What makes art “excellent” in the age of austerity?

Joel Edmondson
Director – Australian Music Industry Network (AMIN)
QMusic Executive Officer

The Federal Arts Minister and Attorney General, Senator George Brandis, recently announced that $104.7 million will be diverted from the Australia Council for the Arts to establish ‘The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts’, ostensibly because he believes that the Australia Council has a monopoly it does not deserve. The Attorney General will oversee the new program, assuming an unprecedented level of control over the cultural life of our nation.

Although AMIN doesn’t always agree with decisions the Australia Council makes, we think the peer-assessment process they use to determine funding allocation is the most democratic and transparent model that’s available.

AMIN’s member organisations are doubly challenged in this emerging landscape, not only because of their size, but because they support the development of the contemporary popular music industry, the cultural value of which is perpetually misunderstood and overlooked. The so-called ‘elite’ artforms – including ballet, opera, classical music and theatre – currently dominate arts funding in Australia, the vast majority of which is dispensed by the Australia Council, and the Ministry of the Arts in Canberra.

Senator Brandis will protect the 28 major performing arts organisations that make up AMPAG (Australian Major Performing Arts Group) as part of his proposed budget reforms.  So for all the wrangling over who gets to make the decisions, the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will most likely perpetuate the only monopoly that actually makes a difference to the diversity of cultural experiences available to Australian audiences: that of the major organisations in the elite art forms. This duplication of funding infrastructure to realise similar outcomes will therefore achieve nothing but more spending on government and less on art and artists.

The challenge to the credibility of Senator Brandis’ new programme will also come from the impossibility of objectively defining what makes art “excellent”.  Senator Brandis’ protection of the AMPAG organisations suggests something about his definition of excellence, and this is destined to draw perpetual criticism from the significant proportion of the sector it excludes. It also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the sector operates as an integrated whole, particularly the role that the small-to-medium organisations play in creating opportunities for artists to develop into practitioners capable of contributing at a national and international level, either independently or in conjunction with the major organisations.

What is most remarkable about this decision to continue the predominance of AMPAG is its incompatibility with the Abbott Government’s economic policy. If money is what really matters, shouldn’t it logically follow that the economic productivity of an art form should be a determinant of its excellence? AMPAG’s most recent research shows that the performing arts were worth $1.47 billion in 2013.  According to Music Australia, the music industries are collectively worth an estimated $7 billion to the Australian economy every year, to say nothing of their role in contributing to the success of so many other industries –retail, hospitality and education are but a few. A 2014 report from Live Performance Australia also showed that contemporary popular music makes up 37% of ticket sales nationally, with musical theatre (14%), classical music (6.6%) and opera (5.1%) lagging far behind.

When the economy needs a burst of energy, wouldn’t it make sense to support artforms like contemporary popular music that not only enhance the cultural life of the nation, but also make the greatest contribution to the nation’s economy?

The Federal Government’s focus on small business in this year’s budget is an opportunity to further grow the music industry. The vast majority of Australian working musicians and the infrastructure that supports them (particularly independent labels, managers and publicists) are micro or small businesses. To use the Treasurer’s most recent catchphrase, the very foundation of the music industry is artists and music business ‘having a go’. Nevertheless, many independent musicians do not reap the rewards of their aesthetic excellence because they are unskilled as business people. Investment in developing the music business skills of independent musicians and entrepreneurs would enhance the sector’s economic contribution and ensure Australian audiences have access to a diverse range of great Australian music.

Music sells because it has an almost magical power over our hearts and minds. Corporate organisations are starting to realise the benefits of closer brand alignment with the music industry, particularly because it enables influence over the 16-30 demographic that identifies so closely with the industry’s values.  Virgin Australia is one organisation that has realised significant brand benefits from making it cheaper for Australia’s musicians to tour. As income from the sale of recorded music dries up, corporate tie-ins are being increasingly recognised by our industry as a critical future income stream for artists. A sector development fund that incubated innovative music industry and corporate sector relationships would be a worthy experiment. This would do something to facilitate Senator Brandis’ ambition for the private sector to take a greater role in investment in the arts. That shouldn’t be left to chance.

However, it’s not just the Ministry of the Arts that should be trying new things to build the music economy. DFAT should also start taking the latent commercial value of our nation’s music seriously, as there are many ways to leverage its value at home and overseas. Australian music is hugely successful internationally, and greater international market development funding could ensure that the economic potential of our brightest artists isn’t constrained to our own borders.  Music tourism is also a bourgeoning industry internationally, and if our live music and festival scenes are supported to be the world’s best, then our offering to the modern traveller will become more diverse and competitive.

It’s not wrong for governments to expect a return on their investment in the arts. Now is the time for a national conversation about what definition of artistic excellence is in the best interests of an inclusive and diverse society facing an uncertain economic future. Austere times demand greater economic productivity. The Federal Government’s economic and arts policies should therefore be consistent and integrated, creating greater balance between the elite art forms and those like contemporary popular music that generate a greater economic return because of their appeal to a broader audience.

The Federal Arts Minister would better serve the growth of the arts sector by looking for novel ways to leverage its success stories, rather than reduce spending and cripple the efforts of AMIN’s member organisations, who are trying to help musicians and music businesses have a go.