NEARLY TWO HUNDRED and fifty years ago Dr Samuel Johnson – the essayist, critic, poet and lexicographer – became the first English writer to receive a government-funded pension. After decades of struggling to make ends meet, the man who had compiled the language’s first dictionary and is now considered a father of English literature was given the princely sum of £300 a year – for life. It came without any strings, and enabled him to pursue his art, and capture a turbulent era. In the process Johnson created a legacy that is still tangible.
At the time Prime Minister Lord Bute bequeathed the money he famously said, ‘It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done.’
It should not be surprising that this financial security enabled Johnson to complete the projects he could not while making a living as a jobbing writer, and to embark on others that in 1762 he had not even imagined. The following year he met James Boswell and the two men travelled and wrote together, creating books that are still in print. Boswell later immortalised him in Life of Johnson and several centuries later their names are still famously twinned.
There are countless tales of writers and other artists who produced great and lasting work as a result of patronage, grants, fellowships and other forms of conditional and unconditional support. Public funding and the largesse of patrons has been an essential part of artistic life across cultures. Indeed the enduring work produced by these artists – in literature, visual arts, music, performance – has gone a long way to defining many civilisations and the creativity they unleashed has fuelled economies and provided emotional and intellectual sustenance.
SO WHEN A hundred and two performers, writers, artists, musicians, benefactors, educators and administrators occupied the government party room in Parliament House Canberra for two days in April 2008 to imagine the future, the symbolism was palpable. As they took their seats in the bright airy room, decorated with dull grey portraits of past political leaders, there was a frisson of excitement – imagine a government where creativity was at the core, how would that change priorities, agendas, perceptions and ambitions.
Some of those selected to participate in the Towards a Creative Australia group at the 2020 Summit were accustomed to making the trek to the national capital to argue a case for funding their art form or organisation, to lobby politicians and public servants with arguments advocating the crucial role of arts, culture, creativity and innovation in policy agendas from education to productivity and social inclusion, from Indigenous affairs to foreign relations. Others were more accustomed to being the glamorous honeypots whose very presence drew others, but in this forum it was the brilliance of their ideas and insights that was most interesting.
In the government party room over that frenetic weekend they put aside special interests and worked hard to envision a creative Australia twelve years hence, and the steps needed to get there. It was a challenging and confronting task. Young performers and artists sat with older bankers, writers with broadcasters, teachers and academics with musicians, designers and directors with lawyers, and tried to find a language and way of thinking that encompassed their diverse interests and modes of expression.
What they came up with was not a shopping list of special pleading, but a sophisticated analysis of the virtuous circle of the value of embedding the arts, creativity, innovation, design and culture more deeply in the fabric of Australia.
They talked about how this could define and sustain individuals and a nation – by sharing stories, fuelling the imagination, recognising excellence, supporting artists, boosting the economy, driving innovation, fostering social inclusion, nurturing children and nourishing the environment. They recognised the uniqueness of the Australian experience, especially the enduring importance of Indigenous arts and culture, and the changing dynamics of an interconnected global market where the digital technology threatened many traditional business models, even as it created new opportunities.
When the Prime Minister closed the Summit and spoke about the centrality of creativity, innovation and the arts many felt a sense of vindication and inclusion.
The challenge was then to turn ideas into policy, to mount persuasive new arguments that would cut through the established patterns of practise and thought.
In the weeks and months that followed, despite the distracting raw populist politics of the investigation into the morality of Bill Henson’s photographs of adolescents, many of those involved in the weekend brainstorm continued to meet to find ways to develop a new and more inclusive language for the arts, to consider strategies to ensure that the arts and creativity took a central place in the new national curriculum, and to formally examine new ways of supporting individual artists.
IN THE DECADES after Dr Johnson first received his pension, British government patronage slowly became more systematised with the creation of the Civil List, the Royal Bounty Fund and the literary and intellectual community itself set up a fund to support ‘men of genius and learning in distress’. In time this largesse spread to the colonies as well, and has continued to evolve as artists and their benefactors sought ways of enabling the production of creative works for their intrinsic value, as well as for the benefit of the society.
