Senator the Hon. George Brandis S.C.
Minister for the Arts and Sport
Former Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts; Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate archived website
Minister for the Arts and Sport from 23 November 2001 to 30 January 2007
Canberra, Wednesday, 19 September 2007
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On the southern shore of Lake Burley Griffin, there is rising what will become one of Australia’s great public buildings – the new National Portrait Gallery. The Gallery, to be opened in December of next year, will complete the national collecting institutions in the Parliamentary triangle, and tell the nation’s story through the accessible genre of portraiture in a magnificent contemporary building.
The National Portrait Gallery could almost serve as a metaphor for the Howard Government’s contribution to the arts – characterized by a commitment to uncompromising artistic standards, strong financial support and accessibility to the broader public, yet little remarked and seldom acknowledged.
A stone’s throw away, on the second weekend of October, the National Gallery of Australia will celebrate its 25 th anniversary. In a year which has seen some of its most significant acquisitions of European, Asian, Pacific and Australian indigenous art, the Gallery is about to embark upon its first significant expansion, with the construction of a new wing which will house Australia’s first purpose-built gallery for the display of indigenous art. The two most significant public buildings commissioned in the lifetime of this Government are both art galleries.
Three weeks later, on 2 nd November, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra will conclude its triumphant 75 th anniversary season with a concert by Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the world’s most famed musicians, whose appointment as Chief Conductor was announced earlier this year. Never before has an Australian orchestra been under the baton of such an internationally significant figure.
Over the past 3 months, at the Venice Biennale, the largest ever contingent of Australian contemporary artists and curators have been drawing huge crowds and glowing praise from a highly discerning international arts public.
Next January, arguably the world’s most prestigious art conference, the Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, will hold its first conference in its 134 year history in the Southern Hemisphere, at the University of Melbourne.
Last June, there opened in Paris that city’s most exciting new art museum, the Musee de Quai Branly, on the banks of the Seine. One of the principal galleries is dedicated to the work of Australian indigenous artists, who now form an integral part of the cultural ambience of Paris. Meanwhile, Australian works, both indigenous and non-indigenous, attract record prices at auction houses in New York, Paris and London.
Today, as we speak, the Edinburgh Festival, probably the most significant arts festival in the English-speaking world, is being held under the directorship of a young Australian, Jonathan Mills.
While Australia’s performing arts companies attract record domestic audiences, their accomplishments are also being recognized in the world’s major arts capitals, not as niche curiosities or one-off celebrities, but as an established part of the international repertoire. Whether it be the Australian Ballet’s performance of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake in London, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Hedda Gabler in New York, or the North American and European tours of the Australian Chamber Orchestra under Richard Tongetti, Australia’s leading performing arts companies have an established and acclaimed presence on the international stage. Only this month, a relatively little-known ensemble, Melbourne’s TinAlley String Quartet, took first prize in the Banff International String Quartet competition. The Queensland Orchestra last July announced the appointment of one of Europe’s leading maestros, Johannes Fritsch, as its new chief conductor.
Australians have become accustomed to the international renown of our leading film stars – Cate Blanchett, Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe. What we are, perhaps, less conscious of is the esteem with which our other artists – both performing and visual artists – and arts companies are held internationally. Nor are we as conscious as we should be of the peerless international reputation of our directors, cinematographers, digitial and visual effects specialists.
I relate these stories of the success of Australian artists – both at home and abroad – to remind us all that the artistic endeavour is one of the things which we Australians do best – a fact that is coming increasingly to be acknowledged internationally. Yet it is a fact that is still not as widely recognized in our own country as it should be. So many of our self-styled, self-conscious “intellectuals” are still caught in the Donald Horne view of Australia as a country of cringing, second-rate people, whose artistic standards are, to quote the words of that greatest mocker of Australian excellence, “unlearned and very largely ill-informed”. While he wrote those words as long ago as 1964, that jejune, rather embarrassing view of Australia still clings to our cultural debate with wearying tenacity. It has its analogue in the refusal of many Australians to appreciate the international excellence of our universities. Only 5 months ago, during my first (and thus far only) debate with Labor’s Shadow Arts Minister, I was told by one leader of Sydney’s arts community – a Whitlam generation icon if ever there was one – “of course, we all know Australians are a deeply anti-intellectual people”. The Shadow Minister did not demur.
I do not think that young Australian adults think of themselves as intellectually unsophisticated and culturally indifferent, at all. But, as I have said, those old stereotyped notions cling to so many of our leaders – including our political leaders. But not all of them. I was delighted, for instance, that Peter Costello in a recent speech listed “the creative industries”, along with mining, agriculture, professional services and tourism as among Australia’s greatest industries.
