How to Rethink Arts Funding

urinalIn theory government supports the arts. In reality the arts are directed by politicised bureaucrats who privilege the Left’s cultural domination. A major disburser of money is the Australia Council. Where razors and structural change were needed, the Howard government chose pragmatic, short-term measures and they parachuted intelligent individuals behind the lines, onto Australia Council boards, where they had little real effect. The Coalition had no policy for dealing with the Left’s corruption of our culture through funding they themselves provided. No attempt was made to eradicate the welfare mentality that had grown up around the arts industry since the Whitlam reforms of the 1970s, or to overturn the cultural dictatorship assumed by the Australia Council.

The Coalition is notoriously uninterested in funding culture: this is an advantage. If the Coalition drew on their free market and individualistic philosophies to encourage the resurgence of a cultural free market and aided artists to become capable of supporting themselves instead of beggars, they could open the door to long-overdue cultural renewal.

Cultural policy deserves serious study by the free market think-tanks, and the Coalition in opposition. Unless it is undertaken, and plans for reform adopted, the next period of conservative government will face even more cultural hostility than the last. Kevin Rudd, even in a single term of government, is capable of introducing changes which could corrupt our cultural life for generations; the situation is bad and could become much worse. Once more, the lack of a conservative humanities research institute or think-tank is felt.

In April, Rudd’s invitees, mainly selected from the Left intelligentsia, came to Canberra for the 2020 Summit. Labor’s election campaign had profited from their help, and invitations were their public reward. Howard had been an affront to the self-esteem of the intellectual Left and they responded to the new Prime Minister’s affection in sometimes naive terms. Robert Manne expressed feelings surely shared by many of the delegates: “When I read in the paper that I had been invited, I was relieved. Because of what happened in the Howard years, I was by now keen to contribute to the summit’s Governance stream.” He was serious. Kevin Rudd has aroused high expectations and the stage is set for some monumentally wrong decisions to be made.

The unconscious elitism of the so-called “creative” delegates was deftly delineated in a publicity piece written by Summit organisers Cate Blanchett and Professor Julianne Schultz:

“The centrality of creativity to living full and rich lives is what will define the deliberations of the creative stream this weekend … The fact that we have economists, business leaders, educators, researchers as well as actors, directors, musicians, writers and many others in the group will put flesh on the bones of this truth.”

At 2020 the only truth, apart from the fact that there wasn’t much testosterone in the room, was that Whitlam’s corrupting 1970s financial compact between Labor and the artists was as strong as ever. Educated into a strongly corporatist culture, the delegates were unable to offer individualist arguments or consider a culture not maintained by increased handouts. Their proposals, which Rudd promised to respond to, were for a never-ending child’s party with prizes and cake for everyone—on the Left.

In the following list of briefly annotated suggestions taken from the Summit Report, note both the lack of clarity and the obsequious flattery of Kevin Rudd, a marked change from the lack of normal courtesy usually received by John Howard.

Even more Lotto prize literary awards: Create Prime Minister’s awards for Creative Australian of the Year and Creative Indigenous Australian of the Year.

Self-interest: “Promote wider representation of artists on public boards.”

Corporatist: “Overtly value arts and artists at the federal government level: this will ensure that politicians attend arts events and foster a whole of government view of arts and creativity.”

Fashionable noble savagery: “Place Indigenous culture at the core of our education system by including Indigenous arts and culture in the school curriculum.”

Authoritarian: “Reintroduce death duties, with exemptions for bequests and donations to the arts.”

Corporatist: “Establish a Ministry of Culture for high-level, cross-government advocacy that is central to and influential in government.”

Corporatist: “Establish a new organization for international promotion of Australian art, to work in a way similar to Tourism Australia.”

Magic: “Encourage Australians onto international boards, such as those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London.”

Self-interest: “Private entities making private space available for creative purposes should receive tax incentives.”

Corporatist: “Make the ABC, SBS and National Indigenous Television (NITV) the custodians of Australian stories, creativity and Indigenous broadcasting.”

Corporatist: “Establish a National Indigenous Cultural Authority.”

