Image for An Impure Tasmania

Conflicts of public and private interest in arts funding are rarely if ever fully aired in Australian cultural funding debates. In future years, given that we are likely to be faced with the issue of funding cultural activities versus school breakfasts, public spending on the arts will inevitably decrease. Such moral choices should be very straightforward. But the relationship between governments and corporate and or private donors will need to be far more carefully managed to guarantee probity in all instances.  I believe the arts should not be costing as much to fund ethically as they currently are in this country. This article is not aimed at arguing for cutting public arts funding, but to point out the very real obligation for ensuring complete political and commercial transparency in all of our government’s arts donorship and funding partnerships.

To reach the point where public-private arts partnerships are economically viable and clearly working in the arts industry’s best interests, we need to overcome entrenched political, bureaucratic and academic resistance. We also badly need to develop accurate strategies for Australian artists to operate independently of public funding in the free market so as to become self-sustaining as their US and UK peers have had to be. This is going to be far harder than imagined while Australia’s cultural agenda is so carefully managed by our governments.

Currently, both the economics and the ideological direction of Australia’s cultural future lie squarely in the hands of our politicians. In spite of peer selection processes in public arts funding decisions, we’d be foolish to ignore the reality that both mainstream political parties and their supporting independents, have determined cultural agendas. In a free society this should rightly mean that neither party should be allowed anywhere near cultural funding or management. But we forgive our politicians’ vigorous ideological trespasses against Australia’s artistic freedom because we want arts funding to continue. But what price are we actually paying for propping up the state and federal arts council’s humungous bureaucracies and poorly managed politically driven funding programs?

Former Australia Council chairman and international award winning author Rodney Hall’s 2005 report “Give Wings to the Arts; A New Model for Arts Funding”, was commissioned by Labor First when the party was in opposition. The report sketches a viable scheme to shift the current balance in arts funding from bureaucracies to artists themselves. Hall’s seasoned observations into arts bureaucracies’ funding of departmental promotions among other flabby self serving spending strategies, were howled down by the Australia Council directorate, effectively quashing debate on these vital issues. Worryingly, few if any artists rose to the challenge of commenting let alone supporting Hall’s ethical stance, while Labor also swiftly backed away from committing to his proposals once elected.  HERE


To me, it is only a matter of time before the girl from Altona shares her own artistic prejudices or limitations; she believes it’s her job. Meanwhile, we have an enduring image of the current Australian prime minister, “at home”, with not a book, painting, photograph or any other visible cultural memento in sight. The image we gain from Gillard’s domestic space is of her active disinterest in contemporary Australia’s creative imaginings. Feminists argued that media comments about Gillard’s lack of domesticity are prejudice against her female life choices. Bollocks. The images of Gillard “at home” left me with little more than the sorry truth that Australia’s current prime minister has zero interest in the best of what our country’s gifted creatives can and do accomplish. She doesn’t even read in her kitchen.

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Doubtlessly, Gillard’s minders helped domestically de-styling her, if she actually needed further cultural neutralising. She’s boring. No amount of equal opportunities can make this focus-group driven power hungry woman any more interested or intellectually open or curious, let alone sufficiently culturally composed to do her job in the 21st century. Such is Australian politicians’ craven fear of being recognised for supporting unconventional artistic ideas of recognisable quality that we are again forced to accept this dreadful sacrifice. What has made Australian leftist politicians so culturally fearful?

Politicians’ cheap shots at the arts’ elitism, economic cost and contrarian content should immediately be written off as slavish appeasements of influential electors’ dreams of tidy towns. Otherwise, why would Australian politicians bother to even express their unqualified artistic views in public? Rudd’s “disgust” at artist Bill Henson’s imagery caused an international outcry. But the former PM’s strategic channelling of George W. Bush’s rightwing manipulation of American cultural freedom helped get him re-elected in his own tidy town, with little opposition.  More recently, Senator Guy Barnett’s campaign to have the unscheduled “The Company of Brave Men”, presenting Gallipoli heroes’ Victoria Crosses shown in Tasmania succeeded. None asked why Barnett’s sudden interest in supporting cultural activities was limited to this single electorally popular cause, or where the extra funding for the show might come from, or why supposedly independent institutions like TMAG should realistically be expected to capitulate to a federal senator’s pressure at such short notice? I’m most definitely not criticising the show itself, but the politicisation of Tasmania’s cultural agenda is truly alarming to me. Would Guy Barnett also care to lend his weight to lobbying TMAG to host artist Rodney Pople’s long overdue retrospective?

