Cultural Cringe Continues in COVID
Lately I have looked at the government responses to the fires, to the floods and now to COVID19 and wonder why the response by our Govt. to these crises is so anti-culture and why it continues unopposed by fellow Australians. This is a third article- investigating an attack on the arts in my local area- Terrey Hills. Background- two years ago the Northern Beaches Council was granted 1.7 million to restore and beatify the Manly beach walk. This would include restoration work, OHS standards and insurance being a factor, you can start to imagine the financial enormity of this public work.
That being said it stands to employ lots of locals and couldn’t be going underway at a better time as so many Australians have lost their jobs, and public works is one way the government hopes to create employment opportunities- that includes for those employed in creative industries. It is an exciting time for such a venture to be coming to fruition.
The walk is to include a sculpture walk with grants of up to $100,000 being granted for masterpieces. As said the work started 2 years ago, but in the advent of COVID19 local councillor Penny Philpott decided that one of the sculptures should be a COVID19 Memorial. After all this is a profound moment in time, and one would hope that from here we would not sweep its memory under the carpet as humanity did with The Spanish Flu in 1918. For some reason the COVID memorial is being heavily contested, by local Liberal politicians, and local people are jumping on board. I am going to look at the reasons why that may be happening, but also just break down the creative job structure so my fellow constituents can understand how the arts sector functions in terms of businesses and grants. Firstly, I think the fear of the arts, commonly called “the cultural cringe” is an encultured response in itself. Australians have always been a little on the humble side in acknowledging their own cultural voice and artistic brilliance. This is as old as the tall ships but comes from that our lack of true identity. It seems we still would do anything to avoid stepping out from behind England’s skirts and declaring ourselves unique in the world. Our cultural identity is therefore still a bit of a mishmash; heavily influenced by American media and still shameful of the maltreatment of our first people- past and present. But also, there is another tension that goes unacknowledged -often Australians feel they need to side with sport or art, which in itself has a long history. Art and sport used to share the same funding- as entertainment- and as such had to compete for every penny allotted by the government in terms of grants and commissions. When art and sport finally divided as separate sectors, it seemed that Australians themselves still felt they had to choose one or the other and this sentiment continues through to today. Perhaps it is a classist sentiment, lingering from days gone by, and even an anti-authoritarian instinct. regardless of its origins, often it is said that as many people attend the biennale as the football. It is time that we realised that we don’t have to choose one over the other- we can, and should, enjoy both.
I started to look into why some parts of the population felt distanced from either sport or art and what existed in our media to keep these two sectors as polar opposites. This meandering exploration of mine started with the media. I decided to compare how the arts and sport was being reported. Let’s start with the reporting of the arts. As a performer I can only say how much I miss real reviewers over bloggers.
But no- we don’t seem to have that now. We seem to have endless twenty-something bloggers who come to the theatre to comment on my weight, or to guess at the price of my costuming, or to comment on my mastectomy scars- without any idea of how to actually value content. It has made theatre and movies into a very shallow field, when the capacity to do so much more with the reviews could do so much more. I moved on to other arts sections of the papers. I’ll be honest, I did find the way that art was reported to be pretty bland and lack lustre. Nothing I read really filled me with excitement even though I knew the artworks or performances being mentioned were hugely exciting. In fact, reading about it all became a bit of a chore. It was all very unsexy, lots of big words, dark/ moody pictures, and not much to engage the reader. Perhaps this is another reason so much of what happens in the arts seems to distance people. It seems so dull! As for the newspapers, may they rest in peace, the sports section is easily accessible, with lots of pictures and it often takes up half the paper. Punters can engage by watching it live, or on TV, making bets, buying merchandise and getting pissed together over a burnt BBQ sausage. On the Television sport takes up to ¼ of the news hour. We are lucky to see anything on the arts most nights.
And yet the arts are astounding. Art has been responsible for changing the course of history at times. Perhaps we really just haven’t found a way to present it to the Australian public in a manner that they can enjoy it easily. Is fine art too far up its own proverbial derriere to notice that it’s just not hot enough. But before we go and decide art is superfluous due to its current lack of spunk, lets looks at the art in your life.
What would you be wearing now if someone hadn’t taken the time to design it, source the fabric, make it, advertise it interestingly and sell it? Do you have a favourite garment? Who designed it? Who made it? How did it get to you?
What watch would you be wearing, or what car would you be driving if car companies did not hire people who were artistically gifted to create a great looking vehicle, in a stylish colour, with a stylish stream line it?
