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How important is it that there are arts ‘service’ organisations?

20 Dec

Joy Burch MLA
Minister for the Arts
ACT Government
via email: burch@act.gov.au

Dear Ms Burch,

The Childers Group has serious concerns about the apparent recent downgrading of arts service organisations, as illustrated in severe cuts to Ausdance ACT, which is part of a highly regarded national network that has supported and promoted dance in the ACT since 1977.

We observe that the role of service organisations in the ACT has been seriously down-played by artsACT in recent years in its endeavour to spread its ever-diminishing funds more thinly and widely. Service organisations such as Ausdance are not artists, dance companies or funding bodies, but they do have a clear role in supporting artists and advocating on their behalf, i.e. a body of work that can be quantified under the following headings prepared by ArtsPeak, the alliance of national arts service organisations:

  1. Government liaison and advocacy
  2. Research
  3. Sector leadership and arts industry standards
  4. Capacity building of the sector
  5. Raise the profile and promote the value of the arts
  6. Support artists’ income generation
  7. Sector representation

As a member of ArtsPeak, the Childers Group strongly supports this statement (attached in full), and suggests that it should be included in the new artsACT strategic plan now being developed, not only to support funding guidelines, but to provide artists with a clear articulation of why service organisations are funded.

Image source: Ausdance ACT

Image source: Ausdance ACT

We are also concerned about the way in which artsACT has interpreted the following principles in its published ACT Arts Policy Framework as they specifically concern the work of Ausdance ACT in education:

  • Championing the importance of arts education and advocating for local arts organisations to be engaged in the implementation of the National Arts Curriculum.
  • The Australian National University Community Outreach Program, funded by the ACT Government to support music programs for teachers and school students, visual arts community access programs, and access to the School of Art and School of Music libraries and Llewellyn Hall.
  • Promoting and supporting arts activity across the school curriculum, developing systemic links between ACT Government schools, local and national arts organisations and tertiary institutions.

The Childers Group considers there is a highly artificial divide in funding decisions that differentiate between what is perceived to be ‘education’ and professional practice. The successful implementation of The Australian Curriculum: The Arts is an absolute imperative for the arts profession, a principle obviously shared by the government but now being interpreted inconsistently.

We understand that, as a result of cuts to Ausdance ACT, there will be a major downturn in its ability to continue to offer its valuable services to dance in the ACT. In the not unlikely event that the organisation might eventually have to close its doors, there will be an assumption that the only professionally-supported dance company in Canberra – QL2 Dance – will be required to take on the role of a service organisation in addition to its already overstretched program. It is highly unlikely that QL2 will be able to do so in the current funding environment, nor is it an appropriate role for a dance company.

The Childers Group has used the Ausdance ACT example to illustrate its point about the current trend to under-value and under-fund arts service organisations. We are not advocating on its behalf and do not want to engage with artsACT in specific reasons for its decisions.

We look forward to your response to our concerns, and to your assurance that arts service organisations will continue to be valued for their intrinsic value and not be downgraded in the review of the strategic plan now underway.

Yours faithfully,

Professor David Williams
Spokesperson

The Childers Group –
an indepedent arts forum for the ACT region

Arts review: update

20 Dec

Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centres: an ACT arts organisation in a state of significant evolution. What will be the policy context for such evolution in 2015?

Ainslie + Gorman Arts Centres: an ACT arts organisation in a state of significant evolution. What will be the policy context for such evolution in 2015?

We’ve now received a response from the ACT Minister for the Arts, Joy Burch MLA, and it can be found here: Reply from Joy Burch MLA re. ACT Arts Review (Dec 2014). The letter provides some information about the scope of the review and the proposed consultation process. The Childers Group is pleased to participate in the review’s reference group, and will advocate for the importance of broader consultation – involving new voices in the development of policy is always positive. Related to the review, Childers Group foundation member Nigel Featherstone has written a piece for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media about the importance of governments at all levels being proud and public about their support of the arts. You can find Nigel’s article here.

ACT arts review: more info please

6 Dec

Preamble: the ACT Government, through artsACT, is currently reviewing its ‘Arts Policy Framework’. The Childers Group has written to the ACT Minister for the Arts, Joy Burch MLA, asking about the scope of the review, the consultation process, and the timing, as this information is not currently available on artsACT’s website. There has been some discussion in the ACT Legislative Assembly about the review of the arts policy, a transcript of which can be found here (the relevant discussion starts at p107).

 

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24 November 2014

Joy Burch MLA
Minister for the Arts
ACT Government
via email: burch@act.gov.au

Dear Ms Burch,

ACT ARTS POLICY FRAMEWORK REVIEW

The Childers Group writes to ask questions about the ACT Government’s review of the ACT Arts Policy Framework, which we understand is currently taking place.

The ACT Government's arts policy is being reviewed, but how will the arts sector be involved?

The ACT Government’s arts policy is being reviewed, but how will the arts sector be involved?

The Childers Group congratulates the ACT Government for developing the original Arts Policy Framework. As you no doubt agree, it is critical for the ACT Government to have a document that can guide decision-making and also provide a policy context for funding decisions. This is especially important when, now that our region is on the other side of the Centenary of Canberra celebrations, there are a number of key issues facing the arts sector: appropriate and sustainable levels of funding; provision of and support for a high-class network of facilities and venues; and maximising opportunities for all those in our communities to access arts activities of excellence.

The Group is also pleased that the ACT Government, through artsACT, is currently reviewing the document to ensure it meets needs and expectations.