While none would be so arrogant or amateur as to comment on the nation’s defence plans without seeking qualified experts’ advice, the arts in Australian society are treated as an opportunity for politicians to sustain and rationalize their own biases and lack of intellectual openness. Inherent in this awkward ethical scenario, is the fact that arts bureaucrats are afraid of pissing politicians off, in case their funding gets cut. Such institutionalised self-censorship actively affects the focus and accuracy of public arts spending. Yet, in contrast to state and federal arts bureaucracies’ terror of losing funding, jobs and superannuation payments, lies the extraordinary opportunity of public-private partnerships in arts funding in Australia.  But while the cultural sector has many stellar opportunities for building productive creative relationships with non-government donors and sponsors, we continue to fall short in Australia because of several unproductive institutionalised assumptions.

Firstly, until charitable spending on the arts is properly separated from opportunistic inherently politicised government management, reliable annual sources of independent arts philanthropy will remain fairly unachievable, particularly in Tasmania. This will almost certainly impact on TMAG’s ability to operate its $200, million new facility, if it is able to secure sufficient funding from the federal government to build it in the first place. TMAG’s new facility will require considerably increased annual funding, although the premier and his arts minister have yet to publicly confirm funding guaranteeing this need. It is the first question journalists should be asking of the state government’s proud unveiling of its extensive plans to upgrade the institution. Any takers? So far, we’ve read little more than recycled ALP ministerial spin about the new look TMAG without anyone apparently bothering to ask how it is going to keep its doors open financially, let alone begin at last to do its job of lifting Tasmania’s cultural profile to nationally recognised standards. I feel cheated. TMAG has spent a bundle on paid consultancies searching for its “vision” as a cultural institution. Again, our local media has failed to report where such searches for “vision” have led the institution. Does TMAG have a vision yet? Is it a new vision or an old one? Has the community been invited to comment on or contribute to TMAG’s vision yet? Ever? Is TMAG’s apparent distance from challenging public feedback really quite so necessary in our small community? Meanwhile, we live in hope of a 21st century style upgrade of TMAG’s website, listings current Trustees, all funding sources and the amounts donated, not to mention offering an online donation facility, you know, the usual public interest kind of stuff. 

Instead, our current government’s relationship with local arts donors remains dubiously insincere if not manically controlling. Tasmania’s chapter of the Australian Arts Business Foundation (AbaF) shares an address with Arts Tasmania. Arts Tasmania’s current chairman is on the AbaF board. The foundation’s 2010 awards ceremonies lavish prizes for special relationships between the state government and local companies, one of whom kindly supplied Brendan Bromley as a judge (experienced in arts partnerships according to AbaF) for AbaF’s national award which went to, you guessed it, Federal Hotels, the company he works for.  HERE

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Now that Mr. Bromley has been replaced as Federal Hotel’s Corporate Affairs Advisor by former Tourism Tasmania CEO Darrel Hanna, can the state government please now advise us as to whether Mr. Hanna will assume Mr. Bromley’s arts board seats and arts donorship judging roles too?

Loud cries of obligatory probity being firmly upheld in such process can do little to abate the unfortunate perceptions such politically inspired appointments invariably promote. There is no avoiding the fact that all charitable fund raising, administration and spending must operate openly and completely separately from governments, otherwise private donations are literally being used to fund the cost of election promises, as is evidently the case in Tasmania. The Commonwealth funded ABaF describes its relationship with state governments as “arms length” but this is apparently not necessary here. Locally, politically appointed arts chairs and board members will demand air time defending their limited perceptions of Tasmania’s special needs in arts fundraising, but the truth is different. Until the state government releases its grip on subsidising its own political agenda by encouraging legitimate genuinely hands-off arts philanthropy, the Australian public and companies will remain relatively stingy as arts donors. And the important creative adventures traditionally resulting from the natural progression of independently driven relationships between artists and donors will remain absent from much of Australian cultural life.

