Judith White 

Communities need the arts. They’re not a luxury or an extra; they are essential to a healthy society.

This is not news to First Nations people, for whom song, dance, drawing and storytelling have been an integral part of life for millennia. 

Ongoing research at Deakin University shows that in Australia art programs “support and promote healthier communities” and “help people recover or deal with mental health issues brought on by fires and drought”. According to the Australia Institute, the mood of 73 per cent of Australians has been improved by the arts during the COVID pandemic.

But State and Federal governments are failing to support the arts in regional areas. On paper, the need is acknowledged. The Australia Council states that its program for Community Arts and Cultural Development is “by, with and for the communities”. One of the seven listed priorities of Create NSW, the State government agency for the arts, is “supporting more opportunities for more people to experience and shape the arts, particularly in Regional NSW”.

Follow the money, and it’s clear that these motherhood statements are not matched in practice.

At a Federal level, the Morrison Government has been notoriously slow to support an arts sector hard-hit by the pandemic. The 2021-22 budget promises only $223m for the arts, with just $11m to regional tourism and $5m for touring performance. The Australia Council has suffered a series of cuts since 2015, and is under instruction to give most of its funding to major companies. Meanwhile university courses in the arts and humanities are being defunded. 

The State Government bears the main responsibility for assisting regional arts in three key ways: support for local cultural institutions, access to major state institutions, and education and training. But in NSW, the Berejiklian Government is firmly focused on Sydney. While country areas are desperately underfunded, almost $2 billion is being spent on the Government’s current building plans for Sydney cultural infrastructure.  

Since 1988 school parties and families visiting Sydney have been able to see Australia’s greatest collection of historic science and technology exhibits in one place, at the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. Now, at a cost of at least $1.2 billion, the collection is being dispersed in order to sell off part of the Ultimo site – some items to a storage facility at distant Castle Hill, others to a flood-prone new building in Parramatta. The plan is opposed by museum specialists, flood experts, environmentalists, First Nations people and community organisations, and has been slammed by a major parliamentary inquiry. 

More than $20 million has already been spent on consultants for the project. Leading museums consultant Kylie Winkworth estimates that an architect-designed regional museum could be built for $10-$15 million – so two areas could have had brand new museums for the cost of the consultancies alone. 

“Cultural equity matters for museums and communities across NSW,” she has written. “One extravagant museum project in Parramatta is not a plan, nor is it fair or equitable.”

A good museum can revitalise a region. Where I live, the Tweed Regional Art Gallery has become both an arts centre for the community and the area’s number one tourist attraction since a bequest from the late artist Margaret Olley, and the generosity of local benefactors Doug and Margot Anthony, enabled its completion. But elsewhere local institutions are struggling. Cessnock Regional Art Gallery in the Hunter had to close completely at the end of 2019 for lack of funding.

Museums worldwide have suffered a massive decline in revenue during COVID and do not expect visitor numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2025. But the Berejiklian Government is proceeding with the gargantuan Sydney Modern extension to the Art Gallery of NSW at a cost of $344 million, based on a business case which has been kept secret but is understood to project visitation of two million a year – unlikely now.

Rather than rein in its vanity projects, the NSW Government has cut recurrent funding for all cultural institutions. That means the Powerhouse and AGNSW will have to run sites doubled in size on reduced funding, endangering cultural heritage that belongs to all the people of the State. 

Other funding cuts directly affect the regions. Only $10m of the State’s $59m Art and Cultural Funding Program went to the regions in 2019-20.

In August 2020 Create NSW cut recurrent funds to organisations including Writing NSW and AusDance NSW. In November it ended the $445,000 annual grant to the funding body Regional Arts NSW, claiming the money would be “redistributed”. The move, wrote RMIT arts professor Esther Anatolitis, “undermines the state’s capacity to strengthen regional creative communities and enterprise exactly when that’s needed most”. 

Allocation of funding is now subject to party political preference. In 2018, for example, $20 million was granted to the Riverina Conservatorium, in the electorate of Daryl Maguire, then partner of Premier Berejiklian. It was more than went to the other 18 NSW conservatoria combined.

Arts funding should not be determined by electoral considerations or deals with developers and party donors. It requires an entirely new plan, based on the needs of changing society. The pandemic, climate crisis and technological development all impact the way we work and live. City centres are less the centre of our world. People need the arts in their communities.

City-based major cultural institutions of course need supporting, but the best way is not through vanity building projects, it’s through sustained ongoing funding for independent artistic direction, professional care for collections and free public access.

An equitable policy needs to ensure every region has at least one well-funded, sustainable arts centre. At the same time improvements in educational funding are needed so that that every school has a library of books, a library of musical instruments and a good supply of art materials.

Every child has the capacity to sing, dance, draw and tell stories. Enabling them to do so will make us, at last, the country of the Fair Go. 

Judith White is a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW and author of Culture Heist: Art vs Money. Her website is cultureheist.com.au

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