The truth is that, in Australia today, the creative arts are in good shape, as those who actually work within the arts sector – as opposed to some in the commentariat who are unaffected by such quotidian concerns as budgets and programme funding – are the first to acknowledge. I was recently told by the artistic director of one of Australia’s most prestigious performing arts companies that the financial position of the performing arts in Australia is, to quote his words, “incomparably better” today, following the Government’s adoption of the recommendations of the Nugent Report, than it had ever been before in his nearly 30 years’ experience as an arts administrator. My experience as the Minister has been overwhelmingly a positive one – that while, naturally, everyone would like more money, in terms of funding, governance and artistic standards, things are better than they have been for a long time, the future made secure by certainty in the funding models and strong financial support. That is, of course, a generalization; I know that particular arts companies have issues and concerns. But it is the overwhelming sentiment of the professionals in the sector.
Contrary to myths propagated by the Left, the Howard Government has been very generous to the arts. In the 12 years between the last Keating Budget in 1995 and the most recent Howard Budget, Commonwealth support for the arts rose in nominal terms from $410 million to $680 million – an increase of 65.8%, more than twice the rate of inflation. I don’t propose to bore you with an endless recitation of figures, but there is one which stands out above all: funding for the Australia Council, which makes direct, arms’ length grants to individual artists and performing arts companies, has risen from $73 million 12 years ago to $161 million in this year’s budget – an increase of more than 110%. And I cannot let the occasion pass by without making some mention of the Government’s recently-announced package of support for the film industry, the legislation for which finally passed the Senate only last night. This package of measures, which replaces Parts 10B and 10BA of the Income Tax Assessment Act introduced by the Fraser Government, is valued at $280 million over the coming quadrennium. Reactions from industry leaders have ranged from “an extraordinary result and probably a very historical moment” (Baz Luhrmann), “a wonderful moment in the history of the Australian film industry … stunning” [Graham Burke, Managing Director of Village Roadshow] and “The industry got everything it wanted” [Brian Rosen, CEO of the Film Finance Corporation]. It is undoubtedly the most important suite of measures to support the film industry in the last quarter-century. Notably, but perhaps inevitably, the Opposition was mute in its response.
Why, then, does the myth persist – for undoubtedly it does persist - that the Government has not been supportive of the arts? For instance, Mr Paul Keating, whom fashionable opinion remembers as a kind of Australian Lorenzo de Medici, so eager was his enthusiasm to give patronage to a number of wealthy favourites among the arts community, while struggling younger artists went unrecognized – recently emerged from his cave to opine, in a speech to the Sydney Film School last July:
“It is no secret that the arts are having a very bad time of it in Australia these days; a bad time of it, not simply in terms of funding, which is the thing most often discussed, but rather, in terms of the milieu for its growth and prosperity.”
I suppose, if you spend 11 ½ years in a sulk, things would tend to get away from you a bit. Mr Keating was obviously unaware that the Howard Government invests 2/3 as much again as he ever did in the sector, and has more than doubled the funding of the Australia Council; that, as any significant arts administrator will tell you, the arts have never known such a level of support from the Commonwealth Government. But he does have a point: government support for the arts has, in one important respect, dropped significantly in recent years: that is in the investment in the arts by State Governments. Wherever I move around the arts sector throughout Australia, the complaint is the same: although there is an unprecedentedly generous level of Commonwealth funding, support for the arts by State Governments is in decline. A comparative study of arts funding by the different levels of government recently published by the Australia Council reveals that in New South Wales, in 2007-08, arts funding will fall by $19.8 million, or 6.5%, while in Queensland, it will fall by $53.9 million, or a massive 20.5%. Victoria will record an increase of just 3%, about the rate of inflation. Of all the States and territories, only Western Australia has seen a significant increase in arts funding.
Just as important as the collapse in financial support by the Governments of 2 of the 3 largest States, is the sheer discouraging effect of lack of interest. Morris Iemma had barely been in the job for a week when, no doubt eager to engage in product differentiation from his predecessor Bob Carr, he made a boast of his lack of interest in the arts – a fact not lost on Sydney’s arts community. But the lack of interest doesn’t stop there. It is most obviously evident in the Federal Labor front bench.
For as long as I have been in the Parliament, interest among the Federal Labor Party in arts policy has been basically non-existent. There are no Gough Whitlams or Paul Keatings or Bob Carrs or Barry Joneses on this front bench, nor are there any in prospect. Peter Garrett, the Shadow Arts Minister (did you know that – that Peter Garrett was the Shadow Arts Minister?) was asked by Virginia Trioli on her Arts Sunday programme in March this year to name any of his colleagues who were interested in the arts. This is how the conversation went:
Trioli: So who are the arts advocates in a Rudd Cabinet? Who are your arts supporters?
