Arts cuts? I blame me

Arts cuts? I blame me

Posted April 5th, 2012 by debritz

This morning I received a Facebook message from a person of some prominence in the Queensland arts scene. It said:

Happy about your campaigns against arts funding now, Brett?

Yes, apparently this week's decision by Campbell Newman to axe the Queensland Premier's Literary Award as part of a cost-cutting program is all my fault.

Why? Because, among the thousands of newspaper articles I have written in my career, two or three, written a decade ago, questioned not arts funding per se but the fact that some individiuals and groups seemed to be receiving a very large share of the funding pie while others missed out.

What I did then was what a reporter does. I spoke to people who were outraged about the system but I spoke to people who defended it, and I quoted them all.

At no time have I ever personally questioned the need for or desirability of arts funding. What I have done, however, is interview hundreds of Queensland actors, writers, dancers, musicians, directors and other artists, and published their stories in newspapers that have been read by millions of people.

I often had to fight to get prominence for these stories, to give Queensland artists a place alongside famous international music and movie stars.

I have also spent many hours on radio talking about the arts and artists, even though a commercial radio producer told me that productions by the Queensland Theatre Company were "not mainstream enough" for the airwaves.

I find the message I received this morning deeply offensive, not just because of the personal attack on me but because it demonstrates the shallowness of the thought process of somebody who should know better.

The arts establishment in Queensland is often its own worst enemy. To argue for funding on the basis of a sense of entitlement, and to enter into a blame game, will not help advance the cause.

Neither will adminstrative slopiness. When I wrote about arts funding all those years ago, I discovered that Arts Queensland -- the state government department that manages arts grants (although not the now-axed literary award) -- did not keep a tally of the amounts individuals had received in funding over the years, or even a running ledger of recipients from one year to the next.

When I asked for records, instead of a spreadsheet, I got a box full of paper documents that I was expected to collate and then make some sense of. And they arrived just one day before the page deadline, despite the request being made more than a week earlier. Either the bureaucrats were inept or they were "running interference".

The reactions of some in the arts community were laughable. Correspondents to the paper confused a news article written by me about an author with an opinion piece written by a colleague, or with another story by a third journalist about a funded visual artist. Suddlenly, everything was my fault (as apparently it is now).

Somebody I used to respect rang me and told me earnestly that "without government arts funding there would be no Shakespeare or Dickens". Oh, really? And I always thought they were hacks who survived and thrived through the popular success of their works.

Another sent an email intended for a colleague to me instead of him.

Some members of the arts community took a more measured response, however. From memory, the PR person for the federal Arts Council, was very helpful, putting me in touch with people who could articulate their arguments without kneejerk hysteria.

When my feature article was finished, it raised many valid points about how some forms of art are funded and others are not, and how some artists felt "locked out" of a process they believed was controlled by a clique. It also told success stories about people who had received a small amount of funding and then went on to enjoy stellar careers.

So, what do I really think? I've said this before, and I will say it again: the arts does deserve a better deal from the government.

But it also deserves a better deal from its loudest advocates, at least one of whom, apparently, can offer nothing more constructive than firing a shot at the messenger (years after the event).

More power to those people organising the new Queensland Literary Awards without state government assistance. I hope their funding is restored when the books are balanced and that, in the meantime, corporate sponsors will come to the party so the awards thrive and continue to turn out the stars of the future.

More power, too, to those who are prepared to use sensible arguments to help resist further cuts in funding, and to support ongoing reviews of how the available money is spent. I'm with them 100 per cent.