In 1969, if textile magnate and international arts philanthropist John Kaldor had first asked the NSW state government which arts project he should support, international artist Christo and Jean Claude would not have been able to afford to wrap Little Bay. Could Federal Hotels develop and pull off a similarly ambitious and successful project driven by such determinedly rigorous uncompromising international artists? The opportunity for donors to work collaboratively with truly great artists should always be a privilege, never a political right.  HERE

It’s been over three decades since John Kaldor’s inspiring thought provoking artistic gift to Australia. David Walsh’s MONA collection and exhibition program appear to be prepared to stimulate similarly independent, challengingly implausible arts experiences. MONA FONA’s 2010 toured the internationally acclaimed installation artist Christian Boltanski’s “Les Archives du Coeur” (The Heart Archive), adding tourists and Tasmanians’ heartbeats to the artist’s global archive. We can only hope that Walsh and his staff will maintain their healthy intellectual independence by pursuing acute acquisitions of conversation starters such as Chris Offili’s controversial “The Holy Virgin Mary. This cheekily hip, deliciously subversive painting displays an image of an African Madonna decorated with elephant dung. It is truly beautiful to me. But it is guaranteed to cause uproar in our community, which is Walsh’s most valuable intention I believe. In 1999, New York City Mayor and former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani tried to sue the Brooklyn Museum for including “The Holy Virgin” in the Royal Academy of Arts’ touring “Sensation” exhibition, roaring; “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects”. Did I mention Australian politicians’ success in channelling the US conservative right’s moral crusade against art? In response to Guiliani’s outrage, or out of sheer political terror, Dr. Brian Kennedy, then director of the National Gallery of Australia cancelled the “Sensation” exhibition’s Canberra tour. Be assured, MONA’s collection and exhibition program is in no danger of being compromised by such feeble defence of creative courage and excellence. To me David Walsh’s most audaciously generous gift to Tasmania is the message that, here at the bottom of the world, we simply cannot afford to fear dangerous new creative ideas.

In contrast, the Tasmanian government’s arts spending agenda is being quietly diverted to boost our state’s lagging tourism industry of which prominent arts sponsors Federal Hotels are primary beneficiaries. Wall to wall billboards of Federal’s Pure Tasmania advertising campaign certainly leave visitors arriving at Hobart International Airport with the strong impression that this company owns our island. So why shouldn’t Federals want to run our cultural agenda too? Their agenda is blindingly obvious. But the government appointment of Federal’s staff and owners to various arts boards in reward for the company’s arts donations is politically and culturally questionable. Does the Tasmanian state government really need to spend our hard earned tax dollars upholding the Farrell family’s aspirational dreams of social legitimacy in the wake of the incredible devastation their under regulated avarice wreaks upon Tasmanian families? In the last five years, the state government has quietly replaced Forestry Tasmania’s unpopular cultural largess with Federal Hotels’ funding as its significant partnership in sponsoring Tasmania’s arts festivals, TMAG, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra among other arts activities. Although the outcry over Forestry’s Ten Days on the Island funding was so voluble, the then festival chairman Premier Jim Bacon was forced to apologise to the state’s artist complainants. There has been a virtual silence over Federal’s replacement of Forestry’s funding.

Federal’s monopoly of Tasmania’s 3,500+ poker machines coupled with the alarming statistics of 40% of Australian poker players being problem gamblers, should leave us with a grotesque moral equation of having to weigh the profits of problem gambling’s shattered lives and broken homes against the impact of Forestry’s old growth logging. What is it about this awkward ethical bargain that persistently silences the opposition parties and Tasmanian artists ands writers?

