Rupert Myer AM, Chair of the Australia Council

It’s time for a new conversation about the arts

7 August 2012 Rupert Myer AM

In the United Kingdom, next Sunday is a bad day to be a grouse.  What some refer to as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, will mark the start of the annual grouse hunt.  With seemingly ever greater regularity, the ‘Justify public funding for the arts’ season appears to have re-commenced in Australia.  This time around, it has been led by contrasting the value of the Commonwealth Government’s investment in the arts to industry subsidies, notably to the automotive sector. (Adam Creighton, The Weekend Australian August 4-5, 2012)

In what is otherwise a balanced and well-researched piece, several assertions get made about the value of the arts that do not stand up under closer scrutiny. Left unchallenged, such potshots get repeated and public perceptions on these matters eventually influence public policy.  As the Commonwealth Government’s principal Arts funding agency, the Australia Council for the Arts has a core responsibility to argue the case for the arts and the broad community benefit they provide.

The assertions that there is a ‘paucity of information’ about arts funding and that it is ‘not subject to the same rigourous scrutiny as auto funding’ are as inaccurate as they are galling.  They convey the sense that those in the arts have somehow managed to make off with public revenues without appropriate accountability or worse.  Such a view is bizarre.  The grants given to arts organisation and individual artists, and the projects and programs of the Australia Council are subject to the most detailed examination and scrutiny.  All microscopic details are available in the public domain, in annual reports, acquittals, evaluation reports, websites, publications of public forums and meetings.

Like all Commonwealth Government agencies, the Australia Council is obliged to produce extensive reporting on its activities, is subject to oversight by the Arts Minister through his department and is required to justify its actions before Parliamentary Committees such as Senate Estimates.  To ignore the rigorous standards of scrutiny that are applied, misrepresents the situation and distorts public perceptions about arts funding.

The assertion that the arts in Australia received very little from government until the late 1960s reflects a somewhat romanticised view of the past.  Commentators seem to like to assert this along with a view that Australia has never had a culture of philanthropy.  Both assertions are wrong.  We should not overlook the fact that the Commonwealth established a Literary Fund as early as 1908 and the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board in 1912 both of which laid the foundations for present day arrangements. The nation’s cultural infrastructure has been a function of continuous investment from public and private sources for well over 200 years. The National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW date from 1861 and 1874 respectively, and the Tasmanian, South Australian and Queensland galleries pre-date Federation.  The association of philanthropy with these and other cultural institutions from the 19th century, for example the Felton Bequest, is both significant and well documented.

Our national cultural memory has been formed by the appearance across the nation of art galleries and museums, public libraries, public halls, and theatres, and of the performances that have occurred in them or artworks and cultural objects that have been collected by them.  They represent a massive investment of cultural capital.   The concurrent acts of creativity by our artists across too many disciplines to list have mostly leveraged off this infrastructure and then, in turn, have contributed back to it.   To be asserting that it really all started with government in the 1960s is to contribute to an unfortunate view that cultural funding is new and therefore should be the first to go, especially when times are tough.

The lessons of the past should give confidence to policy makers and the nation that the investment in the arts is wise, self-sustaining and a significant adornment to the nation’s balance sheet.  If anyone is left in doubt, the contribution of the arts and culture to the nation’s GDP of 3.6% compares favourably with agriculture’s 3.9%.  Total spending on the arts when stripped away of the ABC and SBS makes up less than 0.1% of GDP.  In most circumstances, it might be said that this is a pretty good return on investment.

Finally, the emphasis given to the assertion that the arts have been privileged because ‘’Arts funding tends to have powerful and articulate backers” whilst perhaps flattering is misleading.  It implies that the backers of sport, health, education and defence, amongst other areas of Government funding, lack the capacity to be so persuasive.  This is patently not so.  There don’t seem to be too many slouches in industry lobbying either.

Somewhat ironically, in its representations to policy makers, the arts sector and those who support it have become more adept at measuring and articulating the economic impact of its contribution as well as, amongst much other measurable data, the educational, environmental, physical and mental health outcomes that the arts produce.  It is often less obvious how the sector should go about asserting the cultural outcomes which, in times past, were sufficient justification for substantial levels of public funding.  In today’s polity, the language of cultural outcomes sounds perhaps too lofty, too long term, too fuzzy or too personal.  Such language causes discomfort and requires urgent re-invention so that the arguments can be put more convincingly.

By no means is this a complaint.  These circumstances arise quite fairly as a consequence of the extraordinarily competitive environment for access to public funds.  Indeed, it should always be so and the arts are acutely aware of the need to achieve multiple benefits for each investment made.  However, it should mean that a different type of conversation can now take place between economists, policy makers and the arts sector. That conversation should acknowledge the existing value of our cultural infrastructure and the importance of maintaining it in good order.  And it should elevate the debate and rid it of unhelpful mythology and misconceptions.


Rupert Myer

Australia Council for the Arts