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Australia proves that cutting arts funding can unite the creative community, not destroy it

ballerinas from the australian ballet in front of sydney harbour bridge
Reuters/David Gray
Take a bow (or a curtsy).
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This week, US president Donald Trump eradicated every cent of America’s spending on the arts. In his first budget proposal, handed down on March 16, he entirely defunded the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This means American institutions, from the Library of America to Sesame Street, could find themselves in serious trouble.

While it may feel like every Trumpism is a brand new atrocity, a similar scenario recently played itself out in Australia. For ardent art lovers in the US and beyond, the Australian creative community’s suffering, resistance, and resilience can provide some insight into the real social and economic effects of what happens when governments disavow the arts—and what to do about it.

In 2015, the conservative government of then-prime minister Tony Abbott gutted funding for Australia’s arts and public-broadcasting organizations, crippling much of the nation’s cultural infrastructure and turning cultural expression into a political battleground. The publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC, Australia’s version of the CPB) was forced to cut local programming in rural areas as well as popular radio programs on ethics and religion, and had to shut down many of its foreign bureaus. Due in part to having its budget gutted, the Australia Council for the Arts was also forced to cut funding for 65 small- and medium-sized arts organizations including literary journals, theaters, art spaces, and photography schools.

Defenders of both Trump and Abbott’s arts abolitions justify the cutbacks on grounds of economic prudence; there’s a classic strain of thinking among conservatives that the only value art possesses is the price it sells for. But in Australia as in the US, arts and public-broadcasting funding makes up a negligible portion of federal spending: just 0.004% of the US federal budget, and 0.023% of Australia’s.

Conservatives often target government-run arts programs on the suspicion that the creative sector is really a giant, publicly funded, left-wing racket.

In reality, these kinds of cuts have more to do with ideology than saving money. Abbott’s attacks were an example of how conservatives often target government-run arts programs on the suspicion that the creative sector is really a giant, publicly funded, left-wing racket. He justified the cuts with relentless verbal attacks on the ABC, claiming the network “takes everyone’s side but Australia’s” and banning his ministers from appearing on one of the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs programs. In the US, the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank was calling for the NEA to be scrapped as far back as 1997, saying it was nothing more than “welfare for cultural elitists.”

But art really is the great equalizer. The arts and public broadcasting embed themselves in people’s lives, regardless of where you grew up or who you vote for. This means they aren’t the exclusive domain of leftie hipster kids in Brooklyn: They’re woven into the fabric of everyday life across geographical, cultural, and economic lines. The real beneficiaries of NEA funding are small community organizations like the East Valley Children’s Theater in Meso, Arizona, or the In Vermont, more students participate in the NEA-funded Poetry Out Loud competition than in high school football.

Loving the arts goes beyond partisan politics, so cutting arts funding hurts everyone, not just the left. This reality came home to roost when the Abbott government put Australian arts funding in the crosshairs. Conventional wisdom says that Australia is a sports-mad country, not an arts-crazy one. But the 2015 cuts revealed something fascinating: Australians of all kinds place far more value on the arts than the dominant narrative would suggest. Research by the Australia Council found that more Australians go to art galleries each year than to Australian Football League matches, the most popular sporting code in the country. (They also found that more Australians do crafts in their spare time than use Twitter.)

Faced with the prospect of artistic institutions and cultural fabric being gutted, Australians of all stripes retaliated with force. Buoyed by popular support, artists and students across the country protested the cuts. The newly formed Arts Party—the only arts-based political party in the world—contested state and federal elections. The George Brandis Live Art Experience, a campaign crudely Photoshopping arts minister George Brandis into great works, made national headlines. As a result, for the first time in living memory, the place of the arts in Australian life made it to the top of the political agenda.

Later that year, the Australia Council cuts were partially reversed by Brandis’s successor, but not nearly enough to restore the funding lost in the initial round of losses. Australia’s arts sector is still in peril, now largely beholden to an opaque and arbitrary grants process.

Displays of military prowess and ostentatious flag-waving aren’t the only kinds of patriotism worth showing up for.

American artists feeling powerless and isolated in the wake of the NEA announcement should take heart from the Australian example: There is a deep well of love and support for the arts in the wider community, and threats like Trump’s cuts have a way of bringing it out—and not just from the usual suspects.

It’s time to make soft power strong. For people like Trump and Abbott, love of country is found in mindless shows of strength, not in asking the uncomfortable questions, which good art so often does. Displays of military prowess, ostentatious flag-waving and unquestioning commitment to “the home team,” as Abbott puts it, aren’t the only kinds of patriotism worth showing up for.

Australia’s creative community has shown there’s a way to take that cerebral, heartfelt kind of patriotism and turn it into boots on the ground; they’ve shown that art and activism often work best when they march hand-in-hand. There’s no reason why other countries can’t join them.

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