JUDITH WHITE. Save the arts, save the nation

As the Federal Government rolls out one bailout package after another, the arts is being ignored. ‘Culture Heist’ author Judith White argues that saving the arts is integral to saving the nation.

“Culture is not just a luxury that is delivered during the good times,” said German Culture Minister Monika Grütters in announcing her government’s coronavirus bailout package for the arts on 25 March. “Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation. The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis.”

The amount of the targeted bailout? $95.5 billion (50 billion euros) plus housing assistance and six months’ social security for freelancers.

The amount of the targeted bailout for the arts so far announced by the Morrison government? Zilch! $0 out of a total of $217 billion in economic stimulus to date. (The federally funded Australia Council has set aside $5 million from its constantly slashed budget.)

That’s despite urgent pleas from cultural organisations, arts and entertainment union MEAA and Live Performance Australia. Academics for the arts have also weighed in: “Australia’s cultural future is now as much at stake as the livelihoods of its artists and musicians,” said their 24 March open letter with more than 100 signatories.

On 27 March an impressive coalition of creative organisations sent all levels of government a letter detailing the damage the coronavirus lockdown is doing to artists, organisations and First Nations cultural activities. It outlined practical steps that include broadening eligibility requirements for income support and removing the hated efficiency dividend (recurrent spending cuts) from cultural bodies. The 100 signatories range from the Artists’ Benevolent Fund to Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative; organisations representing musicians, performers, writers and filmmakers, public museums and galleries. The letter concluded by inviting government to make a public statement recognising the value of the sector to all Australians.

From the Prime Minister’s office: silence. It’s not the economic issue that deters him – it’s well documented that the cultural sector is worth more than $112 billion annually to the country’s economy. But the “creative courage of creative people”, cited by Germany’s Culture Minister, is something Scott Morrison instinctively fears. Clinging to his dumbed down concept of “Straya”, repeating his ill-defined mantra of “Australian values”, he knows that his dog-whistling, beer-and-footy brand of populism is threatened by the arts. In song and story and image, creative people have long been the ones to express the truths of our society and our history.

Truth is at a premium when it comes to history. No doubt part of the reason the Germans are so far ahead in assistance for culture is that in recent decades they have squarely confronted the demons of their history. This is not a left versus right issue, under Chancellor Angela Merkel the ruling Christian Democrats are committed to continuing to do so.

At government level, Australia has yet to confront its own demons. This month highlights the divisions over the country’s history and in particular its invasion by the British colonisers. On 29 April 2020 it will be 250 years since the British navigator and adventurer James Cook landed at Kurnell in what is now Scott Morrison’s electorate.

Back when he was Treasurer, Morrison committed $50 million to celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the event. As PM he has upped the sum to more than $60 million, claiming that Cook “gets a bit of a bad show from some of those who like to sort of talk down our history”. This echoes his position on Australia Day remaining 26 January, which he calls the day “our modern Aus [sic] nation began” – an insult to the First Nations people for whom both 1770 and 1788 are painful dates.

Before the corona-virus hit, 29 April was scheduled to be the occasion for major celebrations, not least in Morrison’s electorate, where millions have been spent erecting yet another memorial to Cook at Kurnell. Those celebrations should now, surely, be cancelled, along with the planned circumnavigation of Australia by the replica of the Endeavour on which a further $6.7 million has been spent.

Morrison has a peculiar relationship with boats. On his desk in Canberra there is a model of an asylum-seeker boat bearing the legend “I stopped these”. Boats bearing refugees are to be stopped, apparently, rather than boats bearing corona-virus. The irony of the PM’s Endeavour project is that of course Cook never did circumnavigate Australia, any more than he landed here in 1788 as former Sports Minister Bridget McKenzie once claimed. In 1779 the acclaimed Captain was killed by indigenous people in Hawaii where he was attempting to kidnap their king. Hawaii is not on the proposed route of the fake Endeavour.

