Monday, January 18, 2010

What's an Arts Minister to do?

Lynne Kosky today resigned from politics. There'll be plenty of coverage of this over the next few days and I'm not a political reporter so I'll leave it to people who can write better or at least more coherently than I can. I do expect that most of this coverage will focus almost exclusively on Kosky's role as Minister for Transport while omitting any mention of her other portfolio. If you can remember what that might be, have a biscuit as a treat (but only one, because biscuits, like The Arts, are a 'sometimes' food).

As Minister for the Arts Kosky was almost *never* called Minister for the Arts. Sure, she occasionally provided a quote or two regarding a festival or a cultural event or whatever, but she certainly won't be remembered for radical action or pushing controversial legislation or forcing a rethink of what the arts in Victoria mean today. She got plenty of stick for the myki debacle and other transport woes, but she - and indeed any arts minister - is rarely held to account for the state of our creative culture.

But that's not a gripe, and indicates something that's pretty tricky. Peter Garrett is in the same position: his lack of action regarding the arts in Australia is frequently a point of complaint, but in the same breath we'll assert that too much governmental influence on the creative sector is a bad thing. Wishy-washy efforts such as the call for a national cultural policy statement are fine because they don't really do anything. More direct involvement with tangible (usually fiscal) outcomes are more suspect, since we don't want bureaucrats dictating the shape of the arts.

So Kosky's successor will probably fall into the same role, stating that the arts are all about pushing boundaries (if anyone's ever spotted one of these boundaries, please email me) and asserting what a great city Melbourne is for artists and audiences. At the same time, venues such as the Tote (the live music equivalent to La Mama) will close and the issue will be seen as one of safety legislation rather than cultural moulding.

Would it be a good thing to have an arts minister who would actively lobby against the closure of such venues? Who would aggressively assert the need for more creative spaces and voices in the same way we need a better public transport system? Who, with their staff and relevant consultants, comes up with proposals and plans that show some kind of vision, or at least passion? Even Robert Doyle, whose politics I often disagree with, is remarkably supportive of the arts in Melbourne and clearly gets a kick out of the stuff the city produces.

And now for my own counter-argument: I don't really have a problem with the way Kosky didn't show up for the arts party during her tenure. With the amount of work her other portfolio must have required, I don't see how she could have found much time to wade knee-deep into the arts. Moreover, nobody seems to be quite sure what an arts minister is supposed to do, and this is largely because there are no precise definitions of what is constituted by "the arts". This is something I noticed when I was overseas recently (ie a couple of days ago):

Despite the moaning, we have an amazing arts culture, if only for the fact that we even think there's such a thing as an arts culture. In many countries there isn't even a thing called "the arts" - there are practices we would put into that category, often brilliantly accomplished, but there's no distinct sphere which goes under that name and can be distinguished from the rest of life. Or, if there is, it's radically different and perhaps unrecognisable to us.

To even have an arts minister is profoundly odd, I guess. What is the minister actually administering? What are the problems they're appointed to address? What dangers should they be safeguarding against? I don't think these questions are often raised, and I'm not sure that they're ever answered.

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