Words and illustration by Jenni Mazaraki
The Australia Council funding announcement in May 2016 brought concerns from the creative arts sector that the value of creativity in Australia is being questioned yet again.
The contribution of art to Australian culture is not easily as quantifiable as facts and figures on a spreadsheet but this doesn’t make it any less valuable. How do you measure the joy that an exhibition brings to an audience or the ways in which a festival contributes to the well-being of a community?
It is through art that we are able to have our identities reflected back to ourselves, to reaffirm our lives, to challenge our views and to help us develop dialogues of what is important to us. When we engage with art, we have an opportunity to experience something different.
How are the arts valued in Australia?
Indicators of how the arts are valued by the Australian population can be examined by looking at figures from The Australian Bureau of Statistics. By examining the number of people studying creative arts, opinions on the benefits of the arts and looking at Government funding to individual artists, projects and organisations, we can build a picture of how the arts are valued in Australia.
In 1992, the ABS reported that 30.5% of Australians believed that everyone benefits from the arts. This is in contrast to the public outcry around the purchase of public art which occurs when money is spent on what some people believe to be a waste of taxpayer’s money. In 1980, Melbourne’s Vault sculpture, otherwise known as ‘The Yellow Peril’ sparked debate when $70,000 was seen as an excessive amount to pay for an artwork. While people debate some spending on the arts, in 2004, 2.5 million Australians participated in art and craft as a hobby.
People want to study creative arts
The latest data from 2012 showed that the number of students studying creative arts courses in higher education was 86,547. This is a significant increase from the 57,896 students studying art in 2003 .
Even though the number of students has increased, universities have been closing creative courses or merging schools and departments. The proposed joining of art schools at UNSW A&D, Sydney College of the Arts and the National Art School in Sydney has resulted in protests from the arts community, concerned about a reduction in opportunities for art based practice and research. The Friends of Sydney College of the Arts are campaigning to ‘Save Sydney Art School’ and have vocal support from prominent alumni such as filmmaker, Jane Campion to support the value of art schools.
“It’s precious, more than diamonds, more than gold,”
said Campion in the video, ‘Why Art Schools Matter’ produced by Barbara Doran. Artist Ben Quilty also features in the video.
“Art schools are the place where we tell our stories, where we nourish our communal souls,” Quilty said, “shutting them all down is at our peril.”
Previous art school mergers have already occurred in both South Australia and Victoria where art schools have merged with architecture and design. Hobart and Launceston have also merged their art schools. Art schools in New South Wales and Western Australia have been reduced. Despite the reduction in art courses, the demand and interest for art education hasn’t waned with institutions partnering in ingenious ways to offer alternative courses at TAFE level.
Funding cuts devalue the arts
Art education feeds our cultural identity. Despite the cuts in Australia Council funding which may indicate a devaluing of the arts, the Australian population shows an appreciation of the arts. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show a consistent engagement in creative arts education in the last 10 years. With an increase in the number of students in art courses in recent years, future job opportunities after graduation become uncertain when funding is cut to the arts.
In 2016, funding available to individual artists and projects is now reduced by 70% from the previous year of funding. Funding cuts have left 65 small arts organisations unfunded, creating doubt for their future.
Art will find a way
Art schools promote a creative, analytical way of thinking about the world. These skills are becoming more recognised as important as The Committee for Economic Development of Australia reported recently that desirable skills for the future workforce are creativity, design and analysis.
With courses closing and arts organisations losing funding, people look to alternate arts short courses and workshops offered by artists and craftspeople. The arts can offer a different perspective for people to engage with the world around them and also to connect with themselves. People will always find a way to pursue their creative endeavours.