The University of Adelaide 2017 Cultural Oration: Finding the Next Wave: Innovation and its Discontents

Posted: Wednesday 26 July

On July 13th 2017 Adelaide Festival of Ideas founder and chair Greg Mackie OAM presented the University of Adelaide 2017 Cultural Oration.

Finding the Next Wave: Innovation and its Discontents

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I acknowledge that we meet here on the traditional lands of the Kaurna people and I pay respects to Kaurna and other First Nations Elders and acknowledge that their spiritual connection to this land is as strong to the living Kaurna communities today as it was to their ancestors.

I extend special acknowledgment to Steven Marshall MP, to John Gardner MP and to Peter Louca from Arts South Australia.

I would also like to acknowledge some arts elders and peers in the audience today whose cultural leadership has provided inspiration to me in my own journey as a contributor to our culture. First among them is Frank Ford AM. With two amazing annual festivals to your credit in this – the festival state – love and respect. And Professor Emeritus Ian North AM – artist and academic extraordinaire.

And I note a few apologies: from sometime partners in culture Robyn Archer AO and Justin MacDonnell, and my long time Adelaide Festival of Ideas amigo, Phillip Adams AO – all of whom are here in secular spirit in-absentia. I’d also also to acknowledge Publisher Michael Bollen from Wakefield Press – both our cultural sector journeys started in the west end of Adelaide in the early-mid-1980s.

Each of these people have at one time or another provided counsel and comfort when the journey seems too hard. And let’s face it folks – most journeys in the arts are bloody hard!

A shout out to my fabulous Adelaide Festival of Ideas board fellow travellers here this evening. Greetings to my chorus of collection colleagues from the History Trust of South Australia and to our colleagues from the Museums and Galleries sector.

And last but not least I’d like to thank Mirna Heruc for her invitation to make this Oration this evening.

This evening’s gathering comes for me in the wake of my announcement last week’s that The Adelaide Festival of Ideas will again rise like the Phoenix from the ashes of government indifference, but this time we will go backwards so as to move forward. We will be returning to July – the place in the calendar where it first took root back in the last century.

Both that announcement and this gathering come at a time in the state electoral cycle when political sensitivities are heightened, and so I will do my very best to avoid making trouble – for myself and for our collective missions!

You therefore won’t hear me bleat about uneven playing fields – in part because it has never ever been an even playing field. What I would like to achieve this evening, is to share with you some thoughts about where and how what we think of as ‘the arts’ in Australia has, in terms of the public language we use and the policy contest of ideas, lost sight of its most compelling raison d’être.

In the contest for finite taxpayer resources, we have somehow lost the language of our declared understanding: that the purpose of art is, simply put, a set of unique and vital forms of cultural expression. A mirror to society.

Or might it be the case that the abandonment of, and advocacy for, the intrinsic public value of art as a public good is itself a reflection of a deeper malaise..?

I will also offer a potted modern history of South Australia’s arts journey so as to reflect upon how public policy and the language of the dominant economic paradigms have dulled our expectations and advocacy.

I hope that most of all this evening I might add some kindling to the bright sparks that I know are here in the room, so that we might all yet again recommit ourselves to the creation of a warming light for the true public value of art – as the highest expression of human culture and identity.

The title of my address came to me in the wee small hours of pre-dawn darkness, where, as I have discovered through so many conversations over the years with artists, many find clarity of thought – the quiet hours before the preoccupations and distractions of the day conspire to make things less clear.

‘Riding the next wave: innovation and its discontents’ is my attempt to sound ponderous and reflective, and to invite your interest in rugging up this evening and stepping out in the middle of refreshing July.

From next year July will once again be a time for ideas, and so do consider this evening to be a bookmark for July 2018 when the New AFoI will be enveloped in an arts and cultural program under the name ART=IDEAS!

So – come with me on a brief journey back in time. What we now know as ‘art’ was once not so self-consciously described. And the notion of a creature known as ‘the artist’ – was really a late 18th century construct – at least in European culture.

