When Jane Campion won the best director Oscar for The Power of the Dog, her alma mater immediately spread the news. Campion is a former student of the proud-as-punch Australian Film Television and Radio School. I tried to call and give her the bad news about her old school's funding squeeze the morning after the budget but, hell, busy lady. Her people never got back to my people.
What's the news?
Amid the deranged cash splash of the federal budget, the arts lost out. Once again. It was just a year ago the badly damaged arts sector had its own ka-ching moment. It needed it. The funding boost came at a time when the arts sector was in freefall. Arts in Australia are chronically underfunded anyhow but now even audiences were missing. When the government stepped in, it was a major relief.
Now all the emergency arts funding, the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand known as RISE, worth more than $120 million, is falling away to nothingness ($20 million for one final round). And the big problem is the arts sector in Australia has not yet recovered and has other challenges. Think, for example, of the folks in Byron trying to get Bluesfest off its drowned ground after two cancellations in a row.
According to a spokesperson, the minister, Paul Fletcher, even recognises the sector has not recovered. But nothing in the budget looks like it will support arts institutions and artists going forward. Around the world, arts institutions are struggling to get their audiences back. The Louvre in Paris had over 9 million visitors in 2019 - last year it had nearly 3 million, way under its peak. In Australia, our biggest institutions are on the road to recovery but still not at 2019 levels. For the year ending June 2019, around 900,000 people walked through the door of the National Gallery of Australia, last year around 460,000. That's a lot of people who never bought entries for special exhibitions, coffee and cake, catalogues.
It's the same across the nation. All the regional galleries across the country are doing their very best to get people back. Bendigo's even about to host Elvis. But it's a hard road.
Those who advocate for arts funding also find it difficult to speak out because they rely on the favour of governments. Regional Arts Australia's funding returned to its pre-pandemic levels but says it will "continue to advocate for increased, ongoing strategic investment in regional arts and culture".
Brett Adlington, chief executive of Museums and Galleries NSW, says COVID taught us how meaningful regional culture was to communities.
"There is a growing understanding that regional facilities bring us together. To see any cuts is devastating for organisations and institutions," he says.
"Speaking personally, I am seeing the flooding on the North Coast and around Lismore and culture brings that community together.
"That's what the arts do, they heal a community after experiences like that and play a key part in supporting mental health and mental health programs."
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The real problem is core arts funding has stayed the same, Monash University arts researcher Ben Eltham says. That's in an industry that has always needed more funds, never more than now. Attendance and participation in Australia is not back to pre-pandemic levels.
"No politician has taken the industry seriously since Paul Keating," he says.
Arts and recreation employs just under 2 per cent of the population. ABS figures show this sector is also predicted to be one of our fastest-growing. It covers everything from museums to botanic gardens. Mining, in comparison, employs just over 2 per cent and has a smaller predicted growth rate. So as a band of workers, at least, equally as important as those in hi-vis.
Jo Caust, principal fellow at the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, has researched the sector for decades. She says while it is true the arts have constantly needed more funding, it's particularly tough with this government.
"This government has found it hard to take the arts and cultural sector seriously and that has been evident since the beginning of the pandemic. It frames those who work in the arts as unimportant compared to those who work in construction or aviation. The government doesn't value the intangible," she says.
"But there are thousands working in this sector and there is no respect to their contribution."
But in some ways, says Kim V Goldsmith, a digital media artist and writer based in Dubbo, the pandemic showed the rest of Australia what rural and regional life was really like all the time.
"We constantly battle isolation and [wonder] how to connect with the audience and other artists. I felt like I came into my own because the whole world came online," she says.
It was also easier for artists like Goldsmith to get grants because more were available. But she says, sadly: "I expect that to disappear as we transition out of COVID. Things will tighten up."
And what governments should be doing is the sponsoring and funding of our own voices and our own culture. As Jo Caust of the University of Melbourne points out, the Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is very happy to support Monsterverse but not local product. As reported in Limelight, Screen Producers Association chief executive Matt Deaner this week said the federal government's decision to suspend local content quotas during the pandemic, followed by a relaxation in drama, documentary and children's sub quotas, led to commercial free-to-air television halving its investment in Australian drama in 2020-21. And guess what's taking up the empty hours?
A range of extraordinary institutions which enrich our lives have either had no funding increase for the next five years, such as Campion's Australian Film and Television Radio School, or have suffered big cuts from current funding, such as the National Library. While the minister's office tells me it is business back to usual, now's a good time for this government to recognise that we need more than Godzilla.
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