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Most importantly, what price are we prepared to pay for our government inviting Federals to replace Forestry in helping keep the doors of TMAG, TSO, Ten Days et al open? The appointment of Federal’s owners and staff to Tasmania’s cultural boards demonstrates how readily our government is prepared to squander the integrity and independence of our precious cultural institutions to reward the Farrell family. Logically, given the Farrell family’s exceptional record of arts appointments, comparable donations can also expect to be rewarded with seats on the Tasmanian arts board of your choice. Or a seat on the Hydro. Nowhere is this equation of private arts donations being rewarded with such manifestly biased influence, so blatantly offered. Why are Tasmanian artists not protesting this insidious compromise of our cultural integrity? Where is Richard Flanagan’s eloquent outcry, his damning descriptions of mendacious snouts at the trough? Robert Dessaix, Peter Timms, Heather Rose, Tim Payne, Gerald Castles et al? Have all those talented articulate contributors to the Bett Gallery’s 2005’s rebellious anti-forestry unTen Days show simply evaporated? Or are trees more important than human misery? One artist I recently interviewed suggested that limiting poker machines would only mean “those stupid bogans would spend their money elsewhere”. How utterly callous and uncaring his words sound to me after all the heartfelt outcries over Forestry’s devastation.

The 2011 Ten Days on the Island program is illuminating. Wrest Point Casino has been refashioned into an arts venue, hosting prominent festival concert events, at a price of course. And why shouldn’t Wrest Point bid for the best concerts it can get its hands on? But where are the Tasmanian Times’ commentaries, analyses and outcries against Federal’s creepy grab of our island’s cultural highlights? I do not go to poker machine venues. They’re devised purely to trap me into playing their unregulated highly addictive machines and I, like many Tasmanians simply cannot afford to lose far more than I’m likely to win, to a machine which our state government cannot even be bothered attempting to regulate technologically. Why is this privately owned company profiting from the misery of thousands of Tasmanians, continually being allowed to take more than it will ever give to our state?

Elsewhere, private arts funding has been actively enhanced by beneficial taxation abatements and appreciative social encouragement; a wealthy donor can make a legitimate well-managed financial commitment to a cultural institution without forcing the facility to sell out its vision or avoid its responsibilities for upholding the highest possible cultural standards and ethics. Publicly, TMAG must take clear and transparent steps to ensure it is not going to be bamboozled in its hunger for donations by special interest groups or individuals, or local companies using arts donations to try to polish unhealthy social images. While our artistic community has yet to protest the Tasmanian government’s favourite sponsor’s insidious profiteering from poker machine addicts in our community, cultural precedence elsewhere foreshadows increased artists’ activism, if not outright protests against such dangerous double standards. Who indeed wants their hard earned creative output to be used by such parasites?

Local opposition politicians and Tasmanian artists’ silence over Federal Hotel’s devastating impact on Tasmanian life is disappointing. I believe our state government’s arts policies and cultural spending agendas are being quietly reconfigured by Federal’s staff and owners to meet tourism’s “needs” and politicians’ regional agendas, neither of which are qualified to represent our own community’s bona fide creative authenticity. Tourists spend money in Tasmania but let’s be very clear about their true role in our community; visitors are genuinely welcome but we’d be kidding ourselves to claim that the state government’s blinkered assessment of tourists’ artistic interests will actively enhance Tasmania’s quality of cultural life. Controversial and highly successful UK artist Damian Hirst once told me; it’s an artist’s job to teach the punters what they need and never to give them what they want. David Walsh would most probably agree.

A society that fails to nurture the arts, is a society that is easily manipulated culturally into believing that what we can creatively achieve locally is not worth having. I still think Tasmania has the unique capacity for authentic original creative expression, but I remain unconvinced that our current arts institutions have sufficiently flexible intellectual and political independence to responsibly cultivate this resource appropriately, to current global standards, so as to assist Tasmanian artists succeed in the global arts marketplace. Management of our local arts institutions should never be subjected to the whims of the tourism industry’s trend-based needs, nor to the particular interests of one overly favoured company. Protesting Federal Hotel’s arts funding risks irritating the current government and alienating Federal’s potential philanthropical largess. But it is far more dangerous for our arts community to remain silent in the face of such undermining amoral actions by our government, the AbaF and Federal Hotels.