The tangled web we weave … are the Arts “legitimate”?

If the Government and the Arts had been in a romantic relationship, the Arts would have grounds to sue for emotional and economic abuse through the Family Courts.

Life is a funny thing.  Just when you think you’ve got it all sorted out, along comes a curve ball to remind you that you’re not actually the all-powerful entity you thought you were, master of your destiny and all-wise font of wisdom and grace, but rather a simple human being with all the angst and joys and highs and lows that come with just being alive.

It has been nearly three years since I wrote a blog post here.  To be honest, I was surprised when I decided to login to the site that it still existed and hadn’t been deleted due to lack of activity.  But no, like an old friend or a favourite jumper, there it was, still here, full of my history, my naive opinions, my judgemental thoughts, my occasional wins and my deep lows.

December this year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog.  Yes, nearly 10 years ago I shared on this site a newspaper article I’d written about the 50th Anniversary of the Melbourne Olympics, followed closely by a blog post called “When Is a Workaholic Truly A Workaholic?” (hint, it’s an Arts Industry related answer).  153 blog posts (that’s roughly one a month – only there are gaps of a year here and there, so not really) and 53,000+ visitors later and here I am again, drawn back to this hall of memories, akin to sorting through photos of a previous love-of-your-life or a much-loved lost pet, filled with slight melancholy, but also gentle love for and amusement at the stories contained therein.

And it’s been a tumultuous decade.  On a personal level two romantic relationships have come and gone, to be supplanted by a third that is still going nearly eight years later (Billy, you are amazing), I’ve moved house three times, had a few bouts of depression, gone through two major health scares (and all the hospital and doctor visits that entails), found yoga, lost yoga, am in the process of finding it again, found more members of my kin group, said farewell to those who I thought would be in my life a lot longer and that’s just the highlights.

You can have too much of a good thing and sometimes it’s not all good.

Professionally it has been just as much of a roller-coaster and I’ve come to realise, as the years have gone by, my work has increasingly become hopelessly intertwined with my personal life.  My closest friends are the people I work with and my social life revolves essentially around industry-related events.

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Is this healthy?  Possibly not.  You can have too much of a good thing and sometimes it’s not all good.  I am continually fighting the urge to up stakes and move countries again at the moment, desperate for adventure, new things and to shake off a sense of gloom that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Which will sound odd to those who know me and who only really know me through my social media output.  I now have a successful web series in Shakespeare Republic and a nearly completed high-end debut feature documentary in Champion.  An announcement will be coming out soon about a new theatrical venture I am a part of and to all outside eyes I should be permanently happy and content and satisfied.

But I’m just tired.

That’s not to take away from the projects that I have either created or am involved in.  I am blown away by the success of Shakespeare Republic as one example, to the point where I don’t quite know what to say when people come up to congratulate me when they see me in person.  There is still a part of me that is half-expecting an email or phone call stating it was all a mistake and could I please hand back the film festival official selection laurels and awards?  My partner, Billy, refers to it as “lightning in a bottle”, which immediately makes me worry that the bottle will crack and the success will leak away – not because of my precious ego, but because we’ve just shot Season Two and I don’t want to let any of my brilliant cast and crew down who put so much talent, heart and soul into the project for fees that will barely cover their petrol money.  I want them to continue to have the success that Season One has experienced and I’ll admit, that weighs heavily on my conscience and has done so at every stage of production.

Do I put too much pressure on myself?  Absolutely.  Is it why I got so sick last year?  Almost certainly.  Will I change the pattern?  I’ll try.  (Hence the rediscovery of yoga).

So, why these self-indulgent musings today, three years after my last post (which was about the documentary, for those who might be interested)?  The simple answer: this article.

There has been much press in recent months about the way the current Australian Government treats its Arts community.  Hint: it’s badly. If the Government and the Arts had been in a romantic relationship, the Arts would have grounds to sue for emotional and economic abuse through the Family Courts.

