Port Phillip’s philistines

The City of Port Phillip councillors believe they represent a vibrant, cultured, cosmopolitan and environmentally friendly place.

Recently it did a bit for the vibrant side by allowing clubs, pubs and entertainment centres to stay open longer and make more noise. This louder and longer strategy angered many residents and will probably result in property values in the affected areas falling.

However, it has recently been less than supportive of the more cultural side of the community and proposes to end triennial funding for the city’s six world-class arts organisations: Australian Tapestry Workshop, The Torch, Phillip Adams Ballet Lab at Temperance Hall, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Theatre Works and Rawcus.

The city has some form with philistinism. Some years ago it employed a consultant to produce an arts strategy. It was so bad that some councillors – who rarely admit being wrong for fear of falling out with the staff who actually run the place – admitted privately how bad it was.

For anyone who had the good fortune not to have to read the strategy one recommendation gives the flavour of it – attract more arts sponsorship – suggesting the Council’s capacity to do so was similar to the National Gallery of Victoria.

When they finally got around to adopting the policy they dubbed it Art+Soul which most people in the arts – and many in the community – would connect with Hettie Perkin’s TV series and book. When confronted with this act of appropriation one councillor dismissed the problem by saying the name wasn’t registered.

Amazingly this justification was from a Council which prides itself on its recognition of its local Indigenous community and its Indigenous history and heritage.

The latest ham-fistedness and philistinism cuts funding from organisations which not only add to the social and cultural fabric of the city but also play critical community roles. It would be fair to say that they are better known in the local, State, national and international community than any of the councillors.

Among them is the internationally renowned Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW) which, since it was established in 1976, has become famous for its contemporary tapestries. Its tapestries are located in Australian Embassies around the world; private collections; a wide range of institutions including the Morning Star tapestry at the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France; seven tapestries in the Victorian Arts Centre; and many more in public places such as the Melbourne Recital Centre.

It is considered one of the pre-eminent tapestry workshops in the world and is held in the same esteem as the historic Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. Its artistic output is, however, a tad more modern and contemporary than the Gobelins.

Cutting funding to the Australian Tapestry Workshop is cultural vandalism which will damage the city’s image and reputation. The arts are already suffering from the Morrison Government’s refusal to assist them during the pandemic and the City of Port Phillip will signal with this decision that it is joining Morrison in the philistines’ camp.

It is in marked contrast with the neighbouring City of Melbourne which has launched a $50 million arts rescue package.

There is, however, an alternative. Like every organisation – and every other Council in Australia – the pandemic has created problems. But problems of resource allocation are always with us and the key is to set priorities whatever the circumstances faced.

At the start of the pandemic, when the then Mayor was asked whether senior staff would take salary cuts she said they wouldn’t – unlike many executives in public and private organisations.

The CEO, who apparently didn’t take a salary cut at that time, headed off to his home in Adelaide to do some remote working from there. It’s perfectly legitimate as many people worked remotely from many far-flung areas although whether it is a good look for a public official is another question.

The management may have subsequently decided it was politic to take salary cuts but, if so, that hasn’t been broadly publicised, and even hefty salary cuts wouldn’t be enough to solve the problems of an organisation which is characterised by top heavy management, waste and inefficiency.

As the author can testify the Council can’t even organise to get a garbage bin repaired in under a couple of weeks leaving it broken for two garbage collections. It did find time to send someone around to check that everyone was recycling properly and then leave a flyer, with a tick of approval similar to that you would give a prep student, to those who had.

But the bottom line – as Council staff are sure to be mouthing endlessly to the Councillors during budget negotiations – is that if Council and councillors focus on cutting funding to the areas which make the city vibrant, distinctive and internationally known it will damage the city’s quality of life and its reputation not only in the city but the wider Australian and international community.

What’s needed instead of attacks on creativity is some creative thinking.