DON EDGAR. Elections, the arts and regional development

In all the pre-election hubbub about taxes, national deficits, the environment  and what else to spend our money on, there is scant attention being paid to the arts – an area which nurtures the soul and takes us beyond everyday practicalities to the realm of vision, creativity and the meaning of life. This is a glaring gap in any attempt to revitalise regional Australia.  

Neither the Coalition Government nor the Labor Opposition has any coherent policy on the arts. What they have is not properly linked with an overall vision of life quality, community engagement or education. At most, they pay lip service to the notion that the arts ‘industry’ may provide a few jobs, add value to local economies, ‘recognise’ indigenous culture and is a ‘nice’ thing to do. The Australian public deserves better.

Labor’s 2013 Creative Australia was never fully implemented and the Coalition’s Arts Minister George Brandis threatened Sydney Biennale artists if they didn’t accept corporate sponsorship, raided the Australia Council’s budget to set up his own Excellence in the Arts programme, followed by massive protests, and some restoration of that budget cut. Under Minister Mitch Fifield, some grants were made to large galleries ($63.8 m to the National Gallery) and $30.9 million for an Australian Music Industry Package, but there’s been little action or interest in the wider arts sector, in particular, in regional arts funding.

Federal Labor’s current arts policy is full of platitudes–‘the arts are essential to the good life’; ‘all people can express their creativity’; ‘telling Australian stories’; ‘develop a national identity’; ‘make available Australia’s cultural heritage’; but short on the specifics. At least Labor suggests there should be ‘an active role for public arts and culture programs in schools and regional communities’, but the emphasis seems to be on the arts as a way to ‘lift productivity, spread innovation and strengthen community cohesion’, not as an inherently worthwhile pursuit. And how does one ever ‘spread’ innovation?

What is not recognised is the potential to build on and better support the network of regional galleries and country arts organisations that already exist. The PGAV (Public Galleries Association of Victoria) supports regional galleries, VAPAC (Victorian Association of Performing Arts Centres) supports regional performing arts centres and RAV (Regional Arts Victoria) supports individual regional artists and other country cultural organisations. The galleries seem to be the Cinderella in this, yet are crucial to key country centres. If we are to attract more people (immigrants or otherwise) out of our congested cities and into the regions, we will have to make them more attractive culturally, with the arts and education playing a crucial and creative role.

As an example of this failure in cultural policy thinking, one of Victoria’s major regional assets – the State’s network of some 50 public art galleries, which hold $4.1 billion’s worth of cultural artefacts and are visited by over 4 million people every year – are left languishing with an average of five staff, a part-time central Executive Officer and reliance on uncertain interest and funding certainty from what are often indifferent local councils. It’s one thing to insist local councils should support their own galleries, but with local elections every three years and management staff turnover, the regional galleries need much more secure State and federal funding and more support for central staff development, advocacy, travelling exhibition arrangements and publicity initiatives.

These regional galleries are a national asset, not just a parochial concern for an establishment few. They arose out of strong community action. Yet federal funding for all the public and regional art galleries in Victoria comprises less than 2 per cent of turnover. In Victoria, Shepparton Art Museum, and regional galleries at Ararat, Bendigo, Horsham, Latrobe and Gippsland have received large Victorian Government grants to upgrade their facilities, with only some federal input, but nothing to improve staffing levels or help the wide network of country art galleries deliver more effective services.

The notion of ’build it and they will come’ won’t wash unless they have the qualified staff to coordinate activities, and facilities that will attract people of diverse interests. Even what is called Visions of Australia, a fund set aside for touring exhibitions (via NETS Victoria) provides little money to the galleries themselves to develop touring exhibitions. That means much of the brilliant work contained in their collections remains in storage and a vibrant exchange of art between country centres is stymied for lack of support.

It’s true that galleries add value to a local or regional economy, but only if certain conditions are met. Places such as Bendigo and Ballarat can stage blockbuster exhibitions which bring in tourist dollar millions, partly because they are close to Melbourne, have easy public transport access, but also because they enjoy strong local government support. Bendigo’s ‘Marilyn’ exhibition generated over $16 million in tourism for the city, and that gallery’s success enabled it to host the first overseas tour of classical sculpture from the Victoria & Albert Museum. Ballarat’s hosting of the Archibald prize generated $6.5 million in direct income, $12 million in its wider regional economic impact. NSW country galleries in places such as Albury, Wagga, Bathurst, Orange, Tamworth and Armadale sustain hundreds of full-time jobs and generate over $32 million to regional economies. But smaller towns in more remote country regions have less local rates revenue and less political pull, so the Commonwealth needs to step in to help as part of an overall regional program.

Victoria’s galleries and their central coordinating body – the RGAV (now the PGAV) – once enjoyed strong government support (both Labor and Liberal) and had a truly regional focus. They were encouraged to work together, share exhibitions, education officers, staff training and conservation work, with the smaller country galleries seen as part of a regional effort to bring the arts to country people rather than have all the focus on Melbourne’s cultural facilities. Over time, rivalries and a shift to reliance on local government funding have resulted in a less regional focus despite the ongoing efforts of a poorly funded central organisation the PGAV (Public Galleries Association of Victoria).

Now, with an election looming, will the opportunity be missed for the arts to come centre stage and highlight their crucial role in educating, enlightening and improving the life quality of those living in regions remote from the centre but no less deserving of attention than the State capitals which dominate current arts and cultural policy thinking?

Dr Don Edgar is the author of ART FOR THE COUNTRY: The story of Victoria’s regional art galleries (2019), Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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