The curious business-speak of Tasmanian arts policy

The “intangible benefits” of arts are absent from the policy documents of the three main parties. (Mural by Hobart artist Robert O'Connor). petahopkins

This Saturday’s Tasmanian election is the first since Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) opened on January 21 2011, and it’s no surprise that the creative arts and industries have featured heavily in conversations about Tasmania’s future.

But the discussion is too often centred on the economic benefits of Tasmania’s supposed “cultural renaissance”, rather than the societal or other intangible benefits, and the arts policies released by the state’s three major political parties (Australian Labor Party, Liberal Party of Australia and Australian Greens) reflect this shallow and diversionary attitude.

Quite frankly, they’re uninspiring, disappointing and bordering on the absurd.

The three policies are remarkably alike in their language in that the creative arts are discussed in terms of economic investment and employment. In fact, the creative arts are identified as the creative “industry” or “economy,” suggesting that professions with measurable economic outcomes, such as advertising and architecture, are the focus of the policies, rather than areas such as the visual arts and craft, theatre and music.

It reflects the dilemma politicians face when trying to balance praise of MONA’s contribution to the Tasmanian economy, with a reluctance to contribute public funds to the creative arts, particularly those with no quantifiable outcome.

MONA, Hobart. majorleague

The Greens refer to the “creative industries” in terms of the sector’s “economic value,” promising that “investment” will “boost Tasmania’s economy and grow local jobs and businesses”.

The Liberal Party similarly promises to “grow further jobs in the industry,” acknowledging the arts’ growing role in the state’s “job and business market”. Its plan refers to investment schemes, job generation and innovation, but only in general terms.

Labor at least introduces its plan by referring to the social impact of the arts, as well as economic contributions. It also briefly acknowledges the difference between, for instance, the visual arts and advertising, both of which sit under the umbrella of the “creative industries” (according to the document), but demand different levels of support and have very different outcomes. Still, the language of business dominates.

Business buzzwords

Of course, in a state that holds the highest unemployment rate in Australia, job creation and growth are key election issues; so it makes sense that the economic benefits of the sector are sold. But this approach also reflects a growing tendency to discuss the creative arts and industries in terms of economic benefit alone, as well as a change in language that means the arts is discussed in “business speak”.

The recent New Arts Investment Models directions paper released by the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board argues “the language of government funding needs to change from one of subsidy to one of investment,” and that grants should be replaced with an “investment system” with a focus on “outcomes” rather than “process and outputs”.

The paper’s not exactly clear on the distinction between a grant and an “investment system”, but nonetheless it sounds impressive. The terms creative “hub” or “precinct” are equally as popular. The buzzwords represent a bureaucratic desire for a measurement and control, and are at odds with the natural formation of cultural activity.

~ wryonedwards ~

In terms of content, the big winner tomorrow will be the self-appointed “Tasmanian Creative Industries Council” (TCIC), to which Labor and Liberal have each promised A$200,000, and the Greens A$1,106,000. Not bad for a group that uses a Facebook page for a website. They are, according to this page, “an alliance of artists and creative professionals with the shared aim to connect, promote and grow Tasmania’s creative industries”.

Each plan acknowledges the early stages of this organisation, and while I believe that a peak body for the arts in Tasmania is crucial, it’s unclear as to who or what the group actually is at the moment, let alone who they will eventually represent.

There is little reference to support for individuals in the documents, which is disappointing when you consider that most creative arts businesses in Australia are non-employing, according to a recent research report by the government’s Creative Industries Innovation Centre (CIIC).

So, to the individual parties’ plans:

The Liberals

The Liberal Party’s plan is the least generous, pledging a mere A$450,000 in new projects over four years. To put this into context, the party plans to spend more renaming a Tasmanian highway.

The money will be split three ways: firstly, the TCIC will receive funding with the explicit aim of developing a strategic plan to “grow jobs and investment”. Funding will also go to Detached, a private cultural organisation that recently boughtthe former Mercury newspaper building in Hobart with the intention of turning it into a “cultural hub”.

Although the financial contribution is minor, it is great to see at least one of the parties acknowledging and supporting this promising new development. Lastly, the document notes the reduction in the Arts Tasmania grants budget under Labor, and promises to increase it “as government finances improve” (which roughly translates as “don’t count on it”).

craabus

Labor

Labor’s plan is the most detailed, which is understandable considering they’re currently in power. The plan is not surprising or exciting, and the A$900,000 promised should be compared to the party’s announcement promising to spend A$8 million on yet another indoor sport complex.

Again, the “cultural hub” is mentioned, although in this case the money will be spent subsidising office rental for early career practitioners. Affordable work-space is a major problem for many creative practitioners; but it’s not just restricted to the first five years of their career – as Labor’s plan suggests – and it would be nice to see an expanded strategy. Additionally, the use of the word “office” rather than, say, “studio” again uses the language of business, suggesting a prioritisation of those sections of the “creative industry” that have measurable economic outcomes.

Events and festivals will also receive more funding under Labor. The A$6 million will not go far between the growing number of festivals in the state, but nonetheless it’s a sensible investment considering the success of events such as MONA FOMA, Dark MOFO and the Hobart Baroque Festival.

Importantly, the party emphasises support (although no actual money) for the continuing Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) development – something glaringly missing from both the Liberal and Greens party plans. The A$170 million refurbishment is entering stage two, having finished the A$30 million stage one in March last year, and until the refurbishment is complete, the floor space of the museum is relatively limited.

The Greens

The Greens plan is by far the most ambitious but least practical. Under the party’s policy, more than A$12 million will go to the arts – towards the TCIC mentioned above, as well as developing a series of creative hubs, payroll tax relief for creative businesses, funding for new festivals (as opposed to underfunded existing ones), and a series of grants largely aimed at the film and video game industries.

Guggenheim, Bilbao. EEPaul

The creative hub strategy is probably the most interesting, promising an audit of underused government buildings that can be easily modified to accommodate cultural activities and work spaces. Importantly, the plan specifies that these spaces will be managed by collectives rather than government, giving artists and creative professionals a greater level of autonomy than Labor’s rental subsidy scheme.

Any sensible aspects of the Greens’ plan are eclipsed by the party’s unbelievably absurd idea to coax the Guggenheim Foundation into building a museum in Hobart. Never mind that the relatively small city already has MONA, the largest private museum in the southern hemisphere.

The document states:

a Guggenheim would be a sister museum to MONA, and make Hobart one of the must-visit cultural destinations on the planet.

Which, of course, has largely already occurred due to MONA alone. Some A$100,000 will be spent on a “high-end mission to visit Guggenheim” – conjuring up a Land of Oz-style adventure. Surely a simple email would be more sensible, and the money could be spent on a modest art project instead.

The most disappointing aspect of this harebrained idea is that the Greens have completely ignored the TMAG. Why support a massive new museum when the state’s public institution is in dire need of funds? The Guggenheim museums are excellent, but they are hardly embedded in the local community, whereas the TMAG by definition is bound to support and reflect the state’s history and culture.

Talk is cheap, and all three parties’ plans are heavy on the language of business, but thin on practical policy and financial assistance. Thankfully, the community they claim to support is more creative than the policy writers.


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