Where have all the arts ministers gone?

Mar 3, 2018 by

Eliza Berlage –

I’ve come to wonder why we call the portfolio communications and arts when there is so little emphasis on the latter. Current Minister Mitch Fifield is better known for his culture war with Triple J over changing the date of their hottest 100 countdown than for reforming Australia’s media landscape.

Growing up under the Howard government, a lack of meaningful arts policy was the norm, while my adulthood has been marked by friends and family redefining the starving artist. I turned the lense on them for my university video journalism stories: capturing the anger over George Brandis’ axing of the Australia Council for a new slush fund emphasising ‘excellence’, and the disappointment at the closure of Sydney community film centre, Metroscreen.

Is it any wonder that when I came to work in the press gallery I was a little cynical about arts policy?

I started during budget week — a baptism of fire. In those frantic lockup hours scouring budget papers it was clear yet again when it came to winners and losers the arts would not bet seeing any victories.

But it wasn’t always this way. Although I’ve only been in Canberra watching the sausage get made for about five minutes, Capital Hill’s collective memory tells a different story. The prime ministers and arts ministers of yesteryear produced arts policy informed by their personal and political interest.

Fifty years ago Harold Holt’s vision for advancing modern Australia included commonwealth support for ‘distinctive cultural activities’, exemplified through the establishment of a National Gallery and formation of the Australia Council for public funding of the arts.

In 1968 prime minister John Gorton’s proud nationalism extended to a close personal interest in the arts leading to the development of the Australian Film Development Corporation, National Film and Television Training School, and the Australian Council for the Arts.

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“Why, at a time when we are on the front foot of defending Australian ‘culture’, are we on the back foot when it comes to nurturing and shaping it?”

Our 21st prime minister Gough Whitlam said ‘the enjoyment of the arts is an end in itself’ — he lavished money on the Australia Council, increased support for the film industry, established the National Library Act and revived support for crafts and Aboriginal arts.

Whitlam’s successor Malcolm Fraser was a strong arts supporter apropos his mother and artist sister. He made funding accessible by decentralising the Australia Council and established the Community Arts Board, Australia’s Artbank, the Australiana Fund, a National Museum, taxation incentives for the arts and the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).

Paul Keating is perhaps the most well-renowned for his intellectual and emotional connection to the arts. Despite overseeing the recession we ‘had to have’, his ‘Creative Nation’ policy saw millions spent on Australian Artists Creative Fellowships (nicknamed ‘the Keatings’).

There seems to be an absence of passion and experience in the arts in our parliament. However that’s only part of the problem. Subsequent governments have done more than just cut arts funding and dismantle arts organisations — they have narrowed ambitions and abandoned all pretence of a bigger vision.

Arts lecturer and commentator Ben Eltham argues the rise of neoliberalism has made it increasingly difficult to argue the economic benefits of investing in the arts (even though there are many). Fetishising metrics like ticket numbers and audience growth has shifted dialogue about the arts from being an institution, which requires encouragement, to being an industry, which requires management.

Governments today use the arts as a political plaything not to be taken seriously. Howard and Abbott returned to a Menzies mindset on the arts as belonging not to  ‘battlers’ but to the cultural elites. While they weren’t altogether ungenerous, Howard heralded a return to government management of arts, with arms-length initiatives like the Community Board of Arts being abolished.

There was a glimmer of hope when musician Peter Garrett became arts minister under Kevin Rudd’s Labor government, but his passion may have been curbed by neither Rudd nor Julia Gillard being art enthusiasts.

Funding cuts also have been used to punish dissent — in particular when George Brandis threatened to withdraw Sydney Bienniale funding in response to protests about sponsor Transfield’s involvement in Nauru — while deviating from the social norm has been discouraged; look no further than Simon Birmigham’s decision in 2016 to remove creative arts courses from being eligible for government loans, because he considered them a ‘lifestyle choice’.

In her 2010 Stephen Murray-Smith Lecture on Keating’s legacy, Anne Summers said: ‘Our creative nation is no longer central to who we are and what we do. Perhaps the surprising thing is that it ever was, even for the briefest of times.’

The battle lines are being drawn for the next election, but considering the major parties’ recent track record — the Coalition didn’t have an arts policy in 2013 and 2016, while Labor’s recent policy focused on restoring Brandis’ cuts — it’s unlikely the arts will take centre stage.

Why, at a time when we are on the front foot of defending Australian ‘culture’, are we on the back foot when it comes to nurturing and shaping it? Retail politics means politicians are more available than ever, but visibility comes at the expense of the development and debate of significant ideas. The reelection recipe: feed the focus groups with announceables promoting stability and security, and it becomes their diet. Meanwhile, arts policy starves.

Source: Where have all the arts ministers gone?

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