Future of arts in Australia: experts call for policy changes to overcome crisis

An abstract painting on canvas and a wooden box of art supplies sits on the rocks near the ocean.

Photo by Jade Stephens (opens in a new window)on Unsplash (opens in a new window)

The visual arts in Australia have, like all arts, been profoundly challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure of galleries and markets; cancellation of art festivals; the isolation of artists from their communities; and inadequate financial support from the federal government, have all delivered a huge blow to the economies of the visual arts and weakened their capacity to engage with the public.

Artists and art institutions have responded with vigour and imagination to keep the arts alive and relevant throughout the lockdown and are now emerging to chart the course of a ‘new normal’.

However, overcoming challenges will not be easy, say the editors of a new book exploring an extended period of crises in the Australian art field and what it might mean for the future of the sector.

Co-editor Professor Deborah Stevenson, from Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society, explains that recent turbulence in the visual arts comes off the back of a history of uncertainty that affected the industry long before the pandemic.

“Significant cuts to arts funding; the closure of art schools; the continuing marginalisation of women in the arts; underfunding of multicultural arts; and new challenges facing Indigenous arts practice – all these issues need to be faced,” says Professor Stevenson.

Professor Stevenson further highlights the crucial role of arts policies in protecting the creativity of the nation.

“Looking beyond immediate recovery issues, what is most needed is a robust and diverse arts ecology in Australia, one capable of meeting the divergent needs and interests of its different peoples.”

Co-editor Professor Tony Bennett, also from the Institute for Culture and Society, says that the recently announced plans for doubling costs of arts and humanities courses at university are another hurdle.

“What happens in the arts is always significantly affected by education policies – from their role in supporting arts training through to stimulating an interest in them,” says Professor Bennett.

“From this point of view, the hiking of the costs of humanities degrees is likely to have serious negative implications for the visual arts in Australia – restricting involvement in them in ways that will limit their capacity to both harness and nurture Australia’s creativity.”

The publication of The Australian Art Field: Practices, Policies, Institutions (opens in a new window)will make a timely contribution to current debates about the future of arts in Australia. Edited by cultural sociologists Professors Bennett and Stevenson, cultural anthropologist Professor Fred Myers from New York University, and arts advocate Tamara Winikoff, it brings together leading scholars and practitioners to address the frictions generated by a tumultuous time in the Australian art field and to probe what the crises might mean going forward.

In examining visual arts in Australia in the context of broader society and politics, it throws unique light on the position of Indigenous art in a settler-colonial state; multicultural art practices; and the relations between art, gender, sexualities and social class.

Interviews with leading artists conducted by Tamara Winikoff add to the uniqueness of this collection. In speaking about the forces that have shaped their practice, Julie Gough, Deborah Kelly, Danie Mellor, Ben Quilty, Julie Rrap, Julie Shiels and Hossein Valamanesh lend a vivid actuality to the book’s critical engagements.

Published in Routledge’s international Research in Art History series, The Australian Art Field is an outcome of a major research project on the contemporary position of the arts and culture in Australia, led by the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

The book is available for pre-order (opens in a new window)and is due to be published on 2 July.


25 June 2020