Garrett: [Long pause] Well I think Lindsay Tanner’s someone who’s obviously, you know, spoken about it and supports the arts, and there’s myself. Kevin hasn’t had an opportunity, I think, in the period of time he’s been opposition leader to actually go out and see too much art and culture, but I’m absolutely sure he will.
Trioli: Is that it? Is that the list that we can come up with today?
Garrett: Oh look, there’d be others as well.”
Perhaps the best measure of interest in arts policy on the Labor front bench is how often its spokesmen have raised issues related to the portfolio in Parliament. For the last 6 years, the arts portfolio has been represented by a Senate Minister – Richard Alston, Rod Kemp and myself. In those 6 years, the Opposition has bothered to ask all of 5 questions about the arts – the last one on 16 June 2005. The Shadow Minister, Mr Garrett, is yet to rise in Parliament to ask a question about the arts.
Last Friday, though, after a long uninterrupted silence, Peter Garrett released the Labor Party’s arts policy. We shouldn’t, I suppose, be too harsh on Mr Garrett for his indifference to the arts side of his shadow portfolio – he has, after all, been very busy saving the planet, while at the same time judiciously burying a lifetime of passionately-held convictions. So it isn’t as if he hasn’t had a lot of things to do. But indifferent he has undoubtedly been.
I want, of course, to say something about the Labor policy, for I think it is both important and dangerous. But before I do, let me make some observations about what I believe should be the principles and values which should define the relationship between government and the arts, and in particular should guide government’s support for the arts. There are five.
The first is simply respect for what artists do, for the role of artists as civilizing and, commonly, critical members of our society. Concomitant with that is the high value which society places upon artistic freedom, even when – indeed, especially when - it challenges or confronts us. John Maynard Keynes was not only an economist, he was also the first Chairman of the Arts Council in Britain – the institution upon which our own Australia Council was originally modelled. In a 1945 essay, “The Arts Council: Its Policy and Hopes”, he captured, albeit in somewhat lush prose, the sentiment of which I speak:
“At last the public exchequer has recognised the support and encouragement of the civilising arts as part of their duty. … Everyone, I fancy, recognises that the work of the artist in all its aspects is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction; he does not know it himself. But he leads the rest of us into fresh pastures and teaches us to love and to enjoy what we often begin by rejecting, enlarging our sensibility and purifying our instincts. The task of an official body is not to teach or to censor, but to give courage, confidence and opportunity.”
The provision of opportunity is another core objective for arts policy. Not the ostentatious showering of financial trophies upon the fashionable and the elect, which were such an odious hallmark of the Keating years, but the provision, in particular through the Australia Council, of opportunities for new and emerging artists. That is why, of all the measures announced in the 2007 Budget – incomparably the greatest arts Budget of the Howard years, and arguably the greatest arts Budget ever – the one of which I was most proud was the provision of very substantially expanded Commonwealth financial support to small to medium-sized arts companies – the main source of new and developing talent. And, as I have said, the funding of the Australia Council, which provides direct grants to individual artists and companies, had more than doubled over the past decade.
Thirdly, while placing a very high value on the support which society gives to the arts, it must always be remembered that money provided to artists and arts companies is taxpayers’ money, that just like every other claim on public resources, it has to make its case and compete in the Budget round. As I have said, the arts budget has done particularly well during the Howard Government. Nevertheless, members of the arts community do themselves no favours by adopting an attitude that, because of what they do, they are above such tawdry concerns. A culture of entitlement is no more admirable among arts practitioners than among any other group in the community – indeed, there are many of whom we can immediately think who have a much more obvious claim upon society’s resources. Fortunately, we hear little of such attitudes among the arts community today, but I cannot deny that there are some quarters in which that precious attitude exists.
Fourthly, simply because the investment which we make in support for the arts comes largely from the taxes paid by ordinary Australian families, the community is entitled to expect that the arts be accessible. The funding of our arts companies, in particular the major performing arts companies, is spent ensuring that they are able to maintain the highest artistic standards, while keeping ticket prices within the reach of ordinary families. But accessibility means more than subsidising arts companies to perform in the capital cities. It also means making them accessible to people in regional Australia as well. The government is proud of several of its initiatives – such as the Playing Australia programme, which underwrites the cost of performing arts companies undertaking regional tours, and Visions of Australia, which subsidizes touring exhibitions. This year alone, 40 performing arts companies will receive Playing Australia funding for 801 performances at 154 regional cities and towns, while 52 exhibitions will tour to 194 centres. One thing which continues to impress and inspire me is the vibrancy of the arts in regional Australia, as any visit to our leading regional galleries, such as the Lismore Gallery or the Cairns Gallery, will attest.
