Waving signs that read, “Art changes lives,” “Art bites back,” and “Value artists,” a crowd on Friday, June 17 swarmed outside the Sydney office of Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Shortly after, artists hung a banner on Melbourne’s Nicholas Building, home to a number of studios, painted with the phrase, “‘Straya — the Arts End of the World.” Meanwhile, an online petition addressed to Minister for the Arts Mitch Fifield steadily gained signatures from museums, arts organizations, and locals across the country demonstrating their support for the arts.
These are just a handful of the actions that occurred on a day known as National Day of Action, organized by arts collective the Protagonists in response to substantial government budget cuts to the arts. Since then, more demonstrations have swept across Australia, all coordinated by members of its arts and culture community — and they will continue until July 2, when the country holds its federal election.
Over the past three years, the Abbott-Turnbull administration has slashed more than $300 million (~$224 million USD) from the national arts budget; last year alone, following new federal budget announcements, government body Australia Council for the Arts found out it would lose $110 million (~$82 million USD) — $32 million (~$24 million USD) of which Fifield later returned in November after he assumed the position. The money will be redirected over four years to Catalyst, a new arts funding body run by the Ministry for the Arts that has received criticism for its unclear operations and for backing large organizations rather than smaller ones, as Australia Council does.
Arts organizations felt the full effects of the cuts on May 13 — now referred to as “Black Friday” — when Australia Council had to tell 60 groups it has previously funded that it had to reject their applications to receive grants for the next four years. (This multi-year funding program had followed a six-year model prior to the government’s new budget measures.) One of those affected was advocacy organization National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), which is helping to lead the nationwide campaign, known as Art Changes Lives.
“Our aim is to demonstrate the value of the arts by engaging as advocates: art lovers; audiences; art collectors; art participants; parents and children,” NAVA’s Executive Director Tamara Winikoff told Hyperallergic. “We hope to make it evident that the arts is part of the everyday for everybody, and that it matters to them to be able to access Australian stories — whether it be on the net, in books, music, performances of all kinds, games, visual arts and design, film, TV shows, and the built environment.
“This then means votes, so politicians will need to take notice.”
Never before, to this extent, has the Australian arts sector come together in this way, Winikoff said, noting that many members of the community perceive the cuts “as an attack on the independence and integrity of the arts and a denigration of its value.” Joining NAVA and the Protagonists are institutions and individuals across all artistic disciplines, from the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) — which hosted the press conference for the National Day of Action — to Theater Network NSW (TNN) — whose associated theater companies intend to have performers address issues of funding cuts to their audience after every show. Visitors to participating national, state, university, and commercial galleries as well as art schools and contemporary art spaces will also receive postcards calling them to take action, whether that means signing the petition, writing directly to politicians, or simply voting for those with the most promising policies for the arts.
Organizers are particularly concerned that the incumbent government is campaigning without any significant arts policy. This suggests a short-sightedness from politicians, considering the nation’s quickly growing creative community and its contributions. According to MCA, the arts industry in Australia employs more people than the agriculture, construction, or mining sectors; cultural activity also contributes $50 billion to GDP, comparable to that share in the United States, including $4.2 billion from the arts. The most recent census, taken in 2011, shows that the creative sector is among the fastest growing ones of the economy, gaining about 70,000 jobs since 2006.
“This government lacks any cultural vision, understanding, or evidence base,” Winikoff told Hyperallergic. “This has led to the ad hoc actions that have created the most terrible chaos across the Australian arts sector, and unless remedied, will seriously erode the cultural expression of this generation.” Among worrisome policies, she cites proposed changes to copyright that may alter definitions of “fair dealing” and “fair use” to the detriment of artists’ rights as well as tax regime issues that limit artists’ claims on their income taxes.
“We are concerned that more and more decisions that affect the working lives of artists are being made by people who have no interest in the arts, or neither the interests of the arts at heart,” the Protagonists told Hyperallergic. “As [artist] David Pledger, has noted, artists are like the canaries down the mine; when the the artist finds it difficult to breathe, we know the air has become toxic for everyone.”
Last year’s federal cuts to Australia Council’s budget arrived largely as a shock, particularly as the organization had announced in August 2014 a new, five-year strategic plan that restructured its grant model.
“It is no secret that the Coalition government wants a reduction in public funding to sectors such as education, health and the art,” the Protagonists said. “But the manner in which this heist occurred came as a shock to everyone, the Australia Council included, who received a phone call less than 24 hours before it was announced in the federal budget.
“It floored everyone, not least those organizations who had spent months developing six-year funding proposals for the very first time.”
As its name suggests, the Art Changes Lives campaign is not only centered on what artists contribute to the economy or the number of jobs the arts sector creates, but rather the impact art has on society as a whole. Those who are rallying hope that the everyday citizen in addition to politicians will acknowledge art as a fundamental part of life — and are casting votes that demonstrate that. Opposition parties have recently shared new arts policies that NAVA and the Protagonists view as promising. Earlier this month, the opposing Australian Labor Party announced its new arts policy that includes a pledge to return $80 million to the Australia Council and to kill Catalyst. The Australian Greens also vowed to end the controversial program, fully restore the Council’s losses, and funnel an extra $270.2 million into the arts. And arriving to the Federal Elections for the first time is the Arts Party, the country’s first and only crowdfunded political party that is simply aiming to receive one million votes as a huge gesture of national support for the arts.
“We want to continue this stand, and work towards deepening the critical culture of artists in this country — so we don’t end up in this invidious position again,” the Protagonists said. “In many ways, the Australian arts community, broadly speaking, needs to exercise its political muscle again after two decades of steady erosion. We also hope some great art experiences come out of it.”