However, we have questions about the review process:

  • What is the scope of the review? Is it a refresh of the policy or a rethink?
  • How will the ACT region’s arts community be able to provide input into the review process?
  • What is the review’s timeline? When are the community engagement points, and when will a draft be made available for comment? When will the final document be publicly available?

The ACT’s key arts organisations are well-placed to connect with their membership and communities to provide informed comment on draft proposals. Further, there are other organisations allied to the arts and the ACT who would be able to enrich the process. Of course, many of our eminent artists would also wish to contribute.

The Childers Group believes that the arts should not be left to the periphery; the arts should be at the centre of society. Good policy development, with a process that involves the arts sector and the community broadly, is a significant part of making this happen.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully,

Professor David Williams
Spokesperson

ACT Book of the Year advocacy: the reply

16 Jul

ACT BoY 16 7 14 p1

ACT BoY 16 7 14 p2

ACT Book of the Year advocacy: our letter

16 Jul

30 June 2014

Joy Burch MLA
Minister for the Arts
ACT Government
via email: burch@act.gov.au

Dear Ms Burch,

The Childers Group writes to express very real concern about recent changes to the eligibility requirements for the 2014 ACT Book of the Year award, as reported in the press and as confirmed by artsACT.

The surprising change to the award to being for ‘ACT residents only’ is inconsistent with the ACT Government’s Arts Policy Framework as well as contrary to other government initiatives and the work of the ACT’s key arts organisations, many of which provide programs and services to those who live across the border. Many of our artists who work in the ACT – writers, performers, sculptors, musicians, film-makers – reside in our flourishing regional areas. Indeed, the map often used in reference to arts funding makes clear the regions that are considered integral to our arts landscape.

Eminent regional writers such as Jackie French are now, for the first time, excluded from being nominated to the ACT Book of the Year

Eminent regional writers such as Jackie French are now, for the first time, excluded from being nominated to the ACT Book of the Year

As you are no doubt well aware, there is also an enormous amount of arts activity that happens in the towns and villages adjacent the ACT, and in many instances ACT-based artists are engaged in that activity. The majority of this activity has close, long-term, and ongoing mutually beneficial relationships. Indeed, the Childers Group has been active in advocating for a whole-of-region approach to arts support, including in terms of economic development and cultural tourism.

The new eligibility requirement for the 2014 ACT Book of the Year, that it be for ACT residents only, directly contradicts three key elements of the ACT Arts Policy Framework (the bolding is ours):

  • (1) ‘Guiding Vision: Canberra and its region comprise an inclusive, unique and creative arts landscape where excellence is highly valued’;
  • (2) ‘Principle One: Facilitate Community Participation in and Access to the Arts: Embracing Canberra’s position as a regional centre and fostering opportunity for increased regional engagement with regional communities’; and
  • (3) ‘Principle Two: Support Artistic Excellence and Artistic Diversity – The ACT literary awards recognising excellence in ACT region writing’.

Further, this new requirement is contrary to the fact that for decades the ACT Government has been consistent in acknowledging regional activity by supporting artists who aren’t ACT residents but are able to ‘demonstrate an ACT-based practice’.

Additionally, this recent decision to exclude regional writers from the ACT Book of the Year has created concern and confusion through the wider arts sector. In the near future will all regional artists be excluded from the ACT Government’s support through its arts funding program? Will the ACT’s key arts organisations be required to focus only on the ACT community at the exclusion of all others?

Finally, it is concerning to the Childers Group that the literary community appears to have not been consulted on this change of policy. We have been informed that the ACT Writers Centre, the ACT’s peak body for writing in the ACT region, was not consulted. A significant number of their members reside in the region.

We respectfully ask that you review the recent announcement about the 2014 ACT Book of the Year, and ensure that there is consistency in eligibility requirements across ACT Government’s various arts programs and initiatives.

The Childers Group will contact you shortly to request a meeting about this important – and potentially far-reaching – matter. We would greatly value your consideration of the matters we have raised in this letter and the opportunity to discuss them.

Yours faithfully,

[signed]

Professor David Williams

Spokesperson
The Childers Group

ACT Budget 2014-2015: our response

30 Jun

ACT-BudgetThe following is the Childers Group’s response to the arts component of ACT Budget 2014-2015. It follows the structure required by ACT Treasury. Our submission resulted in an invitation to present to the 2014 Estimates hearing, which we accepted and put forward our views on 13 June; the Childers Group was one of only two arts organisations to be involved in the budget process. We’ll post a link to Hansard once the transcript is available. Our original budget input, submitted prior to the ACT Government’s announcement of the 2014-2015 budget, can be found here.

