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RE-VALUING THE ARTIST IN THE NEW WORLD ORDER

David Pledger

Platform Paper 36

David Pledger

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Artists are integral to making sense of our changing global landscape, writes multi-award-winning artist David Pledger. They are society’s antennae, the canaries in the coalmine of global change. Nations and societies that understand this today will be more culturally, socially, environmentally and economically viable. In short, ‘If you want to know where you will be in twenty years, follow an artist. If you want to get there before everyone else, fund them.’

Pledger brings powerful evidence to show that applying an industrial model to cultural production has seriously damaged Australia’s creative heart. He shares his experience of Europe, Asia and Brazil to show how a country that privileges art over commerce reaps the greater economic benefit. But Australia has not heard that message. Artists’ autonomy has been curtailed. Their numbers are decreasing. They are barely visible at elite levels of governance and advice. He lays blame on government but equally on artists for allowing themselves to be so disempowered.

What would happen if artists decided that they would no longer work under these conditions? What would happen if our artists went on strike? Pledger proposes action to find out.

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About the Author

David Pledger is an independent intermedia artist working within and between the performing, visual and media arts. He has extensive experience in Australia, and Europe and Asia where he has worked for more than twenty years.

For an artist, it is essential to consider the effects of managerialism on how and what they produce. Much of what I have referred to reflects the industrial conditions of the independent artist. This is the reality: producers spend most of their time producing, managers managing and marketers marketing; artists spend disproportionately more time writing applications for funding their work than they do on making it. The process is a debilitating one. It is unsurprising that these circumstances eventually detract from the work itself.

 

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PAT HOFFIE is a visual artist. She is Professor at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University.

Every once in a while there's a position paper that emerges like a comet of phosphorescent light to trace a burning trail across the vast velvety blackness of cultural policy skies. They're rare enough- perhaps one or two in a lifetime if you're lucky. And when a really good one bursts into ken, its mercurial orbit sheds light on new possibilities of how we in the arts interpret what we do. Or, alternately, they can remind you of why you fell in love with that night sky in the first place.

I can remember the first time a cultural discussion paper had that effect on me and those around me-the first was when David Throsby and Devon Mills' When are you going to get a real job?: an economic study of Australian artists emerged as a research report for the Australia Council in 1989. The second time happened recently when I read David Pledger's Platform Paper, Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order.

On the first occasion it seemed as though, for the first time, the Australian arts sector had a way of arguing its worth-and its pitfalls-in demonstrable economic terms. Just as importantly, this paper served as an indicator that the sector could be collectively defined in a cohesive way. 'Back in the day', as it was, when the Australia Council for the Arts used to pride itself on being a think-tank-one that commissioned such reports and one that was deeply committed to 'grass-roots representation' in terms of the number of artists serving on its committees and boards.

Even further 'back in the day', artists had lobbied hard to develop an arts infrastructure that could function as a network to sustain their practice. The Australia Council was NOT the architecture of the cultural sector's infrastructure. It's all too easy to forget that artists were the architects of so much of the Australian arts infrastructure; that artists worked at grass-roots levels to build, develop and, ultimately, work towards a more 'professionalised' arts infrastructure when ongoing local, state and federal support was needed to keep the organisations running from year to year.

It's very important to remember this important aspect of history when you read David Pledger's Re-valuing the Artist in the New World Order, or you might end up making the mistake of thinking that somehow these 'faceless' organisations were just self-perpetuating from the start. Wrong. Pledger knows this, and he doesn't let artists today off the hook; he places full responsibility on the failure of those artists who have 'allow(ed) ourselves to be displaced from leadership, advisory and advocacy roles.' Looking back, romantics could be forgiven for thinking that with the success of building an arts sector has come the creation of its own kind of monster.

Victor Frankenstein had been wrong too. But he'd also dreamed his dream of creation fuelled by idealism and vision. It may well be that the monster of managerialism has not been dreamed up by the Australian arts sector on its own, but its particular monster is its own incarnation, and Pledger makes a plea that we the artists confront the current problems face-on. Pledger is succinct, convincing and inspiring in many of his claims, and for the sake of brevity I name three important ones:

(1) The arts sector has never been an 'arts industry' or a 'cultural industry' or an industry of any kind at all, and anyone who is still faffing round thinking they're part of it should wake up to the stark economic reality. There's a good chance that those who do believe this are part of the problem; read on:

(2) The monster of managerialism has turned on artists so that they too have made the mistake of dreaming themselves into being little dependent ersatz managers. As Pledger points out, 'artists spend disproportionately more time writing applications for funding their work than they do on making it'.

(3) Risk-taking is a lower-heart-beat necessity to art-making; but risk-taking has begun to seem like a rare exotic urge in the climate in which we're currently immersed. However Pledger wastes little time bemoaning the lack of understanding of the culture's value for contemporary Australia; rather, he defines issues, identifies targets, recognises problems and offers solutions. And he is collegial and inclusive in doing so. He describes the important role that the National Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA) has played as an effective lobbying and representational body to government. He alludes to the way Carrillo Gantner and Alison Carroll in their recent Platform Paper have defined the crucial importance that culture must play if Australia's role in 'the Asian Century' is to be played out most effectively. He celebrates the bravado and entrepreneurial spirit of David Walsh's MONA as an example of the best of what's possible here. And he critically responds to the importance of the issues raised in the National Cultural Policy.

Pledger's paper also has plenty of examples from other countries where the value of the arts are argued on the basis of 'public good' rather than as producers of commodities and cultural consumption. And he has examples of how Australia's myopically cheap focus on the managerial indicators of 'efficiency' and 'productivity' has not served the country well.

