searchable database of funded grants from its website, which went back to before 2013, and replaced it with an Excel spreadsheet that only goes back to 2017. A manual count reveals that around 500 grants for individuals were awarded in 2018.

In August this year, when the Australia Council released the results of its expressions of interest for four-year funding for small- to medium-sized organisations, the conversation heated up again. Of 412 lodged responses, 60 per cent were told they couldn’t even proceed to lodge a full application: that’s 250 arts organisations falling at the first post. The general dismay increased when established organisations, such as literary journal Overland, theatre company Theatre Works and online publishing network Australian Plays, revealed they were among those that were turned down.

This points to a central dilemma in the arts – the diminishing resources for operational funding, or as outgoing Overland editor Jacinda Woodhead put it, the lack of interest in “keeping the lights on”. Increasingly, small organisations are pushed towards project funding, supplementing their core work with novel initiatives to attract money. The labour of actually getting work made and out into the public is getting harder and harder to finance.

In 2013, 178 organisations received multi-year funding from the Australia Council. In 2015, this diminished to 124, a cut of 30 per cent. Theatre Network Australia’s (TNA) chief executive, Nicole Beyer, said that because of recent changes in guidelines, it was likely that there would be a further 25 per cent decrease in the number of companies eventually funded next April – bringing the total number of arts organisations with stable federal funding to fewer than 100.

TNA calculated that an injection of only $7 million into the Australia Council budget would prevent this culling of four-year funding recipients.

If the cull goes ahead as anticipated, the number of federally funded small- to medium-sized organisations will have effectively halved since 2013. This doesn’t mean that all these organisations will disappear, but many will.

Overland has diversified its revenue sources, which means that it will survive, albeit with a budgetary hole of $80,000 a year. Woodhead said the decision reflected an era of “throwaway arts”.

“The four-year model is supposed to invest in the arts and organisations long-term,” she said, in an angry editorial. “But now it seems more like it’s reinforcing the project model: prioritising new programs that are disposable, that will be abandoned for some different idea in the next funding round. There is no impetus on the peer panels – or any funding body, really – to maintain anything, outside of the Major Performing Arts Companies.”

Australian Plays, on the other hand, says it is now engaged in a battle for survival. AP was blindsided by its rejection for four-year Australia Council funding, and for good reason: it had done everything right to establish itself as an essential service organisation for playwrights, attracting thousands of readers, theatre-makers, producers and educators nationally and internationally.

“In just the last three years, over 300 new plays have been published, 50,000 scripts read online, more than 25,000 scripts purchased, almost 300 production licences issued, and royalties paid to over 800 playwrights,” said the AP chairperson, Dr Paul Dwyer. “As a not-for-profit organisation, every dollar earned has been directed towards sustaining the careers of the playwrights whose creativity fuels the most vital stories on our nation’s stages.”

In July this year, the board of the other national organisation for playwrights, Playwriting Australia, made its remaining staff redundant amid a miasma of scandal and rumour, putting the entire organisation into a process of review. Now it appears that organisation has been defunded altogether, leaving Australian playwriting without any national body. It seems like just one more symptom of a cascading systemic collapse.

There are countless stories like this, large and small, throughout the arts scene. I think of a conversation I had with an arts bureaucrat in 2015, during the Brandis raid. He told me that the effect of the decision wouldn’t bite until the end of 2018. “It will be desperate times,” he said. “It will be a desert. The Australia Council will have to make some very hard decisions, using the money that is there to fund the organisations that can keep things going, so there’s at least some infrastructure left.”

Even though some of the money was returned to the Australia Council budget, after a hard-fought campaign, it’s not difficult to see the accuracy of this prediction. The damage had been done.

The general dolour is in sharp contrast to the upbeat release in late August of the Australia Council’s new arts strategy, Creativity Connects, released under the aegis of chief executive Adrian Collette, who was appointed in October last year. At the centre of the strategy is an emphasis on First Nations culture – a priority of the government’s Creative Australia policy – and a much overdue focus on diversity and access, with tracking and public measurement.

This document reads like a rearguard action. The Australia Council presents itself as an advocacy body, portraying a thriving and healthy cultural sector with a socially ambitious agenda. It focuses on a kind of compulsive over-achievement – figures report, for example, that in 2018–19, the target of 13 million attendances at Australia Council activities was exceeded by 179 per cent, with attendances of 22.6 million, and that the aim of funding 150 culturally diverse applications was exceeded by 243 per cent, with 364.

But this good news story conceals some alarming figures. The Australia Council has been, quite rightly, tasked with focusing on some under-served areas – First Nations culture, culturally and linguistically diverse art, disability arts and access – and this represents a lot of new support to different organisations.

The council has committed to giving $13 million to culturally diverse organisations, but it hasn’t been given any extra money. It seems that we can either have diversity or we can have the infrastructure that has been built up over the past few decades, but we can’t have both. This, of course, is a false choice that conceals the lack of investment over the past six years.

