Sunday, 18 September 2016

On the Value of Arts and the Place of Subsidy

[A version of this piece was first published in The Courier-Mail on 5 September 2016] 

More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to AFL and NRL games combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture, construction or mining.

Around one million people will experience this year’s Brisbane Festival, Brisbane’s international arts festival. Theatre, dance, circus, music, stand-up? With almost 500 performances across three weeks, it’s all on the menu.

How do we value this love for arts and culture?

A festival is a remarkable thing. People relax and become more receptive to the unfamiliar. It’s all in the name. During the festival of a holiday or the festival of a dinner party, we let our guard down and allow ourselves to absorb new ideas and experiences.

It’s also when artists reach for things at the very edge of their imaginations. You could say that ‘‘why not?’’ is the festival spirit.

Part of it is making sure people have access. Brisbane Festival spends more than 20 per cent of its program budget on free events. Ticket prices to other shows are kept low. Specially built performance spaces are also great social spaces – look at Arcadia in front of QPAC, by the river.

Like many arts organisations, Brisbane Festival is supported by government. That investment generates many benefits. It enables an exhilarating gift to the city, enriches countless lives, and delivers an unmistakable economic impact.

Each year Australia’s creative industries make a $50 billion economic impact against a government investment of $7 billion. But we sometimes hear that arts should pay for themselves. This misunderstands the reality of subsidy. Very few areas of our society are not subsidised.

The Australian Institute of Sport spent $332 million of public money on the recent Olympics campaign. Mining gets about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. The big four banks – among the world’s most profitable – are subsidised, through various provisions, by almost $6 billion a year. Education, agriculture, health and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. Maybe that's as it should be. 

Whatever view you take on government support of these sectors, it's fair to say that the arts sector is one of the nation’s least subsidised.

But let’s leave money and think of value. People have a right to arts and culture. It’s a right equal to political, social and economic rights, and is universal. The value of arts and culture – how they enrich and enliven, comfort and challenge, help make us more engaged, empathetic human beings – is where we best begin.

Then we can think of broader educational and social benefits, which are many, and then of economic value. That’s the best order. Otherwise we fall into Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

So I’m looking forward to Brisbane Festival. Perhaps a show that blows expectations apart, the discovery of an amazing artist, enjoying a new space for a great night out, the highest note, the deepest current, the widest embrace of that ‘‘Why not?’’ spirit.

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