As patronage became a part of ‘the system’, the controversy about public support for the arts was also born, as Frank Moorhouse who has made a study of the field, recently reminded me. He noted the timelessness of Lord Macauley’s characterisation of Prime Minister William Pitt, who refused to dispense grants to writers, to illustrate the point. Macauley described Pitt as the sort of man who believed that ‘… poetry, history and philosophy ought to be suffered, like calico and cutlery, to find their proper price in the market, and that to teach men of letters to look habitually to the state for their recompense, is bad for the state and bad for letters …’
There is ample evidence to the contrary and over time public and private benefactors have prevailed. These days faith in the capacity of the market to make reliable judgements about anything is wanting, but we have become accustomed to using the slide rule of how much and how many to judge success and achievement.
Reducing discussion of the arts, creativity and culture to economics risks missing the point of why they are important and why the best endures and becomes a shortcut to defining a people, a place or a civilisation. Nonetheless the renowned economist Professor David Throsby has used the skills of the dismal profession to garner revealing insights about the financial and social benefits produced by the arts – benefits that may otherwise only seem personal and illusive, even if occasionally transformative.
In Creative Australia: The arts and culture in Australian work and leisure, commissioned by the Academy of Social Sciences, Throsby has calculated the economic scale and benefits of the artistic core at the centre of the creative industries. Using data from the 2006 Census he identified 156,000 people in the Australian creative workforce, and about fifty-three thousand engaged directly in the production and creation of works of all kinds of art, documented where and how they live, the infrastructure that supports them and their contribution to the nation.
Another recent study Making the intangible tangible prepared by PriceWaterhouseCoopers for the Australian Copyright Council points to an even greater importance of the copyright industries which create and disseminate new ideas and ways of seeing. It showed that these industries which employed just under a million people have been growing significantly. In the decade to 2006 the value of these industries almost doubled, to account for more than 10 percent of gross domestic product, but export growth did not keep pace with the other sectors of the economy.
While the economic data is impressive the report notes that much of the value is intangible, ‘the national culture, a creative environment and freedom of expression are examples of non-appropriable benefits’.
Similarly David Throsby’s detailed statistical analysis concluded: ‘Although Australia may not unequivocally be described as a creative economy at the present time, there are certainly elements in the system which are pointing in that direction. But a stronger policy involvement, especially at the federal level, is likely to be needed in the future if Australia is to maintain or enhance its established and emerging strengths in the development of creative skills across the economy at large.’ Throsby’s detailed research is a gift to policy-makers seeking to craft these new strategies.
BEFORE THE GLOBAL financial crisis sought its revenge, creativity was emerging as the new business buzzword. Rather than being sidelined, this is likely to become more important in coming years. The solutions the world is seeking will depend on creativity, and will demand a fundamental rethink of the education system for this to be realised.
The global guru of this movement, Sir Ken Robinson noted in Out of our minds (Wiley, 2001): ‘In the interests of the industrial economy and of academic achievement, we have subjected ourselves to a partial form of education. Along the way we have jeopardised the balance of human nature by not recognising how different elements of our abilities sustain and enrich each other … Our times are being swept along on an avalanche of innovations in science, technology and social thought. To keep pace…we must learn to be creative.’
In the months after the 2020 Summit as the government reflected on the agenda set out in the report from the weekend, those closely involved, worked behind the scenes to ensure that the momentum was not lost, even as the deteriorating economy accentuated the challenge.
This edition of Griffith REVIEW is a part of that process. It explores and develops, some – but by no means all – of the ideas that were raised, and some of the big policy questions and contentious debates that arise from them. The essays collected here point to the need for a new way of thinking about this domain, to learn from the experience of the past and devise strategies that are appropriate for a very different world that now makes the arts, creativity, innovation, design and culture not only important in and of themselves, but central to personal well-being and fulfilment, social inclusion, and the identity and economic success of nations.
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