Some people have better years than others and artists are no different. Australian novelist Richard Flanagan – you might have heard of him – has had an almost unbelievably good year: not only did he bag the Man Booker Prize for his death-railway novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he was recently recognised in the Prime Minister's Literary Awards.
In the moments before he announced that he'd be donating his half-share of the $80,000 prize to an indigenous literacy organisation, Flanagan took the opportunity to define the ideal "civilised society" as "one in which culture is not understood as an economic utility, or a political embarrassment, but as the necessary nub of who we are". To say the least it was a pointed – and an important – statement.
Astute readers will note that Flanagan wasn't the only Australian writer recognised by the Prime Minister this year. Canberra's own Melinda Smith was awarded the poetry prize for Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call, and Joan Beaumont shared the history prize for Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War. Frankly, in a just world, Smith and Beaumont would receive the keys to the capital. But that'd be a bit embarrassing, wouldn't it. To some it'd be as ridiculous as giving the keys to a couple of alpacas.
But we're not just handy with words. We're also handy with the arts across the board. Many ACT-region artists – working in all art forms – make a national if not international contribution, while statistics repeatedly reveal that Canberrans participate in the arts at a higher rate than anywhere else in Australia. It's not overdramatic to say that the ACT region is one of the most culturally connected communities in the world.
How can this be? It's because, on the whole, we're a bunch of fine, educated folk who understand the importance of being close to artists who are able to work magic. But it's also because there is a network of arts organisations, facilities and groups that work tirelessly – often for wages far below the national average – to ensure that every one of us can access arts activity of excellence whenever we feel like it.
Want to see high-quality theatre? We've got that covered. Want to be moved by exciting choreographers and dance artists? We've got that covered too. Want to spend an hour making a glass necklace? No problems. Keen on powering out some guitar chords? Step this way. And these organisations aren't just within the ACT's borders. Take a moment to poke around Cooma, Yass, Braidwood and Goulburn and you'll find arts organisations who are similarly dedicated to ensuring that we can engage with cultural activities.
Let's not be coy about it: without the ACT government, most, if not all, ACT arts organisations would collapse within weeks. (Almost without exception, the arts organisations in neighbouring regional communities are propped up by nothing more than one or two good souls who earn less than $10,000 per year, or, in some cases, receive no financial recompense whatsoever; more often than not, they're volunteer-run organisations.)
No sane person would want to see these arts organisations fall over. These engine rooms of art and creativity reach so far and deep into our communities that every single one of us would be poorer without them.
Why does the ACT government support the arts? And how? What are the priorities? Like any arts portfolio, there's a policy document. With the usual unsexy aplomb of the public service it's called the ACT Arts Policy Framework. Which just so happens to be currently up for review. That's a good thing, right? In principle, yes. The arts are complex, they evolve, and arts policies should recognise that complexity and that evolution. But what many arts movers and shakers are currently concerned about is the dearth of information about this review. artsACT's website has only this one sentence: "The framework will be reviewed in 2014 to ensure that it continues to be a relevant and engaged policy."
Is this a minor or major review? How will the community be involved in the review process? And what's the real timeline? These are fair questions.
We lost one of Australia's greatest political champions of bold creative action this year – Gough Whitlam. Before you start frothing at the mouth, the next few sentences aren't going to hint at a second coming (even though Gough would probably love that). However, by buying Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, Whitlam did ram home the point that public sector investment in the arts is exactly that – an investment. In the public good. And it's a long-term investment. Very long term.
And that's why what Flanagan said in his acceptance speech is so critical (in all meanings of the word). Investing in art and culture should not – and must not – be a political embarrassment. Here's a thing: scroll through the Facebook and Twitter feeds of key members of the ACT Legislative Assembly and tally up how many of their posts relate to local arts and cultural activity. You'll see that Flanagan is right. On the whole, our politicians are embarrassed to publicly discuss and promote the arts. Is it because they think that "the average Australian" is more interested in footpaths and football?
Flanagan also said that culture should be understood as the "the necessary nub of who we are". Many of us in the ACT region know this to be true. Now we just need an arts policy and a policy-development process that aren't afraid to reflect that truth.
One or two spirited ACT politicians who'd gladly shout from the rooftops about our arts community wouldn't go astray either.
Nigel Featherstone is the author of The Beach Volcano.