Bureaucratic: “Establish a foundation for the arts based on the same model as that which exists for sports.”

Fantasy and authoritarian: “Set targets to double artists’ income, the proportion of export of cultural products, and the number of Australians participating in cultural activity.”

Censorship: “Initiate a sector review of literature.”

Confused: “Connect to Indigenous knowledge centres.”

Lazy: “Revision of compliance obligations in the grant process. It was felt that in some cases compliance obligations were too burdensome and distracted the artist from their work.”

Flattering: “The Prime Minister should be the Minister for the Arts.”

Anti-intelligent: “Several members of the group felt that children are creative before they go to school but that western schooling systems stifle that creativity.”

Corporatist: “To increase its importance, the Australia Council should move to Canberra.”

Fortune telling: “Artists (writers) could be engaged to write the preamble to our (new) Constitution.”

Confusing: “Establish a sustainable base of established artists to help develop a new generation.”

Anti-individualist: “Create a writing hub where writers can come together and collaborate. This could be extended beyond writers and to other types of creative artists.”

Promising?: “Develop mechanisms to reward success.”

Some of the idea contributors were named in the Report. Some of their comments were unselfconsciously self-serving, as these proposals by Rachel Perkins, daughter of bureaucrat Charles Perkins, illustrate: “Australians have not embraced Indigenous culture and identity as part of their every day lives … A simple cheap solution is to appoint an Indigenous person to the boards of each of the major cultural institutions in Australia.”

Saul Eslake, the chief economist of the ANZ Bank, offered comments that were flattering towards his co-delegates but were not realistic and showed a real misunderstanding of the objectives of the cultural Left: “Creativity is at the top of the economic food chain. Australia values creative wealth … Integrate arts into business. Bring the artists to the table—to inspire.” The arts culture is ideologically Left; expecting it to inspire a banking empire is Yalta redux. Business, which Eslake represents, is loathed except when it is asked for money—which generally the askers believe is owed them because they are “artists”. When hard-headed businessmen come in contact with artists, and academics, they lose focus. They never understand the harsh objectives of the people they are dealing with or that the subsidies they give them are used to undermine everything they believe in. Well-meaning capitalists should pay attention. Leftists like Robyn Archer mean what they say.

Archer sought inspiration for Australia in a prison society where bankers like Eslake were murdered: “Imagine a future where government helps build a society that cares about artists and creativity. For example, in Cuba, despite other challenges, there is a vibrant culture of art and creativity that is supported and fostered.” Once again the ugly face of the Left, which is never rebuked or criticised, was on display. The existence of the National Ballet of Cuba does not justify what Archer coyly calls “other challenges”, the murders, tortures and brutality of the Castro state. Cuba’s barbaric repression of homosexuals began with their exclusion from the cultural establishments Archer admires.

Archer derided the free market which Eslake services: “Low income kids should not just be relegated to commercial ventures such as Australian Idol. They should be encouraged and supported to enable them to realise their potential. Risk and experiment should be recognised.” Just from memory it seems that a number of contestants on Australian Idol who have come from the conservatoriums tend to be snobs, without much skill, and (with exceptions) quickly banished from the show by the voting-at-home audience. Others, less privileged, seize the opportunities offered by Idol and go on to make professional careers which otherwise they would not have been able to do. This denigration of Australian Idol may amuse those who remember the television images from the Summit showing “creative” representative Hugh Jackman, microphone in hand, working the seated audience of high-income delegates who looked like happy suburbanites at a Wheel of Fortune taping.

Absent from the Summit Report were voices championing individual freedom to create or asking that the interference of the Australia Council in the lives of artists diminish. The likelihood is that Rudd, a policy opportunist, will make foolish gifts to the culture industry with enormously expensive price tags. In 2006–07 the Australia Council budget for indigenous arts and culture was $8.7 million; in August Arts Minister Peter Garrett increased funding to $37 million.