In the beginning was the word – and the word was not Capital A – ART. It was painting and painters, sculpture and sculptors, drama and actors, poetry and poets, storytelling and writers, dance and dancers and choreographers, music, musicians and composers – et-cetera and they each drew inspiration from their muse. And of course Indigenous cultures everywhere have used artistic expression for ceremony and for storytelling since time immemorial.

Sustaining these creative souls and their outputs relied on the kindness and financial patronage of: the wealthy institutions of the church; the monarchy; the aristocracy; the mercantilist and then the industrialist classes. Eventually ART consumption came to be embraced by the professional middle classes. And now we rightfully want everyone to join in and savour the rich opportunities to experience the world through someone else’s sensibilities.

Artists were artisans and they derived, or more likely than not attempted to derive – their livelihoods from what might generically be described as the adornments of affluence. One’s wealth and self-actualisation was given expression by one’s capacity to possess and conspicuously consume that which exalted power, civility, religious faith, spirituality, lux – and luxury.

The means of production and replication turned some practitioners into what we once called craftsmen and we now describe in the gender inclusive language of designer makers.

And so now, because I am not an academic and this is not intended as a history lecture, I fast-forward to circa 20th century. As the material wealth of the middle classes grew and then contracted between the wars and though the Great Depression, and then expanded again exponentially during the boom post the Second World War, the legion of audiences and patrons who self-described as being ‘into the arts’ exploded in numbers.

Until mid-20th century there was much regard for, and virtue to be had, in being described as a ‘dilettante’ – an enthusiastic amateur.

In the 1990s my old friend, author and broadcaster Robert Dessaix, in a volume of Essays [And So Forth] wrote in praise of the dilettante and lamented the segregation that came with the construct of the ‘professional artist’. It was through this schism between the amateur and the professional artist, and through an amazing act of political leadership, that in the late 1960s the Commonwealth Government created The Australia Council for the Arts.

As an exemplar of the previous blurring of the line between professional and amateur, one need look no further than Adelaide’s Institute Building that sits proudly on the corner of North Terrace and Kintore Avenue. It is South Australia’s equivalent of the birthplace of culture and learning, from which emerged the South Australian Museum, The Art Gallery of South Australia, The State Library of South Australia, State Records, and of course the Royal South Australian Society of The Arts – which is still at home there today. Briefly, it was home to The Histroy Trust of South Australia, and later to my DPC office as Deputy Chief Executive, Cultural Development and the Integrated Design Commission, the Capital City Directorate, and The Adelaide Festival of Ideas, – with Adelaide Thinkers in Residence in the nearby Jervois Wing. And now of course it is home to the newest gallery on North Terrace: The History Trust’s new Centre of Democracy South Australia.

In my final musing on the delineation between the dilettante and the construct of the professional artist, I reference South Australia’s great cultural export – the immensely talented, articulate and redoubtable former Cabaret artiste, author and two-times Adelaide Festival of Arts Director, Robyn Archer AO. Now many years ago, when discussing this very topic with me over lunch one day, Robyn responded with one word when I asked her to describe what distinguishes a professional artist from a dilettante – in an Australia where most artists live below the poverty line.

Her one word was ‘intent’.

I preface this next observation by acknowledging that Australian public policy in the arts and culture does not occur in a vacuum, isolated from the wider societal and existential competing political realities of our time. I do lament that, in order for ‘excellence’ to become the basis to elevate some above others, the notion of ‘the elite’ professional practitioner, and more particularly their right to access direct subsidy or investment from governments, has now produced generations of talented souls whose sense of validation as artists has become, in-part, dependent upon their capacity to win government subsidy.

Of course there are others who would wear their lack of subsidy as a badge of honour. In saying this I do not mean to imply that subsidy is an evil. I do believe there is a role for the state to intervene where market forces fail to redress inequities and to support the arts. But it is a simple fact that the available bucket of subsidy is not big enough, has never been big enough, and will never be big enough – to satisfy the level of demand that the market forces driven post- secondary education system is generating.

