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Why advocacy matters

Page history last edited by Alison Croggon 12 years, 8 months ago

There are two major forms of advocacy. One is that undertaken by arts organisations in approaching government and private industry for financial support. The other is advocacy to the public, the potential arts audience. This second kind takes many forms, from the work of state organisations like the Australia Council, to arts organisations themselves, to how the arts are promoted in the mainstream and alternative media.

 

The arts and the cultural industry in Australia suffer from inadequate public advocacy. This is not a short term problem: it has been the case since art began to be made here, and has been reinforced by generations of uninterested or even hostile media coverage, inadequate arts education and sometimes by the artists themselves. There is a huge gap between the actual experience of art, as understood by those who engage with it, and what it is said to be by those who ignore or spurn it. I believe this is one of the most serious challenges facing the arts in Australia.

 

Yet survey after survey, study after study, has demonstrated the real benefits of a vibrant culture. The arts are among the most productive sections of our economy, with innumerable and tangible benefits. The secondary economic benefits of community making, urban revitalisation, innovative thinking and so on are only now beginning to be measured, and are probably greater than the immediate economic value of the industries associated with the arts. Yet artists are too often seen as bludgers who do not contribute to Australian society. Whereas in other countries the achievements of their artists are a source of national pride, here we very often don't know what those achievements are. The comparison is often made, justly, with national pride in the achievements of our sportmen and women: we have artists of equal international achievement whom the general public have never heard of.

 

The first point to be made is that the best and most effective advocacy for art is the art itself. Anyone who seriously engages with art does so because, at some point, they encountered a work of art that moved them so fundamentally, spoke to them so directly, that they felt that a new possibility had opened in their lives.  However, the opportunity to encounter this kind of experience is by no means open to everyone. They have to know that it is possible within their daily lives, financially or socially. And in between the artist and the audience, there are many mediating factors which can obscure or negate this possibility.

 

I don't believe there is any short-term solution to this. Changing public prejudices about the arts requires some radical envisioning, including a social empowering of audiences and readers. The arts are not the province of the few but part of the cultural richness that belongs to every man, woman and child in Australia. This is not a question of compromising artistic complexity or of pandering to audiences, nor of ensuring that all art is universally adored. It is about ensuring that an invitation is extended to anyone who is interested. It is about creating a society in which every person has access to the arts, as practitioners and audiences, without feeling they have to be part of a special club.  We need audiences and readers to feel confident about their own part in the culture, so they don't feel intimidated or hostile, but rather are excited and stimulated when they encounter work they don't wholly understand.  We are a long way from that understanding. The reasons for this are complex, and include issues of education and the mass media, and not all of them can be addressed by government policy.

 

The Creative Australia powerpoint presentation (!) shows the dilemma starkly.  Australians feel disenfranchised from the arts for a number of reasons.

 

Practical

 

Financial constraint:

85% of the population would feel more positive about the arts if they were more financially accessible (see Making Theatre Affordable)

Geographic barriers:

74% would feel more positive if the arts were more geographically accessible

 

Social

 

A perceived sense of exclusion:

84% of the population believe that the arts should be "more accessible and available to average Australians"

A perceived lack of relevant information and education about the arts:

35% agree that "the arts are OK, but irrelevant to me"

Perceived social atmosphere precludes some from feeling comfortable engaging in the arts:

51% believe the arts attract people who are "somewhat elitist and pretentious"

 

The practical questions are questions of funding policies. Theatre tickets, for example, can be made cheaper by better funding of theatre companies, or by direct subsidies of theatre tickets - see William Zappa's proposal on affordable theatre. One recent is example is how Nicholas Hytner, AD of the National Theatre in London, successfully lured new audiences by attracting sponsorship from Travelex that permitted him to slash ticket prices. The second point would be addressed by better policies for regional arts: both in supporting local artistic organisations and in solid support for touring of regional Australia.

 

What concerns me most of all are the social issues, although many of these could be solved by addressing financial or geographical disadvantage. If Australian artists are to argue for more and better funding, or even the kind of indirect and relatively inexpensive support I have suggested here, we need to radically change how the arts are perceived in this country by the general populace. We need the support of our audience. We need Australians to be proud of what Australian artists achieve, in the same way they feel proud of our sportmen and women. We need them to understand better that the arts are not exclusive, and that artists need and welcome all kinds of people to their work. We need them to understand that the arts can play a valuable part in their own lives.

 

In short, we need some good, honest and populist arts advocacy. See my general musings for more on these issues.

 

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