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Tag Archives: arts funding

Art and Social Security

At a party in the early 1980s I heard some guy answer the question “What do you do?” with “I’m on a government arts grant.”

As I was young and ernest about my career in the arts I asked. “How did you get that?”

“I’m unemployed.” He replied.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, many aspiring artists and musicians in Australia were on the dole. Nick Cave was handing in his fortnightly unemployment form along with many other artists, musicians and writers. At the time unemployment benefits were easy to obtain with the minimum of bureaucratic hoops to jump through and even the meagre unemployment benefits meant time to paint, write or play music. This self-initiated low grade arts funding was a very productive time for the arts in Australia, especially Australian music. Unemployment benefits provided a very wide funding base for the arts, it was non-elitist and possibly not as economically reckless as it sounds.

The downside was that it did lead to the arts being undervalued in the wider community, artists, bands, photographers were all expected to work for very little or free because everyone knew that they had the social security safety net to fall back on.  And artists and bands were repeatedly ask to work for free to raise funds for one cause or charity.

The question back in the 1980s was how to survive and make long term unemployment part of a bohemian artist’s career path. Justin Heazlewood, aka The Bedroom Philosopher, discusses being ‘funemployed’ and how it really isn’t that much fun. It requires financial risks on a very low budget and no stability, with a society that assumes that because you have achieved a modicum of fame that you must be rich.

Arts funding needs to be completely re-examined and changes need to be made at the most basic level. This is still an issue and tougher requirements for unemployment are not going to make it any better. What is needed is a living wage for artists; for more about this read David Pledger’s “Social security for artists” NAVA June 27 2016.

The first fact that must be remembered is that it takes time to get an arts career going; decades often and during those decades the starving aspiring artists needs food and shelter, training, materials, equipment, time to experiment, to learn, to develop. It is not going happen overnight, if ever. Fortunately for any government that is serious about funding that arts, art education and students are inexpensive investment that return money directly to the economy and in the long run they can make big returns.

“When I was last unemployed in Newcastle in the mid 90s there was 47% unemployment, so I literally didn’t know anyone with a job. There was a big economic transition and a lot of people with time on their hands. I think of all the people that I know – some of who have gone on to be quiet successful artists – and we all got good at what we were doing because we had the time to do it.” Marcus Westbury (Interview by Rose Vickers Das Super Paper #20, August 2011)

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Comparing Modern Art Oxford

On a recent visit to Oxford I went to the city’s contemporary art gallery Modern Art Oxford (MAO). MAO and my local gallery, the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick are similar kinds of art galleries and yet very different and differences shows the impact of both local and national arts funding priorities on a small contemporary art gallery. Prior to my visit to Oxford I had seen a DVD from my local library about MAO.

Both of galleries are on property owned by the local city councils and city councils have roughly the same population; the population of the city and non-metropolitan district of Oxford is 157,997 (2014) and the City of Moreland has a population of 147,241 (2011). MAO was established decades earlier in 1966, has a larger staff and is much better funded Arts Council England. It does not benefit from the international tourism in Oxford; the tourists are there to see old Oxford and not contemporary art.

Josh Kline, detail of Freedom exhibition

Josh Kline, detail of Freedom exhibition

A major difference why MAO is far better gallery is that it is bigger. It has almost twice the size of galleries as the Counihan, plus other spaces over three floors. There is a bookshop, a basement performance space, a cafe (with kitchen) and a community access space for other exhibitions and events. It is in an old repurposed building that has been refitted for purpose.

The new entrance way to MAO makes a clear statement about its existence and purpose, unlike the entrance to the Counihan which is inside the foyer of the Brunswick Town Hall, past the stairs and beside the window where you pay licenses and fines. This is typical of Moreland City Council and following long established practice of using some other building (‘temporarily’ for decades) as a gallery or a library.

Both MAO and the Counihan show a program of free exhibitions. Due to its larger space Modern Art Oxford presents unique exhibitions from international contemporary artists, whereas the Counihan is more limited in its choice of artists. When I visited MAO there were two exhibitions on: Josh Kline Freedom and Kiki Kogelnik Fly Me To the Moon.

Josh Kline, Police States, 2015

Josh Kline, Police States, 2015

Josh Kline’s Freedom was enjoyable on many levels. Healing post-9/11 America will require the fantastic vision of telly tubbies in full riot gear. It will require cops to unhand-cuff  themselves from their obscene donuts of stereotypes. I really felt deeply satisfied at seeing digitally altered George Bush and his co-conspirators saying sorry for all that they had done. (If John Howard had been amongst the digitally altered figures it would have been very difficult to believe him saying sorry for anything).

Kiki Kogelnik’s art felt very dated especially in comparison to Kline’s exhibition. Kogelnik’s bright vinyl human figures  hang limply on clothes racks. Kogelnik who was part of an early and desperate revival of figuration died in 1997; we no longer go to the moon.


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