And it’s not just artists. We now produce more credentialed lawyers, teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers than the local economy can sustain. Thus the exodus of our young people. The supply and demand market forces have been permanently distorted through consumer demand-driven market intervention.

With your indulgence I will offer a very compressed but high-level overview of the economic context in which the arts has operated over the last 25 or so years so as to further provide context for my subject.

Back in the 1980s, in the Hawke-Keating era, the development of industry plans were de-rigueur. I was one of the first wave of arts sector people invited to a workshop that led to the creation in South Australia of the Arts Industry Council – and I joined that board later in the 1990s and served for a few years. I was not myself an artist, but as a literary bookseller I was seen as part of an industry supply chain. I took the work of writers and found them consumers – AKA readers.

To continue from where I departed earlier –
In the beginning was the word – and the word was ‘ART’.
But governments could not get away with simply giving taxpayer money to ART. And so on the second day the word became ‘THE ARTS’.
And by day three THE ARTS came THE ARTS SECTOR.

And on day four the culture gods created THE ARTS INDUSTRY – so that disempowered Arts Ministers could more easily arm wrestle for dollars from economic rationalist Treasurers.

And since the Hawke-Keating social democrat dictum of the time was that all industries would have industry plans, on the fifth day it was determined that we would have an ARTS INDUSTRY PLAN.

And industry plans called for strategies. And so by the sixth day the word was ‘strategic plan’. The Arts Industry Councils around the country called for governments to produce strategic plans for their arts industries. The belief was that government should determine 5 year plans for the arts – a top down ‘government knows best’ model of cultural prescription.

In South Australia, most of the organised arts had been legislated into existence by the successive governments of Steele Hall, Don Dunstan, David Tonkin, John Bannon, Lyn Arnold, Dean Brown, John Olsen, briefly Rob Kerin – and Mike Rann. There came to be an expectation at the turn of the century that ‘the plan’ would provide a secure place in which artists and arts companies could reliably anticipate their chance for subsidy. People wanted to be told what to do to get the dollars.

Those 5-year plans never really eventuated.

Which is not to say that former governments lacked plans or strategies – every arts organisation is required to have plans, and funding agencies have their own business plans as part of public administration, but the construct of the ‘master plan’ was something to be avoided if at all possible.

Arts grant programs flourished in the boom of the 1980s – then by the late 80s along came the State Bank Disaster in South Australia. This was compounded nationally by the dreadful ‘recession that we had to have’ in the early 1990s. Peer assessed individual artist project grant programs at times enjoyed a boost, but for a long time flatlined.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as workers were laid off in their thousands, property values flat-lined. Interest rates reached near 20% and and the robber- baron bankers who sunk the bank fled to cosy sinecures in far-flung places with massive payouts. The Bannon-Arnold Labor Government was voted out and the Liberals enjoyed two terms setting about putting the economy and the state balance sheet back together again, in so doing flogging off almost everything that was not bolted down. It was a dirty job – but someone had to do it.

So where was the much-sought arts industry plan? It took the wonderfully passionate and inimitable Diana Laidlaw AM seven years as arts minister – and repeated calls by the Arts Industry Council – to finally produce a glossy publication ‘ARTS PLUS’ in 2001 – the year before the Liberals lost government in March 2002. So much for Arts Plus!

At the time I commenced as Executive Director of Arts SA in January 2004, my executive contract with DPC tasked me to develop a 10 year strategy for the arts.

Prior to this, as a bookseller, precinct advocate, Writers’ Week Chair, Adelaide Festival of Ideas Founder and City Councillor, I had participated actively as a city cultural leader and advocate in the major consultation workshops that Arts SA had facilitated in 2002-03. To be frank, I was seriously underwhelmed by the limited extent of the collective imagination. And frankly I was also deeply dismayed by the organisational and sectional self-interest that the workshops revealed. There were no new ideas, just ‘gimme more money’.