Whitlamesque pork-barrelling of the arts obtains the artists’ vote (of minor importance) and their amplified voices (of incalculable benefit). Public money flows to culture, and its associated artists and carpetbaggers, from all levels of government—local councils, state governments and federal governments. Even individual government departments give away money and undermine the workings of a free market. The Copyright Agency Limited, for example, spends 1 per cent of the copyright licence fees they collect, about one million dollars which rightly belong to Australian authors, on a Cultural Fund which distributes money to organisations and individuals. The corrupting flood of dollars means there are few voices (none?) to be heard speaking for artistic independence or, heresy of heresy, the free market. The 2020 Summit accurately represented the voices of establishment artists and the growing bureaucracy of arts administrators and hanger-ons.

Government interference in the arts, even with good intentions, has created self-censorship, conformity and banality. Though government provides the money, the Left elite who occupy all positions in the art administrations determine who gets it and dictate what causes are favoured and nurtured.

Cultural policy needs urgent reform but only a Coalition government would have the strength to make changes and weather the media storm—though such reforms may be wholeheartedly supported by the electorate. In doing so the Coalition will have to look for policy outside the academia-arts-media complex. Sharp-witted and intelligent politicians are no match for the Left sophistry which is usually employed when talking of the arts. Funding a regional theatre sounds attractive and practical but actually means financing a snobbish inner-city propaganda unit in the bush. Funding a writers’ festival means paying for publicity for Left authors whose publishers would otherwise resort to remaindering. “Community arts” sounds admirable but usually means giving money to unemployable fine arts graduates to do uninteresting things with plastic garbage bags.

What our cultural life would look like without the $156 million the Australia Council distributes is unimaginable—it might even be lively (not manufactured) and interesting. The Australia Council has created a glossy fantasy culture by creating an art world that mainlines cash. This official culture creates photo-opportunity artists, sad individuals whose sole function is to provide photogenic newsprint fodder. They appear in a newspaper or magazine article where their brilliance is proclaimed as a sign of our pulsating and lively culture and then they forever vanish from sight. In this phony culture books and plays are written and published or played without real enthusiasm and only exist to provide publishers and theatres with subsidised product to keep themselves in business. “It’s the cultural economy, stupid.” The ever-present Australia Council logo is a symbol of phoniness on art works that say nothing to and are disconnected from the Australian population. Even those on the Left are aware of the blindingly obvious. Talking of the theatre, Katherine Brisbane was quite correct:

But the corporatising of the arts has made steady progress since the introduction of subsidy 30 years ago; to the point that the connection with the community has been lost, for the most part; and with it all meaning. In the case of the major institutions creative thinking has been supplanted by extravagant marketing aimed at manufacturing an audience based not on appreciation but on global fashion and social ambition.

Money flows endlessly and is seemingly locked into national budgets forever. However, parts of it can be reduced or redirected and it is in these places that Coalition policy-makers should seek room to move.

The Australia Council is a disaster that hides under platitudes. “Our smaller arts organisations are the launching pad for new creative works, new artists and new ways of doing things,” said Atul Joshi, Key Organisations Director of the Australia Council, in typical Australia Council speak. Organisations and careers founded on Whitlam dollars are launching pads to nowhere. Establish a shiny new regional theatre this year and next year they will have to be fed more money to stay alive, and the year after and the year after. Far from being true regional theatre their existence depends on buying (hidden under the term “co-production”) fashionable inner-city theatre productions. Without grants everything falls apart and the survivors move back to Sydney or Melbourne looking for work.

Arts apparatchiks make choices of what is supported. It is a milieu in which conservative is a curse and the Coalition political parties are considered beyond the pale. The often foolish choices reflect their university indoctrination, current artistic fashions, and Left politics.

Tasmanian Arts made a grant: “The collective will create an installation using power generated by potatoes to exhibit artworks in the Federation Square Complex, Melbourne.” Cost, $10,300.

The Australia Council made a grant: “In the aftermath of mob riots at Sydney’s Cronulla the innovative arts organization Big hART embarked on a project to help heal a community that had been fractured by acts of violence and racial tension.” The arts organisation took an “authentic” Chinese junk, projected images onto its sails and went cruising. The community-healing and weather-permitting political statement was seen by an estimated 32,000 people. The Australia Council added that elastic figure into the 9.3 million Australians who attended their funded events. Cost, $100,000.

