Why Arts Funding is More Important Than Ever

Features. Posted 12 months ago

Yen-Rong Wong

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Image: collage by the talented Freddie Houman. Image Source.

When I was in grade three, I went to writing camp. I don’t remember very much of it, but I remember I was excited to go. I was excited to write, and excited to learn. I also remember thinking, “this is fun, but they (two friends who were there as well) are so much better than me. It’s okay, though, because I’m going to be a scientist.” I continued reading and writing, while also pursuing my dream of becoming a neurogeneticist, until I came to a realisation that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life in a lab. I did end up finishing my science degree, but I had a pesky arts degree to keep it company.

Now, I am a writer. I will be a writer until I decide to return to university to do my PhD, and I will continue to be a writer afterwards.

My parents, understandably, are worried. I don’t think they’ve fully accepted the heady reality that their eldest daughter had decided to pursue such an unrewarding career. They are concerned that I won’t earn enough money, that I won’t be able to buy a house, settle down, to live the life they had envisioned for their children by migrating to Australia. I don’t have the energy to explain to them how my generation has been priced out of the housing market, and how I will probably rent for the rest of my life. I will be an urban nomad, moving at the whim of landlords everywhere, both young and old.

I have lived out of home for the past four years. I have worked up to three jobs while studying full time, but I have paid my own rent, my own bills, and am still paying off a ridiculous sum of money that I owe the tax office. I have finished university for now, and hold a relatively stable full time job. I don’t earn piles and piles of cash, but I earn enough to live comfortably. I have gotten to this point in my life because I have worked hard, but also because I have been extremely lucky. Yes, I have debt to pay off (but who doesn’t?), which affects my ability to save for my future, but I have a roof over my head, control over my depression, enough money for food, and most importantly, the resources and time to sit on my couch and write.

I know many others are not so lucky. Others may have families, disabilities – other responsibilities and people that also require their care. And money, as it has been for a very long time, is usually seen as something of a “taboo” subject to bring up in a public domain. Even though we often don’t like talking about it, money (or lack thereof), is and has always been an area of concern for those involved in the arts. It certainly doesn’t help that the amount of money available to artists see-saws with each new government, and is seemingly always the first place politicians look to for “cost cutting measures”.

In Queensland, my home state, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were scrapped by former premier Campbell Newman in 2012. He claimed that it was part of his bit to reign in “government spending, return the budget to surplus, revitalise frontline services and lower the cost of living”. This $244,475 saving accounted for just 0.04% of the state’s budget. Our current premier, Anastasia Palaszczuk, has since reinstated the awards and introduced additional categories, and the excitement at this year’s Queensland Literary Awards ceremony was palpable. There is a sense of community

At a federal level, the introduction of the Australia Council and its new funding model have provided an extra layer of anxiety for small to medium sized arts organisations. Organisations such as Express Media, who do invaluable work with young writers, have lost funding for the next four years. Literary institutions like Meanjin are also being forced to re-evaluate the ways in which they operate, and express fears that they may not be able to pay their contributors. There are many more examples, but I will stop there.

All this simply reinforces what my parents, and the parents of many other young people around the country, think about the arts. That it isn’t worth pursuing, because you won’t be successful. You will work long, hard hours for next to no money, and next to no recognition. You will almost certainly have to work another job to help pay for all your necessities, so why bother? My father once told my sister that he didn’t know why I was wasting my intelligence on my arts degree. I could be doing bigger and better things, if only I had stuck with my original goal of becoming a scientist, he implied.

These social and financial pressures have resulted in fewer people of colour daring to forge a career in the arts – and I can’t blame them. This leads to an industry populated mainly by those with an enormous amount of privilege, those who may only seek to use such privilege to further their own agendas. A speck of light in what may seem to be an atmosphere for doom and gloom comes in the form of increased funding (through the Australia Council) for organisations promoting art by Indigenous peoples. This, I think, is especially important, considering the current global dialogue around white nationalism, and the fears surrounding migration which seem to heighten with each passing day. The arts serve to provide those who are marginalised in society with a voice, a mode of action. Considering what has been happening overseas, and indeed, even in Australia itself, it is no wonder arts funding continues to dwindle. The bigger issue, then, is not a redistribution of the already small amount of money devoted to the arts amongst its sub-categories, but a revisiting of the way in which the arts are funded in this country, and devoting more money to an industry as a whole. (Surely we’d be able to pinch a little bit of that money Bronwyn Bishop used to charter a helicopter for a brief sojourn in NSW?)

In any case, reading lists around the country are still overwhelmingly white, as are those of some university courses. Dymocks and QBD, the two most popular chains of bookstores around Australia, have very few works written by people of colour, let alone Australian people of colour. This used to upset me – it made me think I had a very slim chance of ever being heard. Nowadays, it fires me up. If there is no space for voices like mine, or for Indigenous voices, or the voices of migrants or their children, then I will do my best to carve one out for them. But the onus can’t always be on us (and it always has been). The government needs to do their part as well. And so far, it’s been quite a dismal showing.

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