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Deakin’s Dr Jill Smith AM says Australia’s arts and cultural sector needs greater recognition and funding for the central role it plays in shaping society.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, one of the most severely impacted sectors was the creative arts industries. Events, exhibitions, shows, and performances were suddenly cancelled or postponed leaving countless artists and industry employees out of work.

Even in the best of times, Australia’s creative arts sector can be a little shaky. Balancing along a tightwire of public and private funding, it relies heavily on grants, donations, sponsorships, and volunteers. But now, with COVID-19 restrictions continuing to cause havoc, it’s an industry even more fragile.

Arts vital for social, cultural, and economic prosperity

Chair of Deakin’s Arts and Cultural Management (ACM) Advisory Board, Dr Jill Smith AM – who earlier this year was recognised for her outstanding work in the arts sector – says that more than ever, it’s time for state and federal governments to focus on the crucial role the arts plays in Australia’s social, cultural, and economic prosperity.

‘It seems there is an inherent “blind spot” across all governments that’s resulted years of inadequate investment in, and support for, the sector and in particular the Australia Council for the Arts – the national arts funding agency. Success at individual project grants rounds has plummeted to as low as 10% and over 90 small-to-medium companies have lost Australia Council funding since 2013 - a significant loss of employment opportunities with many artists forced to leave their chosen profession,’ she says.

Audience appreciation on the rise

However despite languishing funding, there remains an enthusiastic audience and it appears appreciation for the arts is on the rise.

report released last year from the Australia Council for the Arts revealed that a significant 98% of Australians engage with the arts – whether it’s listening to music, reading, attending live or online performances, or participating at a cultural or community level.

‘While I think there are huge gaps in terms of government policy – including the fact that we have no federal government cultural strategy - the people have spoken. They love the arts and as the COVID restrictions last year demonstrated, audiences are adaptable when live performance is not available,’ says Dr Smith.

She adds that pre-pandemic, Australia’s creative industries were the fastest growing sector of the economy. 

‘In economic terms our creative and cultural activity contributed over $111.7 billion dollars or 6.4% to our GDP, employed close to 600,000 (5.5% of the national workforce) and the performing arts alone leveraged over $180m in philanthropic support.’

Boosting recognition

In addition to her 2021 Member of the Order of Australia award, Dr Smith has also been honoured with a Helpmann Award, recently receiving the Sue Nattrass Lifetime Achievement Award. With a long wish-list for the sector, she suggests that one recognition-boosting strategy would be to embed creative arts into curriculums across the country.

‘We need educate the broader community that artistic pursuit is a legitimate career. Unfortunately, so many artists are still only recognised when they make it overseas but that ignores the work in community and the steps that artists take in building their careers in the small-to-medium sector and as independent artists,’ she explains.

Urgent funding required

Beyond that, Dr Smith says the industry needs an urgent funding investment from all levels of government.

‘Because of the diversity of the sector there will be many views as to where those dollars are best spent, but from the theatre sector – and particularly the small-to-medium companies and independent artists point of view – I believe that firstly, there’s an urgent need for a bi-partisan federal government commitment to restore the Australia Council to its former role as the leader in our national cultural discussion.’

She argues that a reinvigorated Australia Council would not only recognise the strengths and cultural differences across states and territories, but how Australia’s artists shape the nation and build civic pride.

‘This would involve an urgent investment in the Australia Council that not only reflects the 2021 value of dollars but also ensure that the success rate of funding applications truly supports the quality and diversity of the arts.’

Targeted support

In addition to a targeted wage subsidy for workers who continue to be impacted by COVID-19, Dr Smith would like to see a significant investment into the support of First Nation arts and cultural companies and artists.

‘It should also be mandatory that every government and corporate board have an artist on their membership. Not only is it a way of financially supporting their work but it will ensure the thinking of boards is challenged and corporate community responsibility is taken seriously,’ she says.

Given the key role that Australia’s arts and cultural sector plays in shaping society she says it’s time for a greater spotlight to be shone on the industry.

‘We need to look and listen to our creative artists – they are our window to understanding an increasingly complex world.’

More information about Deakin’s arts and cultural management courses can be found here.

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