To make a book, said a French writer, is very simple. Write a page a day and in a year you have a book. The hard part is getting published. Playwriting is even simpler. The words are fewer and a play can be written in a few weeks or a few months. All that has changed. Now if anyone talks of doing anything creative it all hinges on the magic words, “when I get a grant”.

The printed edition of Wesley Enoch’s play The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table is fifty-four small pages, which could have been written on a couple of wet weekends in Brunswick. Along the way from inspiration to play on a stage the author received assistance and rewards that had nothing to do with it as a play presented before a paying audience—nothing to do, that is, with the market. The rewards are given at the wrong end of the creative process.

Wesley Enoch explains how the playwriting began:

I was going through a really rough trot in my life and I decided to drive to Melbourne from Sydney. Driving along the Hume Highway I got the flash of a story about a tree being made into a table and being the depository of story and history. I then applied and got a three-month residency in Paris and I started writing there.

The 2002 residency at the Cité Internationale des Artes in Paris was a grant from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council. Cost, $10,000.

In Australia the play was commissioned by Albury’s HotHouse Theatre through a $10,000 grant from the Myer Foundation in the 2003–04 financial year. In November 2003 it received a funded workshopping at the Victorian Indigenous Playwrights’ Conference.

In 2005 the unproduced script won the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award. The prize was $20,000 and a workshopping of the play by a professional director—which is what Enoch himself is. More sensibly, this award should carry with it the assurance of production, which it doesn’t. Later that year the play was given more funded workshopping at the Australian National Playwrights Centre Conference in Newcastle.

Cookie’s Table was first produced in Japan in 2006. In translating there were problems finding equivalent foul language in Japanese. The season lasted for eight performances.

In August 2007, the first Australian production was given in Kings Cross, in a co-production between Griffin Theatre and HotHouse Theatre, and after Sydney it transferred to Albury.

The play is about a mother and her gay son in a supposedly Aboriginal context. The foul-mouthed mother was raped by her uncle at age thirteen. In a Currency Press publicity interview Enoch was asked if the play was “autobiographically inspired”. He answered “no”. A stage direction at the beginning of Act Two reads: “NATHAN appears in his designer underwear. He has a waxed chest and a gym-sculpted body.” This may explain why it won the Patrick White Award.

Currency Press published the play, not because it was a success but because grant money was available. Printed before the first production, the words are not even the final playing text used by the theatres. The attractively produced book was short-listed for both the New South Wales and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and Leah Purcell won a 2008 Helpmann Award for the Best Female Actor in a Play for delivering prose like this: “I’m the fucken mother. I gave birth to you. I went through all that fucken pain. I’m the mother. What did she go through? What did she ever do? Fuck all. That’s what. Fuck all.” In the printed edition Enoch thanked five of Australia’s leading dramaturges for their assistance.

Enoch had gained over $40,000 dollars before any performance. His royalties on the play, so far, would probably not pay for a season ticket to the opera and an interval glass of champagne at the Sydney Opera House, where he is a Trustee.

The HotHouse commission was funded by a grant. Though they describe themselves as “the leading regional theatre company in Australia” the play was put together in Kings Cross, not Albury. Their own theatre has a 167-seat capacity and Cookie’s Table only played over six nights, so there was no possibility that the commission could be recouped or the shared production costs met from ticket sales. No commercial theatre could compete with this subsidised wastefulness and it is a matter of concern that Australia’s commercial theatre has been destroyed (apart from the large-scale musicals) because it cannot compete with the subsidised competition, and generations of potential patrons have been turned off by decades of government-funded left-wing fare.

We should be rewarding writers and theatres for what they accomplish—for the audiences they attract, not the audiences they deter.

Cookie’s Table is one example of the estrangement of subsidised arts from the free market. Australian businesses have been deregulated and exposed to competition. The culture business operates with closed shops, subsidies and restrictive trade practices. Not all plays are as successful as Cookie. Some wander aimlessly for years through a wasteful apparatus of funded play readings and workshoppings and grant applications which seem designed to delay them from finding a stage and an audience. Just sometimes plays that might have held some interest if presented soon after they were completed are old hat, dated and overwritten by the time they are staged. In this milieu it is not unusual to find a positive loathing of the box office, and plays are praised, sometimes by their authors, for their ability to offend and drive away non-elite audiences. Australian films which arise from this milieu are 1080 at the box-office.

