A new arts approach in Victoria

The blog was, some years ago, in one of a number of small groups being consulted by the State Library of Victoria about its future directions and corporate planning. The consultants running the session trotted out all the usual gobbledygook and managerial newspeak which you expect on these occasions.

Sadly for them the distinguished French and rare book scholar, Professor Wallace Kirsop, was in the group and expressed, with devastating logic and eloquence, mounting distaste for their assumptions, language and general approach. The blog, having been exposed to these sorts of things before, suggested that while we all knew it was nonsense we had to pretend it wasn’t if we wanted increased government funding even while knowing that Wallace was absolutely right.

But now the Victorian Labor Shadow Arts Minister, Martin Foley, has turned the problem on its head and come up with an arts policy which may be the best for many years from any Victorian  political party. The policy does use the common creative industries arguments (which are a valid if only a part of the story) and looks at how cultural policies can help solve civil and community issues. But most importantly it focusses on the intrinsic value and worth of the arts.

The policy doesn’t seem to have had much publicity although there was a good article in Arts Hub on 16 May which sadly is behind a pay wall. The core of the policy is to replace Arts Victoria with a new agency focussing on creativity called Creative Victoria. It would combine Arts Victoria, Film Victoria, multimedia and gaming agencies and would have strong links with education, health and community services departments.

Foley says: “The time has come to acknowledge that on its 40th birthday the Arts Victorian model – especially one so underfunded – is not able to deliver the future of a Creative Victoria. Its purpose is too narrow in the modern world and economy.”

The Foley quote which warmed the blog’s heart was that we “need a closer focus on the worth of creative mediums for their own intrinsic value.”

Now the blog has to confess it has more history with the ‘creative industries’ approach than that one SLV consultation. When the blog chaired the Melbourne International Arts Festival we were struggling to get increased funding from the then Bracks Government. The then head of Department of Premier and Cabinet, Terry Moran, was enormously helpful although he did want evidence for why it was a good idea. The Festival took the view that it had no right to exist as such and the Artistic Director Robyn Archer always stressed that anyone in Melbourne could organise their very own festival on almost any week in Melbourne just by drawing on the events already programmed. She also pointed out that Festivals could, however, offer more in terms of access to things we normally wouldn’t see or hear, excitement, atmosphere and interactions between visiting and local artists.

DPC appointed consultants to look at the case and they were very good. They did ask questions about viability including exploring whether there was some formula which would predict a Festival’s financial success. The blog’s response was to ask which event was more financially successful – a piece of theatre by a group of intellectually disabled players from a regional centre or the performances of one of the most famous arts companies in the world led by a renowned international conductor? Fortunately the consultants were good enough to know the answer was counter-intuitive. The Festival also used the then not very well-known views of Richard Florida about creative activity and economic development even though we had some doubts about causation, correlation and chickens and eggs. But, after a lot of effort we got a lot more money. Unfortunately this massive effort was also one of the forerunners of the emphasis on the role of the arts as ‘creative industries’ which is true but is nevertheless only part of the story.

To her credit, the then Arts Minister, Mary Delahunty, also focussed on the civic and community significance of the arts but it was not really adopted by the rest of the government as an integrated approach across all departments.

Foley has, however, taken this a step further saying: “We should nurture the changing role of artists and the new fields of creative activity. In challenging and enlivening society, artists and those in the creative professions should push us to consider not just new ideas but new views on what our future might be – culturally, socially and economically.” He has also proposed a governance structure which would help achieve much better integration.

Louise Adler might defend Tony Abbott’s interest in books, and claim he is not a misogynist,  but it is difficult to imagine him seeing this view of the arts having a role under his government –  except perhaps where it challenges (Bolt / Cater/Windschuttle style) the imagined dominance of leftist ‘cultural elites’ in Australian society. In keeping with the blog’s ongoing commitment to do so on all possible occasions, it must mention here  that Keith Windschuttle, one of the champions of the contemporary Right, was of course a supporter of arguably the most murderous regime in human history – Maoist China – and advocated street theatre as an answer to media monopolies. Now, of course, he is feted by the Institute of Public Affairs and lionised by the Murdoch media.

Foley promises more announcements before the November election. The initial policy is a great start. Hopefully the next stages will look at reporting and acquittal processes for small arts companies. They tend to be onerous – not because arts companies are irresponsible –  but because a few thousand dollars spent on some activity disapproved of by philistines such as Neil Mitchell cause governments’ significant issues management problems. If you are going to waste money make sure it’s billons on submarines or hundreds of millions on unaccountable chaplaincy services –  not the odd small arts grant which might not result in total success or, worse, offends a few 3AW or Ray Hadley listeners.