Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

WORDS | Patron or Parent?

by John Armstrong

On Sunday 14 October, I facilitated a panel discussion as part of the ARC 2007 Symposium. The subject was ‘Patron or Parent: The Role of the State and Artistic Autonomy’. The panel was Ben Strout (Australia Council), Pat Hoffie (Qld College of Art) and Stephen Beddoe (Artquest UK). The following notes give an indication of my introduction and response to this subject.

I paid my respects to the traditional custodians of the land on which we were meeting. And I acknowledged the Elders, both Indigenous and non-indigenous who so generously share their wisdom with us all.

There is a very short story that comes from the Arab world An aspiring entrepreneur says to a rich man: ‘Give me some money.’

‘Why?’ asks the rich man.

‘Because … I want to buy … an elephant,’ says the entrepreneur.

Rich man says, ‘If you haven’t any money to buy an elephant then you obviously can’t afford to keep and feed an elephant.’

‘I came here’, says our entrepreneur, ‘to get money, not advice.’ Not sure if this was an artist trying to make the shift to becoming a creative industries practitioner or not!

Our subject is ‘Patron or Parent: The Role of the State and Artistic Autonomy’.

There are two diametrically opposed positions here. One, Australia defines itself by its commitment to our cultural heritage, to the arts and to ideas – therefore the government should subsidise these. Two, why is it assumed that everything important should be planned, sponsored, subsidised or licensed by government?

Sir Humphrey Appleby from ‘Yes, Minister’ once stated: “Subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want. It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have. If they want something, they’ll pay for it themselves.”

A few weeks ago, in the USA, the Yale Political Union hosted a debate on this subject and the majority of discussion seems to have centred around the ethics and morality of taxing citizens to fund art (no talk about taxing citizens to fund invasion forces but one hopes that this discussion happens as well). One side said that by ceasing government funding for the arts a message would be sent that the arts do not matter. The other side said that art is akin to religion and that individuality is essential to the interpretation of art therefore art deserves the same respect as religion and should be kept entirely separate from government.

One thing that must be clearly stated is that state support for the arts is not support for the arts per se. It is the funding of one person’s expression at the expense of another.

Is it true that artists who depend on government support are expressing nothing so much as their inability to succeed in the real world where they would have to satisfy the same standards of free market competence imposed upon the rest of us? Why are there no grant programs available to plumbers or mechanics or consultants who want to be at the cutting edge of their professions?

My personal contention is that if you have State funded art then you get State art – doesn’t matter whether it’s Soviet funding resulting in heroic figures exhalting the system or Ozco funding resulting in art that is a paean to Ozco’s current aesthetic preference. And, of course we must always remember that the vast proportion of state and federal arts monies goes to supporting the ‘flagship’ organisations – the state orchestras, opera companies, ballet companies and theatre companies as well as the state galleries and museums.

Let me just leave you with an inspiring story that is from an artist, actually the Egyptian architect Hassan Fahty. He tells about walking through a building site and seeing three workers carving stone for the construction.

He asked the first worker, ‘What are you doing?’ and the reply was, ‘Carving stone’.

He asked the second worker, ‘What are you doing?’ and the reply was, ‘Earning a living’.

Then he asked the third worker, ‘What are you doing?’ and the reply was, ‘Building a cathedral’.

Only one of the workers understood their part in the grand endeavour and therefore assumed a dignity and elevation missed by the others, a sense of purpose beyond their own immediate needs or necessity.


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