One lunch time, sometime in the mid-1980s when John Hooker was publisher, a grubby, smelly man in an overcoat and pushing a shopping trolley walked into the Melbourne office of William Collins. He looked purposefully around, then, without speaking, walked past the receptionist into the office area. When he was later discovered rifling through staff desks, our impressive looking biker storeman politely returned him to the pavement. When the receptionist was asked why she had not stopped him or called for assistance she gave an answer we all understood: “I thought he was one of John’s authors.”

The free market fails writers. If a book sells for $20 (forget for the moment about the GST) the author royalty is usually 10 per cent. Thus, a seafood pizza at my local shop costs more than eight books; taking the cat to the vet costs over fifty books; registration for an Australia Council regional arts conference, to be held in Alice Springs in October and including a demonstration of basket weaving, costs 260 books without accommodation. For a writer to earn a pre-tax income of $15,000 it would be necessary to sell 7500 books.

The person buying a book is not doing so because of the pretty cover or the feminist publisher. The customer values the writer’s words at $20 but the market only returns $2 to the creator. Only best-selling writers can make a living from a 10 per cent royalty. A 1000-word article in a major newspaper may bring a writer $1000. If a book of between 80,000 and 100,000 words sells 2000 copies (with a retail price of $20) it would bring the author $4000 in royalties.

Writers either take paid employment, and possibly give up writing, or flirt with academia, which is worse because of the thought conformity it imposes, or seek funding from the Australia Council. Many apply for grants and few are rewarded. How money is allocated and to whom is a separate horror story. Part of that gothic account would tell of Australia Council bureaucrats, on real-world salaries, flying about Australia giving seminars and advice to writers on how to apply for starvation handouts. The classifications that the Australia Council gives to grants, for emerging, developing and established writers, suggests the idea of a career path for writers—this does not exist. The Australia Council offers charity with ideological strings attached in which conformity to their grant application guidelines dictates creative outcomes.

In 2006–07 the Australia Council had a total budget of $156 million. Most of this goes to the symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies. The Literature Board received $7.8 million. The Board distributes money for special projects and to individuals. Books Alive, for example, an annual promotional campaign, cost $1,201,062 in 2006 and $132,539 in administration costs. It should be paid for by publishers, not government. Money goes to writers, publishers, literary agents, and even bookshops. The list of publishers who take Australia Council charity can be surprising. ABC Enterprises received $4300 to participate in overseas book fairs. Penguin Books (who made headlines for their plan to cut author royalties to 7 per cent on reprints) received $6000 in the 2006–07 grants to attend European book fairs and in the previous financial year had taken $15,000 for the same reason. Penguin’s annual turnover in Australia is about $120 million.

Total grants to individual writers were about $3 million. These included payments to academics, who are already rewarded with sabbaticals and have available other sources of grants, and even retired academics who, one imagines, are receiving comfortable university superannuation. It is not a good system, and there is a possibility for real change which think-tanks and the Coalition should consider.

A proposal was put forward by Les Murray in an essay called “The Noblesse Trap” (published in Double Take, edited by Peter Coleman, 1996). At the time, Murray was mocked and his idea derided. It is worth seriously revisiting for it offers a starting point for a new deal for the arts. Murray calls it the Royalty Supplementation Scheme:

Under it literary authors … who eschewed outside employment and tried to survive as full-time authors would be entitled to have the average ten percent royalty paid them on each book actually sold, topped up to the full list price of that book.

Murray’s “literary authors” would receive a 90 per cent top-up royalty paid by government. Payments would stop at a certain level; no one makes a small fortune but they can survive. It is a government handout but it is linked to what happens in the market. This is the kernel of Murray’s idea and he goes into more detail in his essay. It is a revolutionary reform. It turns on its head the idea that funding exists to create future work of an approved nature—a system in which a Left bureaucracy chooses and controls what will be written. Boards and committees selecting grant recipients could be replaced by a clerk and a computer. Most importantly, it recognises the importance of the market and remunerates the author for what has been sold.

