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“Creative imagination” or “Quiet Australians”?

Esther Anatolitis

On 8 April’s 7.30 on the ABC, Leigh Sales asked internationally renowned infectious diseases expert Dr Michael Osterholm why the world has been so woefully unprepared for COVID-19 – given he and others have been warning us about a global pandemic for over a decade.

Despite those repeated warnings, he continued, we’re told by politicians that “no one could have envisioned – or so they say – all the constellation of things that have happened here: not just a virus crossing from an animal to a human, but the worldwide transmission, the impact that it has on healthcare, the fact that it also shuts down our global economy.”

If “no one could have envisioned” the inevitable set of possibilities that experts have been outlining in detail, then contemporary governance is in big trouble. Because the capacity to envision a complex set of possibilities is fundamental to good governance.

It’s also, of course, the fundamental skillset of the artist.

Creative skills power economic growth

Artists draw on the oldest and richest traditions we have to reframe our perceptions, reshape our thinking and reset our horizons. Their work generates new technologies, new working models, new ways of thinking. Art creates our future.

Creative practitioners are adept at testing new models, jettisoning assumptions and experimenting with conviction. They actively seek critical responses and opposing views. They are at home with conflict and risk. Their minds are agile, taking confident leaps in new directions, rather than getting bogged down in unhelpful frameworks and obsolete ideologies. They’re sensitive, curious and inventive.

That’s why the World Economic Forum, the International Monetary Fund, and even the Australian Government’s Bureau of Communications and Arts Research, rate creativity at the top of the list of skills needed for the future of work.

The fourth industrial revolution may very much be on hold right now, but the skills we need to create the economy of the future are the same skills that we need to be able to envision it at all.

And while that future may seem a long way away, we also know that investing in arts and culture is one of the most effective industry targets for successful economic stimulus.

Cultural and creative activity contributes $111.7bn to the economy or 6.5% of GDP, according to the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research. Arts and culture is one of the nation’s biggest employers, with 5.5% of Australians in creative employment, and across the past decade, employment growth in the creative industries was double the Australian workforce average.

Recent analysis by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Grattan Institute and Deloitte Access Economics has highlighted how badly impacted the industry has been by COVID-19. On many measures, arts and culture has been the worst hit of all industries, and without effective stimulus, will take the longest to recover.

But it’s not just artists, artsworkers and artslovers who would benefit from that stimulus.

The Australia Institute have looked at this more closely, applying their Design Principles for Fiscal Policy in a Pandemic to a range of industries. As I’ve analysed elsewhere, arts and culture emerge as the top priority for governments with a genuine focus on what’s best right now. Turns out it’s one of the very best ways to stimulate the entire economy.

“Ghostlights, not spotlights”

On that analysis, arts and culture ranks highest for economic stimulus priority because it’s a highly employment-intensive industry heavily relied upon by other industries such as hospitality and tourism, while employing predominantly low-paid workers who will immediately spend any income support measures. Across measures such as high domestic production, strong regional disadvantage, and identifiable co-benefits, arts and culture deliver for the entire economy like few other industries.

And yet, rather than make that investment, the Australian Government steadfastly refuses to join the dots and envision the consequences. If ever there were a moment to apply that “creative imagination”, it’s now.

Instead, when the industry exposed the ineligibility of too many artists, artsworkers and organisations for COVID-19 income support measures, the Minister claimed that JobKeeper and JobSeeker solved those problems. The industry’s response was immediate, demolishing those claims.

When Australia’s leading artists spoke out about the challenges of sustaining their work, the Minister claimed that JobKeeper would “keep the spotlights shining”. These claims were also contradicted: its ghostlights, not spotlights, across the industry right now.

And when the industry raised the alarm on impacts and necessary next steps, the Minister claimed to have made “the single biggest government investment to support our arts and creative sector that we have ever seen.” This claim was rapidly disproved by the industry, and since put to shame by the $60bn bungle: we now know that a great deal of that money was never spent – and may never be spent.

No one could have envisioned the consequences?

Artists invented the gig economy and the portfolio career – but unfortunately, while this work has created hundreds of billions of dollars in new economies and new markets, artists themselves live and work precariously.

And yet, despite global research consistently telling us that creative approaches are needed to power the economy of the future, Australia’s Prime Minister prizes as model citizens the “Quiet Australians” and “quiet shareholders” who aren’t interested in “Canberra bubble” questions, don’t express their values through “indulgent and selfish” advocacy, and aren’t “complaining about their rights”.

Australia’s unwritten arts and cultural policy

Australia has never had an arts and cultural policy that has survived a change in government. Although we do not have a formalised arts and cultural policy, the decisions made by the Australian Government under the cover of emergency action belie their values.

Early in their pandemic response, the Prime Minister claimed that “ideologies” has been “checked at the door” and the Treasurer claimed that there were “no ideological constraints.” More recently, the Treasurer described his approach slightly differently, saying that the “values and principles that have guided Coalition reforms in the past must guide us again in the future.”

