Why Australia needs the Arts.

In March, artists protested about the sponsorship of GOMA, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, by gas and oil company, Santos.

The protest focused on Santos’ mining fracking processes and protested about its sponsorship of Cai Guo Qiang’s ‘Heritage 2013’ exhibition, displaying animals drinking pure water at a waterhole. Artists pointed to the irony of the pure water which features in artwork being associated with a company that put ‘dozens of poisonous chemicals’ into Australian water tables.

Irony, the great instrument of artists.

In a similar ordeal, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis was forced to resign from Sydney’s Biennale because of her stake in Transfield, a company that is linked to the construction of detention centres at Nauru and Manus Island.

Politicians such as Malcolm Turnbull blasted protesting artists as ‘ingrates’; Arts Minister, George Brandis, threatened stringent reviews of ‘shameful’ arts companies.

Is this a short term trend or a new dawn? Will all festivals and arts institutions have to measure reputation and revenue risk even more carefully when selecting sponsors? Will sponsors do the same when choosing partners and, potentially, look to other areas like sport?

It wasn’t long ago photographer Bill Henson was on the receiving end of political and public ire. How the arts fights back!

‘Brutal policy, like inferior art, knows whose fault it is.’
– Les Murray

As people rush to take sides, it is worth remembering what the arts represents to Australia.

There is a mutual dependency between the arts and business/government. The arts need business and government funding; government and business need the arts to inspire and empower citizens, and stand-out in an increasingly competitive and globalised world.

More broadly, the arts are a significant contributor to Australia’s culture and economy – about $1 billion is generated each year through ticket sales to performance and arts events.

Why does Australia need the arts?

1. Finding opportunities, closing deals

Who are always in the first twenty rows of every arts event? The elite. Political, business, community and arts industry identities.

The arts facilitate interaction among the people who make the decisions that affect Australia’s success. Overseas and at home, the diplomatic corps know the power of arts events for greasing the wheels.

Businesses have already recognised the power of the arts to bring highly paid, highly educated professionals into a room and to form important business relationships.  Art provides the point of a shared appreciation so necessary to other trade and political negotiations.

The arts also convey a nation’s sophistication, history and tourism appeal channeled via business and trade missions, diplomats and attachés.

This is word-of-mouth marketing at an über-influential level. When politicians and highly influential people speak eloquently and admiringly about Australia overseas, the impact is far greater than any form of advertising.

2. Brand Australia

Australia is no longer the nation defined by ‘slip an extra shrimp on the barbie’. Our population is ethnically diverse with myriad expressions of culture. At community and professional levels, we enjoy a burgeoning arts scene. While globalisation has homogenised culture in the West, it is our unique and original arts organisations that reflect and define Australia’s contemporary culture.

The arts play an important role in shaping Australia’s image.

What do our artists say about us? 21st Century Australia is a country capable of self analysis – we are not afraid to consider the uncomfortable, the challenging and sometimes appalling aspects of modern life.

We care: about people and nature, and their intersection with the economy. A confident people, we push boundaries, seeking ever better ways of doing things. But we sometimes get it wrong.

With each brushstroke, pirouette and swing of the bow, we are creative, innovative and exciting.

This is the story artists tell through their creative mediums.

With the internet and its search and social media platforms, the arts has unparralleld capacity to define and promote Brand Australia. Why?

Because only the arts is one of very few industries that consistently produces genuinely authentic content. It is content that is memorable, shareable and emotive. And that’s what branding is all about.

3. Competitiveness of Australia’s industries

In today’s global economic climate, organisations must continuously identify social problems and then devise creative solutions to them in order to survive.

Art helps organisations to identify social problems. Artists are the voice of society, bringing, for example, ideas that sprung from a bedroom discussion and a solution that has never been spoken before, to life. Increasing global competition has forced Australia to find new ways to compete. Art has always involved creativity, innovation and alternate forms of thinking – exactly what today’s organisations need.

The economic benefits of being a global cultural nation or capital are well known. You attract the ‘creative class‘. The people who develop and commercialise ideas which differentiate a nation in an extremely competitive world. The era of manufacturing as a major job creator is over; our future rests in ideas manifest in new high value products, smarter agricultural production, education and services. That means attracting the very people who value and follow arts organisations. The cream of the global talent pool.

This, in turn, is what attracts global businesses to invest in Australia. A regional office in Australia means inviting the smartest minds to work hard but enjoy the lifestyle. A highly skilled professional choking on smog in downtown Shanghai chooses Australia because they are in demand. When they arrive they contribute to local business networks and knowledge hubs like universities, and they enrich our understanding of the world they came from.

Arts organisations are invaluable societal and economic assets. The arts need Australia’s support but Australia needs the arts. At the agency, we take this perspective in its review of an arts organisation’s planning, activities and communications strategy. The outcome is new partnerships, new revenue streams and new audiences.

Here are a few words from a former Prime Minister.

“This false divide between the arts and science, between the arts and industry, between the arts and the economy: we’ve actually got to put that to bed. As if creativity is somehow this thing which only applies to the arts, and innovation is this thing over here, which applies uniquely to the sciences, or technology, or to design. This actually a false dichotomy: it’s just not like that. Our ambition should be to create and foster a creative imaginative Australia because so much of the economy of the twenty-first century is going to require that central faculty.”
– Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Canberra 2008.

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image credit: Betty Lee via Flickr Creative Commons