The Murray scheme would benefit Left authors. Australian publishers only publish Left writers, the bookshops only stock Left books. It would allow more Left authors to make a living as writers, but it would also open the door to dissident writers. It could encourage conservative writers and publishers to seek new ways of selling their books and ideas to conservative Australia—a virtually untapped market. Present literary works are written for the Left controllers of the official culture; they are written to please the Australia Council, for that is where the money is. With Murray’s idea the author is rewarded for selling books. Even Left authors, not unfamiliar with self-interest, might see value in the market. At the 2020 Summit one suggestion was that success be rewarded—this is one way of doing so using the market, not elitist approval, to measure success.

Presently a writer giving a talk might sell ten copies of a book. That means that somewhere in the future a royalty of $20 will be paid—it wasn’t worth getting out of bed. Under Murray’s scheme those sales would eventually mean $200 for the author. It becomes worthwhile for the author to take a real interest in the market. It could mean that authors would put pressure on their publishers to keep their books longer in the bookshops and dissuade them from too quickly resorting to remaindering.

This is a serious step towards change which would terrify the multiple grant receivers, who are sometimes more successful as application fillers than as artists, and inspire those who are capable of connecting with the community. Murray’s plan is a starting point for a think-tank initiative. If it works it should prove seductive to other productive artists. A painter works hard and holds a successful show. After the framer is paid, the gallery expenses are covered and a huge percentage is taken by the gallery owner there is often little left. In many cases it would have been more profitable to have taken sit-down money in Paris at the Cité des Artes.

Funding for the symphony orchestras, ballet companies and opera companies, which could not exist without public money, could be separated from and treated differently from the areas of artist support.

The Coalition has philosophical and practical reasons for working to take government out of culture. The Left has an interest in the continuing support they receive from government sources to fund and dominate the culture. The culture business should be deregulated, and its direction by the Australia Council destroyed.

Cultural engineering has been destructive of our intellectual life, not constructive. The true state of our culture is not the slick world presented in Australia Council annual reports, or the flood of press releases recycled in the media as arts reporting. The truth is a small nation with a privileged, elitist and corporatist high culture which has come into being through the state’s public education system and is maintained by public funding, introduced to tie the arts to the ALP, and is disconnected from and even loathing of its co-citizens. The cultural dictatorship of the Left, which closes out dissent, should be opposed. If the Coalition does not take an informed and reforming interest in cultural policy, and change the way government deals with Australia’s artists, it may as well apply to the Australia Council at Strawberry Hills for a grant—to learn basket weaving.

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  • Ian Flanagan

    As an participant in the art market my business has never become involved with the government policy towards art funding. We’ve never sort or accepted a government handout though I’m confident that if I explored that landscape there would be an avenue open.

    So while we have left government alone (other than paying our taxes) unfortunately the Labor government didn’t leave the visual arts businesses alone and have introduced legislation that has impacted savagely upon the commercial sector attached to the visual arts.

    First came the resale royalty legislation that required a fee on the resale of artworks purchased post 2009 even if the work was sold at a loss. The legislation is messy and is in need of a revamp with the ultimate industry hope that that it will be abolished. The legislation is currently under review and the new minister for the arts George Brandis is awaiting the findings of the review committee before taking any action.

    Then in 2011 came the amendments to the self managed super fund legislation that effectively discriminated against the asset class (art is a suitable investment for super funds refer Administrative Appeals Tribunal 87 ATC 465) and cast Australia in the role of being the first country in the developed world to make looking at some art an offence punishable by fine.

    The previous government left the commercial sector of the visual art market in a mess and so far there has been little sign that the present incumbents will apply some common sense, rectify the situations and get government out of the way of business.

    So if tax paying commercial entities can’t get some commonsense from the coalition I’m pretty confident that a review of the arts funding programs will prove far too difficult for them to seriously tackle.

  • Keith Kennelly

    Why fund any literary venture?

    It costs nothing to write.

    Keith Kennelly

    Poet and writer.

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