In 2013–14, the Australia Council’s budget – even then widely acknowledged as inadequate – was $220 million. In 2018–19, it amounts to $208 million. In forward estimates, the budget will increase slightly, finally peaking at $222 million in 2022–23.

In short, in four years’ time the Australia Council’s budget will be just $2 million more than it was when the Abbott government took power in 2013. In real terms, given the lack of indexation, this represents a deep cut, but it’s being presented as an increase.

Something has to give. Many companies and organisations that have been painstakingly built up over the past 20 years are now either gone or considering their futures. Mostly, and maybe most devastatingly of all, what’s giving way is the livelihoods of artists. And this includes the income of those artists considered to be “diverse”.

The Australia Council’s strategy indirectly addresses the problem of decreasing incomes with a vague promise to “support viable creative careers and business models”. This reads as code for several things: commercial enterprise, philanthropic partnerships, or perhaps – given the document’s insistent focus on “wellbeing” – bidding for corporate dollars in the wellbeing industry. In short, our cultural bodies would be well-advised to pursue activities that are arts-adjacent, rather than directly artistic. Artistic skills, we are reminded, parlay well into the corporate world.

The whole strategy, in fact, seems like a fort built out of the rubble of government arts funding policy. The notion that arts funding is about investing in artists so they can make art, sure in the knowledge that doing so is in itself a public good, feels like a quaint memory.

The vulnerability of Australian arts and culture can’t be simply laid at the feet of recent Coalition governments, which have sometimes, especially at state level, been more supportive of the arts than Labor. It follows decades of neglect of cultural institutions by governments of both the right and the left.

Political neglect has been amplified by economic downturn and the digital age, which has radically changed the means and agencies of cultural production. Some effects have been devastating. For example, there has been a worldwide fall in author incomes in the Anglo publishing world – an Authors Licensing and Collecting Society survey in the United Kingdom recently reported a 42 per cent drop since 2005, and an Authors Guild study in the United States showed the same fall in the past 10 years. This loss in livelihood is reflected across all the arts – two years ago the Australia Council found that artist income from creative work had  decreased by 19 per cent since 2009.

This in turn has been amplified by a media indifference to Australia’s cultural achievements. Even before the collapse of print media, art and culture were corralled away with human interest stories and women’s issues. Arts coverage would be handed over to anyone who expressed interest, whether or not they had aptitude or expertise, in a way that was, for example, inconceivable for sports journalism. Tellingly, until 2017, the Walkley Awards, the premier awards for journalism, had no prizes specifically for arts journalism. Sports reporting has had its own Walkley since the awards began.

The arrival of digital disruption and the era of click-driven priorities has made a bad situation worse. Serious, in-depth arts coverage has all but disappeared from the mainstream media, except in a few protected areas.

“How do we get the general public to understand what’s going on?” wonders Esther Anatolitis, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts. She believes the arts community, too, has to take responsibility for the situation. “Arts organisations are great at talking to each other, but not so good at getting word out beyond themselves.” An organiser of Arts Day on the Hill, in July, during which arts advocates visited dozens of parliamentarians in Canberra, Anatolitis said the experience was eye-opening. “Most of those MPs had never had an arts person in their office. As advocates, we have so much work to do.”

Despite this, Australians are enthusiastic consumers of culture: annual attendances to art events are higher than for sport. But this is often rendered invisible, because culture occurs mostly in intimate ways, in thousands of venues in small towns and big cities all over the continent. When Brandis launched the NPEA, he claimed that the biggest companies – those comprising the Major Performing Arts – reached the biggest audiences. It’s a common perception, but it’s incorrect. From 2011 to 2014, small- to medium-sized and independent companies collectively reached the largest audiences, accounting for 82 per cent of international tours by Australian companies and 73 per cent of national and regional tours. But they received about 30 per cent of the budget.

Moreover, the larger organisations – including commercial ones such as publishers, corporate producers and others that don’t necessarily benefit from government funding – depend on the work of independent artists and organisations. As many major companies argued during the Senate inquiry in 2016, the culture is interdependent.

As was demonstrated in the mid ’90s – when savage government cuts wiped out the middle section of Australian performing arts – the larger companies don’t have the capacity and, often, the desire to nurture this part of the ecology. It took 20 years to begin reversing the damage done then, and it’s this restoration work that is currently being devastated.

Without independent artists, our larger companies have no talent pool, no new ideas and no future. And this is the sector that now sees itself as a burning dumpster.

It should be said that this cultural gloom isn’t the whole story: artists, by their nature, are adaptable, flexible and inventive. One thing that is commonly misunderstood about unpredictability in chaos theory is that it’s not deterministic – we can’t wholly predict the future from the past.

There are nodes of light amid the gloom, centres of energy, resistance and hope that spring up in response to the prevailing conditions. There always are: over the years, Australian artists have learnt how to be resilient. But in my view, this is a darker time even than the ’90s.

The great tease of Australian arts culture has always been its lost possibilities. There’s a lot of collateral damage in times like these that never gets recorded: works that will never be made, dreams that are filed away and forgotten. And for many artists, the major question now is how to survive at all.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. She is The Saturday Paper’s arts editor.


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