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Edition 23

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Essay

Risky business in challenging times

TWO THOUGHTS SPRANG to mind as I dangled from the top of New Zealand's tallest building one sunny November morning. Two hundred metres above the street in a bright orange jumpsuit, there was no escaping the notion that a wrong move might have me covering those two hundred metres faster than Usain Bolt. As I sucked in the clean air I also revelled in the knowledge that risk is what makes life worth living. By any rational measure, this risk was no greater than hundreds of others we each make daily – the safety harness would keep me safe and allow me to move on to better things. Aristotle believed courage to be the primary human quality, the base for all the others and the platform for risk.

In a world where risk-taking is now synonymous with Wall Street greed, the fact that all progress depends on risk, is one we easily forget. Where is Australia's appetite for risk in 2009? It may show up on credit card bills, but rarely in great leadership. It is rarely heralded by the unexpected success of edgy art or entertainment. Instead, a culture of fear – fear of threats and achievement – is more prominent. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in how public policy deals with arts and the creative economy – those very places that should challenge a society and that are increasingly an engine room of economic growth. It is a dangerous place to leave a nation dangling.

Others are more fortunate than the Australian artists who must pay for their every mistake or make ends meet with bland work. Some sectors are fattened by cronyism, a misplaced sense of grandeur or sometimes union muscle. Sports fans, for example, can look forward to handouts as high as $400 per ticket – the subsidy the 2007 World Swimming Championships received from the Victorian Government. For the car industry, the current price of protection is $60,000 per worker per year. Contrast that coddling with those trying to make an artistic breakthrough, like those behind the perky independent movie All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane, for example. Conceived, created and funded entirely by new generation of filmmakers this movie was made for just $42,000, yet received four stars from film critic icons ‘Margaret and David' in 2007, making it – at $10,000 a star – exceptionally efficient filmmaking, and less than one year's subsidy of a car worker.

If only it were as simple as transferring some spare change from manufacturing to filmmaking. The makers of All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane received a small amount of post-production funding from the Australian Film Commission, after it had been shot. But the real problem was getting it screened outside Brisbane. For months, efforts went nowhere. In that time, the film won awards in Denmark and Britain and became a cult audience hit you've probably never heard of because the gatekeepers said no: from the lowliest independent cinema to the bean-counting multiplexes.

What the case demonstrates is that government funding can never be an answer on its own. Australia's arts ‘scene' or ‘industries' also need to take risks. If they are not prepared to challenge the status quo – be it incumbent elites or conventional wisdom – or even give a chance to a newcomer, then they are not worth having. The story of All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane is repeated across the arts. It is echoed in the stories of new authors backed by publishers but ignored by the marketing department. It is a familiar theme for artists who use new media or cross official category boundaries, falling foul of the funding bodies for daring to colour outside the lines. And the lesson of All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane rings in the ears of every creative who goes bust because of a short-term cash flow problem that good policy-making could help avoid. The fate of these efforts should lead us to ask ‘what are the ideal conditions for creative innovation?', and to do more to create these conditions. Beyond the obvious need for good educational institutions, the possibility of exchanging ideas and feeding off the creativity of those in close proximity is essential for a creative culture. In a creative culture, art is not just about individual brilliance and passion, or a government grant, but about the feeling of possibility that comes from mobilising a critical mass of ideas and people.

 

BERLIN IS ONE such creative magnet creating its way out of economic depression. With unemployment long stuck near 20 per cent, collapsed manufacturing, terrible weather and without cross-continental air connections, Berlin has few choices but to let the creative people who need it use the cheap property left over from the Cold War era. Berlin demonstrates what is possible when space – literal and political – is given to creative people and industries. Berlin's government and its people have taken a bet on creativity plugging the gap in the economy as the city is rebuilt, and it is paying off. In addition to the seven hundred galleries, museums and theatres in Berlin, there is an integrated alternative creative scene that includes more than twenty thousand micro and small creative businesses fertilised by 150,000 students and a constant stream of new arrivals – a third of the city's population has arrived since 2000, most of them speak English as well as German.

The young and art are in the ascendancy in Berlin. This is where writers flock to get by on two hundred dollars a week, where artists can have a home and studio, where start-up music studios experiment, and where creative connections are made. Berlin is not just a chance to live amidst history it is a haven for starving artists, but the artists don't starve. Berlin brings artists together. And they thrive.

It is Berlin I think of when looking at the death spiral facing innovative Australian organisations like the youth network Vibewire. Encumbered by expensive property markets and the tyranny of distance, Australia is not going to produce a Berlin – but it can foster and preserve online creative forums and communities – the sort of virtual creative space Vibewire has been good at grooming.