Look around your home or office, look at all of the items that have been dreamed into existence by a creative mind and clever hands.
What movie did you last watch? Did you realise that the millions that may have cost to make the movie is actually millions in paid wages? What series are you into? Count the people on the screen in the larger shots in shopping malls or the street scenes, and you start to see just how many thousands of people make a living from these creative products. Then there is your life. Parents for example: Next time you drive your child to their after-school art class, or ballet, or drama, or to computer graphics, or to the clarinet lesson, or to band recitals- just think why you do it. It may well be that your child is exceptionally gifted and stands a chance of making it through to a career in creative empires such as The Australian Ballet or The Sydney Symphony Orchestra… if any of those exist after COVID19- because currently there is nothing to save them. Those opportunities may not be there. So those careers just may not happen. Perhaps your talented, passionate child, that you have nurtured and encouraged and spent thousands of dollars educating, will be the next Ben Quilty, or the next Tones and I. Will there be opportunities for them to viably work if we don’t support the arts through this period now? Or perhaps, you realised, that even if your child never goes on to a career in the arts, that having these skills under their belt is something you wished you may have had in your childhood. Perhaps you acknowledge something you loved as a child that then had no outcome in your adult life, and that you miss it- because it fed your soul, helped you connect with like-minded others, helped you form a sense of self and helped you gain a sense of confidence that has held you in good stead as an adult. And if your child is a genius, or even just a driven individual with a passion and talent for any one of the innumerable outlets of creativity one may have in a lifetime, perhaps they could go on to have a career in the arts. If not as the artist, then as a teacher, a manager, a creative director, a curator, a gallery manager, a designer- in fact the list of jobs in the arts sector is as massive as any other. Now if it were true that Northern Beaches has no love of the arts, then I would challenge anyone believing that to go to their nearest high school, be it public or private, and take note of just how hard these schools strive to provide the ultimate in creative educations. I have moved from the inner city, from “the hub” of creative Sydney, with complete ignorance of just how prolific the Norther Beaches arts communities are- and it all starts with the schools. It starts in the schools because parents have played such an active role in ensuring that there are fully equipped concert halls- for example. There are dance studios with floor to ceiling mirrors, there are music rooms full of keyboards with musical education being front and foremost in what the school offers. There are drama studios and art rooms.
In fact, I am completely blown away by this secret world of Northern Beaches art.
It is a world where it is plain to see that the hopes for our next generation of Australians extends beyond compartmentalised carpeted cubical compiling office data whilst plugged into a screen, and the hopes for them extend way beyond the winning of the school eisteddfod. The hope for the average voting, taxpaying parent is that their child can have as prolific and comfortable career in the arts as any other sector. So why is it that so many of you are fighting the arts, when you are so passionate in building your child’s education to include artistic accomplishment? Surely it goes beyond vicariously living through your children. I think people recognise a life in the arts as a wonderful life. It is a challenging life, however, so I am going to break down my career in layman’s terms. Firstly I do not buy into the starving artist stereotype. The idea that good art comes through suffering is not going to help us here. Please stop with this dribble. Ever hear of the starving economist or the starving politician.
I expected when I left NIDA that I would have a career in theatre, just as you surely expected to be able to build a career after you had studied. End of conversation. No suffering needed here. Please no starvation. I am talented at what I do, just as a good surgeon is talented at what they do. Talented people who have a natural ability, who work hard, and have good business skills do well. End of situation. On the point of business skills is the most relevant one to this entire conversation. Rather than calling me an artist, call me a business woman. I run a small business. My performances are my product. I sell these products to clients who are a part of the extensive entertainment network. Sometimes I produce my own shows at festivals- similar to how another business might do an expo, or businesses may run a special, and this generates more clients- my business is no different.
If we can understand our local ‘artists’ are really local businesses, you can start to see how they support and feed into other local businesses.
Say I do a performance in a theatre. I may have to pay a venue fee which pays for the venue staff to operate… if not then I pay a lighting designer, a lighting technician, a sound technician, a deputy stage manager, a stage assistant, a graphic designer, ushers, the box office staff, the advertising department, a print company, poster and flier distributers, people to hand out fliers at relevant events and opportunities, a PR person to manage television and online awareness raising opportunities, a transportation crew if I need to travel the show interstate, I pay for freight which also pays the wages of those working in the freight company, set designers, costume designers, directors, choreographers, rehearsals studio hire, catering companies if necessary, riggers, structural engineers to test my equipment and sets, my agent, a tour manager… it goes on.