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Funding cuts, in particular, have hit us hard and continue to do so.  And no matter how much we point out to Joe Public that several other Australian industries get more subsidies from both State and Federal Government than the Arts industry has ever seen, we are still greeted with jeers of “Get a real job!” and the attitude that a career in the Arts consists of sipping lattes and rolling around the floor in Lycra, while living on a stream of Government money.  But trust me, even if we did just do that – what you don’t see are the hours spent working at menial jobs in order to afford that latte and the amount of work preparing and rehearsing the choreography for the rolling around the floor – often for free.  And guys, the Government money has always been a myth – very rarely will you be living high on the hog with the money granted to you from the Government when you are in the Arts – and this is the truth from any time in our history, but especially now.

The Arts industry receives just over $200 million a year currently from the Federal Government, yet still manages to contribute $4.2 billion to the national GDP

Some facts folks – the Arts industry receives just over $200 million a year currently from the Federal Government, yet still manages to contribute $4.2 billion to the national GDP.  Sure, that doesn’t take into account the State Government funding, but that still means that for an investment of 5% of the total return, the Federal Government is getting a pretty good deal.

In an industry with record rates of depression and other mental health issues, as well as sporadic work opportunities and low or no pay for the work that is undertaken; for the vast majority of Arts workers (both stage and screen), the recent announcement from the Federal Government of cutting subsidies for Arts-related vocational and diploma courses in Australian educational institutions is another resounding slap in the face for all Creatives everywhere.

And it’s not even the fact they are cutting funding for the Arts again (we are sadly becoming used to this), it’s the language they have used when doing so.  To quote the statement from the Minister for Education and Training (highlighting by me):

‘Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide “lifestyle” choices, but don’t lead to work.’ – Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham

VET Student Loans will only support legitimate students to undertake worthwhile and value-for-money courses at quality training providers.’ – Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham

The various courses facing these cuts include Arts diplomas such as Circus Arts, Performing Arts, Professional Writing, Screen Acting, Journalism, Dance, Photography, Stained Glass, Art Therapy and Jewellery Making, to name but a few (full list at the foot of this post).

To put it simply … what the f*ck?

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The first introduction I had to professional acting class was via one of these educational institutions, at age 15, when I enrolled to train with then Crawfords Casting Director, Bunney Brooke and Crawfords Producer and former Casting Director, Graham Moore, doing screen acting classes during the week after school.  I can’t remember the fee now, but it was subsidised enough to be affordable to pay for the year of part-time classes and seal the deal as far as I was concerned that I wanted a career in the Arts.

So what did that small investment of time and money lead to?  Well, a couple of years later, I landed my first speaking gig on Australian TV on The Flying Doctors, initially via Andrew McFarlane on set (who asked if I could please have some lines as it didn’t make sense that he had a mute Nurse – something I will be forever grateful to him for doing), which was signed off on by Director, Paul Maloney.  That led to my getting a couple more episodes, which was signed off on by, you guessed it, Graham Moore, who was still producing there at the time.

So my experience alone refutes the Minister’s suggestion that Arts-based vocational training courses “provide “lifestyle” choices, but don’t lead to work.” I, for one, can say that such a course did exactly the opposite for me.  Firstly, it confirmed for me that I wanted to be an actor and gave me skills I wouldn’t have had access to anywhere else at the time, which gave me the confidence to get an agent and then led to work at one pay level that, by an opportune series of events, led to the teacher I’d worked with a couple of years prior directly giving me employment at a higher pay level again.

As in this example, most of the teachers at these kind of educational institutions are also working professionals in their area of expertise, so it can, in fact, lead to employment for students down the track – AS A DIRECT RESULT OF DOING THE COURSE.

So I’m calling bullshit on that rationale.

If I am now declared not “legitimate”, “worthwhile” or apparently don’t display “value-for-money” in my career choice, does that mean I can stop paying taxes on my earnings from that said career?

The second quote is, in my opinion, the more damaging of the two statements.  As artists we already battle the perception that we don’t do much in the way of ‘real’ work, just sip chardonnay at theatre opening nights and swan around on red carpets at film premiers.

Have I done both?  Yes.  So, is that all I do?  Hell no.  Most of the time I am without makeup, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, stuck at my computer doing funding proposals, or writing scripts, or learning scripts, or editing, or working out my mood boards and storyboards, or putting together a schedule or doing one of the myriad of tasks a multi-hyphenate creative does when running their own business.  And that’s the fun stuff.  There’s also the tax return prep, the invoicing, the budget balancing and all the other boring stuff that every small business has to deal with.

