Where will arts and culture end up in the new bureaucracy? The new Administrative Arrangements Order has not yet hit the street, it seems. Does it matter? Well you may ask, but someone, somewhere has been writing briefing notes for a new Arts Minister. Arts and cultural policy may not sit well in a department with a strictly regional focus. Still, we have had oddities in the past. Remember the Ministry for Nolans, Nullah Nullahs and Numbats? Perhaps where the Federal arts bureaucrats finish up is less important than how much time a new part time minister actually spends on his new part time responsibility. And, more importantly, whether he has any real interest in furthering cultural policy debate in general and arts policy in particular. Simon Crean’s background gives away nothing about his interest in the arts. His electorate website indicates he has an interest in bush walking, tennis, swimming and football. The are no hints in his CV. Perhaps he played in a band in his youth. He must surely have sung ‘The Internationale’. It would, however, be enlightening to hear why Julia Gillard, or indeed he, felt he was the best person for this particular role.
It may just be that he brings a new and open mind to this portfolio. This could be a valuable thing, given the range of interests, views, intrigue, special pleading, animosity and of course mendacious gossip that befits a thriving arts sector. He must begin to understand the pressures which will be applied from the proponents of various genres, some of whom represent powerful lobbies and others who are just powerful in terms of sheer force of numbers. Still, nothing compared to his ACTU days. So, where should he start?
At first it would be wise to stay away from the issue of arts funding. Develop an understanding of the industry as a whole, its vast array of interactions with the community at so many levels, its vitality, its importance as an economic force, as an employer, a generator of wellbeing and wealth (as well as poverty), and a wellspring of national identity which encompasses the web of influences which make up current Australian society. He might also consider that the sector embraces a spectrum from full time professionals to amateurs and dilettantes, listeners and lookers as well as event attendees. And don’t forget the teachers. He might consider the raft of institutions and their roles, contradictory or complementary. Perhaps he may reflect on the possibility that a wise arts policy, linked, as it needs must, to cultural and educational policies, just might begin to help address some of the social ills which seem to bedevil a society which ought to be made up of the lucky children of the lucky country. Here there is cause to consider the counsel of people advocating greater emphasis for the arts in school curricula. Surely he would agree with Richard Gill:
‘The short answer is education; arts education for all; arts education taught thoroughly by teachers who are properly trained and who know their subjects inside out including everything from heritage to the present day. Ignorance breeds ignorance and for too long in Australia we have fuelled these arts debates with ignorance, a huge slab of which comes from colleagues who believe that they have a divine right to exist over all.’
Thus there may be scope for the new man to input into the new national arts curricula, to avoid the real possibility that so many interest groups will demand attention that coherence becomes impossible.
Some thought might also be given to philanthropy and its encouragement. The minister might remember that governments are very bad at picking winners, that the future lies with the fringe a much as with the mainstream and that only with this knowledge should it be appropriate to do what governments sometimes must and that is to address market failure.
Before thinking about funding, the new minister needs to enquire what might be the best impetus to create an environment in which artistic endeavour can flourish with limited government resources. He should be thinking about the arts in the context of wider cultural issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the many faces of censorship. He should also consider that Australia’s unique artistic heritage started some 17,000 years ago.
If it all looks a bit overwhelming, even for a seasoned politician, the minister might take a break from negotiating regional issues with sundry independents and go to a gallery, a festival, the theatre, concert or opera, considering all the while arts commentator Alison Croggon’s helpful advice: ‘All anyone needs to understand art is to look, to listen, to feel: all else follows.’
It can’t be too hard, can it?