Since the ancient Egyptians the state has always been inclined to build monuments and so leave a trace of its material splendour. This remains a generally accepted
philosophy of governments today.
But what of more ephemeral things like the performing arts?
In the past, the governments of northern Europe treated the performing arts quite generously. Today, musicians, actors, singers, and dancers still have a decent salary, often paid for 13 months of the year, and governments don’t mind giving money to the arts because they are seen by the populace as positive and valuable.But even there, since the decline of communism and the "victory" of capitalism and economic rationalism, the performing arts have had to battle a lot more than they did 20 years ago.
Even left-wing governments, previously acknowledged for their support of the arts (especially in Europe), follow a different path today. The famous "middle road" of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair has spread to many other nations. It looks, in many cases, just like a right-wing policy explained with a different philosophy: "Companies, and people, have to be helped to achieve but not by pouring money into them"; "The private sector must take more of its share of the burden"; and so on.
A world which is governed by economic rationalism is not healthy for the arts because its benefits to the community, like those of the environment, are not
easy to quantify.
Our federal Minister for the Arts has recently released the results of an inquiry
into the state of the major performing arts companies in Australia. There is a much-publicised concern about the fact that the combined loss of these companies
over the past 5 years has amounted to $12 million.
Placed in an international perspective, this figure is not particularly large - the entire annual budget for the arts allocated by the Commonwealth government
(around AUD$94 million) is similar to the budget of one opera
house in the city of Hamburg (AUD$85 million). Australia has a population of 18 million; Hamburg has 1.8 million citizens.
However, I don’t believe that the issue in Australia is so much financial as political and social.
When one analyses the flow of money given to a performing arts company, a good part of it comes back to the city or state very quickly and many services profit
from it directly. In addition to the obvious services provided by restaurants,
taxis, and hairdressers, many local industries profit from the performing arts
through the supply of materials, machinery, and technical equipment. And this
is before considering the money spent in the area and contributed through taxes
by people directly employed by the industry.
I’m sure too that economists in Australia are only too aware of the financial
loss in taxes and to the general economy by the continued exodus of performers,
educated in this country, who can only find permanent employment overseas. Many
stay away for more than 20 years, easily the equivalent of a loss to the Australian
economy of $1 million per artist.
Yet government support for the arts remains limited, and I feel the reason
is that Australian governments do not view the arts as important. In our democratic
society, this means that the population in general does not consider them very
important, or sees them as ‘elitist’.
The ‘elitist’ tag is the core of the problem.
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