If I broke it down, I estimate only 2% of my time is spent enjoying myself in the way that the general public seem to think all artists do all of the time.

Speaking of taxes – that’s another thing.  If I am now declared not “legitimate”, “worthwhile” or apparently don’t display “value-for-money” in my career choice, does that mean I can stop paying taxes on my earnings from that said career?  How about my union fees?  My charitable donations to various non-Arts related organizations?  Can I just stop being a contributing member of society?  Because it seems the Government feels that way already, so why not make it a reality?

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Why not pull up the drawbridge on my historically interesting, tumble-down inner city flat and declare the property a separate nation state?  (Because I’ve wanted to do that for a while, truth be told, just to see if it’s possible to get away with it).  My name already means “Princess”, so I’d just be taking the next logical step.

But I digress.

… be it the highly crafted work of a trained and talented writer or the base scribbles of a drunk on the back of a toilet door – words carry the power to uplift or to harm.

Language has power.  I can tell you that from just working with Shakespeare text, but it is true of anything written or verbalised – be it the highly crafted work of a trained and talented writer or the base scribbles of a drunk on the back of a toilet door – words carry the power to uplift or to harm.  They definitely have the power to influence.  And in some cases, as various scientific studies prove, words can be just as harmful as a punch to the face – only the scars aren’t as easily seen.

And, as proven by the language chosen in this official government statement, language can also demean and undermine. And enrage.  Whether it is intentional or not.  Language has power.

But language is also the tool of the Arts industry.  Those of us fortunate enough to have had the education are all trained in the art of storytelling – whether it be via a painting, a musical, a dance, a play, a film or a book.  Whether it be by verbal or non-verbal communication, we are in the business of telling stories, of sharing our collective experience as human beings with the world, for the world.

To imply that training at diploma level and by association, the work itself in these fields isn’t “legitimate” or “worthwhile” is to imply that the human experience in all it’s creative wonder isn’t legitimate.  That the celebration and exploration of the human condition, and yes, also the denunciation, isn’t legitimate.  That we are born to be drones to work and only work for the society we live in, then die.  Which is obviously not the case.  Even being a politician involves it’s own brand of storytelling and creativity.  Some might say the dark side of those traits, but still.

… the anger that the Arts industry is currently feeling IS legitimate and needs to be addressed.

Shakespeare explored the case for the label of “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” in King Lear through the experiences of Edmund the Bastard.  A character who had grown up his whole life being introduced as the bastard child until the day he couldn’t take it anymore, and so began plotting his rather awful and total revenge.  While I don’t see a group of artists manipulating someone into tying a Government minister to a chair and putting out his eyes for his transgressions, the anger that the Arts industry is currently feeling IS legitimate and needs to be addressed.

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Mainly because of the impact a lesser Arts industry has on the society that houses it. Along with the Academics, we are society’s canaries in the mine.  The forewarning voices in the crowd.  The Philosophers and Intelligentsia ring the alarm bell, sometimes before us, sometimes at the same time we do, and we put it into language that the rest of the public can understand.

We provide the safety valve.  Instead of people being able to live vicariously and safely (for all concerned) through a character such as Edmund on stage or in film, what happens when we lose that outlet?  When we no longer have the opportunity to feel the satisfaction and horror of exacting cruel revenge, without lifting a finger because an actor, writer and director have done the heavy lifting for us – without consequences? When we can no longer lose ourselves in the joy of a circus performance, a book, a film?  When the only alternatives are imported product from overseas or reality television?

Where to from here?

I wish I had an answer.  We’re tired as a community.  And not just the Arts industry. It’s everyone. We’re sick of the lies, the rhetoric, the disconnect that seems to be happening everywhere among those in public office.  We in the Arts are tired of defending ourselves and our choices when dealing with the double-standard of some of our most celebrated citizens also coming from our industry – the only difference being they have achieved what the general public call “success”.

Success is relative.  But that’s a topic for another time.

While there might be satisfaction in storming the castle and making the bastards listen, that is a short-lived euphoria and ultimately doesn’t achieve much

The only solution I can come up with is communication.  Using language.  Articulating what our concerns are, what our fears are, what our hopes are.  And reaching out to those who would appear to be the enemy to talk.  Not to yell.  Not to accuse.  But to talk.  To keep talking.  While there might be satisfaction in storming the castle and making the bastards listen, that is a short-lived euphoria and ultimately doesn’t achieve much.

