The future of art drives the future of work

(L-R) Tim Pallas, Treasurer, Victorian Government; Dominic Perrottet, Treasurer, NSW Government; Christine Stasi, Group Executive, People, Performance and Reputation, IAG; Sam Crosby, CEO, McKell Institute. Photograph by Anna Kučera.

We’re hearing a lot right now about the future of work and what will and won’t be safe from automation – but what we should be talking about is how best to learn from the artists whose skills are prized the world over, precisely because there’s no substitute for human creativity

Last Friday morning I attended the launch of the McKell Institute’s latest report Opportunities in Change: Responding to the Future of Work. The report’s key recommendations focus on strengthening gig economy workers’ rights and portability of entitlements, as well as life-long learning for adaptability and resilience to change.

Over breakfast, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet and Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas responded to the report with a good-naturedly competitive account of how their state’s economy is placed to meet those challenges. 

Conspicuous in its absence was any consideration of the role of arts and cultural policy and investment.

And yet more and more research, from the Australian Government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research to PWC, Deloitte, McKinsey, NESTA, Harvard and the World Economic Forum, consistently places creativity at the top of the skill set needed for the future.

The very notion of a “gig economy” comes from the work of artists – the overwhelming majority of whom are juggling multiple career strands and income sources to sustain their creative practice.

And so I asked a question about what NSW and Victoria are planning, across the full spectrum of policy areas, to ensure that they’re not just ready for that future but leading the way.

The response from both treasurers – maintaining that cheerful one-up-manship – only addressed the one policy area I hadn’t raised: infrastructure.

Because the biggest-ticket arts investment to attract a treasurer’s attention is, of course, cultural infrastructure. And yet infrastructure can be that great sleeper of arts and cultural policy failure, with investments made all too often without a viable business case or sufficient operational funding.

At both state and federal government levels, there are some clear priorities we need to address if we’re to confront the future of work with conviction.

We need to nurture creative skills from a very young age. This means embedding adventurous arts curriculum at every level of schooling, ensuring kids leave primary and high school with agile, curious minds.

We need to invest boldly in TAFE – especially regionally, where the closure of creative programs is contracting local economies and hurting local communities.

We need to champion, and not undermine, our arts and humanities researchers, ensuring that the Australian Research Council is empowered to fund excellent work.

We need our art schools thriving. The Victorian College of the Arts, Sydney College of the Arts and National Art School have all been through rocky times, with bright futures still not assured. We need places where artists can be artists, pushing one another’s limits and testing new thinking to create work that astounds us.

We need ambitious levels of public investment so that artists and organisations can take the creative risks we expect. With its nation-leading creative industries strategy, Victoria invests more than twice per capita on the arts than NSW, whose per capita spend is one of the lowest in Australia. However, Victoria’s organisation grants have been static for a decade, and without inflation indexation, taxpayers are investing in the arts sector’s contraction rather than its growth. The future of work is being incubated at these very organisations, with a rapid evolution of working modes and roles.

We need zoning laws that let artists lead the way. From small bars in creative hubs to live-work studios, artist-run initiatives, maker spaces and other creative enterprises that constantly blur the boundaries between known business and occupancy models. Especially in those formerly industrialised areas that artists expertly revitalise – only to be forced out when developers move in. We need to make sure we’re not erasing future jobs at the very places where they’re emerging.

We need cultural infrastructure investment to be matched and indeed exceeded by cultural program investment. Galleries, libraries and performing arts centres all over regional and suburban Australia are struggling to maintain their buildings, add to their collections, tour work, present public programs and pay artists fairly. The future of work in regions and suburbs is one of many difficult conversations fostered in these spaces for thinking differently and thinking together.

We need accessibility in non-arts sectors to begin to approach the arts gold standard so that everybody can participate in the workforce and in culture with confidence – and we’ve still got a long way to go in the arts.

We need self-managed super fund rules restored to the pre-2016 framework to make sure that people who invest in art don’t have to lock that work away as though it were a bar of gold bullion. This regulatory change has devastated the commercial arts market as well as the careers of many formerly commercially successful artists. An artist’s work needs to be seen. Entitlements need to be more than portable; they need to work harder for us.

We need skilled migration lists to feature relevant and accurate job titles across the creative industries rather than culling them, so that Australia is well placed to compete in the global marketplace of artistic exchange and creative innovation.

We need overall public investment in the arts multiplied many times over – so that our most talented artists, designers and creative thinkers can astonish us with what we hadn’t even begun to imagine possible. And not just in the arts. We know that the future of work depends on the skills of artists. The future of art drives the future of work – we need to think a great deal more creatively about policy in both areas.

Most importantly, we need what used to be called “a whole-of-government approach” and is today called “joined-up thinking”. Effective arts and cultural policy stimulates the creativity of all industries, not just the creative industries.

Artists define what’s possible – and defy what’s impossible. The future of collaboration, the future of innovation, and the future of work, is being created by artists right now. 

In wrapping up his response to my question, Perrottet noted that government needs to get better at being “a fast follower”. Now is the time to listen to artists and creative organisations – and follow their lead.