Fifthly, and finally, although taxpayers are entitled to expect value for public investment in the arts, it is important that governments not be prescriptive. It is not for the state to tell a writer what to write, a painter what to paint, musician what to compose, or an arts company what to perform. This is, of course, related to the first value of which I have spoken, the importance of artistic freedom. And it is here that I see a very important philosophical difference between the Government’s approach to the arts, and that of the Labor Party.
Not many people these days, I suppose, have read, or perhaps are even aware of, Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” – and you could be forgiven for thinking Oscar Wilde an unlikely source of inspiration for the Howard Government. But that sadly-neglected essay is a magnificent indictment of heavy-handed, interfering, meddlesome – what we might today call politically correct – attitudes by those of the Left whose approach to the arts is, essentially, ideological. This is what Wilde has to say:
“Whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he has to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft. A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want … Art is the most intense mood of Individualism the world has ever known.”
And therein lies the difference between the Government and the Opposition in arts policy. As I have said many times since I have been the Minister, the problem about parties of the Left is that their attitude to the arts is defined by instrumentalism. What artists do is not valued for its own sake. Art is not seen as a creative activity justified by the talent or genius of the artist alone. Rather, the arts are seen as a means to some other end: an appendix to social policy, a vehicle for social change, an instrument for political causes, a propaganda tool. Art is not seen as an end in itself.
This is the true Philistinism, and the new Labor arts policy reeks of it.
I do not know how many of you have read Mr Garrett’s rather slender document – please do, it won’t take you long. It is notable in several respects. In the first place, although the document makes the requisite rhetorical genuflection towards greater support for the arts, it is bare of anyspecific commitment to increase arts funding. No costings, no targets, no financial commitment whatsoever.
Secondly, the document is strangely silent on a whole range of matters. The most striking of these is the visual arts. With the exception of a few paragraphs about indigenous art, there is virtually nothing else about the entire sector. And although, perhaps predictably, there is a good deal of language about contemporary music, there is nothing about the major performing arts companies. There but a brief mention of literature in the context of indigenous art. There is nothing abut infrastructure. Nor is there anything about the national collecting institutions, or about the work of the great Australian arts schools, such as NIDA, the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, or the Australian Ballet School. There is half a sentence about the Australian National Academy of Music.
The document addresses, but has virtually nothing to say about, the Australian film industry, beyond generally supporting the film package.
But the real giveaway appears on page 6, under the title “Supporting Australian Artists”, where the policy commits Labor to “implement a program of mandatory presentation by major performing companies of work created by and featuring young and emerging Australian artists.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with supporting young and emerging artists. The Government already does that, extensively, through the Australia Council, and most if not all of the major performing arts companies do as well. What is alarming is the approach those words reveal. Presumably as a condition of funding, the Minister, or the Department Intends to direct the performing arts companies, what work they will present, or at least prescribe a quota for such categories of work. This is the very thing I was talking about before – an approach to arts policy which subordinates the autonomy of artists and arts companies with agenda and priorities developed not by them, but by central agencies.
Like so much else Mr Peter Garrett does, his arts policy document is all gesture – in some cases taking the form of subtle threats – and no substance. Plenty of commitment to “vibrancy”, “creativity” and “diversity”. Yet no commitment to the funding to meet the sector’s needs. The arts in Australia are looking for something more solid than rhetorical exuberance and assurances of good intent. They will look in vain to the Shadow Minister.
The lack of interest which has defined Labor’s view of the arts throughout this Parliament, and well before; which is manifested in the defunding of the arts by State Labor Governments, lives on in this remarkably thin arts policy.
Despite the denunciations and denial by the culture warriors of the Left, despite the majestic contempt of Mr Paul Keating and his dwindling band of admirers, the arts in Australia have prospered under the Howard Government – just as the nation itself has prospered. It should never be forgotten that our capacity to spend unprecedentedly large sums on the arts, as on other socially beneficial aspects of community activity, is the fruit of the economic wellbeing which this Government has secured.
Were the Government to be re-elected, that strong support for the arts will continue, in ways which I will outline in coming weeks when I release the Coalition’s arts policy. It will, as has been the case throughout the life of the Government, be based on generous levels of funding, strong commitment to the sector, and respect for artistic excellence. That is what the professionals in the sector have come to expect of this Government, and what the sector will continue to receive.
We mean to ensure that Australia’s artists are supported, Australia’s audiences and gallery patrons have access to performing and visual art of the highest standards, and that Australia – self-confidently but not self-consciously – continues to enjoy its place as one of the world’s most culturally accomplished nations.
Media contact: Travis Bell 0448 950 248