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No, we have to walk into the lion’s den and speak a language that they understand to get our point across.  But we also have to be prepared to listen.  A dialogue is called such because it is a “discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed towards exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem”, according to the Oxford dictionary.  That involves listening as much as talking.

We need to listen to what the Government thinks it needs to achieve and then put our considerably creative hats on as an industry and work out how we can work with those ideas to both our advantages.  Or find the language to redefine the perceived problems and find a compromise.  What we definitely need to do is show those in public office that the Arts and related industries are most certainly legitimate and very much “worthwhile”.

Here’s a starting point – As Robert Menzies said during the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944 “What we must look for, and it is a matter of desperate importance to our society, is a true revival of liberal thought which will work for social justice and security, for national power and national progress, and for the full development of the individual citizen …” What enables “the full development of the individual citizen” more than contact with and experience of the Arts?  Be that taking a short course in jewellery-making or the chance to join the circus?

Or we find another way to fund our industry that doesn’t involve Government money.  Which, many of our brethren in other countries would say is business as usual for them and we should just get with the program.

Whatever we do, we need to do something and do it soon.  You can start by emailing VETStudentLoans@education.gov.au before October 23rd.  The Turnbull Government is taking feedback on these new proposed cuts to funding in education.  According to ArtsHub “Courses currently deemed ineligible for funding may be reinstated if they can demonstrate strong employment results.”

So get writing and using your considerable language and storytelling skills, my fellow Creatives. We need your talent and ability to communicate now, more than ever.

See you on the barricades.

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All photos in the body of this post courtesy of Pexels.com.  
Lead photo of Falon Ryan, Shane Savage, Nadine Garner, Sally McLean and Alan Fletcher for Shakespeare Republic, copyright © Incognita Enterprises, 2016

FULL LIST OF COURSES NOW DEEMED INELIGIBLE FOR FUNDING:

Diploma of Dance (Elite Performance)
Diploma of Musical Theatre
Diploma of Live Production Design
Diploma of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts Industry Work
Diploma of Ceramics
Advanced Diploma of Dance (Elite Performance)
Diploma of Floristry Design
Diploma of Jewellery and Object Design
Advanced Diploma of Jewellery and Object Design
Diploma of Broadcast Technology
Advanced Diploma of Performance
Graduate Diploma of Classical Ballet
Diploma of Performing Arts
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts
Diploma of Fashion Styling
Diploma of Screen Acting
Diploma of Screen Performance
Advanced Diploma of Acting
Diploma of Circus Arts
Diploma of Social Media Marketing
Advanced Diploma of Acting for Contemporary Screen Media
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts
Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship for Creatives
Diploma of  Stage and Screen Performance
Diploma of Arts (Acting)
Advanced Diploma of Arts (Acting)
Advanced Diploma of Professional Screenwriting
Graduate Diploma of Elite Dance Instruction
Advanced Diploma of Stage and Screen Acting
Diploma of Visual Communication (Design Communication / Photo Communication)
Advanced Diploma of Visual Communication (Design Communication / Photo Communication)
Advanced Diploma of Music Theatre
Diploma of Cinemagraphic Makeup
Diploma of Styling (Fashion, Image and Media)
Advanced Diploma of Commercial Song and Dance Performance
Diploma of Journalism
Advanced Diploma of Art (Musical Theatre and Commercial Dance)
Advanced Diploma of Film, Television and Theatre Acting
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts (Acting)
Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing
Advanced Diploma of Photography
Diploma of Theatre Arts
Diploma of Product Design
Advanced Diploma of Screen and Stage Acting
Diploma of Creative Arts in Christian Ministry
Advanced Diploma of Creative Arts in Christian Ministry
Advanced Diploma of Arts (Professional Writing)
Diploma of Arts (Professional Writing)
Diploma of Mass Communication
Advanced Diploma of Photography
Diploma of Performing Arts
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts
Graduate Diploma of Photography
Diploma of Fashion Products and Markets
Advanced Diploma of Performing Arts (Musical Theatre) (Commercial Dance)
Advanced Diploma of Animation

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