Art asks important questions and in doing so reminds us of the world we want to create. Art is a model for policy innovation, and the time for advocacy is now.
As Australians, we are currently in a fortunate position with avenues of financial support at a national level, devised to reduce the burden COVID-19 is driving. In terms of targeted stimulus relief for the arts, the federal government announced on April 9 a $27 million package – made up of $10 million for regional artists and organisations, $7 million to support Indigenous artists and art centres, and $10 million for Support Act, a charity that delivers crisis relief to artists, crew and music workers. State, Territory and Local Governments around the country have also redirected or reinstated funding for arts-related activities of varying sums and qualifying factors.
Where does this place in line with international responses? Germany has elected to invest AUD$84 billion in culture, with a special focus on freelance workers, the UK have announced a AUD$320 million arts package, and in Canada AUD$550 million will be directed to its arts, culture and sports sectors. In terms of cultural funding, Australia ranks 26th out of 33 measured in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations.
Conservative estimates from a report produced in April 2020 by The Australia Institute found that the creative arts contributed $14.7 billion to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017-18 (approximately 0.8% of the total GDP). More broadly, the Bureau of Communications and Art Research found that cultural and creative activity contributed $111.7 billion (6.4%) to GDP in 2016-17.
In 2019, 193,600 Australians were employed in creative arts – more than finance (190,600), accommodation (97,500), electricity supply (65,000) or coal mining (49,600). We promote ourselves as a creative nation, in recent reports the Australian Trade Commission spruiks arts and entertainment industries to foreign investors and importers with artists such as Ben Quilty and Tracey Moffatt.
Despite this, in the ten-year period from 2007/8 to 2017/18 government arts funding fell 18.9% in real terms (considering inflation and population grown) found a study conducted by A New Approach. The news that the Australia Council of the Arts four-year funding pool for the 2021-2024 period would be increasing from $28 million to $31.7 million (after a $105 million cut in 2016) was a small victory quickly deflated by the announcement that the funding would be thinly dispersed between its recipients – with 41% of the grant applications finalists unsuccessful in their bid for funding, and the successful 95 applicants will see a 70% reduction of the amount requested in the first year.
Some of the country’s largest art institutions will not receive support from the operational funding program and a handful of arts publications are also among those defunded. In a press statement, Adrian Collette, CEO of the Australia Council rationalised their motive was to ‘provide support for the greatest number of small to medium arts organisations’. The recognition of this sector of the arts community is undoubtedly important; yet at a pivotal moment, when the long-term sustainability for the industry as a whole requires urgent attention and funding, this justification is questionable.
As Michael Fox, Arts Accountant and Valuer, shared ‘the issue that has crystallised with COVID-19 for the arts is that, for majority of arts organisations, their funding is short term, being seasonal and tied to outcomes… A common feature of the stimulus schemes, such as cash flow boost, JobKeeper and the state and council compensation programs, is that they reward businesses that employ people.’
The creative industries by its inherent nature is underpinned by a ‘gig economy’ and ‘portfolio careers’ of freelance and casual workers – as the NAVA lead #CreateAustraliasFuture campaign advocated, should the industry collapse because it does not adhere to a uniform employment structure?
Equally, by accounting procedures that fit the federal funding models, how do you show a downturn for cancelled events and rescinded contracts that are months away and not yet on the books – an issue facing a great number of Australians? I Lost My Gig Australia, an initiative of the Australian Festivals Association and the Australian Music Industry Network recorded as at 27 April the tally of lost jobs and contracts was in the sum of $340 million and in March 470,000 workers had been affected with a total of 240,000 job opportunities lost.
NAVA’s Executive Director, Esther Anatolitis, discussed the Federal Government’s stimulus packages during a symposium with Dr Holly Arden, Associate Director of UQ Art Museum, stressing the need for advocacy in addressing the gaps in funding for large portions of the arts sector; ‘who are expected to suddenly magically get everything online for free’. Anatolitis canvassed that institutional bodies such as universities and government-owned regional galleries will largely miss out on the federal wage subsidiary measures. For the universities, in addition to concern for current students and staff members, this move raises issues as to how we support employment prospects for the next generation.
As recorded by The Australia Institute not only are regional galleries significant contributors to visual arts in Australia, but they rely largely on the efforts from volunteers. In the 2015-16 year, the value of volunteer hours from the activities of regional galleries equated to $7,824,216 – making the value of volunteer time over 20% of total funding received, second only to local government funding as a source of support for regional galleries. Both volunteer capacity and local government funding will be impacted by the pandemic, emphasising the need for increased federal and state government funding. Brett Adlington, Director of Lismore Regional Gallery, reiterates that ‘the intrinsic value of a rich cultural life needs to be continually fought for.’
The benefit of the arts is not solely emotive, but also fiscal. The interconnectedness of the industry and as a factor of economic importance is the ambit of ‘cultural and creative’ activities forming part of manufacturing, sales, education, design and professional services. The importance the arts has on well being, identity, personal development and fostering connections with others, is widely accepted and acknowledged, especially now. Rhana Devenport ONZM, Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), points out ‘isolation has poignantly highlighted how people turn to artists to navigate and seek meaning in our world.’
The indispensable role of art is not up for dispute, and political apathy is not an option.
This is the time to create Australia’s future.