Asking About The Arts

By proclaiming itself 'a creative and prosperous city' Port Phillip is boldly claiming creativity as a core value defining the city. This is a wonderful invitation to engage the imagination, but it comes as part of a conjunction with wealth which causes us to wonder about how the arts and the economy are connected.


This is the first of a series that will raise questions about Port Phillip's policies and support for the Arts.

By proclaiming itself 'a creative and prosperous city' Port Phillip is boldly claiming creativity as a core value defining the city. This is a wonderful invitation to engage the imagination, but it comes as part of a conjunction with wealth which causes us to wonder about how the arts and the economy are connected.

Council policies, laid out in great if sometimes repetitive detail in its Art and Soul—Creative and Prosperous City Strategy and 2021-2031 Plan, are a guide to its intentions but are also a measure against which it can be held accountable. Good intentions are one thing, but does the delivery, especially as expressed in funding, equitably reflect those intentions?

One way that a linkage between creativity and prosperity is mandated is that every application for cultural funding is required to show how the project will benefit local business. This muddies the waters. It flies in the face of the idea that the arts are valuable in themselves. Does Port Phillip think the arts are valuable in themselves or not?

And Council's position invites a further question: where is the reciprocity? What is the mutual obligation on business to support the arts? It appears to be extremely limited. But in a truly creative city, would it not be foremost?

Artists—painters, musicians, dancers, actors, potters and so on—do what they do for its own sake. Money is not the primary purpose. As a community we financially support them as something that not only assists them but enhances us all. Port Phillip does give money to artists through the Cultural Development Fund although this quite modest encouragement is often challenged by conservative councillors as 'pet projects' that should not be funded at all, or, if so, only by some other level of government. They do not think that the arts are core business. In this they are blatantly at odds with the 'creative city' badging.

The narrow-minded approach of the ROPP and Liberal councillors would condemn the cultural character of the city to becoming a mere by-product of private enterprise (think of the desolate canyons of Southbank). It is a negation of the ancient idea that the whole community should have the right and the power to produce the best city it can imagine.

If Port Phillip seriously wishes to be recognised as a standout creative city then it must allow that energy to flourish not just in 'the Arts' and the creative industries (defined below) but right across the city. Truly embracing creativity as a defining municipal value would be transformative on a scale we have never seen.

Of course, by 'creative' council does not mean just the Arts but includes the 'creative industries' (also called the 'creative economy', the 'creative and innovation economy', the 'creative sector' and even the 'creative eco-system'). This comprises for-profit businesses such as advertising, architecture, media, recording and distribution of music, games development and so on, which are certainly well-represented in South Melbourne and St Kilda Road. Council is impressed by the 35% the creatives contribute to the City's economy. But, while these businesses have a strong creative element, their ultimate rationale is not art for its own sake but art for the generation of tradeable intellectual property. Nor is their creativity usually directed towards local people. The target is mass markets, national and international.

Those who work in these industries are fully aware of the difference between working for the man and doing their own thing: one is for money, the other for love. So, while council policy often links the arts and creative industries, they are different in nature and in practice are understood differently. If they are lumped together holus-bolus then to a Martian anthropologist visiting Port Phillip, advertising would appear to be our main artistic expression. Perhaps some think it is.

A guiding principle of council's policy is that its funding should spread the cultural experience of making and enjoying arts activities across both the whole City and the whole year.

Council acknowledges that Port Phillip is not a monoculture but comprises a number of distinct neighbourhoods. Does the distribution of funding reflect this multiplicity? How does the expenditure of the largest amount on one event in one suburb over one or two days fulfil that principle of equitable distribution over time and place? (We refer, of course, to the St Kilda Festival, a topic to which we will return in future.)

In a 'Why do we do it?' section, Council offers a two-part rationale for its festivals policy. The first is 'To foster a community that is socially diverse and inclusive, one that brings arts, culture and creative expression to everyday life' which sounds good and inclusive. But then there is a second: 'to maximise social and economic benefits to residents and business by having Port Phillip as a destination for tourism'. (Italics ours.) The answer conveniently links residents and business as if they share the outcome. But while residents accept that Port Phillip is a tourist destination, many would question if endlessly increasing visitation is of economic or any other benefit to them. A growing resistance by locals to excessive tourism is evident around the world and is definitely present here. It is a growing political issue.

That Council is aware of this tension is evident at another point in the policy when it declares: 'A creative and prosperous City is not a destination, it is a journey, an iterative and dynamic process where we can find space for everyone...'

So, which is it?

These are some of the issues we will be pursuing. As it stands, the policy often reads as an attempt to navigate a path between the sometimes-conflicted interests of the arts, business, creative industry and tourism. We sympathise with the writers—it is not easy to craft rationalisations—but the documents do more than lay down the rules for the distribution of funds, they create a site for public debate.