WAM’s CEO Mike Harris on the recent State and Federal Budgets
There has been a lot of talk and media traffic in the past weeks on the WA state and federal budgets, and largely the redirection of Australia Council funds into the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). Details as to what, how and when the NPEA funds will be available are not yet known, but it is suggested that funds will be distributed in three areas: strategic, endowments and international touring.
Firstly, the fact that funds have been redirected from the Australia Council (OzCo) is causing much concern. The OzCo model for distributing funds is the accepted peer review model, and on the whole is immune from ministerial involvement in the decision making process. On the other hand, history has shown that programs such as Playing Australia, previously under direct ministerial control, have been subject to ministerial intervention. Should we be afraid of that? Probably.
Minister Brandis’ history suggests that he is a genuine believer in the arts, and even art for art’s sake. The issue for the small to medium sector and for contemporary music is that he is also an outspoken supporter of the AMPAG (Australian Major Performing Arts Group) organisations and the traditional funded arts. Is it fair to assume these companies are best placed to get more to the detriment of the small to medium sector? Again, probably.
If Minister Brandis is genuinely seeking to fund excellence then the contemporary music industry is very well placed to take advantage of that, as long as he and his Ministry get the definition correct… If excellence is determined by greatness, value, worth, merit etc as per the dictionary definition, then very few artforms in Australia reach these heights globally like music does. Recent and ongoing successes by the likes of Tame Impala, John Butler, Sia, Courtney Barnett, Pendulum/Knife Party and many more represent the pinnacle of excellence. Contemporary music constantly delivers artists to the world stage where they represent Australian creative excellence. In order to continue this we need to ensure a vibrant and exciting industry exists.
Secondly, and more ominously perhaps, is the static levels (and therefore a reduction in real terms) of arts funding at both federal and state levels. It is accepted that arts and culture deliver significant economic and social benefits to the broader community and that this makes for more “livable” communities. My, aren’t we proud when our cities are rated in the top ten livable cities in the world. Yet this doesn’t happen because of a strong resources sector; Caracas has that! This livability happens when we utilise economic wellbeing reinvested into a robust arts sector, which in turn further strengthens the economic position.
Culturally strong cities attract investment from corporations who want to connect their brands with this vision and this in turn delivers economic diversity. There is no doubt WA is crying out for economic diversity: significant reliance on one sector is high risk and limiting our growth.
As the pie shrinks so does the complexity and depth of the arts community and its output, as it is the small to medium sectors that are constantly at risk. This is the space where artists are extending themselves and audiences, and bringing new ideas and dialogues into the open. The impact of the Fringe World Festival and the worldwide trend in live music driving urban activation are testament to this.
If the WA budget continues to under-appreciate cultural industries (especially contemporary music), we will see a return to the days of diaspora where emerging musicians promptly uprooted themselves to the eastern states; we will see less creativity making its way from the bedroom to the stage; and we will see our urban centres less animated and therefore less appealing.
As for the funding pie itself, it ought to be bigger and music should have an appropriate sized slice. That’s a longer burn issue that we continue to work on. Funding levels are an issue at state and federal levels and need to be discussed in that context; the opportunity for leverage around election times is significant.
As ever, we need to take on board political machinations and posturing and turn it to our advantage; seek opportunities. Not to do so would be folly. Mind you, we need to be a collective music voice, joining a collective arts voice, demanding recognition of our contribution to both the economy and broader societal wellbeing.
BY MIKE HARRIS
*Above photo by Travis Hayto at State Of The Art Festival