Vibewire is a river of creativity created by young people for young people. With impressive breadth, it grew from the idea of Tom Dawkins, a University of New South Wales student, in 2000 into a creative hub for a generation of young artists. Vibewire delivers everything from short film festivals and writing anthologies to festivals of e-ideas and an online community that produces some of the richest data available on young Australians. It has been the New South Wales Microbusiness of the Year, and won awards from the United Nations. Yet its directors came within days of winding it up in late 2008 when faced with the departure of its founder and a single missed grant application in close succession.

I can't help thinking that Vibewire wouldn't be struggling to pay the rent in Berlin or missing small donors or business skills in the United States. And I wonder why we have arts bodies if not to see and protect a bigger picture like the self-esteem, role modelling and nascent voices Vibewire delivers to wide audiences. Where was the advice and emergency loan for Vibewire to help it through its rough patch? Why was it not a priority to help it grow from one business stage to the next? Vibewire is tackling its own demons for now. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that it is too inconvenient for Australia's arts funding monoculture. It covers too many arts and is authentic competition for initiatives like the Australia Council's ‘Noise' website. It even runs competitions to find more creative voices, the sort of competitions that the Australia Council refuses to fund. Vibewire doesn't aim to please others, only its audience. For all these reasons, Vibewire is more than ‘another needy arts organisation'. It is a symptom of an arts sector that is slowly sinking under its own weight.

THE CASES OF All My Friends are Leaving Brisbane and Vibewire show that government money is not the answer. All the movie's producers needed was connections and a bit of advocacy. For Vibewire, mentoring and business skills would have helped. For countless other creative micro-businesses, it's already too late. That these things have not been supplied is not the fault of any one arts body or policy, but society still gets stuck with the bill. And that means we need to be more honest about what it will take to boost the arts and creative economy. I believe that means going beyond the grants processing model. The priority must be quality art from many sources, not comfy creative cartels. This diversification can only happen if we take more risks. Paul Hogan liked to say that ‘the secret to my success is that I bit off more than I could chew and chewed as fast as I could'. That neatly summarises what needs to be done. Australia must take more risks than larger nations to achieve the same creative and economic impacts. Australia cannot simply announce its influence as a China or India; it is stuck in the middle, so we need more than a middling arts policy approach to haul ourselves up.

This is where government and risk can intersect. Government is still society's greatest force for risk. As a lender and spender of last resort, with the perpetual right to tax, democratic government excels at taking risks – it is also getting plenty of practice. Unlike the bankruptcy and catastrophe an individual can face from a wrong turn or a terrible accident, few risks can sink government (as opposed to a political party). Indeed, government has so much risk-taking power that damage is only done when it fails to act, rather than when it acts sub-optimally. But whereas funding universal health care and university students are risks that transform lives and can be justified – arts grants are a harder sell.

This is why the intellectual and spiritual value of art is not reason enough to explain government funding of art. We have to win the argument about the economic contribution of creativity. Half a million jobs in Australia is a good evidence base, but if there is doubt about how these jobs contribute to prosperity, one needs only to look at recent experiences in Britain to deal with those concerns.

The Blair Government took a significant risk by becoming the first to properly recognise the contribution of the creative industries to the economy and national brand. From wonky research to making entry to all galleries and museums free, a new culture of creativity was born in a country where the arts had been seen through class-coloured lenses. At a time when Australia was lopping ABC funding as though it were an overgrown weed, Britain was cementing the BBC at the nation's heart and reinforcing that investment with international cultural diplomacy via the British Council and the BBC World Service. At a time when it could simply have hunkered down and focused on repairing the social and infrastructure legacies of Thatcher, it understood the need for a wider investment and a sweeter balm. A decade later, these efforts have changed the way the world sees Britain and how Britons see themselves. These policies have paid for themselves many times over, an excellent insurance against the demise of some financial services.

Britain officially rejects the idea that creative careers depend on ‘who you know, how far from home you're prepared to travel and how little you are prepared to work for'. The culture secretary is not the equal of the foreign secretary in cabinet, but the new culture has permeated many layers of life. It says: we are open to you and your ideas. We want your crazy buildings; we want youthful music; we're prepared to put our money where our mouth is and please visit our world capital to see it at close range. That is what modern Britain says to the modern creative and that is how Britain has become one of the world's creative hubs.

 

THIS IS NOT the message that Australia sends to the world. At best it has corralled the once-in-a-decade Baz Luhrmann production into a tourism campaign. Our artists and their economy could be so much more. They can be both the bread and the circuses of these challenging times if Australia is willing to go out on that limb. Entertainment is part of all our lives and there are only so many times one can watch a television repeat or even listen to the same piece of classical music. The only way out is to take risk. Who will fund that risk? It does not need to be government, but government must be part of it. Is the current system capable of that contribution? The Australia Council serves multiple purposes and can be proud of many achievements, but even it knows of the rigidity and red tape that bind it, and it is time to talk about other models that may supplement it.

