It’s so completely boring, the continual demand on the arts sector to state its case and argue to exist. It’s boring and offensive – a total waste of time and energy. I resent writing this now. I resent thinking about it. But since learning of the complete shambolic outcome of the ACT’s most recent arts funding round, I’ve been grinding my teeth over it, so here I am.
It’s nearly a year now I’ve been away from the sector, on maternity leave. I wondered how it might be, looking at the lay of the land from a distance – and perhaps I even hoped it would be refreshing, invigorating. But no. The shifts and movements of the past eighteen months have brought me right to the edge of a bitter pit of cynicism. I’ve felt disappointed, exasperated. I’ve cringed at the sector’s apparent lack of ability to hold its own. Its lack of leadership and its limp, often naïve attempts at defence. Really, the need to justify an industry/human inclination as old as time itself is completely abhorrent. If you need to have the value of arts for society explained then for you, I fear, it is too late.
Very early on, in my days as an arts administrator, even as an intern before this, I saw that a good portion of our own kind seemed to forget the primary rule: without artists the rest is useless. So to collapse a project funding model to a point where only 14 projects are funded seems to be entirely ridiculous. At little over one art a month, 14 projects does not a ‘cultural capital’ make.
The usage of the word ‘culture’ has done well in recent years to diminish, dilute and confuse the purpose of arts funding and advocacy, to tuck arts expenditure in a pack of red herrings. It is a slippery term at the best of times. The director of ArtsACT Adam Stankevicius is in fact director of ‘cultural Canberra’ – cultural aspects of Canberra brought together in a murky pool that encapsulates a range of events and tourism drivers, including Floriade and the National Arboretum. ‘Culture’ and property development have been nudging sides for some time now (see the prevelance of the term ‘cultural precinct’), and this is an entanglement that is largely played out behind the scenes. Events of the past few months suggest it is actually a convoluted mess.
I used to feel we could point to the ACT’s comparatively healthy arts landscape as a demonstrable way in that the capital was not void of life and purpose, as so often accused. I gave it that. Now, three things are abundantly clear:
- a lack of transparency has left those in the sector without the ability to clearly understand what is happening and why
- no one driving this ship has any deep understanding of art-making, artists, the relationship between independent and institutionalized art and the challenges and opportunities associated; and
- they give zero ***s because the arts are viewed as interchangeable with cafes, restaurants, pop-ups, fairy lights, food vans etc.
Culture is not fixed, set and stagnant, but in a constant state of evolution, revolution – the living core of bricks and mortar society. Artists are responsive, flexible, mobile and resilient, where institutions and infrastructure – galleries, theatres, festivals, concert halls, studio complexes etc – are not. Investment in the individual and independent is paramount. The resilience and reinvention of individuals, where invited and enabled, can buoy that of the sector’s more immovable machinery. The individual can take their practice out into the world, and back again.
I know it is said ‘no one can stop you making your work’, and that is true. Artists and makers will make and create somehow, however they can, wherever possible, with the materials available to them. There are those who say ‘artists should never rely on government funding’ and for the most part I agree, except where the government relies on artists. Relies on them for beautification, for credibility, for branding and marketability, for tourism potential.
This is what gets me. The claim on art when it suits, the indifference at all other times.
I recommend taking a look at The Childers Group’s excellent breakdown of Canberra arts funding from 2003-2015. Fascinating. Their work is an asset not to be understated.