For The Arts
Good evening everyone.
I am Catherine McNamara, but you can call me Cath Mc. I am your new NSW minister for the Arts. I must say how fabulous it is that my portfolio is solely dedicated to the Arts again. What a great decision, when you consider that the Arts have pulled so many of us through the isolation, fear and uncertainty of this pandemic. In recent years, the Arts have been regarded as an add-on, an afterthought. Our Federal Arts Minister is in fact Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts. Before I became Minister, my predecessor was Minister for the Public Service, Employee Relations, Aboriginal Affairs and the Arts. You know they tried to ask me if I would be Minister for Infrastructure, Communications, Space Invaders, Holiday Houses, Casual Fridays, Beef Lasagnes and the Arts and you can only imagine where I told them to stick it. Art deserves its own portfolio.
“There is no new normal” and thank heavens for that. The old normal was broken. It was terrible. The old normal would, as I’ve said, often shove the Arts in with Communications or the Public Service, but never properly acknowledge the public service it provides. I’ve been left thinking a lot the past year about the link between art and societal health. I recall there’s a Gertrude Stein quote saying art is like taking the pulse of a nation and I think this is very apt right now. Works of art are sometimes a bitter pill for society or governments to swallow, but this pandemic has presented an opportunity for us to be much more assured of our social function as artists. Art has always gathered us, started conversations, found commonalities and tried to figure out how we move forward – together. Our public service is that we don’t always play by the rules and we often question how things are being done. Perhaps an almost-direct correlation with why most politicians appear to dislike artists.
And art is influenced by world challenges; sometimes art is a welcome escape from a scary reality, like a pandemic. Or sometimes art helps us break free of stale, outdated ways of thinking that are currently causing us harm, in the case of Australian climate change policy. Art absorbs what is happening in our culture at any given moment and it compels us to explore the ideas, emotions and alternatives that present themselves.
So let’s do a quick survey:
- Raise your hand if you binge-watched a series (or five) during the pandemic?
- Who listened to an album on repeat? Or had music playing when you were feeling lonely?
- Who decided to learn a new instrument – maybe guided by online teachers?
- Who read a new book (or five)?
- Who visited the virtual art galleries that were opened to us?
- Who zoomed or tuned in to comedy, theatre, or live music gigs?
- And come on, own up… who watched Hamilton?
The Arts was one of the hardest-hit sectors during this pandemic, and yet it provided a massive public service in helping people to endure it. Art enables us to express, connect, belong, and identify but we couldn’t connect in-person so we did what artists do… we improvised. Live music gigs, theatres, galleries all racked their brains, their imaginations and their digital skills to deliver relief, empathy and delight to the nation.
And what was the thanks? The doubling of university fees for people wanting to study the Arts? The arts workforce was already decimated by us not being able to gather; many artsworkers were precluded from JobKeeper due to the nature of their contract work, and this government (many of whom are Arts graduates) decided that the values, skills and competencies of the Arts were no longer relevant to the future of this country.
Now let’s unpack this a bit as I think this false either/or between the Arts and other sectors has leaked out into Australian society at large.
I want to debunk the idea that the Arts somehow don’t make you ‘job ready’. I’m a proud graduate of both an Arts degree AND a Creative Arts degree (I’m the government’s nightmare) and I have always had a job. I work in the Disability sector as well and utilise my arts skills every single day. My partner who is a production manager took her skills to the production lines of a local factory during COVID shutdowns. Our stories are common. Artists enhance society even in unexpected ways. Right now, you can bet people who’ve trained in the Arts are present across every sector. Utilising their creative problem-solving, their human-centred practice and their critical analysis. My vision as Arts Minister is for RECOGNITION. For all Australians to recognise the function of the arts. For people to realise how the arts are integrated into everyday life. For arts workers not to feel like receiving training, receiving respect, receiving pay is a hard-fought slog. During 2020 the arts improved mental health, restored connections and enhanced education all around this country.
If I was being really cheeky, my vision would be that the Australian community value art 1/8th of the amount we value sport. I’d be happy with that. A 10,000 person-limit on arts events? Yeah I could deal with that. I mean it’d be tough but I reckon we’d cope somehow…
I call for the arts to be recognised as GENERATIVE work. Art is productive, innovative, nation-building work that is essential to our progress as a society. I call for my ministerial colleagues to recognise the value of artists to our economy. I can talk the government talk and quote the numbers if you want. Arts and entertainment alone generated just under $15 billion for the Australian economy in 2019, and created around 195,000 jobs (around four times the jobs that coal mining created, just quietly). And an ABC fact check last November found that arts graduates have similar if not better employability when leaving university than graduates of STEM, but I’d also like to bloody well stop feeling like I have to explain myself. As I truly believe we need art to ground us, to round us into more-informed, more complete people. As Australian historian Tom Griffiths says the arts “underpin the very fabric of our social being and our collective lives… and light the spark in people’s souls, giving them a reason to fight for survival, to fight for reform”.
Now the issues of 2020 are far from solved – the climate catastrophes, the viruses, the white supremacy – are always adapting and mutating as quickly as we must adapt and mutate to combat them. ‘Normal’ aka ‘apathy’, ‘complacency’ was a privilege for so many of us before last year. There are more opportunities for us to be motivated towards debate and change now.
And just remember we have been here before: plague, drought, famine, disaster. Above adversity, art rises and endures. From the earliest artworks etched in sacred places, to our digitally connected world, art is essential to help us record, understand and eventually overcome that which endangers our existence. Don’t let people tell us we’re not relevant.
- Smith, M. 2020, ‘Australian Arts Sector left in the cold by Federal Government, claims prominent theatre director’, ABC News, accessed via www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-25/thousands-in-arts-sector-jobless-amid-coronavirus/12177250
- Torrens University Australia, 2019, ‘What Degrees do Ministers in Australia have and Why it Matters’, accessed via torrens.edu.au/blog/business
- Browne, B. 2020, ‘Economic Importance of the Arts and Entertainment Sector’, The Australia Institute, accessed via https://australiainstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Background-Brief-Economic-importance-of-arts-and-entertainment-WEB.pdf
- RMIT ABC Fact Check, 2020, ‘Fact Check: Do Humanities Graduates have the Same Job Prospects as Science Graduates?’ RMIT & ABC, accessed via www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-19/fact-check-humanities-science-graduates-uni-fee-changes/12822186
- Griffths, T. 2020, ‘The End of Arts Degrees? Big Ideas with Paul Barclay’, Radio National/ ABC, accessed via the ABC Listen App, episode aired 30 Nov 2020.
Cath McNamara is an independent theatre performer and maker. She lives near Bathurst, on Wiradjuri country, and works in disability support and as a freelance performing arts facilitator for people with disabilities.
She co-wrote the immersive children’s theatre show Erth’s Prehistoric Aquarium with Drew Fairley and Scott Wright in 2015 and has spent five years touring the work throughout regional Australia (2017), Auckland (2018), USA (2018-19), and Abu Dhabi (2020).
Cath collaborated and performed in interdisciplinary dance theatre works Tangi Wai: the cry of water, by Victoria Hunt (Performance Space, 2015), and Throne of Thorns, by Malaysian theatre director Norzizi Zulkifli (UOW, 2015 & ASWARA Kuala Lumpur, 2017). She is also the very lovable Central West drag king Clint Taurus.