Attended the AICV’s ‘Finger on the Pulse’ conference on Tuesday 28/9. It kicked off with an address from Brook Andrew who told us (including the arts Pooh-Bahs from each of the three big political parties) that artists needed to be trusted and supported, that alternative practices are valuable because ‘breaking with tradition is tradition’ and that places where creatives could interact were of great importance.
Then it was the turn of the politicians (we have a State election 27/11). First up was Peter Batchelor, the current ALP Arts Minister. He revealed himself as a dedicated Floridist in his claim that the Government’s successful strategy of attracting artists to Victoria in turn attracted business investment. He talked of the wonderfully high ‘participation’ rates achieved by the Government’s cultural institutions (by which he meant attendance) and identified them as the core of his Government’s policy (‘proud of the large’). Misreading his audience totally, he stated that they (the Gov’t) were encouraging the ‘big boys and girls to help the smaller kids on the block’. All in all, smug (‘there is very little that we are not already doing’) and patronising.
He was followed by Ted Baillieu, leader of the Libs and Shadow Arts Minister. He spent a great deal of his address establishing his personal credentials (undergraduate actor, cultured family background, architect, long term board member of the Comedy Festival and Children’s Television Foundation). His description of Liberal policy began with a commitment to an ‘arms length’ approach (‘it’s important for government not to get in the way’) and a recognition that perhaps the most valuable contribution of the arts was its ‘edginess’. He was generous in his recognition of his opponent’s track record in arts support (noting in passing that his party’s record extended back to Kennett and Hamer). After some more floridisms (‘make Melbourne the place of choice for artists’), he then announced his party’s big initiative for this election: the ‘white night festival’ for Melbourne; this is an all-night celebratory phenomenon that, since the late nineties, has spread across some 120 cities around the world. Quite how such a proposal fits with his concept of edgy art and declared arms-length principles was not elucidated.
Then it was the turn of the Green’s spokesperson, Sue Pennicuik. Ms P. holds eleven portfolios in her party’s shadow cabinet so she had by far the best justification for being as nebulous as the previous spokespeople. She suggested that arts support could well be twice its current levels and still be insufficient (this was apparently immediately tweeted as de-facto Greens policy, which it most definitely isn’t), offered more support for indigenous arts and artists (unmentioned by the previous two) and for the ‘grass roots’. From her description, it appeared that she saw this as meaning things like the support of facilities to allow local/new artists to exhibit in local venues. An improvement on big boys and smaller kids and all night extravaganzas but short on much more than warm and fuzzies.
Really the three were indistinguishable – actually acknowledged by Baillieu and Pennicuik and manifest most obviously by the fact that they all leapt on exactly the same bandwagons: support of live music and the Victorian College of the Arts. If anything this demonstrated that inner city seats are becoming more and more marginal (once upon a time, being Labor strongholds) and that pollies perceive that matters artistic may hold the key to victory.
The pollies were followed by a panel discussion featuring Magdalena Moreno (CEO of Kultour), Ben Eltham, Marcus Westbury and myself. (Ms Pennicuik was the only pollie to stay on for the ensuing discussion).
I understand that the AICV will shortly be posting footage of this part on its site so I won’t do more here than mention some impressions (I wasn’t taking notes). Magdalena did a wonderful job critiquing each of the presentations we’d just witnessed – along similar lines to my brief descriptions above but in more detail. Ben delivered a summary of his call for a cultural policy that went beyond simply pouring money into large institutions. He supported this with slides that followed the money (the stats speak for themselves). Marcus expanded on Ben’s introduction of the culture/arts debate and was his usual inspirational self, peppering his chat with some fabulous phrases (‘fertile soil not tree planting’, ‘activate your constituency’, ‘evaluate cultural impact across the whole of government’). I got stuck into the misuse of the concept of participation, the dangers of a ‘command culture’ and the capacity of an apparently autonomous Arts Victoria to maintain the status quo.
Our presentations were followed by some lively audience debate that covered issues from thinking about the arts as an ecological system rather than an industry to making human rights the basis of arts policy.
My conclusions: it was a coup to get the pollies on to the same platform (even if it was hard to tell them apart – congratulations to the AICV’s Director Jacqueline Grenfell for pulling off that one). More important were the conversations we were able to have amongst ourselves. Where these might go who knows, but breaking bread together was a good beginning.
(Declaration of interest: I’m a board member of the AICV – however the opinions expressed above should not be taken to reflect those of the AICV)