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"Four wonderful words: community, art, cultural, development"

Arts funding in Australia is a car crash argues Big hART's Scott Rankin in a newly published Platform Paper.

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To thrive or not to thrive? A question for funders

Date: 1 Nov 2018

Scott Rankin is co-founder and creative director of Big hART, Australia’s leading campaigning arts organisation who has worked in disadvantaged communities for 25 years.

This an extract from Platform Paper #57, Cultural Justice and the Right to Thrive, published by Currency House, and to be launched this month in all major capitals and many regional centres.

Arts funding in Australia is a car crash.

It’s like being a passenger in an out-of-control Holden about to hit black ice on the road from Cradle Mountain, while the driver posts a filtered lifestyle selfie on Insta capturing the serenity. But you’re not allowed to say anything sensible, like, ‘watch the road’ apparently.

Four wonderful words: community, art, cultural, development.

There are times when a career in community arts and cultural development (CACD) doesn’t feel like a job at all. It can be playful and full of meaning; even when the hours are long and the pay short, it can feel like a privilege.

Career paths in CACD are only nominally there. Mostly, you make your own way. Many CACD artists don’t really know how they ‘got here’. The sector can feel like that because it is a ‘whole of life’ experience; it is the way communities are. They are always developing; art is always being made at the grassroots. Participatory activities have always been the foundation of art, as part of everyday life.

But then, somewhere in the midst of modernity, through value recognition, the instrumental value of the arts was formalised alongside the intrinsic value, and the battle lines were drawn – only to diminish the whole.

The Australian Council for the Arts was established in 1968 and became the Australia Council for the Arts in 1973.

The Whitlam Labor Government, advocating for the rights of ordinary people to participate in the arts, instituted the Australia Council’s Community Arts Program as a means of encouraging ordinary people’s engagement in culture and supporting creative expressions of Australian national identity.

The Australia Council wanted to ensure a sustainable future for the existing performing arts status quo, but then the establishment of the Crafts, Aboriginal Arts and Community Arts boards allowed for applications from artists to work in communities, which was a direct challenge to the old order and one that extended beyond its definition of art into government’s social responsibility for preserving traditional practice, cultural continuity and community good.

As outlined by Katharine Brisbane, in 1986 a report commissioned by the Federal Government’s expenditure committee recommended that Commonwealth arts support policy should aim to democratise culture by ensuring wide and steady community access to a diversity of cultural experiences. This plan included putting a Community Cultural Development Unit between the councillors and the five boards through which to filter applications. ‘By this time, of course, the now-established arts sector was all on the side of high art and saw democracy as a threat to their share of funding.’

The Community Arts Board was converted to the Community Cultural Development Committee (CCDC) in July 1987, in the wake of radical welfare rhetoric that continued to underpin community arts policy.

Community arts have always been the problem child banging the leftist drum. In response, reformers have often wanted to ‘leave it to local government’. However, those of us practising in the sector are also in part responsible for this marginalisation, through unhelpful, self-imposed dogma and categorising, the lack of professional development, limited creativity in generating income or finding funding, territorial insecurity, a fear of criticism and a scarcity culture.

Within this struggle, there have been decades of truly remarkable, dedicated and important work in the field, and as DADAA pointed out to the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Federal Budget decisions on the arts: “The community arts and cultural development sector has been incredibly effective at building sustained partnerships around complex Australian communities.”

And that now, 40 years of CACD practice in Australia is at serious risk. However, although this is true, it has always been at risk, sometimes at the hand of clumsy policy and sometimes by our own hand in the sector. It is a serious issue, because cultural rights are put at risk.

CACD history is not to be taken lightly. What government chooses to do or not to do in relation to government spending on culture reflects value choices that are politically determined, and these choices will produce discernible societal outcomes. Public funding of culture can reproduce the social hierarchy by preserving, or even strengthening, inequality between social groups: Tal Feder and Tally Katz-Gerro suggest:

The use of art to exert power is twofold. On one hand, the privileged group tries to secure the hegemonic status of its culture as superior and legitimate and to establish a consensus on what constitutes cultural capital in the field. On the other hand, once this consensus has been established, this group seeks to limit access to certain cultural arenas within the larger field of art. Limited access to these areas allows members in the privileged group to express their dominant status by participating in the consumption of art and by accumulating the cultural capital that is associated with the consumption of legitimate art.

And in the Australian context, Justin O’Connor says it better than I:

The rationale for arts funding has been reduced to a bare stump of ‘excellence’ and the remit of the ABC to the politicians’ cry for ‘balance’. However, the real problem lies in the erosion of a shared language of public value, one that has had a more direct impact on culture than on almost anything else.

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