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The death of art in Queensland

By Zane Trow - posted Friday, 13 March 2009


If we were to take a moment and contemplate the state of the arts in Queensland we might, out of tradition, talk about how world class we are, in the smart state, leading the way.

However, things are actually dire with many of the best arts workers giving up altogether or planning to. Much of this current crisis comes about through a decidedly thin leadership in the last 10 years. Nobody (apart from a very few exceptions) has the guts to shrug off the shroud of complete and absolute control mixed cunningly with a never ending commitment to mediocrity, that is - Arts Queensland.

While most state government arts departments are well known for being boring and parochial, Arts Queensland takes the gong. No other agency has interfered (and ruined) so directly the growth and good governance of the sector it was (presumably) established to support. Arts Queensland are arrogant enough to actually produce “industry plans”, as if they themselves were the industry, and to then chastise harshly anything that falls outside their “industry plans”. They are, quite simply, the worst thing to have happened to the arts in Queensland for a very long time. And everybody is far too frightened of them to actually say anything publically.

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It is not the Minister’s fault. Any Minister must rely on advice. The advice in Queensland must be appalling, blatantly self interested and excruciatingly dull. And he’s outta there! Well done Minister, following in the footsteps of Queensland’s best arts workers and retiring before it gets any worse!

All the signs are that it will take years to claw back any semblance of culture in this State, especially around anything that looks like it was made this century. The big boys will do ok as always - the BIG arts centre, all those endless angst ridden plays and happy go lucky musicals, the museums and BIG galleries, the libraries - because they are not arts or cultural organisations at all (they fooled you didn’t they?). They are all actually government departments. It is not their job to produce art, their job is to do what government says and fool you into thinking its art.

They are always reasonably successful at this since they are the only ones (apart from touring rock stars and movies) with anything remotely like a marketing or advertising budget. After a while you get used to seeing them next to the cinema ads everyday in the paper. Then you gradually forget that anything else might exist: you’ve been subliminally conditioned into thinking the Queensland arts industry only ever produces art from somewhere else. And what’s wrong with that? At least it’s entertaining. And because the visibility of contemporary Queensland culture is so low, the big boys get to behave as if they are, in fact, the only art around; they are the “ARTS”, luxuriating on (yet another) South Bank just like in London … or Melbourne, or Adelaide or … well … any city with a river and a cultural inferiority complex really.

It is twisted but true - when government says it is going to increase “the ARTS” budget, usually what it means is it is going to extend (or build, or develop) new bits of the buildings it already owns, to get the staff that already work for it to do what it says. Spending money on itself. Very clever, and easily mistaken for an investment in culture.

Our culture doesn’t develop in buildings, it breathes through the city like a mutating virus and it is never, ever in line with a government policy. But like David Byrne once said “I’m a tumbler, I’m a government man …” and the government arts staff will try their best to pull it into line.

Their current cunning plan involves controlling the behaviour of all the independent not-for-profit Boards of Directors across the arts sector. This is because they are so used to having all those government departments (oh … sorry I mean arts organisations) lined up in straight lines. So they’ve instigated a “governance control mechanism”. This is innocently referred to as “Board Connect” and its mild mannered façade hides a vicious attempt to regulate the culture along standardised management plans called “best governance practice”.

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Every board should look like - THIS and have THIS sort of membership. Every artistic director should be performance reviewed like - THIS. All arts organisations should communicate with stakeholders like - THIS.

All art must look like - THIS.

Doomed to failure, and of course ignoring the simple fact that the arts industry has developed and operated in the not-for-profit sector in Australia for a very long time. The arts industry actually, like any other industry, knows its market, its operational best practice, its governance procedures and it makes its management and governance structures suit its product. Not the other way round. One has to give credit to the unadulterated arrogance and stupidity of trying to standardise legally independent not-for-profit organisations.

“And oh sorry … of course we are not standardising … we are helping … we are developing best practice … we want the arts to do well. Honestly we do. And no, taking part in ‘Board Connect’ is not a criteria for a grant, far be it from us to impose this kind of stricture on an independent industry.”

Meanwhile life goes on. Culture develops, small artist-run organisations continue to work out of Brisbane across the globe, international artists and local artists exchange work, small ensembles develop loyal audiences, the not-for-profit boards meet and support their staff and their arts practice. Some of them don’t even care what Arts Queensland says. But you will have to seek them out, you’ll have to look for them, because they don’t have the time or the resources to look for you, they are too busy being Queensland’s unregulated contemporary culture.

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About the Author

Zane Trow is currently the Chairman of Multimedia Arts Asia Pacific and has so far avoided Board Connect by travelling incognito and throwing away his mobile phone; but he doesn’t know how long he can hold out before he gets a late night visit from the art police. Trow is an Associate Professor of Performance Studies at QUT.

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All articles by Zane Trow

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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