Harnessing the arts voice at election time

A public forum brings the arts sector together to find a unified voice in order to amplify the voice of the arts in the face of current challenges.

Image via pixabay.com

With the outcomes of the devastating 2015 Budget flowing through to lost funding just weeks before the 2 July election, the impetus for arts advocacy has rarely been stronger. 

Read: 65 arts organisations lose funding from the Australia Council

But how can we as a sector push a vote for culture onto the stage, and what internal stumbling blocks must we overcome to ensure clarity of message?

These were questions addressed in the first of several discussions held on Monday night in Sydney and jointly hosted by NAVA (National Association for Visual Arts) and Artspace.

With the catch cry “Let’s talk” as its title, heavyweights from the visual arts and performing arts sectors spoke equally with a packed audience of artists and arts professionals.

The key outcome was clear. The sector must harness a unified voice that not only reaches government in a timely way, but extends beyond its ecology to a broader public – our audiences – to convey the impact of recent decisions and translate that into voting power.  

Read: How to lobby for the arts in Election 2016

Let’s talk: Unity

‘We don’t want to turn this into a divide and conquer debate. What we need to be doing is to be thinking about what is the true value of arts and culture to this country,’ said Professor Ross Harley, Dean UNSW Art + Design, opening the conversation on unity.

Artspace Director Alexie Glass-Kantor reminded the gathering that last year’s Senate Inquiry received nearly 3,000 submissions from the broad arts sector about Senator George Brandis’s funding remodel, an unprecedented joining of voices that have traditionally been quite competitive and fractured between mediums.  

‘People spoke, they wrote, they advocated for the sector and for the Australia Council,’ she said.

She made the further point that since the recent announcements of further cuts to organisational funding many of the smaller to mid-scale organisations have issued formal statements with a bold new confidence to be heard.

Among them was a support letter by directors and galleries across Australia in defense of the network of Contemporary Art Orgnisations Australia (CAOA), which was almost halved in the cuts. It is a 25 year-old national network of 14 independent art spaces.

Read: Enough! is the message from 38 visual arts signatories

‘What we did with our collective statement was something that we were unable to do 18 months ago when Brandis removed the money. At that time organisations were aware there would be punitive reprisals for those who spoke out, and a climate of self censorship and a climate of silencing across our major organisations set in,’ she said.

Executive Director of the 33-year old advocacy agency NAVA, Tamara Winikoff added: ‘I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I do think that it takes a lot of courage and effort to speak on behalf of artists and to advocate for the efforts of a whole field. Those of us who have been doing it have been doing it at a great risk.’

Almost every state gallery in Australia signed the statement in the support of the five CAOs that were defunded. It demonstrated that with unity there is strength.

‘The best thing we can do is not say to the majors that we are in opposition. Their money is quarantined – it is always going to be quarantined,’ said Glass-Kantor flatly. Rather than crying for an inequality to be addressed and dwelling on the dollars and cents we need to be looking at the bigger picture to construct our case for the arts.

‘We need to get the majors on board and find a way to speak collectively about the value of the way things move throughout the ecology – up, inside, about and through,’ she advised.

One of those larger organisations with access to political pull is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Director Elizabeth Anne Macgregor said: ‘In political terms, we have to make sure that those who do have the opportunity to access those who make the decisions to do so in the strongest possible terms and to make those arguments.

She added that her board has stepped up to the plate in supporting this voice, and it was important in the roles of our boards to continue this conversation into their worlds of influence.

Let’s talk: Realities

The panel agreed that the most damaging message that the government is sending through the recent decimation of the sector is that it doesn’t value the arts.

The roll on effect of this is that benefactors, philanthropists and the broader private sector start to take on that message that the arts are worth little.

Winikoff pointed out: ‘The axe coming down and saying “you find another way of existing,” that is not the way to evolve arts support in a responsible and visionary way.’

Glass-Kantor extended ​this point: ‘The private sector does not want to pay for operations; they do not want to pay for staff; no one wants to pay for cultural infrastructure ​– everyone want to pay for projects.

‘The Australia Council is saying to organisations that have been defunded that they can apply for project funding,’ but that doesn’t pay the rent. 

‘Operations, sustainability, and cultural infrastructure these are not sexy words – they are really f**king essential,’ Glass-Kantor added passionately.

Labor candidate for Wentworth, ex-gallerist and founder of the Hughes Foundation of the Visual Arts, Evan Hughes added that the sector forgets its power when applied to the government rhetoric of “jobs and growth”.

‘When you put it in terms of jobs and growth, just think what $50 billion could do to the Australian arts sector as opposed to the Australian shipbuilding sector,’ said Hughes, taking a jab at the Government’s recent submarine commission. 

‘We must start considering arts funding and arts infrastructure not simply as a sideshow for the “arty farty” – which much of Canberra feels – but that it must be considered as a genuine part of our economy.

