Can Australia that takes the arts seriously?

The novelist and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul once explained that all his work began in panic. The panic lasted a long time. After that, you needed strength, to endure the ups and downs, which could be very painful and last for years. The only cure was “to lever yourself out of it, bodily, by sheer work”. And, he said, “you need luck all the time”.

Illustration by Jim PavlidisCredit:

Not long ago, Helen Garner raised another aspect of writing: “the massive amount of intellectual and observational preparation that serious writers have to do before they can start writing a book”. Much of this reading, wandering and thinking looked like “bludging” – but without it, “no one can write anything that’s worth reading”.


To make art, then, you must be able to fall back on your own inner resources; and you must be willing to live a life unlike that led by others. There is at least one more difficult element: you must be prepared to live without money. In a recent 28-page zine – listed by two writers in the Australian Book Review as among the best books of the year – the writer Anwen Crawford described with rare honesty what writers earn for their work. Her superb book No Document – shortlisted for one of the country’s biggest prizes and strongly reviewed – earned her a $4000 advance plus $1029.73 in additional royalties, as well as $5000 in prizemoney. It took her four years to write. This is not at all unusual (except for the prizemoney).

This morning, at The Espy in Melbourne, Arts Minister Tony Burke will announce a new National Cultural Policy. He will be launching into a strange atmosphere. The arts community is eager for a new policy. It is relieved to have a government that has seemed, so far, to be listening: Burke’s speeches show a granular awareness of the issues. But there is nervousness too because the need for significant change is so great.

Arts Minister Tony Burke and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Parliament House.

Arts Minister Tony Burke and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at Parliament House.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Being an artist is always hard, particularly in Australia, with a small market and a sense of the arts as a minor concern. In the past decade, it became harder: the arts have been, variously, stripped of funding or ignored, a point predictably made by Labor but echoed by artists. Then the pandemic came: audiences vanished, venues shut. Many artists stopped being artists. The sector is in true crisis.

Already we have some sense of what Burke wants to do. In a speech to the Woodford Folk Festival in December, he said the streaming giants will have to screen a certain amount of Australian content. Last week he confirmed authors will, for the first time, receive money when digital copies of their books are borrowed from libraries. Funding processes will be changed to help writers and musicians, and arts funding will be conditional on safe workplaces, free from harassment. This morning he will not be dealing with grants for Hollywood – controversial because they bring money and work but also arguably displace Australian films – or institutions like the National Archives.

There are two large questions that hover over all this. The first is how much money the government is willing to spend. Ben Eltham, an academic and expert in arts funding, says the government has two large tasks: to address the current crisis, and to set the arts up for the future. To do both, there is no getting around one fact: “they actually have to spend money”. In his Woodford speech, Burke downplayed expectations: “There could not be a worse time to be going through the government right now trying to get money”.

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