Critical thinking lies at the core of creative practice and, while it's a great practice for encouraging ingenuity, it can sometimes make the practitioner feel they're afloat on a rocky raft of possibilities. Artists inevitably sway between swagger and self-doubt, yet Pledger's paper leaves artists in no doubt that their practice matters. He reminds them, then he calls on them to act on this recognition collectively, cohesively and convincingly.

For too long now 'Professional Practices' courses in tertiary institutions have been taught as a kind of Mendicant's Manual for Fund-Seeking; where students are taught to be obedient form-fillers with little or no knowledge of the history that created their own little piece of managerial nightmare. Pledger's paper should be included as a must-read for all students at tertiary institutions, a kind of starter provocation that lets students know that things don't happen by chance, that structures can and should be challenged and, most importantly of all, that the chosen path they are paying so highly for does matter.

In Mary Shelley's 1818 novel the creator of the monster flees from the horror of his creation, refusing to confront the problems of his own making. Pledger makes a call for artists to face the demons they're partly responsible for creating and, in so doing, to imagine a 'new order' in Australian culture-one that starts by demanding a recognition of the primacy and value of, and a respect for, the role of the artist.

NICOLE BEYER is Director of Theatre Network Victoria, an advocate for the professional theatre industry, that works to strengthen independent and small to medium sectors and increase connection between all parts of the industry.

In Revaluing the Artist in the New World Order, David Pledger laments the time, more than ten years ago, when theatre artists in Victoria stopped asking for more funding to make work because they felt it was counter-productive.

David believes that 'artists are fearful of speaking up for fear of retribution in the form of unsuccessful grant applications or upsetting the gatekeepers, whose support is essential to getting up projects.'

I have seen this illustrated recently, again here in Victoria, when a new grants program, VicArts, was announced to replace the former suite of programs. This was without sector consultation and with eligibility changes that seriously affect the viability of some companies and the careers of some artists.

While some aims of the new program are, on the face of it, admirable, i.e. to streamline the application and assessment processes, and to remove some of the artificial, restrictive categories, the problems are significant. They include the short-sighted restriction that you can only have one active grant at a time, that is, you cannot even apply for another grant until your previous project is acquitted. This new restriction undermines and denies artists' processes, which are long-term and based on overlapping projects.

Economic imperatives clearly drive these changes-that limited government spending can be spread more thinly, with more artists making do with less support. This exemplifies David's key point that there's a shift from valuing social, cultural, environmental, and financial impacts to valuing only the latter. Economic efficiency is now seen as indisputably, almost innately, government's key goal.

It's a naive view that the work of artists are a series of independent projects that can be funded one at a time, or sporadically. What independent artists require is flexibility and an investment from funding bodies that acknowledges and supports their non-linear practice. As one of Theatre Network Victoria's members, an independent producer (wanting to remain anonymous), explained, 'established artists and producers are always working at development, presentation and touring stages of different works at any given time. It feels like this has not been understood in the new program.'

Significantly, the sector's response to the funding program changes has been exactly as David predicts-artists and companies are too afraid of repercussions should they speak up. Writing for ArtsHub on changes needed at Arts Victoria, Brian Benjamin says, 'Even those organisations that receive a few thousand dollars when tens of thousands are needed, dare not be critical of the hand that feeds them. Those who receive nothing live in hope that they might receive some next time.' (3 September 2013)

Theatre Network Victoria's members have contacted us to make clear their concerns, but most of them, including big, established companies, are unwilling to go directly to Arts Victoria to make a complaint. As David Pledger writes, they fear that they will be 'categorised as difficult, opinionated, outspoken'-in other words, trouble-makers who have everything to lose and nothing to gain from speaking out.

I believe that artists do care about making change; it isn't a lack of will that is the problem. One of the emerging themes of this year's Australian Theatre Forum was 'agency'. It was curator Alicia Talbot's guiding philosophy and it relates to this dilemma-how can we empower ourselves as artists to speak out confidently to make the change that is needed? It was also raised in the keynote by futurist Kristin Alford and anthropologist Lenore Manderson. They both spoke about the need to take action, and to become empowered again as a society. Lenore regretted the limited activism of today, compared to the self-determination of the late 1960s and 70s-when all of us, including artists, were out on the streets demanding change.

These conversations resonated throughout the forum with delegates hungry for provocation and inspiration so that they could rediscover their own agency and power-to renew their confidence to step up and speak out against the sorts of challenges that David articulates. Indeed, his final chapter is a 'necessary series of provocations'. His provocation titled Agency is for funding bodies to fund artists directly to increase their autonomy and allow them to determine how to present their work. He proposes that funding should be shifted from infrastructure projects to fellowships directly for artists-again to put the artist at the centre of the arts.

The Sidney Myer Foundation's creative fellowship program works in this way, acknowledging that the artist is the best person to decide how to spend their grant, and that artists 'need time to develop and practise their vocation in circumstances which support reflection and encourage risk taking'. Funding bodies need to take a more respectful and trusting approach to funding artists, and value the long-term processes and intersecting nature of different phases of work. I support David's proposition that funding should be put back into the hands of artists, rather than going to producers or presenters or other infrastructure.

But the funding bodies won't change if they aren't hearing that they need to.

'We have to put our hand up', David says, 'Speak up. Refuse to back down for fear of retribution. Ask for more. When we don't get it, demand it…Advocate for the arts as a public good…Arm ourselves with facts, figures, passion and rigour….Do not remain silent.'

I endorse these provocations and I thank David for his honest, smart and hopeful paper.