There is a much better way than the Captain Cook circus to elevate the spirits of the nation during the present health crisis, and that would be to establish the Makarrata Commission requested by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their 2017 Statement from the Heart.

Makarrata is defined as “the coming together after a struggle” and would involve the truth-telling that is essential to reconciliation. And without truth and reconciliation, we cannot speak of a genuine Australian culture.

It’s increasingly clear that there can be no going back to “normal” after the corona-virus is contained. There is a growing demand for government that works for the people, not for the wealthy few. Establishing a Makarrata commission would be an essential part of that. It would give hope to First Nations people, and energise the entire country, lifting it out of the morass of dog-eat-dog profit-seeking and lowest-common-denominator politics.

Together with the necessary support for the cultural sector, it would provide the impetus for a new outpouring of work from artists, musicians and writers, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. In these dark days, we need to support creative people. We need them to tell our stories and give us back heart.

Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book ‘Culture Heist: Art versus Money’ and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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4 Responses to JUDITH WHITE. Save the arts, save the nation

  1. Allan Kessing says:

    If artists aren’t “starving in a garret” it’s because they’ve a secured a patron – few can then resist to produce ‘art’ to order.
    Whether it’s a bureaucracy or a mogul, the result is the same – reinforcing the status quo rather challenging.

  2. Jack Stacey says:

    My friend Paul Hayman has spent years and thousands of hours and dollars on choreography, rehersals, costumes and state of the art digital imaged sets to create a musical to tour this year in southern Queensland, celebrating Cloudlands Ballroom (destroyed in the dead of night by Bjelke-Peterson cronies). “Return to Cloudlands” is now cancelled. His partner Kylie Wall runs a dance studio. Closed indefinitely. They are “The Arts” of Australia. They are a part of our culture. They are a tiny tiny part of the 112 billion. They are wiped out. Not even a whiff of support.

  3. Ted Egan says:

    A very worthwhile paper, but will people please get it in their heads that “makarrata” is totally inappropriate in reconciliation circumstances? I did my MA Thesis titled “Makarrta” – note spelling – in 1996 and I am probably the last person alive who has seen a fair dinkum “makarrta” : trial by ordeal. My thesis eventually became the book “Justice All Their Own”. Nugget Coombs and Judith Wright introduced “makarrata” as a name for the “Treaty” they proposed, between the Federal Government and First Australians. Unfortunately, they mispronounced it, making it sound like some Mafia hood, Mack a Rata, when the correct pronunciation is not dissimilar to the American General’s name. Try McArrta.
    In any case, makarrta is an Arnhem Land only trial by ordeal, where spears are thrown at an offender, who easily dodges them, but is eventually required to dance towards his (men only) assailants to be speared in the thigh. Makarr = thigh in Yolngu matha.
    The event is necessary to seek to enable ongoing ceremonial activity, but is not encouraged these days as most people wouldn’t know how to organise it; nurses deplore mindless leg spearing which threatens arteries. But the most important thing to note is that the ceremony often backfired, introducing chaos rather than restoring peace. Let Minister Wyatt provide a Nyungar word for wherever he wants to take us.

  4. Mark Freeman says:

    This is a rather confusing piece Judith. Are you campaigning for the arts or aborigines ?While there may be a case for conflating or even conjoining the two issues, now is probably not a good time if you’re hoping people are inclined to listen to complex philosophical exhortations.

    I’ve long been dubious about a lot of so called arts funding. Running public galleries and a limited number of public events is a good thing. Lots of the rest seems to go to traditional pet sectors like opera and orchestras which really should be able to survive or fail on public preference after all these centuries. In my experience with artists the best just pop up unannounced and just do their thing pretty much regardless of whether they get grants or specific education. This is quite galling to the rest and may perhaps explain why the myth of funding as the cornerstone of great art production survives.

    As for aboriginal culture it seems to have survived despite our consistent efforts first to destroy it and now to co opt it. I doubt that putting it under an arts funding umbrella will do it much good.

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