My take on the 2020 Summit “Creative Australia” communique

Over at New Matilda’s PollieGraph blog, I’ve given my analysis of the 2020 “Creative Australia” group’s published communique.

As I discovered when talking to Marcus Westbury last night, the final report doesn’t resemble the discussions that took place, at least according to many who were there. Full details over the fold:

2020 summit commentary: the Creative Australia group

I don’t always agree with QUT Professor Stuart Cunningham, but his article in today’s New Matilda is dead right: the digital agenda has been comprehensively neglected by the 2020 Summit’s “Towards a Creative Australia” group.

This is not surprising: as I have noted here and elsewhere, the makeup of the Creative Australia group had much less to do with creativity, broadly defined, than with the capital-A arts, narrowly defined.

Even so, the first communique from the group contains disappointingly little in the way of new ideas or fresh thinking. Over the fold, I’ve attempted to analyse the initial report of the Creative Australia in more depth.

The Initial Report says:

AMBITIONS
Creativity is central to sustaining and defining the nation, fuelling the imaginations of citizens, nurturing our children and nourishing healthy communities. Indigenous culture is central to this. Creativity is broader than the arts, but the arts are central to creativity.

We will aim to double cultural output by 2020.

Doubling cultural output sounds like a wonderful aspirational goal, until you stop to consider that no-one – certainly not the ABS – has a good definition of what “cultural output” is. For Kim Williams, Foxtel media executive, it probably means doubling film and television production. For the performing artists, it probably means doubling the number of plays, operas and orchestral performances. We don’t really know what it means for the community arts sector, as they have (as usual )been excluded from these discussions.

The problem is: most of Australia’s current cultural output is not measured. This is because the vast majority of Australian artists are hobbyists. Their “cultural output” never sees the bright lights of the Opera House or cable TV: instead it occurs in their bedrooms, back sheds or the boundless horizons of their own imaginations.

Measuring the output of hobbyists is difficult, perhaps impossible. But Australia doesn’t measure many relatively straightforward aspects of cultural production. Take just one example: commercial art galleries. The last available data for this important and growing sector of the cultural industries was published by the ABS in 2000. Because of limited resources, the study hasn’t been repeated since. Yet in that time, the commercial art market has boomed and several new auction houses have been established. We can’t blame the ABS for this: their cultural statistics department is tiny (my understanding, from a friend who worked with Cultural Ministers Council, is that it has barely 3 full-time staff).

In fact, the Rudd Government has recently announced cuts to the ABS, as LP blogger Robert Merkel notes. This is an amazing decision for a government that says it is committed to targets and “evidence-based policy.”

The Initial Report says:

THEMES
A major theme of this stream was expanding and developing education in arts and creativity to enrich and support cultural endeavours. Boosting the creative capabilities and understanding of citizens through improved access to lifelong learning was raised as a critical priority in ensuring a sustainable sector which provides opportunities for innovation and rewards excellence.

The development of new investment models to ensure financial viability was also considered. The stream agreed that the ideal funding model combines private and public support to foster and support creativity and innovation; support emerging, mid-career and established artists, and large and small enterprises.

The stream also discussed the increasing importance of creativity in the new economy, both at home and abroad. This is central to innovation in the new industries which are fuelled by creativity and draw on the arts, entertainment and design. This will present both opportunities and challenges as traditional models of income support change. Success in this new environment demands that creativity is embedded in our education systems, economy and international representation at every level.
The stream discussed the best ways of ensuring that the creative output of Australians is made accessible. This included mechanism to support major institutions and provide new and emerging artists around the nation. The stream recognised the important role of public broadcasting and emerging broadband networks to produce and distribute this output.

The place of Indigenous arts and culture at the core of Australian creative expression was recognised by the group. This is a source of identity and pride for all and gives Australia a uniqueness which is unrivalled internationally.

So far, so good. Education in the arts is important, and there is solid international evidence that suggests that children who are exposed to sophisticated teaching in artforms like music and painting do better at the basics like reading, writing and abstract reasoning.

But the second-last paragraph is a real worry, framing its discussions as it does in terms of “major institutions” and “public broadcasting”: code for more funding for the big companies and the ABC. Surely we can do better.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the “top ideas”, there is actually little to celebrate. Here they are first, and then some commentary:

Link the creative arts and education
• Bring art into our schools by introducing ‘practitioners in residence’ via a national mentoring plan funded by philanthropic funds and tax incentives

• Mandate creative, visual and performing arts subjects in national curricula with appropriate reporting requirements for schools. Explore new opportunities for extension and development such as Creativity Summer Schools, pre-service and in-service training for teachers

• Digitise the collections of major national institutions by 2020

• Make creativity a national research priority with funding access to R&D, ARC and similar funding

Some of these dot points are worthy, but minor, like the suggestions about “practitioners in residence” and mandated creative curricula. The arts education agenda is being addressed far more comprehensively in two current reviews into music and visual arts education. other dot points would make more of a difference, particularly the final point about recognising arts and culture within the ambit of the ARC. The problem is, of course, that the ARC is already astonishingly competitive, meaning that relatively little new research would be funded. But now, onto the real doozy of the suggestion box: the 1% “creative dividend.”

Develop new investment and support models
• Create a National Endowment Fund for the Arts – incorporating public endowment and private philanthropy (including patronage), and provide a wide range of support including loans and grants; a review of philanthropy and tax incentives to support organisations and individual artists and expand the scope of Prescribed Private Funds

• Fund creative endeavours through a 1% creative dividend from all Government Departments for expenditure on arts (including design, performance, installation )

• Develop mechanisms to reward success

• Federal responsibility for public liability obligations for arts organisations

Point 1 is valuable but will yield relatively little new income for the arts: for the simple reason that Australia already has generous tax deductability provisions for cultural organisations. Point 3 is so vague as to mean very little. Point 4 is a very good point and should be pursued as a key part of National Competition Policy (but probably won’t be).

As for point 2, the mandated 1% spend from all federal government departments? This is quite simply bad policy, for some very obvious reasons. The first is that good government relies on departments sticking to their core business. We don’t ask the Australia Council to devote 1% of its funds to training soldiers or collecting income tax, and we shouldn’t be asking Defence or the ATO to be de facto arts funding bodies.

Secondly, this kind of mandated target has big fiscal implications when the detail is examined. For arts administrators used to working on a shoe-strong, 1% probably seems like a sensible figure. But some Australian government departments, like the Defence Materials Organisation or the Department of Human Resources, are so large that 1% of their budget would run into the hundreds of millions – or more than the entire current budget of the Australia Council itself!

Lastly, imposing a target like this is a recipe for bureaucratic in-fighting. The unhappy experience of the Queensland Government’s 2% public art policy shows why: when faced with what amounted to a 2% budget cut in every public infrastructure project in Queensland, Cabinet soon found itself beseiged with requests for special waivers from panicked project managers. In the end, the 2% public art strategy proved unpopular and unworkable and was quietly abandoned. Similarly, this is clearly one idea that will never see the light of day.

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