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Frank Bongiorno on Aus Ntl Cultural Policy

Frank Bongiorno, Labor’s arts revival takes centre stage, The Saturday Paper, 4 February 2023

The choice of the Esplanade hotel in Melbourne’s bayside St Kilda this week to launch Revive, a new national cultural policy, was pointed in its symbolism. The hotel was – for 20 years before his death in 1904 – the home of Alfred Felton, the country’s greatest arts philanthropist and the source of the National Gallery of Victoria’s famous Felton Bequest.

But neither the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, nor the minister for the Arts, Tony Burke, have Felton in view even while they look to private philanthropy as part of the answer to the arts sector’s problems. Rather, the Espy is a legendary live music venue as well as a rich storehouse of nostalgia.

The launch had some features of a Gen X lovefest. Still, Albanese and Burke were careful to show they are not stuck in a groove inhabited by the Oils or Bruce Springsteen. There were judicious references on their part to triple j’s Hottest 100 and the ARIA Top 50, possibly the younger set’s equivalent to a politician knowing the price of a carton of milk. It was a far cry from Burke’s speech at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards ceremony in 2013, when he told an audience of writers and publishers of his daily poetry reading.

Horses for courses: like all good performers, these two know how to tailor their message to an audience and occasion. This time, there were no hints of a slightly vulnerable Arts minister’s need for literary food for a soul unfulfilled by the routines of political life. Albanese and Burke are now experienced and assured political entrepreneurs brandishing a favoured image of Australia: that of a generous, creative and adaptable people, determined to confront the demons in their history and build a shared national life.

Modern Labor, once the party of coal in Newcastle and steel in Whyalla, rather likes to think of itself as the party of the arts. That has long been a not entirely comfortable position for a party that still wanted to see itself as practical and egalitarian, even as it attracted the support of a growing number of tertiary-educated professionals. It has sometimes paid a political price for its cultural commitments.

The Whitlam government’s purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for $1.3 million in 1973 might now seem like the bargain of the century given its current valuation of more than half a billion dollars, but it attracted harsh criticism at the time. Two decades later, Paul Keating’s Creative Nation statement endeared him to people he had previously dismissed as the “Balmain basket weavers”, but it also contributed to the criticism that he was out of touch with the tastes, feelings and interests of ordinary Australians, who were assumed not to share his devotion to Gustav Mahler. The most recent previous Labor cultural policy, Creative Australia, was delivered in the dying months of the Gillard government in 2013, when Simon Crean was Arts minister. It has probably slipped out of most people’s minds, if it ever implanted itself in the first place.

Tagged “a place for every story, a story for every place”, Revive is the latest example of Labor cultural policy. Revive from what? you might ask. There is the pandemic, which has had a devastating impact on parts of the cultural sector, especially those involving live performance. The musicians, the theatre people and the dancers deserve a break. It is the new cultural policy’s aim to give them one.

They certainly deserve a leg up after nine years of Liberal–National Party government. Its “calculated neglect” – a phrase used by Albanese at the launch – and hostility to much of the arts community left the sector demoralised and in disrepair. That was a far cry from the Liberal Party of Robert Menzies, which treated the arts as a force for civilisation. In contrast, recent conservative governments have not been generous supporters of the arts. The short-lived government of Tony Abbott ripped millions from the arts budget. His minister, George Brandis, diverted much of what remained to a new fund to be distributed via ministerial fiat.

Labor’s new policy, according to the government at least, restores the money Brandis took out of the Australia Council of the Arts – which it estimates as an $11 million annual cut. The package is said to involve $286 million over four years, on top of existing election commitments of more than $200 million.

It is not only about the money, however: Revive also recasts the Australia Council as Creative Australia, which will contain a First Nations body. There will also be a Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces to pursue fairer pay and safer conditions for performers, artists and writers, a Music Australia and a Writers Australia. There is a shift back to arms-length funding rather than government direction, as well as a commitment to ensure that practitioners are more involved in decision-making.

The policy is relaxed about the idea of the arts as an industry and practitioners as workers – “essential workers”, according to Burke – and about promoting commercialisation through industry partnership and audience development. Revive seeks to put aside the idea of arts practitioners as hobbyists, an attitude attributed to the previous government and evident in its shabby treatment of the sector during the pandemic.

When Scott Morrison did get around to offering the arts some help, he was unable to do so without reminding his audience that the spending would help “tradies who build stage sets”. It was classic Morrison: here were real workers and potential Coalition voters, as distinct from the wankers and luvvies sponging on the public purse and rusted on to Labor and the Greens.

Alongside its insistence on the value of arts and artists, Revive inevitably contains a hotchpotch of initiatives, some already announced, others new. The $80 million contribution to a national Aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs and the $50 million towards an Aboriginal cultural centre in Perth were election commitments. We are to have a national poet laureate – an idea that has knocked around, in one form or another, for many years. The payments that writers have received under the public and educational lending rights schemes since the Whitlam government will now be extended to digital formats.

The national collecting institutions, however, have been largely excluded from the party. One exception is a commitment to sending parts of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, usually locked away in storage, into the nation’s suburbs and regions. We are otherwise told that the national institution’s funding is to be announced in the May budget.

Still, the crisis faced by institutions after years of cuts and neglect haunts the document and produces some oddities. The National Archives of Australia makes a fleeting appearance, in connection with a vague commitment to modernise the already much-reviewed Archives Act. The National Film and Sound Archive wanders briefly onto the stage in a case study about an interactive trivia game developed for seniors. The National Library of Australia does not figure at all, not even its world-class Trove database. Funded for years in dribs and drabs, its bucket will be empty by the end of June if further government funding is not committed.

The directors of the major cultural institutions will want to see the colour of the government’s money before getting too excited about the high-minded phrases in Revive. It might be that all’s well that ends well on budget day. Still, in failing to give more sustained attention to the role of these institutions in the broader cultural landscape, Revive might have missed an opportunity.

If the document has a central thread, it is about the importance of telling Australian stories. That includes the truth-telling of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a process that will necessarily depend on the national collecting institutions. The government will also extend Australian content requirements to commercial streaming services, a potentially significant boost in a culture that has long feared being submerged by a deluge of American stuff.

The telling of Australian stories, such as in documentary film, will often rely on the preservation and accessibility of national collections reeling under the impact of years of underfunding. In this way, Revive might ultimately be good news for those institutions, since several of its key commitments cannot be delivered without a significant boost to galleries, libraries, archives and museums – the so-called GLAM sector. All the same, the suspicion remains that their omission from the commitments being announced here is founded on political calculation, namely the desire to avoid being thought elitist. One need not be a devotee of high culture to have nagging concerns about a cultural policy that seems reticent in dealing with the GLAM sector, classical music, opera, theatre and ballet. This is a cultural policy that seems desperate to be hip, popular, commercial and democratic – in short, to avoid anything that smacks of cultural snobbery.

Whatever one thinks of this emphasis, it is far better than no cultural policy at all – which has been the country’s fate for much of the past decade. Revive deserves the mainly positive reception it has so far received. We will have a better idea what it all amounts to in May, when the government delivers the most critical budget for the cultural sector this century.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2023 as “Art for artists’ sake”.