Once in the job, I challenged Premier MIke Rann as Minister for the Arts – and John Hill as Minister Assisting the Premier in the Arts, with the extent of the problems that had to be fixed. I indicated to them that such a 10 year arts strategy document would have to be focused on fixing those problems and that all would cost dearly in terms of both once-off and recurrent cash – and would require the investment of considerable political capital in the contest for always finite resources.

I also indicated to Mike and John that I was philosophically deeply concerned with the notion that ‘the state’ should cast in stone its investment and program priorities for a whole decade – shaped and informed by the special pleadings, imagination and the opportunities of one fixed moment in time. Where would there be room for spontaneous opportunity? How many people would expect their cause to be privileged over others?

It is not my purpose this evening to recount for you in granular detail the situation that I steered the portfolio through while Executive Director of Arts SA. Suffice to say tens of millions of dollars were required – both as once-off and recurrent, in order that the major trunks and branches of the cultural system could remain solvent and creatively viable.

In essence, the problem with ‘plans’ is that successive governments are never bound by them. And nor even are successive Ministers from the same party – they seek to chart their own course and are often distracted by other portfolio responsibilities. Then there’s showtime. There’s an old saying in Westminster politics – the people opposite you in parliament are your opponents and the people behind you are your enemies.

And of course, changing economic circumstances conspire to create both opportunity – and contraction. The essentially bipartisan project to restore the state’s international AAA credit agency rating that was commenced by Brown, Olsen and Kerin was continued by Rann and Foley. The resources boom that delivered the best of times saw revenues grow by 4% per annum – well ahead of inflation.

The rivers of gold, of uranium, of coal, and of iron ore that created the burgeoning revenue streams for state and Commonwealth governments in the naughties withered come the Global Financial Crisis and the slump in commodity prices.

Unlike in other jurisdictions, the impact on government expenditure of the collapse of government revenue in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 in South Australia was delayed by the timing of the 2010 state election and the Sustainable Budget Commission process.

Despite all this, and in the face of dramatic budget cuts in most areas of State government spending, South Australia largely held the line on government arts funding – until 2014-15.

Despite this impact – and I commend our current Minister Jack Snelling for achieving a delay in roll-out for the last three successive years of Cabinet approved budget cuts – the core arts budget has remained protected – at least until the next state budget…

There are people who will always be unhappy about how the arts funding pie is divided, but the facts speak for themselves: the state’s annual arts budget has continued to grow – from roughly $68m in 2003-04 to what is now some $148m in 2017-18. And all the way throughout the last almost 50 years – through six successive governments – and eight Premiers – governments make significant capital project commitments that end up being paid for and delivered by a future Arts Minister, government and Premier. This is the only way that big things get planned, delivered and paid for. And it is as was ever thus.

I know that we all look back through rose coloured glasses and – to quote from the wonderful LP Hartley’s The Go-Between – “the past is always a foreign country – they do things differently there”. And while this may seem a significant departure from my stated subject, I hope it provides the context for the public language and economic journey that has transcended partisan politics and individual personalities.

A price for holding the line on arts funding has been the ‘econo-metrification’ of the language and rationale for providing government investment in the arts. This is by no means an exclusively South Australian phenomenon. I know that I am not the only person to have ever talked about this – and I will certainly not be the last.

In the journey from artform – to art – to the artist – to the arts – to the arts sector – to the arts industry – to the creative industries – to the innovation economy and to the experience economy, good people who care passionately about the essence of what art is about, about its intrinsic personal and public value, have been unwittingly co-opted into a public policy and public language dance that at every turn has seen art turned into an economic instrument.

Back in the late 1960s when the Steele Hall Liberal Government committed the state to invest $20m to build the Adelaide Festival Centre there was no requirement that a decision about resource allocation to culture must be based solely on a business case and economic benefit. It was done, and agreed to be done, by both sides of politics – because it was a public good.

Our major arts companies were brought into existence and enshrined in legislation because, to paraphrase the late Don Dunstan – ‘the barbarians are always at the gate and the only way to protect the arts from the philistines is to legislate it into existence’. To this day we have more Statutory Authorities in the arts in South Australia than in any other jurisdiction.