Please list, in order of priority, your three main areas of interest or concern regarding the ACT Budget 2014-2015:

  1. The lack of growth of the ACT Arts Fund – the ACT Arts Fund is the ACT Government’s key arts development mechanism. It supports approximately 20 key arts organisations and a wide variety of programs, as well as groups and individual practicing artists. The Childers Group understands that the Fund receives additional annual funding of an amount that roughly equates to CPI (2.5%), which is ‘passed on in full’ to the key arts organisations. While this modest increase is critical, it is not enough to compensate for the increase in the ACT’s population in recent times. For example, in 2004 the ACT population was 324,000 and it is currently anticipated as 383,000 (source: http://www.cmd.act.gov.au/policystrategic/actstats/population). Therefore, in the space of a decade, there are approximately 60,000 additional people residing in the ACT, many of whom are looking to engage with the city’s arts and cultural sector. What is needed – and the need is becoming increasingly urgent – is a significant funding boost to the ACT Arts Fund, potentially $300,000-500,000, to help cater for the additional demand and the demonstrable increase in costs of delivering arts programs. This would ensure the ACT community has access to a diversity of high-quality arts programs, and that the organisations delivering these programs can do so in a sustainable manner.
  1. The viability and sustainability of the ACT’s key arts organisations – as noted in our budget submission, the Childers Group is extremely concerned about the ongoing viability and sustainability of the ACT’s key arts organisations. These organisations, which are the backbone of the ACT’s arts sector and enable a large proportion of Canberrans to engage with arts and cultural activity, have – in the main – limited staffing resources and stretched programming budgets, all the while trying to meet the forever increasing demand. While many of these organisations have had success in diversifying their income from non-government sources, opportunities are limited in a jurisdiction where the public sector dominates. Additionally, with the recent loss of a local branch of the Australian Business Arts Foundation, and the national refocussing of that organisation into Creative Partnerships Australia, there is now no ACT-based business/philanthropic brokering body to support local arts organisations who are seeking private-sector support. Further, the Childers Group is concerned about the recently announced cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts and the impact this could have on the ability of the ACT’s arts organisations to access federal arts funding. The funding boost to the ACT Arts Fund mentioned above would go some way to addressing these concerns.
  1. Arts in education – the Childers Group remains concerned about the lack of specific funding of arts-in-education programs, as identified in our budget submission. To break the longstanding disconnect between the Education and Arts arms of the ACT Government, what is needed is a specific arts-in-education program to ensure school-aged children have access to a wide range of high-quality programs. The Childers Group has previously advocated for an ACT Arts-in-Education Officer to broker relationships across the ACT Government and between government, schools, and program providers, such as the ACT’s key arts organisations.
  1. ACT Screen Investment Fund – the Childers Group is concerned about the future of the ACT Screen Investment Fund and seeks clarification from the ACT Government about anticipated directions and plans.

What are your views on the ACT Budget in relation to your priority areas?

The Childers Group applauds the ACT Government’s ongoing support of the ACT’s arts and cultural sector. The 2014-2015 budget papers identify a figure of $30.1M being the total investment in 2014-2015 – this is a significant amount for Australia’s smallest state/territory jurisdiction.

However, what is the breakdown of this funding?

The Childers Group understands that $12.743m is invested through artsACT (CSD Output Class 3.2: Arts Engagement 2014-15) and $16.032m through the Cultural Facilities Corporation (CFC Output Class 1: Cultural Facilities Management). However, the 2014-2015 budget identifies that only $8,502,000 of this funding as being dedicated to supporting arts activity. While we note that this is an increase from $8,389,000 in 2013-2014, it is the Group’s understanding that only a maximum of $5M is specifically targeted at arts development – that is, supporting the ACT’s key arts organisations, arts programs, and practicing artists. As noted previously in this submission, this amount had been decreasing in real terms due to the costs of delivering programs and projects.

In addition, there are now significant budgetary pressures on key arts organisations in attracting and retaining skilled personnel, and, in many cases, managing the rising overhead costs associated with maintaining and operating key cultural facilities. All key arts organisations must balance the business/commercial aspects of their operations whilst providing creative engagement for the ACT community. The ACT Arts Fund is no longer able to meet these increasing costs and the community’s demands on the ACT’s key arts organisations.

Are there any other particular issues with the ACT Budget that you would like to bring to the Committee’s attention?

Yes. As mentioned elsewhere in this submission, the Childers Group’s key concern is the lack of real growth of the ACT Arts Fund. The current funding level has fallen behind demand, particularly in terms of the ability of the ACT’s key arts organisation to deliver high-quality and sustainable services but also the ever-decreasing funding available through the Project funding category.

Did you provide a budget submission to the ACT Government?

Yes.

Do you think that the ACT Budget has addressed the issues raised in your submission?

Not entirely.

BUDGET 2014–2015: A BIG STEP BACKWARDS FOR THE ARTS

20 May

Should we be concerned about the proposed cuts to arts funding in Australia? The Childers Group says yes, absolutely.

Should we be concerned about the proposed cuts to arts funding in Australia? The Childers Group says yes, absolutely.

The Childers Group expresses serious concern about the 2014-2015 federal budget and its impact on the development, sustainability and vitality of the arts in the ACT region. The Group calls on the ACT Government to assure artists and arts organisations that there will be no funding cuts to artsACT’s funding programs as a consequence of the federal budget.

‘We’ve looked at the Budget in detail,’ said Childers Group spokesperson Professor David Williams. ‘It is a big step backwards for the arts. The sector, while usually resilient, will take many years to recover from the proposed cuts – they are too deep and too sudden.’

As the ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said in the ACT Legislative Assembly on 15 May 2014, the impact of this budget will be felt throughout the ACT region.

The loss of more than $28M from the Australia Council’s budget alone will mean reduced support for small to medium arts companies and arts organisations, and fewer grants available to individual artists. Combined with other budget cuts and measures, the Childers Group is especially concerned about opportunities for young artists and their ability to survive, let alone contribute to the life and vitality of the community and develop their careers.

‘Firstly, we call on opposition parties to oppose the Australian Government’s cuts to the arts,’ said Professor Williams. ‘Secondly, we call on ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and ACT Minister for the Arts Joy Burch to ensure that through the forthcoming ACT budget there is sufficient funding to support the ongoing development of the arts sector.’

The Childers Group’s core concerns for the 20142015 Federal Budget are:

  • With its small funding base for the arts, the ACT is particularly vulnerable to across-the-board cuts. While our arts sector is in a promising phase of development, the Childers Group fears that the ACT Government, faced with considerable cuts in health, education and infrastructure spending, will use the arts budget to help claw back some of its losses.
  • We call on the ACT Government to reassure artists and arts organisations that there will be no funding cuts to artsACT and its funding programs.
  • Practicing artists and arts organisations are significant contributors to the quality of life, community participation and to the economy through their funded and unfunded projects and small business activities.
  • The more you look at the ills of contemporary society – alienation, fragmentation, isolation and depression – the more compelling the need for community participation in the arts scene. What better way of fostering a sense of community, promoting mental health and well-being and reducing the pressures of a competitive, materialistic society than by encouraging participation in the arts.” Hugh Mackay in Arts Funding: Are we missing a golden opportunity?
  • The Childers Group is very concerned about the future of the cohesive national cultural policy launched last year, one that was developed through a consultative, evidence-based approach, and one strongly supported by the arts sector. It appears that the major investment in its development by artists and organisations from across the country is to be ignored.
  • Australia Council grants will less accessible for most individual artists at a time when other cost of living expenses are rising. Their incomes will be further eroded by the increased cost of health care, petrol, education and transport. Any substantial increase in university fees for visual and performing artists will inevitably lead to fewer trained artists in Australia’s creative sector at a time when city planners and economists are calling for more creativity across the economy. Young graduate artists face challenging career paths throughout their lives, and the 6-month wait for Newstart will become an added and unacceptable stress in their search for work. It is anticipated that many will be forced to leave the sector.
  • Infrastructure support will be less available to artists and the community through small arts organisations as they struggle to stay afloat in this new and increasingly difficult funding environment.
  • While the Federal Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis, maintains that funding to Australia’s flagship companies has not been impacted by the budget, the Childers Group is concerned about the reduced funds available for individual artists, small arts organisations and arts infrastructure in the arts sector of the ACT region.
  • By protecting the flagship companies and asking the small to medium arts sector to make cultural budget savings, the ecology of the arts industry will be severely affected. Creativity, cutting-edge research and risk-taking are the engine-rooms of Australia’s unique, new and exciting arts industry.
  • The Childers Group reminds the Australian Government that a thorough review of the merging of back-office functions in the national cultural institutions was undertaken during John Howard’s Prime Ministership. It was found that this would be unworkable and that savings would be minimal.
  • Without viable and sustainable infrastructure in the ACT and surrounding regions, artists and the small to medium arts sector will be forced into safe and predictable arts development, and a golden opportunity will be lost.

Is it right here, right now, that we will reinvent the ACT’s culture of arts review and criticism?

26 Oct

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If you write a book, or choreograph a dance, or compose a song, or produce a play or film, and no one reviews it, could it be that you never created it in the first place?

In a way that’s what was discussed at this year’s Childers Group forum.  Focussing on the Role of the Arts critic, on 18 October 2013 at the Gorman House Arts Centre in Canberra we gathered together a wide range of reviewers, critics, and arts leaders/thinkers as well as a lively and engaged audience to spark a conversation.  Who is an arts critic?  What exactly is it that they do?  How important is their work – does it matter at all?  What makes a good review?  Does a reviewer have responsibilities?  Are there more or less reviews going on these days?  And what of the online environment: does this open up opportunities for more review, but, if so, what sort of quality can we expect (or demand)?  What’s the nature of the ACT’s culture of review?  And, perhaps most importantly, where do we go from here?  What are the challenges ahead?  If you weren’t able to squeeze yourself inside the Bogong Theatre on the 18th, then you’ve now got a bit of a sense about what was discussed.

Going back to that opening sentence: if there’s one thing that artists struggle with, truly struggle with, it’s the silence, the silence that can meet a piece of work.  For months and years, sometimes even decades, an artist slowly but surely brings a work to the world.  Most likely there’ll be some kind of celebration – an opening night, a launch, perhaps even just a party on the deck at home.  There’ll be champagne and cheese; there’ll be slaps on the shoulder and the odd kiss on the cheek.  But the next morning?  Well, there’ll be that silence.  Sure, over time, people – good people, kind people – will offer up some kind of response.  ‘Congrats, it looks wonderful.’  ‘I loved it – you’re amazing.’  ‘Not sure.  I kinda wasn’t terribly moved.’  (This last one from the brave but honest and much-needed friend!)  Except this isn’t review or criticism; it is response.  Artists want response, but they also want more, the greedy devils.

A good piece of creation operates on many levels: there’s the conceptual, the meaningful, the emotionally engaging, and then there’s the sheer entertainment side of things.  A good piece of creation sends ripples out into the world.  A good piece of creation – sometimes, rarely – changes things.  A good piece of creation matters; it can matter more than we can ever possible know.  It’s this that a reviewer might explore: they might (should?) situate an artist’s work in a broader context, investigate what the artist (and also theatre, publisher, gallery etc) was trying to achieve, and why this might have any broader resonance, and then come to some kind of conclusion.

Whilst it might help a consumer make a decision, say in the way a restaurant review could, but it is much more.  It is not more opinion.  It is not simply a recommendation.

As it was said at the forum, a good review ‘illuminates’.

What else was said at the forum?  Towards the bottom of this post is the raw data, which is code for ‘the notes we scratched out on a napkin while standing at the back of the crowd’.  If you attended, and see weaknesses in these notes, send us an email and we’ll correct/expand them.  Also, please have a read of two thoughtful responses from two bloggers who were there: Whispering Gums and Only the Sangfroid (‘If art criticism is going to have a place in the world of tomorrow, it’s going to have to re-imagine itself’); there’s also this piece by Kim Anderson that we published on this site, courtesy of Art Monthly.

But there were two key issues/opportunities raised during the discussion on the 18th, and there’s the challenge – for the community could take them up.

The Childers Group's 'Role of the Arts Critic' forum, 18 October 2013, Gorman House Arts Centre

The Childers Group’s ‘Role of the Arts Critic’ forum, 18 October 2013, Gorman House Arts Centre

The first is that while the ACT does indeed have a fairly robust culture of criticism, through the traditional print media, other press outlets, and the blogosphere, there is an opportunity for an arts organisation to deliver – perhaps on an annual basis – a master-class in writing arts review and criticism.  As was raised at the forum, Realtime, which bills itself as ‘Australia’s critical guide to international contemporary arts’, would be more than happy to come to the ACT to deliver these workshops.  All it would take is someone to make a phone-call.  Not only would this initiative build skills in reviewing, but would also increase the number of reviewers, and this would be an excellent outcome indeed – for all.

The second issue/opportunity: doesn’t the ACT region, the core of which, Canberra, has been celebrating its centenary, deserve a high-quality ‘journal’ dedicated to review?  Wouldn’t that be a brilliant legacy of 2013?  Might that be the way that we as a cultural community continue to grow and expand and deepen?  Could that be that’s how we become even better artists?  Could that be how we become an even better region?  The technology is at our finger tips and much of it costs nothing; it is also obvious that we have a community that comprises good critical and creative thinkers, so we’ve got the writers.

We can make this happen.  And maybe, just maybe, it would help inform our audiences, help connect with our community, and also – now this would be the greatest outcome of all – help keep that silence at bay.

Here’s that ‘raw data’.

The nature of criticism:

  • criticism is a serious and public function
  • a critic must have a critical view point, an in-depth contention
  • a review should illuminate
  • a review should also understand a works creative, cultural, social and political context
  • a critic should be disinterested, as in ‘stepped back’ back a little from the work
  • the review should be as artful as the work reviewed
  • the reviewer should know their audience – is it an arts audience or the general populace
  • the criticism is valuable if it’s informed
  • it all comes down to the expertise of the reviewer
  • a reviewer needs ‘street cred’
  • but whose street cred?
  • criticism should engage
  • criticism should be about knowledge
  • criticism is about starting a public discussion
  • a review should further dialogue
  • a review is about advancing the art form
  • sometimes critics have to go straight to the jugular
  • but what’s the point in a critic being destructive?
  • critics should provide insight
  • a critic is a trader of ideas
  • a reviewer must be honest, which can be difficult
  • how can/should we define ‘qualified opinion’ or ‘quality comment’?
  • there’s no such thing as objective criticism
  • some critics are terrified/anxious about taking on the significant artists
  • a critic who themselves can’t take criticism doesn’t make a good critic!

Criticism and its readers:

  • people read reviews to find out what’s happening, to be informed; so a critic is someone who tells you what’s going on
  • the public is looking for criticism; they don’t want to the critic to hold back
  • in Australia, people don’t take online critics seriously (and artists still yearn for print review)

Criticism in the ACT:

  • Canberra is a culturally engaged community, there are many events across parts of society, so there’s limited press space for review
  • the city’s still feeling the loss of Muse Magazine
  • there are three pillars in the arts: artists, audiences, and interaction (i.e. review, criticism, discussion) – the interaction side of things needs to be strengthened in the ACT, though it’s no different to anywhere else
  • issue: Canberra is small, ‘incestuous’ – it’s hard to get artists writing about each other
  • the public discussion about public art in the ACT didn’t bring out a nuanced discussion
How important is it that we have a culture of robust and thoughtful arts criticism and dialogue? (Image source: Wiki Commons)

How important is it that we have a culture of robust and thoughtful arts criticism and dialogue? (Image source: Wiki Commons)

Criticism and the artist:

  • unfavourable criticism that comes from ignorance is hurtful
  • what do artists get out of arts criticism?
  • the worse thing is to be not to be reviewed at all
  • artists, if they choose, can incorporate criticism into the development of their work/practice
  • artists need to be resilient
  • but if an artist has a deliberately thick skin they might not be a good artist
  • artists are often highly critical of each other
  • artists should exercise their own critical faculties

Challenges for the future:

  • building expertise in on-line reviewing i.e. making sure online criticism is informed
  • see how restaurant reviews work – they’re very popular – and use that model for the arts?
  • due to limited payment, not every media outlet can attract the best critic/writer – this is a challenge
  • while newspapers are places where debate happens, they don’t have a moral duty to review, including ACT artists or amateur/school productions – so who takes on that role?
  • what do we do with critical silence?
  • arts organisations have a role to place in building resilience

A significant opportunity:

  • for an organisation or a number of organisations to host workshops and forums to build skills in reviewing and being a reviewer
  • who’s up to take this on?

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The panelists at our forum were: Robyn Archer AO (Creative Director, Centenary of Canberra), Kerry-Anne Cousins (visual arts critic), Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak (contemporary arts critic), Roslyn Dundas (CEO, Ausdance National), Marion Halligan AM (author, critic), Cris Kennedy (film critic), Helen Musa (Canberra Critics Circle), Jack Waterford AM (Editor-at-large, Canberra Times), Caroline Stacey (CEO/Artistic Director, The Street Theatre), and Ashley Thomson (Editor, BMA Magazine).  The forum was facilitated by Yolande Norris.  Thanks and gratitude to you all for your time and being involved so enthusiastically.

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Thanks also to: Allan Sko at BMA Magazine, Barbie Robinson at ArtSound FM, Helen Musa at City News, Genevieve Jacobs at 666 ABC Canberra, Joseph Falsone and team at the Gorman House Arts Centre, and Karmin Cooper at New Best Friend for graphic design support.

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 Many others helped to make this forum happen. You know who you are.

Love letter to a critic, from an artist, by Kim Anderson

24 Aug

CALL_ART_CRITICS_2The Childers Group’s next forum, to be held at noon on Friday 18 October at the Gorman House Arts Centre in Canberra, will focus on the role of the arts critic.  To get the conversation started, Australian artist Kim Anderson provides a personal account of why a vibrant culture of arts criticism is so important.

Where are you, my love? I languish here, yearning for you to cast your discerning eye in my direction. I long to see your face light up with sudden recognition of my genius – which surely must be obvious to you?  I send you emails, invitations by post, media releases to which you need only add your valued name before publishing; I try to make it as easy as possible. And yet despite my attempts to seduce you, you are continuously unaware of my existence. Your lack of response is agony to me. Please, I beg you, come to my show, favour me with your words of appraisal and your shrewd nod of approval.  Even disapproval. Anything. Just look at me. Acknowledge me. For without you I remain unnoticed, unrecognised, merely wilting into the crowd of countless others like me.

Wherefore art thou, my dearest art critic?  What’s happening to you?

You and I, we have a complicated relationship – there’s a bit of love, a fair amount of hate, some amount of disdain, and possibly a lot of confusion involved. I don’t think we’ve ever actually agreed upon your role. Some would argue that your raison d’être is merely a construct of the needs of media industries and academia. Nevertheless, it is fairly evident to me that we need each other – I might timidly raise the possibility that you actually need me more. I can keep making art without you, even if it is unacknowledged and unseen by the vast majority, but you must rely upon the continued creative output of artists such as myself in order to have something to critique. But having said that, and feeling momentarily empowered by the thought, it is my responsibility to create art that is worth writing about.  Maybe we’re both at fault here; perhaps I’m just not coming up with the goods. Either way, the glaringly awful truth is that you, the authoritative voice of mainstream institutional Art Criticism (capitalisation deliberate), are in trouble.

Oh, dear, this is such a difficult letter to write. My heart contracts in making these claims; this is only coming from the best of intentions. Bluntly pointing out your particular failures will only lead to further disharmony between us, so I will lightly sketch a picture of some of the issues we are facing.

First of all, visual art needs a response, but I’m afraid that the current one is rather unsatisfying.  Recent statistics declare that more people are ‘participating’ in the arts than ever and they are turning up to the blockbuster exhibitions in droves.[1] But where are the audiences for the smaller shows, the more cutting-edge contemporary galleries and artist-run spaces? And where are the critics to inform those audiences, to challenge them to view art and artforms outside the mainstream? Unless such events are part of a festival program and promoted in the corresponding media campaigns, they rarely draw comparative numbers let alone column space.

We must work together if this relationship is to survive and thrive. Marcel Duchamp makes the point that the creative act is not performed by the artist alone, that it is the spectator who ‘completes’ the work of art by deciphering it, interpreting its inner qualification, and bringing it into contact with the external world.[2] You, my dear critic, are a special kind of phenomenon: a spectator yourself, presumably with some expertise on the subject of art, you are also an intermediary between the artist, their work, and other spectators with less insight than you.

This is really a huge amount of responsibility, and perhaps it’s where the vital importance of your role lies. I’m sure we can easily agree on the key elements of good quality arts criticism: yes – providing an informed visual analysis and recounting your experience of the work, providing context for the artist and their methods/concepts/techniques etc., and – the essential factor – stating your opinion and how you arrived at that particular value judgement. Ideally you are conducting an intelligent dialogue with your audience, inviting them to respond by viewing the work in question with additional knowledge and understanding.

But – and this is the trouble – the space for your voice is diminishing, in a rather paradoxical way. In mainstream media lines are being cut from reviews, and arts programs are disappearing from our screens and airwaves at an alarming rate, and yet at the same time the space for discussion in the virtual sphere – the Internet – is increasing exponentially.[3] The old canon is fading away, those familiar names that were once published several times a week with feature-length reviews on weekends.  Certainly their word-counts are decreasing until they are becoming little more than brief ‘what’s-on’ listings.[4] Your expert voice is struggling to be heard above the ever-increasing cacophony of bloggers, twitterers, Facebookers, and YouTubers; the new era of Web 2.0 is threatening to drown you out.

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Viennese art critic Dr. Gertrude Langer inspecting a local art show, Brisbane, 1940 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This concerns me, for despite everything I am still on your side. In this age of ‘Like’ and ‘Unlike’ (apparently a verb now) everyone can be a critic – where does that leave your refined art of sustained, meaningful analysis? Once considered a specialised skill, ‘critiquing’ is now something that anyone can do at any time. This new online democracy certainly has its advantages in generating animated conversation and interaction amongst arts audiences, however I feel truly uneasy about a number of issues: the lack of quality control, lack of transparency, and the anonymity. Real names are not required, therefore no-one is accountable. There is even a danger that the seriousness and depth of intellect required for decent critical writing is being parodied and belittled by such tools as the “Arty Bollocks Generator” that spew out incomprehensible jargon-filled rubbish easily mistaken by the unsuspecting and uninformed as genuine commentary.

I urge you to fight against this, even if it means using the very medium that threatens to destroy you. In fact, there is room for both the old and the new. Artists, such innovative folk, have been quick to embrace ‘new media’ (such non-descriptive terminology as it is), but there is still a place for more traditional techniques. We are still drawing, painting, and sculpting more than ever alongside and even in combination with the use of the Web and other new technology. In taking yourself too seriously you have been a species slow to adapt, but this is survival of the fittest and there is no reason why you cannot save yourself. It is obvious that the public want to talk about art, to make sense of their experiences. They need your insight to inform their discussions about what constitutes good, interesting or worthwhile art, so it’s up to you to dive into the fray and provide it by whatever means you can.

Why not follow the lead of artists and negotiate a way for a cross-disciplinary approach to your own artform, a fluid and active engagement between the old ways and the new? The ‘traditional’ spaces could be enlivened by allowing contributions from some of the more well-informed online ‘critiquers’ who, I might venture, tend to visit the more obscure shows. This might not only reinvigorate the arts pages but also allow some of the less-established, unpublished writers to develop their skills and thus revive the whole profession. Or you yourself could grasp the opportunity to stop the humiliating belittlement of mainstream arts criticism by charging head-on into the virtual frontline and elevating the discussion above the level of ‘Like’ and ‘J’.[5] A further challenge could be to take yourself off the well-worn paths to the larger institutions, and wander into a space you’ve never been to before (there are hundreds of them, appearing and disappearing all the time), and hopefully your readers will follow suit.  Even – dare I say it – visit the alternative arts spaces in regional areas, and I don’t just mean the public galleries.[6] You – and your audience – might be pleasantly surprised, even excited. Be the one voice that doesn’t just join the chorus of reviews for the ‘big’ shows – a bold move, I know, as it may not necessarily satisfy the higher powers that provide your paycheque, but it may revitalise your profession and bring a newer audience back to the ‘older’ media.

I know you can’t see every single show nor use every method that’s available to deliver your words – you too are only human. I can’t really pretend to rescue you from the crisis you’re facing. After all, I’m just an artist – what would I know?  Maybe that’s the heart of the problem in this relationship: it’s not you, it’s me. I’m the one failing to inspire your attention and interest. If that’s the case I am deeply sorry, I will try harder to excite and provoke you. Maybe your expectations of me are too high, but, please, don’t give up on me yet. Let’s smooth this over. Come to my show, just once. If you write about it and I sell a drawing I promise I’ll take you out for dinner.

Notes:

This article was one of two Highly Commended articles 2012 Emerging Arts Writer’s Award, which took the theme, in keeping with Art Monthly’s 250th ‘Critical Lining’ issue (June 2012), of the ‘art of art criticism’. Republished here with kind permission from Art Monthly.

*

A Batchelor of Fine Arts graduate from the University of Ballarat Arts Academy, and a Masters graduate from the University of Dundee, Scotland, Kim Anderson won (for the second time) the Ballarat Arts Foundation’s Eureka Art Award.


[1] As shown in the Australia Council’s well-known study, More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, released in 2010. The blockbusters that the majority of people are ‘participating in’, are generally international in origin and hosted by major public institutions.

[2] Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, Lecture at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957; iaaa.nl/cursusAA&AI/duchamp.html

[3] This is not unique to Australia nor to the visual arts. The crisis in critical writing in general has prompted a huge amount of discussion and concern in Britain and the US, where even larger populations and presumably larger audiences cannot seem to salvage the situation.

[4] Looking forward to the weekend ‘Arts’ pages, so often I find myself disappointed and frustrated by their brevity and triviality, or even worse, their absence altogether.

[5] Blogger/critics such as Nikita Vanderbyl (Vociferous Whimsy blogsite: nikitavanderbyl.com/), and Michelle Kasprzak (michelle.kasprzak.ca/blog) provide more long-form reviews, while better known Australian voices such as John McDonald and Marcus Westbury have gone in the other direction and complement their print contributions with online content: johnmcdonald.net.au and www.marcuswestbury.net.

[6] The arts are thriving relatively unnoticed outside the cities too you know – we’re not all painting rural landscapes (nothing against those who do of course!)

The 2013-14 ACT budget and the arts: what we reckon

9 Jun

ACT-Budget-2013-14On Tuesday 4 June 2013 the ACT Government released its budget for 2013-2014.  Here is the Childers Group’s response to the arts component.

In the Childers Group’s budget submission dated 25 February 2013, a number of priority areas were identified, based on feedback provided through our two well-attended public forums and the various formal and informal discussions we’ve had over the last two years.

We consider the following the most critical:

  1. The realistic support of key arts organisations – ensure that through the ACT Arts Fund CPI continues to be provided to Key Arts Organisations on an annual basis.
  2. Appropriate pay for arts workers – ensure that there are no professional arts workers employed by Key Arts Organisations earning less than the average Australian wage of approximately $55,000 per annum
  3. Private-sector philanthropy – there is an urgent need for an incentives-based approach that brings together business and arts in the ACT, not necessarily paying an individual to broker relationships but rather developing a suite of strategic benefits for investment by business and individuals in the arts.  We strongly advocate for the ACT Government to provide seed-funding in the first instance.

