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Can the arts sector reinvent itself?

David Bowie was the master of reinvention. Can the arts sector follow suit? Brandon Carson/Flickr, CC BY

Can the arts sector reinvent itself?

David Bowie virtually invented it. Madonna was the mistress of it. Reinvention. Publicly peeling away layers of identity revealing personae of varying degrees of style and substance. It’s what many artists do as a matter of course, a process of regeneration.

Similarly, reinvention has been a project of the arts more broadly. Over the last decade-and-a-half, the arts has recreated itself as an industry, a community, an ecology, a profession and a sector, sometimes wearing elements of all these costumes simultaneously in an effort to remain relevant. But it has struggled to apply its chameleonic talents to any positive external effect. The clothes just never seem to fit.

As an industry, the arts is unsustainable. The majority of its primary workers – artists – live below the poverty line. As a community it is divided and as a profession it lacks confidence.

An ecology promises evolutionary aspirations but evolving to what? To describe the arts as a sector is rather prosaic but in this, it may reflect most accurately its current persona. Much of this is to do with the toxic managerialism bred to deal with the ephemeral nature of the arts and art-making.

Sociologists Nichole Georgeou and Susan Engel describe managerialism as “the set of knowledges and practices that inform neoliberal operations and organisational governance”.

Over the years, managerialism has bled the arts of originality and purpose. Artist Scott Redford’s recent letter to QAGOMA Director Chris Saines - in which he rails against the behaviour of “art world public servants” - encapsulates the emotional impact managerialism has had on the daily life of the artist.

The prosecution of the arts as a game of numbers, compliance and governance is only the surface issue. As I have argued previously, the arts bureaucracy has dealt with the unmanageable artist-individual by turning them into an artist-organisation, forcing them to “incorporate”, to turn themselves into associations, companies, mini-institutions.

The majority of artists in the industry live below the poverty line. Joshua Rappeneker/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The artist then reflects an image the arts agency can recognise and organise within its own mechanistic view of the world. As these artist-organisations grow, they develop symbiotically with the arts agency, adopting its values, priorities and behaviours - Stockholm Syndrome for the arts.

The long-term effect of this is the evolution of arts organisations hard-wired to respond bureaucractically and behave mechanistically. In arts journalist Ben Eltham’s recent Platform Papers, he points to the striking lack of artistry that the arts brings to its advocacy and policy-making efforts.

This is not simply because of the inherent tension between the organised chaos required for art-making and the resistance of institutions to any form of chaos. It is related to the absence of a sense of purpose in the everyday operation of the arts, a direct consequence of managerialism.

It is why the Australia Council struggles to advocate for itself or the arts, and why many major organisations struggled to resist the Coalition’s attacks on the sector. It will be interesting to see whether the agency can again become an advocate for the arts if, as reported recently in the Daily Review, the Minister restores its funding and the Council’s new Board appointments step up to the plate.

Developing cultural policy

The organisational default settings created by managerialism also impact directly on the development of cultural policy. Default settings in cultural policy tend to be directed to existing cultural formations such as institutions, companies and service organisations rather than independent agents such as artists and artist-run initiatives.

Cultural policy is also often formulated around an inclusion agenda determined by the arts agency. Initially driven by important principles of equity and access, the politics of inclusion become a context in and of itself through which cultural policy is filtered.

This is social policy – not to be confused with cultural policy. Cultural policy speaks to the politics of inclusion it is not determined by it.

Further, “cultural policy” can easily be characterised as a narrative of political correctness, which then exposes it unnecessarily to neo-liberal attacks.

I believe we have reached Year Zero, a point where cultural policy and infrastructure no longer serve the interests of the arts, the artists or Australian society. The arts needs to reinvent itself.

How to go about it? Here are three suggestions.

Re-wire current default settings

Rather than continuing old conversations, we need to start new ones across generations and sectors. We need to develop a capacity for reading culture that is not mired in the accepted and received agendas of our arts agencies and cultural institutions.

Establish an Arts and Culture think-tank

The establishment of a think-tank dedicated to the arts and culture sector is a necessity. Historically, policy research has been the remit of the Australia Council, however its proximity to government has been cut from arms-length to shoulder-length. This was evident during the Senate Inquiry into the Arts when research critical to the argument supporting the centrality of the small-medium sector was not released despite repeated requests from Ben Eltham. Any research capacity needs to be independent of government influence.

Such an entity needs to be established on principles that are idiosyncratic to the arts so that any measurement focus is on social affect not economic effect. It also needs to operate within the knowledge that a dominant pathology of managerialism is the “measurement virus”, which deems anything that is not measurable to be valueless.

Australia needs an arts and culture think-tank that can shape-shift. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

An excellent starting point for a think-tank is the Flanders Arts Institute in its previous incarnation as VTI, the Flemish Theatre Institute. Here is a quote from its mission statement:

Applied research is a major component of VTI’s work because it converts the information in the database and collections into a useful form. The research is applied to actual practices by means of descriptive and analytical fieldwork. In this regard, the performing arts are not simply the object of research, but also play an active part in shaping opinion.

Unencumbered with the burden of funding, VTI operated as a broker, an advocate and policymaker, a trendsetter and educator. It had the capacity to shape-shift, to fill any niche that opened in the Belgian theatre scene then explain it and articulate it to government and in some cases back to the sector itself. Agile and nimble.

Look for the best set of questions

To reinvent the arts, we need to begin with the arts. The best set of questions are those pertaining to the arts. What is art? What is its intrinsic value? What are the arts? What meanings do the arts have for and produce in society?

A genuine cultural policy is determined by the arts. All else follows: economics, social agendas, national identity, philosophy.

Reinvention requires courage, risk and the embrace of failure, characteristics that have bled out of the Australian arts landscape for some years. We could do worse than follow Madonna and David. I doubt he was thinking of income streams when he invented The Thin White Duke. He was probably thinking of art. We should give it a go.