‘When you are giving money to artists through the Australia Council you are actually creating jobs – you are actually putting real money into the economy; you are actually driving the economy because people who would not otherwise have jobs have them’, he concluded.

There was a further reality to dwell upon.

Winikoff reminded that the money that remained in Catalyst is $36 million​. Hughes assured that Labor would end Catalyst and return those funds to the Australia Council.

‘Where does Labor stand? We stand firmly behind the commitments of Creative Australia (2013), which was our last arts policy platform; we stand behind reinstating its spirit,’ he said.

‘We cannot give back all of this funding as much of that has been taken, shifted and redistributed, but we certainly stand and are committed for abolishing Catalyst and returning the money to the Australia Council that hasn’t already been committed.’

He said the Labor Party was soon to announce a statement on the arts but could not advise when.

Read: Greens promise $702 million for the arts

Let’s talk: Responsibility

Apart from clearing up a few misconceptions of worth and voicing sector inequalities, the debate also turned the lens onto its own action – or lack thereof.

Director of PACT – a Sydney-based performing art company that recently lost its organisational funding – Katrina Douglas said that as a sector we need to not only talk in support but look at our own actions.

‘We need to ask what do we do to support the small to medium and independent companies – are we donating to them, are we going to their shows and buying their tickets or are we only going when we get comps – and when we get comps do we offer to pay for them?’

It was a point also made by Macgregor: ‘The problem for us is the sector that has been cut is invisible. How many of us have been to the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA) or CACSA (Contemporary Art Centre South Australia) in Adelaide? It is incumbent of all of us.

‘We bought a major work from the Northern Centre of Contemporary Art and that is the kind of function it fills,’ Macgregor added.

Read: Don’t kill the feeders

Let’s talk: General Public

A gentlemen from the audience made, perhaps, the most pressing and depressing statement of the night: ‘The general public knows nothing about this – they don’t understand what is happening.’

Despite all your actions, you need to turn to Facebook was his advice. You need a well-worded statement and get the support of Get Up and every single arts organisation to mine their databases and advice all their ticket buyers and to put it on their Facebook pages.

The message was that we need to use our friends not only in the industry, but outside the sector.

A recent example has been the successful social media campaign to Save Bondi Pavilion.

The problem at the moment is that we do not have one single message or one single channel that is strong enough to gain traction with the broader public.

The touchstones for this conversation need to be much greater than ourselves.

Hughes extended the idea: ‘I can recite lines from Macbeth not from visiting Bell Shakespeare but because I studied it at school. The vast majority of us forget that the largest contact area of arts learning and access that any Australian is going to have throughout their life is secondary high school.’

What young family doesn’t celebrate a child’s drawing and post it on the fridge; who doesn’t love watching a great Australian movie? And look at the crowds that flock to Vivid’s lights and Sculpture by the Sea each year – our public does value the arts, it’s just that our politicians have forgotten that.

Let’s talk: National Policy

‘Cultural leadership has many different shapes and forms and, in fact, what we are all doing is trying to fathom what actually is going to constitute cultural leadership going forth in this country,’ observed Hughes.

Macgregor put it more simply: ‘It is a mess! It is not just about cuts but it about strategy.’

Michael Lynch offered to the conversation: ‘I feel one of the things that has changed is that we have lost our purchase on governments. If I look back at the launch of Paul Keating’s Creative Nation document of 1994, where a Prime Minister said a creative nation was an incredibly important part of the future of this nation … and then look at our current Prime Minister who talks of launching an innovative nation without a connection to creativity, then something is terribly wrong.’

Hughes continued: ‘The one thing this nation needs is a bipartisan approach to the arts. No one battered an eyelid when $50 billion on submarine contracts were handed out and that is because in Australia we accept that aspects of defense and foreign affairs are bipartisan things.

‘It is my belief that culture needs to be that sort of bipartisan. We all need to get on the same page in wanting to go forward in a bigger discussion,’ he concluded.

Winikoff agreed that there is a lot of work to be done on a genuine national vision. ‘The politicians are not doing it so we, ourselves, are taking control of that process to do justice to this extraordinary field we have committed our lives to.’

Lynch suggested that we also need new voices. ‘Rather than just listen to the old voice of baby boomers, it is really important that the arts needs to throw up a new generation of strong leaders who can take this case forward and prosecute the case to both sides of government.’

Harley said: ‘To pull apart and destroy this ecology is a bit like the Great Barrier Reef – if we pull apart this very complex fragile ecology we will not have the kind of culture that makes us get up and go to work every day – that makes us great as a nation.’ 

It is only when it has gone too far that the greater public becomes aware, and is alarmed, by its loss. “How did this happen? Why didn’t I know? What could I have done?”

These are not the questions we want to leave people grasping at.

The sector in unison needs to make those pathways for a broader voice now, at a time when people are listening, talking to each other, and thinking about the future health of our nation. 

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina