Newsletter 463

Published October 31, 2022
Tony Burke saves money by also taking on the job as conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

It wasn’t surprising there was no joy in the budget for the arts sector. With a year of economic doom and gloom ahead, the arts were always going to suffer alongside staples such as health, welfare, employment and housing. Having inherited a huge mess from the Morrison government, Labor must now do all the hard stuff and try to remain popular with an electorate that has shown little capacity to look beyond its immediate interests. Their saving grace is a clownish Opposition, unable to formulate workable policies or stand on any record of achievement while in government. Rising energy prices might be less of a problem if the previous administration had done even the smallest amount to promote renewables. As it stands, we’re all going to be whacked.

The signs were already obvious when Labor declined the opportunity to initiate a Ministry of Culture, which would have had huge, positive symbolism, relying instead on the dreary old practice of including the Arts as a minor portfolio on the list of an already busy minister. Tony Burke is not only Minister for the Arts, but for Employment and Workplace Relations – which was always going to absorb the bulk of his attention. Oh yes, he’s also Leader of the House.

Looking back on the early 70s, for an essay I was writing, I was struck anew by the explosive changes that the Whitlam government brought to the Arts and so many other areas. It’s commonplace to bemoan Whitlam as a poor economic manager, but the revolution he wrought in Australian society dragged us forcefully into the modern era. Ever since those days, whenever the word “reform” is used by politicians, it usually means something is about to be cut and someone screwed over.

The Budget has allotted $80 million towards a new National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs, a proposal that has been meandering along for quite some time, but almost everything else is either down or on hold. The excuse is the formulation of a new National Cultural Policy, due in December. The government has a seven-person committee working on this project, which will undoubtedly be launched with great fanfare. It’s the substance we need to worry about. Policy is one thing, achievement another.

Expect a huge fuss about all things Indigenous in the National Cultural Policy. This may be well-intentioned but it’s also a feel-good measure that will distract from the general neglect of many other areas which are struggling post-pandemic. The Herald reported that the National Gallery of Australia didn’t get the money it needed to fix the roof, among other problems, but to be blunt: the NGA’s maintenance is a black hole that requires seemingly endless injections of cash, and long-term neglect has made that problem worse. One feels a degree of sympathy for Nick Mitzevich, who has tried to address the maintenance issue, but he has hardly shown himself to be a responsible money manager, blowing $22 million on two outlandish purchases, and failing to secure the major international exhibitions the NGA needs to boost attendance numbers.

In times of recession, is art a necessary consolation or an unaffordable luxury? A bit of both, probably. What’s important, both for the government and for institutions such as the NGA, is to be pro-active. In a nation devoted to banal materialism, we need to make a strong case in defence of cultural funding.

Speaking of cultural funding, Sydney’s National Art School has been one of the beneficiaries of the NSW State government’s largesse in recent years. Whereas institutions such as the Powerhouse Museum have been systematically trashed, the NAS has emerged in a position of strength. For this, we may be thankful.

This week’s art column looks at Captivate, a brilliant historical show surveying at the past hundred years of the NAS (founded 1922), and the previous history of the site, as the old Darlinghurst Gaol. The show required a monumental amount of organisation from archihvist Deborah Beck and her colleagues, but has run for only a month. Given the usual delays with the Herald slotting in a column, this means the review is appearing at the very end of the exhibition, which is better than never but hardly satisfactory. In this instance, I really think the NAS needed to make more time for such a landmark display.

The movie being reviewed is the entirely frivolous Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, largely because I was short of options this week. COVID-19 hangover and a looming recession are having a deadening effect on the cinema, with a dearth of new releases and some very brief seasons. It’s been predicted for a long time, but perhaps the ready availability of on-line movies is finally starting to undermine the big-screen presentations. When cash is scarce, it’s worth noting that a month of Netflix costs less than a couple of choc-tops.