NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Edition 18

Cultural power is most certainly not new to our continent. Culture through its expression and practice has not just been central to all facets of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life; it sits, as it should for all of us, at the threshold to belief and knowledge, even existence itself. Culture animates the past, every present day and the future.

In the same month that government interference in the peer review process for research in the Arts and Humanities was revealed, and the Australia Council reported that the Arts provides a bigger tourist drawcard than sport, Cricket Australia’s governance problems hit the headlines. Guess which issue got the greatest coverage?

How do national policies support cultural democracy and equity through arts funding and strategic programmes? What does ‘achieving great arts and culture for everyone’ mean if only a small percentage of people engage with the most subsidised of the arts? What kinds of participation happen in the ‘everyday’? How do people value the activities that make up their cultural lives? And what happens when you undertake a large-scale academic research project which aims to radically re-evaluate cultural value for more culturally democratic governance?

It’s an interesting, if somewhat dismal, exercise to look at our perspective on future cultural/arts policy and then make educated guesses and observations on what Australians are actually going to get in the foreseeable future.

Any complete assessment of Australian arts and cultural policy needs to consider the effectiveness of the systems of funding that stem from it. Deciding what, and who, gets funded and what does not is, after all, where policy principle most conspicuously becomes practice.

Recently, I had a front row seat for a profoundly instructive story about Art and arts policy. I have worked as an artist, arts educator and sometimes policy-maker for more than thirty years. Something that just happened in Canada, shook my world to the core.

In the past few years, published reports have indicated concerning trends in creative artist mental health. For example, five Australian entertainment industry workers attempt death by suicide every week … Given that not only is the health of our industry at stake, but also the lives of our creative workers, it is vital that the mental health and wellbeing of artists be seriously addressed in policy.

A nation’s cultural policy is its most confident document. It empowers artists with the courage to make work that the entire nation welcomes. It outlines all of the means available to government to stimulate this work, without privileging any artforms or platforms that would prescribe the work … More than any other area of policy, it’s a statement of exactly what government is for.

When we look at the Australian cultural landscape not everyone’s story has a place within the cultural conversation. Scott Rankin’s recent Platform Paper Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive is a powerful and timely tale for this time … Rankin’s text explores a story about art and cultural participation for all Australians … that is not just rooted in economics.

There’s little doubt now: the arts in Australia are in a full-blown crisis. And it is not about funding alone. Yes funding is an important factor … but this crisis also encompasses the way we now value (or not) the role of the arts in society.