Most of my out goings are in actually paying people. That is actual money going into the actual pockets of actual locals. So effectively, one single product from my small business contributes to the livelihood of my fellow Australians- who have collectively been lumped into the “arts sector” and are for some reason labelled as pampered and worthless. Hmmm… I am no different from any other tax payer in my responsibilities. I have a child to support, and a husband if he is not working (he works in films- so also struck off with COVID19). I am paying a mortgage, I pay for school fees at the moment to private school, but public is looking like our high school option and I enrolled my daughter without a single complaint because again, I am so inspired by what the Northern Beaches offers its youth. I am essentially a mum, recovering from breast cancer. I am educated- having studied 8 years to be able to do what I can do. I have performed in Operas, graced the opera House Stage many times, worked with Sydney Symphony Orchestra and now- there is nothing for me. I say it without grief- I have done my grieving. It is now simply a fact I have to deal with in term of how to manage my business. I have applied for a single grant from a community council to record my repertoire before I announce my retirement- aged 49- should it come to that. It was for $10,000. My grant application covers the wages of 5 people, one of whom is me. I have essentially split it 5 ways meaning I can pay us each $2000 for two weeks work. That is $1000 a week each. That is the first income my business has seen since March 8th- the day all of my contracts were cancelled. It is an income that other creative business owners are welcoming but it is not ideal when the overheads of life in Sydney are what they are. A grant is not something that is negotiable. It can-not go over budget as is being suggested in the case of the scenic walk- that is not how grants work. You must supply a detailed budget with your proposal and any failure to meet the terms contracted by the Council fall on the shoulders of the executor of that grant. In this case me. The grant has an expenditure time line and there is to be a thorough evaluation at the end of the project where all receipts are provided and all money accounted for. So, you can’t just spend it how you like- sit back and have a cup of tea and splash some paint around. The artist/ company must supply the completed product, to the funding body, within the stipulated time and within the stipulated budget- a budget you, yourself has supplied equipped with quotes and written estimates. So that is how a grant operates. I am fortunate that although I am a contract worker, I do run my creative produce as a business. I am on Job Keeper until September within which time I have to entirely restructure my business to survive post COVID19 if such a thing is possible. Many artists do not run as a business. Many are contract workers. They are on Job Seeker. They need to retrain to be able to get jobs even though they are highly skilled, and within normal circumstances, successful contractors. Their careers have also possibly been bought to an abrupt end. Some of them are in their twenties, but many I saw in the dole queues were over 55. What is to become of them? How can they retrain? Will anyone employ them? All of this has happened to a sector who were there for Australia during the fires. We all responded- raising money and awareness. We were among those going out to communities, feeding volunteers, sewing joey pouches for injured wildlife and volunteering to help the fireys. Australia where are you for us now? I get one letter daily asking for help with a project- to write letters of support- to donate to a cause- to do free shows in online cabarets- consoling each other, holding each other up because it has become so obvious that our own local communities value us so little. My greatest concern is for what happens next- will this follow the same pattern as the AIDS epidemic and heroine epidemics, during which time I was a social worker- will we now see a wave of suicide? I feel it is daily I am getting calls from distressed friends whose loss of worth to our society is costing them more than their businesses, it is costing then their homes, their sense of well-being and identity. I am deeply, deeply concerned.
As the government wipes its hands of the arts I am amazed and encouraged to see local councils stepping up and standing up for us. I cannot express how much of an impact it is having on your local artists to have hope, to have a tiny amount of income and to continue- if even only for small projects like mine- to be busy doing what you are trained to do, and what you have done all of your life.
So, in applying all of the above discussion to a grant of $100,000 to a sculptural artist for a COVID19 Memorial along the Manly Sculpture Walk which is being heavily contested by one Rory Amon, I ask members of my own community to think about your local businesses that are struggling. $100,000 sounds like a lot of money, but when you consider that a fair amount of it will be channelled back into the immediate community, and then consider that the remainder actually reflects an hourly rate of pay and time invested in the project, and then consider that this may be the last work this artist sees until we recover from COVID - 3-5 years from now, it really isn't much to sustain a business for that length of time. Then consider that this may be the last sculpture that artist makes, and in being a monument to COVID, it really may mark the death of Australian arts practice for thousands of workers. Its significance is suddenly very sobering, and very poignant, and very important to the community. We may never be the same. I know many see the arts as hobbyist activities, but they aren’t. Running a business in the creative sector is complex, and our businesses may not look like yours, but they do have a place in the community. If we disappear, the businesses and workers we support likely will follow. Support local and know you are supporting your own.