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Lessons for SA from Victoria's "Creative State"


Arts in South Australia needs not only sufficient funding from the State Government but other, less tangible, forms of investment, argue Tully Barnett and Julian Meyrick.

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Thursday, May 5 was a day of exciting ideas and hope for arts and culture in Victoria. At a Theatre Network Australia forum, the State Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, confirmed $115 million in funding to the sector over three years, and announced a further $7.25m. The context is different – and grimmer – in South Australia. But aspects of Victoria’s Creative State strategy are useful to consider.

Firstly, while money is important, so is appreciation. The practitioners who gathered in the Melbourne Arts Centre’s beautiful Pavilion Room felt taken seriously and invited to the policy table. The minister spoke candidly about what the Victorian government is doing to support arts and culture in light of harsh cuts at the federal level. It makes a big difference to hear the sector discussed in a nuanced way.

Secondly, the minister called for debate about creative industries as a concept, recognising that blithe use of the term ‘industries’ reduces arts and culture to dollars and cents. He indicated his government had learnt from the mistakes creative industries proselytizers had made in the past: “This is a program that… gives organisations the freedom to focus on what they do best – creating and presenting art and cultural programs… Creative State recognises all of these values and takes a holistic approach that spans the cultural, social and economic capacity of the creative industries.”

A fixation on the financial blinds us to the full benefits of arts and culture. They provide social, cultural, and economic value, and there is no hierarchy among these. No amount of money can quantify the life-changing qualities of art.

…a certain strand of government no longer has a use for the arts. Public cultural citizenship has been turned into a privatised economic relationship.

The minister also acknowledged that the real support for the arts in Australia comes from the sector itself, the “creative workers”. With an abrogation of responsibility for culture at a federal level, the Victorian government has stepped in to ensure sustainability. The minister concluded by saying the state was adopting the creative industries concept with its “eyes wide open”, aware of the risk; but he observed, quoting Machiavelli, “all courses of action are risky.”

Katharine Brisbane, chair of Currency House Press, introducing the keynote speaker, noted that this was the anniversary of the 2015 Brandis arts cuts that had such a disastrous impact and was for many in the field “the biggest shock of our lives”. She called on other state arts ministers to follow Victoria’s lead.

Justin O’Connor, Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy, then gave the keynote based on his ‘Platform Paper’, After Creative Industries: Why We Need a Cultural Economy, just published by Currency House.

He traced the creative industries concept in Australia back to Creative Nation, the cultural policy unveiled by Paul Keating in 1994. He outlined the concept’s history from inception in Britain as a way of advocating for more money during straightened circumstances, to its ultimate reduction of all arts and culture to an economic bottom line.

No matter how robust that bottom line is, Professor O’Connor pointed out, it will not save the arts from austerity. The sector has been cut far in excess of industries with less healthy balance sheets. This, he said, shows us how a certain strand of government no longer has a use for the arts. Public cultural citizenship has been turned into a privatised economic relationship.

After lunch, the deputy secretary of Creative Victoria, Andrew Abbott, answered questions about the roll-out of Creative State, acknowledging that simply adding more grant rounds only increases the administrative burden (and cost) of applying for funding.

A panel on Collaboration in the Creative Industries with Holger Dielenberg (Maker Spaces), Esther Anatolitis (Regional Arts Victoria), Armin Kroll, (jtribe), David Ryding, (City of Literature Office), and Diana Nguyen (comedian and community worker), discussed questions about independent artists, the enduring problem of language in funding relationships, and the importance of the idea of the public good. David Ryding reminded the forum that support for the arts is often bipartisan, and that a Liberal government founded the Melbourne City of Literature agenda.

Even if it doesn’t have a sack of spare money under the table, the State Government must remember the sector at budget time, not starve it into non-existence.

The day wrapped with a panel discussion between Richard Frankland (Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development), Magdalena Moreno (Deputy Director of International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies), Van Badham (playwright and Guardian columnist), and Justin O’Connor.

Always a formidable presence, Frankland spoke forcefully about culture as vital to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Magdalena Moreno talked about her experience in Canada and Ecuador, where cultural policy is developing in new and expansive ways. Van Badham argued that part of the cause of discomfort people feel for the creative industries is that it has no framework for citizenship. And Justin O’Connor argued that the economy is a construct that has to be made to work for culture, not the other way round.

This is the political challenge to be faced, and the main reason why governments struggle with how or whether to fund the arts.

The mood in the room of the day was energized and hopeful – and why wouldn’t it be with money coming into the sector rather than going out of it? But there was also a sense this kind of event is vital to building sector-wide agency.

What can SA learn from this? The arts and cultural sector here need more ways to come together and work together, learn from each other, be inspired by those trying to make change. Even if it doesn’t have a sack of spare money under the table, the State Government must remember the sector at budget time, not starve it into non-existence. A little goes a long way.

But the SA Government must also invest its time and attention, recognising the cost of sustaining the sector falls to individuals, families, and communities. Respect for the sector is crucial.

South Australians have a long investment in the Festival State. It is one that has produced numerous concrete and intangible effects. Yet festivals are dependent on cultural organisations large and small, and organisations need professionals to work in the sector 52 weeks a year, not just in Mad March. Let’s not throw that investment away.

Dr Tully Barnett is a research fellow in the School of Humanities and Creative Arts at Flinders University.

Julian Meyrick is Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University.

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