Addressing artistic desire: How realistically can artists cater to national expectations?

National surveys suggest Australians are more inclined to consume art than ever, but can the industry accommodate their desires? (Image source: Mackenzie Sweetnam/Australia Council)

By Helen Karakulak | @Helen_Karakulak

New data from the Australian Council for the Arts’ National Arts Participation Survey indicates growing support and sustainable engagement with the arts industry.

The results, published in August 2020, used 8,928 respondents to provide a snapshot of how arts are valued and participated in by the general Australian public. 

The key findings indicate that Australians highly value arts and culture, believing it should be increasingly prioritised in educational spaces, for free or at a low-cost, and as a supportive outlet to benefit people’s health and wellbeing.

These were outlined as the top three priority areas of investment in the arts, as shown in the figure below.

(Image source: Australia Council for the Arts)

While these priorities reflect a growing understanding and appreciation of arts in these spaces and the desire for increasing accessibility, they also reflect a certain narrow-mindedness.

For the sake of quantifying data of this kind, the structuring and reporting of research like this is valuable to inform discussion and legislation regarding the evolving arts industry.

However, to promote growth within local art scenes and how they’re perceived by the wider Australian public, the way we adopt such data into our discourse to inform our opinions must go beyond simply agreeing ‘there should be more art, and it should be cheaper’.

To move forward as an industry, audiences need to be encouraged to value the artists creating our entertainment as much as, if not more than, we value the art itself. 

It isn’t enough to scroll through an infographic and agree that these investments should be prioritised.

In our day-to-day lives, we must reflect this interest and support for the arts in our educational spaces and understand that expecting free or low-cost events isn’t always realistic.

Director of South Australia’s leading multidisciplinary arts organisation, The Mill, Katrina Lazaroff agrees that while reports like this can offer valuable insight, growing these spaces begins with individuals and collectives putting in the work.

“There’s not enough [information] out there about how it happens, you hear a lot of ‘we want’ and not enough about how it can be done,” Ms Lazaroff said.

Ms Lazaroff agrees with the 74 per cent of Australians that believe children and young people should have access to the arts to support learning and development. The general belief is that our mindset towards the arts in schools should be a consistently encouraging one.

“We definitely need to be primarily geared towards the arts as much as any other subject and educate teachers to bring it to young people from the beginning, so it’s not considered second- or third-rate compared to science and sport,” she said.

As for the 68 per cent of survey respondents passionate about ensuring free or low-cost events are available, seeking out organisations such as The Mill is a valuable solution.

The Mill is an organisation that seeks funding for a majority of their programming from revenue raised themselves or from other sources, allowing them to host low-cost or free events.

However, for independent artists, it’s a different story.

“We’re working to bring audiences closer to artistic practice. If an independent artist has sourced and paid for the venue, it’s impossible for audiences to expect something for free because artists have had to fund it themselves,” Ms Lazaroff said.

“This highlights how important The Mill is…Producing and presenting work is costly, so when we’re able to offer support – be that through artist fees, free venue hire, profile building or hosting events on the artists’ behalf – that’s a huge contribution.”

“This is why we’re always looking for funding – to pay artists and make sure the work they present is accessible for audiences,” Ms Lazaroff said.

As a multidisciplinary arts organisation, The Mill’s innovative practice allows artists to develop professionally while also allowing audiences to access and engage with multiple art forms.

“Different programs have different ways of engaging the general public, so when The Mill originally formed it was more focused on professional development of individual artists, whereas now audience and general public engagement is quite strong,” Ms Lazaroff said.

Organisations such as The Mill, the work they do, and the audiences that flock to them, are an example of the next steps, and the value of stimulating the arts industry beyond generating justifications of its effectiveness.

While reports and quantitative data regarding the value of the arts can be insightful, as they’re becoming increasingly prominent, they also become repetitive and reductive. 

“It feels like we’re constantly asked to populate data and studies…we haven’t relied on information from a lot of these surveys because we’ve kept practicing,” Ms Lazaroff said.

“I’d like to see less time spent on trying to prove everything all the time, and see that admin time spent on actually doing the work.”

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