Take the example of the pseudo-organisation Festivals Australia – in reality a couple of desks at the Australia Council. Ministerial approval is still required for grants as little as $2,300 for minor festivals – when such requests have already been examined by a six-person committee. Applicants are required to provide eleven paper copies of their application – in a world when a PDF would do. They had better make sure they are also a ‘regular festival' that has existed for at least twelve months – or their application will not be considered.

So much for having a bright new idea or an urgent need for action. This is not uncommon. In the literature section of the Australia Council, which already excludes much non-fiction from its remit, the ‘Breaking New Ground' grant is not available to emerging writers, nor targeted at subjects that get scant treatment. Instead, it is for established writers who wish to change focus – that is, writers most able to handle such a change without the assistance to which they alone have access.

The Australia Council cannot be all things to all people, but the best response to that reality is surely not to go on ignoring the ignored people and issues. Challenging times are not an excuse to gloss over these problems; they are the imperative for dealing with them. This is a precarious time for creative small businesses, one of the last in line for private credit and the first to have the credit taps turned off. A funding monoculture that springs to life twice a year is not much help to a micro-business that can go bust in a month. A wider, more flexible tax approach is needed in addition to a more open funding process not run by single bodies on terms that favour established organisations and individuals. What is the alternative? How about one or more schemes that facilitate risk capital for artists and other creative innovators? A ‘HECS-for-innovation' scheme from the public purse. Why not build a scheme that matches private investors with those creative companies needing capital at reasonable interest rates, just as the micro-credit movement assisted entrepreneurs in the developing world? Any public contributions are a safe bet given that small businesses have always been the home of successful innovation and through their number are a way to spread risk.

A further step would be to establish more funding organisations so that the sector is better able to take small risks and serve cultural niches. Having funding organisations in friendly competition with each other – they could still share standardised architecture for funding applications, for example – we would further spread the opportunities and the diversity of output, and guard against the group-think and self-preserving instincts that any monopoly generates. In increasingly volatile, fragmented and consumer – rather than producer-driven markets – it is hard to see monolithic funding bodies as the key to our creative future.

How can that message be spread in a cautious public sector – from the minister down and from stakeholders up? The first key ingredient for reform is a rational public debate. Risky ideas need to feel familiar if they are to enjoy support – a so-called priming effect – and nothing breeds familiarity like discussion and tangibility. Most famously, we can see that the successful introduction of the GST was assisted by the priming effect of John Hewson's failed campaign in 1993.

Instead of headlines denouncing ‘art for the dole' when creativity is discussed as a labour market issue, artistic endeavour must be viewed as a vital part of our economy and democracy. Without a rational public debate about these matters, we leave ourselves at the mercy of the prevailing culture of fear.  A lack of debate inherently favours the status quo. How can a public servant or minister take the second option when there is no second option? Without debate, no evidence or mood for change can exist, producing only closed minds and complacency.

This is why the second ingredient for reform is political leadership – the need for open minds at the top. No public servant will ever take the sort of day-to-day risks needed in a creative culture if they must ask for permission first. This is at odds with the controlling tendencies of the Rudd inner circle, but we cannot afford a public service culture where the servants fear not a lack of national success but the loss of their own jobs. If we want a truly creative culture risk has to be worth the effort for public servants, and for that to be the case a culture of trust and encouragement is needed.

Change is possible. Constitutionally, the public service is best placed via its independence and long-term remit to recommend good risks. By statute, the separation of functions of organisations, like the Australia Council, from ministers should give them breathing space to build courage. And if there were more voices than the Australia Council, there would also be more voices of courage.

We not only need more arts organisations to flexibly serve the needs of all creatives, we need more of them to put their necks on the line. The time for that courage – both outside and inside the inner circles of policy – is now. Tony Blair understood about legacy, speaking often of how his greatest pride was reserved for mandating free entrance to all museums and galleries and legalising gay civil unions. They were the things that ordinary people thanked him for in person.

Prime Minister Rudd too wants a legacy – saying he wants to ‘build a modern Australia capable of meeting the challenges of the future' always with a careful eye on the world stage. Indeed, he condemns the former government's ‘culture of economic policy laziness'. Common sense should therefore open the door to the arguments that deliver better support to creative endeavour. Imagine if the government not only reformed arts organisations, but provided the sort of help to the creative economy that it gives to first home-buyers. One is no more market-distorting than the other, so why not have first business-starter grants? This is not a crazy idea. People, not bricks and mortar, are the best economic engine. Imagining such things is a start, but it is not enough.

Supporting creative endeavours is about backing ourselves, about building more than a sandcastle economy that washes away when the mining or financial tide goes out. Like all risks, the stumping up of cash and fostering of new ideas are a leap of faith. Such leaps are not unfamiliar to our Christian prime minister; any person of faith knows risk can be its own reward.


From Griffith Review Edition 23: Essentially Creative © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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