Arts West asks local candidates about their vision for Arts in the West.

Arts West have invited nine candidates running within the Western Metro in the upcoming Victorian state election region to our Western Metro Arts and Culture Forum held at The Substation 18 October. The candidates are drawn from Labor, the Greens, Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, the Animal Justice Party and Reason. None of the candidates are their party’s arts portfolio holders and most are not currently elected representatives. We have invited them to share their vision for arts and culture in the west and to meet artists and arts workers to understand our needs and what we are collectively achieving within our communities in the west.

Although the set-up asks the candidates to share their vision for arts in the west, the real purpose for Arts West is for the candidates themselves to hear and understand the issues facing artists in our part of Victoria, and to understand the ways the arts can contribute to solving policy problems across portfolios. Our expectations for the event are that rather than being an opportunity for politicians to announce new policy initiatives (an important role that the 2018 Victorian Election Arts, Culture & Creative Industries Forum at NGV fulfilled recently {link to article}) it is an opportunity for us to put our needs on the table precisely at the time when politicians are primed to listen and make our voice as voters and influential community representatives heard.

The forum will ask candidates to consider the role of arts in creating strong cohesive communities and that within the looming law and order debate, a debate with a focus on our communities in the west, the arts may have a greater role to play than more police. We will ask them to consider the ways planning and infrastructure can foster or discourage cultural activity, especially relevant for the gentrifying inner west and also the under-served urban sprawl of outer western suburbs. We will ask for their approach to the changing face of work and consider the way freelance artists, who frequently cobble together careers through a diverse mix of frugality, teaching work and paid art gigs, are the frontline of the changing nature of work where hard-fought for workers’ rights and benefits are eroded by the “gig economy”.

When we think about political lobbying for the arts its usually within the context of opposing funding cuts or lobbying for increased funding to certain segments of the industry. But for artists and organisations in Melbourne’s west, political decisions made outside of the Arts ministry are having some of the biggest effects on our ability to make art. The process of inner-city gentrification, the vagaries of an increasingly freelance and “gig economy” and a neoliberal push towards expecting entrepreneurism and “return on investment” from art and artists.

Snuff Puppets, where I work as General Manager, has existed in the inner west for 27 years during which time it has kept making art through the feast and famines of various arts funding models. But in 1992 they weren’t decisions made by an Arts Minister that created the right conditions for a group of artists to incorporate and form a giant puppet company with an off-putting name. It was a time when large warehouse space on the banks of the Maribyrnong was cheap and artists could live meagrely off unemployment benefits, without being cut off for not applying for dozens of jobs a month that don’t exist. It hardly seems a coincidence that our neighbours and fellow Arts West organisation Women’s Circus was founded in the inner west at the same time. In today’s Footscray, creatives are more likely to occupy a small desk in an achingly hip co-working space than building large scale artworks in abandoned industrial space.

Changes to arts funding often come out at budget time or through the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) released at Christmas – a good time to hide cuts. Changes to planning laws or individual planning decisions that will discourage a rich cultural scene happen continually without uproar or close examination. Cultural shifts that favour productivity and ROI over community benefit are ongoing. For these reasons it is not enough for artists and those invested in Australia’s cultural landscape to be reactive in their advocacy efforts.

Politicians without the power of government need to find causes to champion, they need a reason to sit in Senate estimates for hours, days and weeks. If artists have one great strength it is being able to connect with people and through art give them something greater than themselves to believe in, and politicians are indeed people. Lobbying politicians across the political landscape: opposition, minor parties and independents, especially during an election season, is key to creating the conditions for arts and culture that we want to see. Those whose interests lie elsewhere and for whom the transformative effects of art are unimportant or dangerous to the status quo are certainly doing their own lobbying and so artists do themselves a disservice not to also have their unique voice heard within democracy.

AUTHOR: Jodie Kinnersley has worked in marketing and development roles for several Victorian arts organisations including: 2015 Castlemaine State Festival, Jeffreys Books, Western Edge Youth Arts, Going Down Swinging, and ILBIJERRI Theatre Company. For four years she served as Poetry Editor and Editorial Committee Member for youth literary journal, Voiceworks. Jodie was Snuff Puppets’ Marketing and Development Manager before being appointed General Manager in 2016. She is also a member of the Footscray Campaign Committee for the Victorian Greens.