What are our views on the ACT Budget in relation to our prority areas?

We applaud the ACT Government on its investment in the arts, particularly in relation to the following (although we note that not all of the funding below is ‘new money’):

New Works:

  • $1.8 million upgrade Canberra Theatre
  • $1.5 million Ainslie Arts Centre
  • $1 million Gorman House Arts Centre over 2 years
  • $300,000 to progress the Kingston visual arts hub

Works in progress:

  • $80,000 Belconnen Arts Centre feasibility and forward design
  • $3.6m allocated to the Fitters’ Workshop

Events:

  • $3.6 million Enlighten
  • ongoing funding to the Multicultural Festival and associated Fringe event
  • please note: we advise that the ACT Government, in collaboration with the ACT-region arts sector, should actively seek ways to build connections for ACT artists with this events

PhotographerHowever, we remain concerned that the financial sustainability of the ACT’s key arts organisations does not appear to be addressed.  All key arts organisations deliver a wide variety of professional programs, including those relating to community engagement and participation, as required by the ACT Government and to try to meet community need, but they do so with dwindling resources.

A critical issue is superannuation and long-service leave provisions. The increase in superannuation up to 12% begins in 2013 and increases steadily over the next five years and will have an impact on all funding, for organisations and one-off projects. The position of arts organisations in relation to retaining staff and meeting ACT long-service leave obligations is also a real and increasing cost attached to the $55,000 per annum figure mentioned above. The arts have legal and moral employment obligations like any other business and if there is a commitment to addressing retention of artists and arts staff in the ACT then there are real costs attached to that – arguably more so than other states e.g. there are greater long-service leave obligations in the ACT.

It should be noted that retaining and attracting skilled arts managers is now problematic as the ACT is not keeping abreast with salaries for senior personnel managing key ACT Government arts facilities. The investment in arts facilities and the resulting hubs requires highly skilled expertise to both manage and fully develop those hubs, through astute programming and strong community engagement.

What other areas of concern do we have with the ACT Budget?

Regarding the ‘disbanding of the ACT Cultural Council’ (as it is referred to in the 2013-2014 Budget Papers), the Childers Group believes that the Cultural Council model had served its purpose but no longer is it the model to best be a conduit between the ACT-region arts community and the ACT Government. However, we do seek clarification on what mechanism(s), if any, will replace the Council.  The Loxton Review of the Arts recommended the establishment of a ‘Ministerial Arts Advisory Council’ – is this still being established?  If so, what will its role be, and how will it be funded?  If not, how does the ACT Government see it being kept informed of issues in the sector?

We understand that the ACT Government remains committed to peer-assessment of arts grants applications.  However, we suggest that there is need for clear communication about how the various strands of arts funding will be assessed.  For example, will Key Arts Organisation funding be assessed through a different mechanism than Program and Project funding? Additionally, will peers be paid?  If so, has a budget been allocated for this?

We believe these matters are critical for our sector and request clarification on how the ACT Government intends to proceed, particularly given the upcoming assessment of a number of key arts organisations’ funding arrangements (5-year) in the very near future.

Do we think that the ACT Budget has addressed the issues raised in our submission?

MoneyNot entirely.

The Childers Group fully recognises that these are challenging economic times internationally, nationally and locally, and that governments at all levels must make difficult decisions.  In this context, we again congratulate the ACT Government for maintaining its investment in the arts.  However, on top of the priorities already mentioned in this survey response, we reiterate the following areas where the ACT Government can and should make a contribution:

  • Ongoing funding of the You Are Here festival – this initiative has been one of the Centenary of Canberra’s great successes, meaning that emerging and divergent art-forms flourish in a professionally curated context, whilst enlivening the city centre.
  • Increased support for one-off arts activities the Project Funding category is – regrettably – supporting fewer projects each year due to the increasing cost of delivering arts projects; this is especially true of the performing arts.
  • Improved arts publicity and promotion services – the Childers Group believes that with a more strategic approach cultural tourism could be strengthened in our region. The Childers Group has met with ACT Tourism to encourage a more entrepreneurial approach to Regional Cultural Tourism.  We believe incorporating regional attractions, including the district’s superb wineries and small galleries, will result in greater awareness of the distinctive creativity in our region.
  • A dance hub – a review by AusdanceACT found that there is an urgent need for good dance facilities in the ACT, particularly for professional practice.
  • A world-class artist-in-residence program – the Childers Group strongly advocates for ongoing funding of $200,000 over the next four years in order to fully realise the potential of its artist-in-residence program.
  • Significantly enhanced arts-in-education services the establishment of an Arts-in-Education Officer position would build relationships, partnerships and programs between the Education Directorate and the Community Services Directorate.
  • A whole-of-government service approach to arts development encouraging all directorates and agencies to examine ways in which they may directly or indirectly support the arts would enhance cultural life in Canberra.
  • Building creative partnerships with the regions – in many ways the ACT not only services the arts and cultural needs of its own citizens but also those who live in the neighbouring regions.  The regions have their own strengths and challenges, but greater partnerships between the ACT and the regions would result in deeper and more diverse opportunities.

The Childers Group is open to feedback on the above.  Our email address is childersgroup@gmail.com.

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