Why arts policy is essential

A strategic vision for arts and culture across the three tiers of government could stimulate long-term sustainability for arts and culture by working toward a set target. 

Nyoongar artist Sharyn Egan and The Art Gallery of Western Australia’s Head of Learning and Creativity Research, Lilly Blue, who are collaborating on Boorongur (Totem), The Art Gallery of Western Australia. Photo by Rift Photography.

Three out four Australians sought out arts and culture during the pandemic to improve their mood and quality of life. Now more than ever, arts and culture are an essential part of our everyday lives. Yet the pandemic also revealed that without clear policies, the industries left out of the policy framework, including the arts, are quick to become the first and worst hit sectors, leaving the practices and livelihoods of thousands of artists and arts workers at risk.

An arts and cultural policy, or National Cultural Plan, is essential if we are to start taking arts and culture seriously. Included as one of NAVA’s #VoteForArt key policy priorities, the need for national arts policy or plan has united fifteen national arts and culture peak bodies in the lead up to the federal election. A strategic vision for arts and culture across the three tiers of government could stimulate long-term sustainability for arts and culture by working toward a set target. 

Australia has been without a formally defined arts and cultural policy or plan at the federal level since the launch of the ‘National Cultural Policy – Creative Australia’ in 2013, which was abandoned that same year following a change of government. For the past twenty years governments have been managing arts and culture primarily through ad hoc and reactive budgetary decisions, relying on existing infrastructure to funnel funding and support. A National Cultural Plan would provide a practical mechanism for the federal government to coordinate more consistent and effective investment in arts and culture, drawing organisations, communities and sectors together under a framework for change.

Proactive, not reactive

While there has been a temporary increase in financial support to the arts and cultural industries in the wake of COVID-19 in the form of the Restart Investment to Support and Expand (RISE) Fund and the Arts Sustainability Fund, too many visual artists and craft practitioners, galleries and craft centres have been unsuccessful or ineligible for government relief. For those who did receive much needed funds through the various general income support measures, the premature wrapping up or reduction of these payments has left artists and organisations in a great deal of financial strain. Much more needs to be done if we are to see any sort of recovery. Besides, hastily crafted emergency responses may certainly be helpful, but do little to contribute to building long-term sector sustainability. 

Now after back-to-back years of bushfires, the pandemic, economic recession, and most recently floods and extreme weather events, it is time for the government to move beyond reactive decision making to a focus on supporting the growth of the arts as part of an ambitious policy program. A National Cultural Plan should include a considered strategic approach to investment and arts funding, as well as much needed industrial reform and legislative change to improve the position of artists in Australia. These may be modest but impactful, such as recognition of art as a profession by Centrelink, tax exemptions on art prize winnings, inclusion of visual artists in the Superannuation Guarantee Act and restoring artwork investment for self-managed super.

A plan for participation and diversity

Over the life of the Australia Council – prior to 2013 funding cuts – critical strategic decisions were made to ensure an equitable spread of resources to organisations around the country including regional areas, and support to artists at all stages of their careers. Unlike the RISE initiative, decisions on funding are made by the Australia Council through arms-length, peer review processes and in collaboration with state and territory funding bodies in the context of what is needed to sustain a diversity of practices. 

The ecological health of the visual arts and craft sector depends on this diversity. Support has been based on promoting interconnectedness between all levels of the arts infrastructure, including artists at all stages of their careers. With the dramatic contraction of the Australia Council’s discretionary funding which had been used to support the core operations of S2M arts organisations and independent artists, the engine room of contemporary practice is currently in a state that is unmanageable, unhealthy and unsustainable.

The development of a National Cultural Plan in wide consultation with the sector has the potential to reinvest in strategies that promote a robust arts ecology that can sustain and support artists’ careers across the country and from a range of perspectives and lived experiences.

Bipartisan commitment to arts policy

This is a pivotal time for the incoming Government to action the recommendations in Sculpting a National Cultural Plan, the final report from the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Cultural and Creative Industries and Institutions. Importantly, the Committee for this Inquiry comprised MPs from both major parties. Not only does this indicate bipartisan support for its recommendations but it promises a greater chance for implemented recommendations to survive a change in government. 

NAVA commends the report’s first recommendation to develop a National Cultural Plan in consultation with the arts industry, alongside the recommendations that recognise the value of arts education, local content quotas, economic empowerment, business and financial management development investment, building a professional industry, and the dire need for comprehensive data collection through the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

While a National Cultural Plan may not be a complete solution to the diverse issues important to our sector, policy developed by both sides of politics is a useful start. Australian artists and audiences are well aware of the immeasurable benefits ambitious arts and cultural experiences bring. What’s needed now is the federal government to take a positive lead.