Is the Australian Government claiming that those “values and principles” aren’t “ideologies” but instead irrefutable universals? Of course, anyone who claims a politically neutral position is in fact making a politically radical claim: that their position is natural, obvious, and not requiring scrutiny. Or in the case of “Quiet Australians”, that the model citizen is unimaginative and uncritical.

Let’s examine those values more closely, looking beyond the arts.

In the past three months the government has not once, not twice, but three times made changes to COVID19 income support measures explicitly to exclude universities. The university sector is one of Australia’s most exposed industries at this time, given its dependence on overseas students. Universities are also substantial owners of galleries, museums and their collections, significant employers of artists and arts experts, and the home of Australia’s leading art schools.

In refusing to support universities, the Australian Government is telling us that it does not value education. At a time when innovative thinking is so desperately needed, the Government’s “values and principles” don’t respect the nation’s leading minds.

An extended pattern confirms those values. Afraid of what academics make possible, recent education ministers have undermined their ability to conduct work that’s in the public interest, attacked their expertise and ridiculed their achievements.

The government has also ditched the television quotas that ensure we are seeing great Australian dramas, docos and kids’ shows right now. This threatens the viability of Australian screen content and producers who’ve already been hit hard because of COVID-19. That’s not the kind of cultural change we need right now, with all of us craving fulfilling online experiences. In responding to this decision, Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland noted that the portfolio “needs an advocate, not an adversary.

Also excluded from all COVID-19 income support measures is local government, Australia’s biggest owners of art galleries, museums, and their collections, and like universities, significant employers of artists and artsworkers. In Victoria alone, “council-run arts facilities directly employ 3000+ council officers to work across arts and culture, attract 50,000,000+ visitors per year to cultural facilities, and present the work of well over 40,000 artists each year.” How could elected parliamentarians dismiss so many livelihoods?

Given this neglect, it’s no surprise that confidence in politicians and trust in democracy is in perilous decline, as has been characterised authoritatively by the Grattan Institute, Ipsos and the Museum of Australian Democracy. This declining trust is the focus of the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy, investigating what’s at stake for Australia’s future.

At the moment when we most need to have confidence in the decisions of politicians and parliaments, they are trailing artists, designers and academics who are at the forefront in confronting the most pressing questions of our time.

And so, right now, we need artists, academics and policymakers working together with rigour – and with urgency.

An investment in creative imagination

In May, the Prime Minister announced a three-step framework for a COVID-safe Australia, complete with colourful diagrams. As a set of guidelines, they present a complex range of information in a fairly neat way. As a cultural text, on the other hand, they offer great insight into the values of their writers.

Why are “gatherings” and “work” in the same category? Why are “education and childcare” in the same category? Why are “hair and beauty services” a category all of their own, and why are general medical practice and dentistry not there at all? And within the curiously named “entertainment and amusement venues”, why are galleries and museums in the same category as “gaming venues, strip clubs and brothels”?

How does the Australian Government imagine that we live our lives? Are teachers valued only insofar as they look after children while parents go to work? Is the value of social, cultural and civic gatherings understood independently of the economic value of work? Is the social, identity and massive economic value of arts and culture understood only as “entertainment or amusement”?

Lacking a written arts and cultural policy, these determinations offer helpful – if not particularly edifying – insights into the values underling the Government’s decisions.

The ability to envision “all the constellation of things” that might happen relies on the capacity to relate those various things to one another. To understand how individual journeys and industry interdependencies can create thriving communities – or shut down the global economy.

“Creative imagination” is what’s needed most urgently at the national level.

Envisioning the future

An arts-and-culture-led recovery would put First Nations first, making sure that Elders were safe and cultural knowledge protected.

It would set out an understanding of where we go, who we see and what we do together to interpret our world, express ourselves and inspire new work. Developing a deep understanding of our complex, diverse culture as a nation. Truly investing the time and the thinking on why we value what we value, and what we need most from one another as we do.

It would base its income support measures on a practical understanding of how artists and artsworkers earn their incomes, and creative companies cashflow their funds.

It would ask audiences what their expectations were of a consistent experience across the commercial and cultural sectors, so that COVID-safe consumer journeys could be mapped.

It would draw clear connections between all of this and the industries who depend on our success for theirs, making sure that tourism, hospitality, accommodation, “entertainment and amusement” were ready to benefit from our work.

And it would look responsibly at education models, economic innovation, and mental health scenarios, all inspired by our work.

To achieve this, we urgently need expert creative industry input on the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission, so that Australia can responsibly plan our way through the most debilitating disruption to our cultural life we’ve ever experienced. We need to make sure that our government gets all the help it needs.

At stake is the creative imagination and cultural life of an entire nation.

Unless, of course, these are the “Quiet Australians” that our prime minister had always envisioned.


Esther Anatolitis is Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, Deputy Chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts, and Honorary Associate Professor at RMIT School of Art. Esther contributed this piece pro bono as part of her NAVA advocacy work.


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