As a city-state that aspires to major city infrastructure, but with only a globally median population base against which to pay for and leverage it, we have never been able to rely solely on the economic business case. And nor should this be so. And yet this is increasingly what the arts across Australia – and I emphasise again that this is a phenomenon not only afflicting South Australia – is required to do.

In saying this I am not suggesting that the arts must not be business savvy – we are actually incredibly lean and resourceful at the organisaitonal level. And nor am I suggesting that we can ignore the audience. Driving up demand for artistic product and content is essential. Having spent 23 years of my life in the commercial cultural sector as an independent bookseller I know this only too well.

I also know that there are peers and colleagues in this room this evening who were, and maybe still are, suspicious of my notion that there are three functional alignments within the arts side of culture. As the leader of Arts SA back in the day, I restructured our agency so as to recognise and respond to these three legitimate alignments: the makers, the presenters and the collectors. These are not exclusive silos – they are all interconnected.

Again, it is not the purpose of this evening’s address to justify that model, but what it did was to recognise that all three of these alignments must be nurtured, cherished and guarded. When I commenced at Arts SA, I mused with Mike Rann and John Hill on what was our major mission. We agreed that it was to make the arts more relevant, inviting and accessible – to more people and more often.

To achieve this we needed to grow the revenue base with which the sector had to work and the festivals platforms that so effectively drive demand and reach audiences. This meant both increasing the available state funding as well as driving up non-government sponsorship and box office. And it called for a better understanding of the interplay between supply and demand drivers – between the makers and presenters and collectors within the cultural sector, and earned income.

My intent with this evening’s address is to challenge our arts and cultural sector to do two things: to recognise that there is always an economic context in which all government funding is made, and secondly that we need to reframe our purpose with new language – to recommit ourselves to making the case more compelling for the intrinsic public value of art and therefore the public good that exists in a society and a culture when it believes in the value of art.

We can do fancy graphs and tables all we like, but unless we can truly believe in the importance of our mission, and translate that purpose into words that mean something to others – words that are about so much more than the numbers – then I fear that we are abdicating our duty of care to ourselves, to our heritage and to future generations.

If this sounds like a motherhood statement then I am pleased – because the notion of the motherhood statement has been much maligned and has much to commend it.

I believe that we must seek new champions among the political class and we must understand better the spectre of influence and influencers and give them that language – the soundbites and the elevator pitches that excite the listener – and make our mission meaningful in its own right. It is time to reject, or at least supplement, the useless jargon about creative industries, and innovation, and supply chains, and bed nights and all the other hype we peddle and hoops that we are required to jump through.

I have never been a glass half empty kinda guy. Those of you who know me or who know my background, know that I am sincere in my belief in the cause of art. And we can restore our sense of purpose.

When asked, on the eve of her visit to Adelaide Writers’ Week many years ago, the wonderful Jeanette Winterson reflected upon the meaning of art. Most of you would have heard me share this on one or more occasions over the years:

With the decline in religious faith,
art is like a green space
in a city filling with concrete.
It is a place to breathe, to walk slowly, to meditate on life and its meaning,

to find new understanding – about oneself and others,
to be surprised by beauty,
to be made aware of subtle vibrations and gradations of life that so soften pass in a blur.
Art is a place to think.
Above all, art is a place to feel.

We live in a world suspicious of emotion.
Above all, art is emotion….it is a place where love is, where imagination grows,
where we can feel and respond without feeling ashamed.

It is a place of free exchange, forgiveness and something that might be called happiness.
It is the place where we are at our best.

In searching for the next wave in the arts – beyond the innovation and disruptive innovation hype, I hope that it takes us back to the soul of our belief in art’s purpose. Let’s ride the next wave back to truth and purpose. To hearts and minds, through leadership and advocacy.

For now – here endeth the lesson! Thanks for listening.


 

An audio recording of this oration is available at the Adelaide University Collections website.