Out of the Myer

Twenty years on it is salutary to review what was achieved by the Myer Inquiry into the Visual Arts & Crafts sector. Faced by similar conditions to those that spawned the Inquiry and in the shadow of COVID-19, should we be celebrating what was achieved or mourning opportunities lost?

Twenty years ago, the Howard government addressed the critical state of arts funding in Australia. The Arts Minister, Peter McGauran, initiated several reviews designed to inform policy and create a financially healthy, artistically vibrant, and broadly accessible cultural sector. The first was the Nugent Inquiry into the Major Performing Arts, which was released in 1999. Two years later, Rupert Myer was invited to chair an Inquiry into the Visual Arts & Crafts designed to ‘Build on the sector’s achievements and provide opportunities for its potential to be realised.’

At this critical point in our history – in the wake of the Brandis mauling of the cultural sector, the recent cuts to organisational four-year funding, the proposal to double fees for creative arts courses and in the midst of the turmoil created by COVID-19 – it is salutary to review what was achieved and what was lost as we prepare for an unpredictable future. Sadly, the conditions that spawned the Inquiry are an eerie echo of the current situation. Do we celebrate the forthcoming anniversary of the Myer Inquiry or mourn for what might have been? In the Old Testament, we’re told that God lifts us ‘out of the mud and mire’ and provides a secure place to stand (Psalm 40:1). While that was the intent of the Myer Inquiry, it seems that once again we are at risk of slipping into a morass of disinterest and neglect.

The Myer Inquiry was built on the solid foundations of work undertaken by scholars such as Professor David Throsby, from Macquarie University, Professor Terry Smith, from the University of Sydney’s Power Institute of Art and Visual Culture and Professor Ron Callus, from the Australia Centre for Industrial Relations, Research and Training at Sydney University. All three were partners in an Australian Research Council (ARC) research project along with Tamara Winikoff from the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), Tony Bond from the Art Gallery of NSW, and Shane Simpson from Simpsons Solicitors. Their research identified the key issues facing the visual arts and crafts and set the mechanism to establish a Code of Practice for the sector. That work, in tandem with Myer’s commitment to the sector and his belief in its role in ensuring the well-being of the nation, set the parameters for the Inquiry. In his introduction to the final report, he explained; ‘In reflecting upon the value of this sector, it is appropriate to be mindful that economic value and cultural value are two distinct concepts. Culture will be seriously misunderstood if analysed only as economic value. While there is little question, the data discussed in this report confirms that this sector makes a significant and, importantly, strategic contribution to the nation’s economy, it is its cultural contribution, which is paramount.’

In 2001, under the cloud of 9/11 and its world-wide financial impact, Myer was sceptical about the possibility of achieving increased funding. Nevertheless, he was convinced of the need during an initial consultation at KickArts in Northern Queensland, where he was earnestly informed that ‘artists want mortgages too!’. Although he initially thought, ‘there won’t be any gold at the end of this rainbow’, the focused lobbying by the arts sector and rigorous investigation led by Jim Adamson from the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts – with support from Treasury – provided the evidence for necessary and urgent investment.

Once documented, the frailty across many aspects of the sector was evident. The report offered twenty recommendations, most of which had dollar figures attached. For Myer, the most significant were those arguing for ‘enduring financial arrangements for the sector with both Commonwealth, State & Territory governments acting collaboratively.’ The eventual outcome of those recommendations was the Visual Arts & Craft Strategy (VACS) that ‘set the ecology for a defined period, which meant the creation of certainly and the ability for organisations to leverage that certainty.’ A second recommendation was for an artists’ resale royalty, introduced in 2010, which is also still operating. It provided funding back to artists when their work was resold on the secondary art market. The report included proposals to make changes to artists’ copyright, including moral rights and Indigenous copyright and intellectual property. It also recommended funding for publishing, artists-run- initiatives, touring, events, professional development, and professionalised tax frameworks. However, it stopped short of support for the special ‘status of the artist’ legislation and mandated payment of artists’ fees.

Myer sees the significant increase in ambition and the greater confidence of Australian artists now working internationally as part of a global visual arts community, as one of the Inquiry’s lasting benefits. For Tamara Winikoff, its most important legacy was ‘The acknowledgment of the value of the visual arts for the social and cultural well-being of people in Australia and the dignity that came with government attention. While not all the recommendations were picked up, some crucial ones were, which gave a real boost to the sector. There was a recognition that this was a professional field operating within the economy and generating both work and income, employing a substantial number of people.’  Indeed, Ron Callus from the ARC research project had pointed out that the sector was a test-case because artists’ way of working pre-figured what everybody’s working pattern will become in the future. After all, the portfolio career and the gig economy, now so embedded in contemporary experience, has always been the modus operandi for artists. 

Several recommendations remain in the shroud of lost opportunity. Many of the tax initiatives Myer and his team promoted were not accepted. Increased tax breaks for donations of artworks were rejected for the government’s fear of its impact on other sectors. Updating of data to keep the evidence current and relevant was never implemented. Of course, the promised indexing of funding to support continued growth faded and then disappeared with the Brandis excisions.

With the razor-sharp clarity of hindsight – viewed through the veil of COVID-19 and current policy decisions – there is both much to celebrate and to mourn in reviewing the Myer Inquiry. What is clear is the value of the evidence-based process and the need to ensure that it continues. Both Myer and Winikoff agree that the best outcome would be a new inquiry with the same broad-ranging parameters to recalibrate the funding and support mechanisms for the arts in this country. For Rupert Myer, ‘It makes better sense to look at the whole sector, not compartmentalise the different elements of the arts for a granular investigation because it is so interwoven and interconnected.’ The intermeshed future of the arts in Australia demands and deserves a robust and rigorous inquiry to provide the vital cultural landscape this country requires to guarantee a prosperous and sustainable future. Can we afford to ignore a sector that not only shapes our sense of who we are and maintains our sense of well-being but also reflects that self-image to the world?

A new inquiry has the potential to radically change the situation for artists in similar ways to that first iteration. As the prescient Mr. Myer explained in the preamble to his original report, ‘it is possible to imagine a future for the sector where artists and craft practitioners enjoy a higher status within the community, where they are faced with fewer economic uncertainties, where there are greater opportunities to exhibit and sell works of art and where the financial and market success of their work is not taken as the sole measure of quality.’ In troubled times, it is necessary to recreate the conditions that can once again realise those aspirations. 

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 52, 2020 

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