Utopia and how to get there

In trying to answer the question ‘what does Utopia look like?’ The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA)’s dream was, and still is, that in time Australia will be recognised internationally as one of the great arts nations.

In trying to answer the question ‘what does Utopia look like?’ The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA)’s dream was, and still is, that in time Australia will be recognised internationally as one of the great arts nations.

But how is that to be achieved? Might it be possible in this sport obsessed country, for the arts to become the core of Australia’s national identity and be comprehensively understood to express our essential human nature and aspirations?

Clearly this will not happen randomly and by chance. Rather it needs a plan of action. So two years ago, NAVA launched a 30 year National Visual Arts Agenda to mark its 30th anniversary. Though this agenda was visual arts focused, it equally applied across all artforms. It set out three goals to work towards:

1. Art and artists are highly valued;

2. Professional artists have sustainable careers;

3. Australia has strong national and international arts infrastructure.

It went on to picture how this would look.

To achieve appropriate recognition, there is an annual Prime Ministerial Visual Artists Award and excellent artists are revered and rewarded as Living National Treasures, celebrating and promoting the diversity of communities and places.

Art is integrated across the government sphere and there will be at least 51% of politicians at all three levels of government who have a genuine commitment to the arts.

All levels of government will support the arts through at least doubling their budget allocations from 0.084% to 0.17% of GDP (as the Canadians have just done) and this is distributed equitably across all artforms to support artists and arts organisations.

There will be regular intelligent reporting and analysis and balanced critical comment about the arts across all media platforms especially through daily inclusion of arts items in the news to enhance public understanding and interest.

In education, creative studies will form an integral part of the offerings of all education institutions because they are embraced as an essential driver of ideas and enterprise.

National brokerage agencies are created to assist art practitioners to secure work, employment, commissions, develop and tender for projects and establish their own enterprises, both in cultural and in other industries.

The Agenda went on to address areas of legislation and regulation which need to change to ensure a conducive environment in relation to artists’ tax, social security, superannuation, copyright and other areas of rights. In particular it addressed the importance of protecting artists’ freedom of expression and the necessity for artists to be appropriately financially rewarded for the contribution they make to Australia’s cultural life.

This far-sighted document tried to imagine a better quality of life for the community with interested people having the opportunity to participate in the creative process themselves through there being provision of locally accessible teaching and resource hubs.

NAVA’s National Visual Arts Agenda was launched in close proximity to ‘Creative Australia’, the previous Labor Government’s national cultural policy. While this policy had its limitations, it contained some seriously important aspirations, asserting the importance of the arts to broader, economic and social activity. In particular, the then Arts Minister Simon Crean spoke about ‘joining the dots’. He saw the arts as having relevance in every area of government business and across all levels of government. It was a challenge to the departmental structures of government. Crean said, “I genuinely believe that telling our story in our words, our way, our visuals is terribly important to our pride in self, the diversity of our culture, and the richness of it.” He also talked about joining the dots between arts as a vocation and arts as a sustainable career pathway.

So, how far in two years have we progressed towards a cultural utopia?

With the latest ambush on the Australia Council, our dreams have been punctured and the fabric of the arts has been serious rent by the current Government’s recent proposal to radically change arts funding arrangements. It is not only the money that is being pillaged from the Australia Council, though that’s critical. There are also matters of principle that have been called into question, particularly the issue of arts funding decisions needing to be at arm’s length from the political process.

What is clearly demonstrated is how things can go wrong when decisions are made randomly outside any kind of evidence based strategic framework. Clearly Australia desperately needs an intelligent far-sighted cultural policy. Currently there is no sign of this on the Government’s agenda and all Australia is very much the worse for it.

Tamara Winikoff OAM

Executive Director

National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA)