A major cultural shift is happening right now. Our many thousands of independent artists and organisations concentrated right here in Victoria are being recognised as the forefront of the arts. And with the new state government currently without an arts policy, there is a rare opportunity to develop this leadership of the independent sector for the arts as a whole.

Throughout 2010, independents took priority at key arts gatherings. Theatre Network Victoria’s forum called for a light, flexible infrastructure that facilitates independent practice. The National Multicultural Arts Symposium prioritised the rich diversity of the independent sector, and its unique presentation and production models. ArtsPeak and the Arts Industry Council (Victoria) (AICV) campaigned for a $5 million development fund specifically for independent artists and small organisations.

The public debate intensified throughout 2010. Thanks to Ben Eltham and Marcus Westbury – widely misrepresented as anti-opera crusaders by those lamenting the culture wars – it is now well understood that the bulk of arts funding avoids the bulk of art makers. Most recently, the Herald Sun’s Chris Boyd reminded us that while the independent scene powers our arts culture and is renowned across the world, only 1 per cent of the Victorian arts budget (itself some 1 per cent of the state budget) is directed towards the overwhelming majority of new work.

Meanwhile, the independent arts are growing rapidly. Victoria’s most reliable barometer of the sector’s vitality is the Melbourne Fringe Festival: its massive, open-access independent arts program is determined by artists themselves. About 4000 to 5000 artists take part each year up from about 2000 five years ago to audiences of half a million. Westbury’s Renew Australia, harnessing artists’ power of place-making for urban revitalisation, is now renewing Fremantle, Townsville and Adelaide and has transformed Newcastle into a Lonely Planet top-10 world city.

If the independent arts remain invisible to government policy and support, a diminished view of the arts will guide community participation, venue programming, education programs and media responses and the arts will suffer across the state.

In the words of one prominent voice: “It’s important that we don’t allow the arts to become just a platform of observers; it’s about participation, it’s about artists. And in my view, an active arts community is a community where there’s diversity, where the community is engaging with artists, where they’re welcoming of artists, where the artists and the art forms are not institutionalised for their own sake, but they are ever-evolving they’re thoughtful, they’re powerful, perpetually fresh, perpetually edgy.” Who said that? Ted Baillieu, 46th Premier of Victoria and Minister for the Arts, speaking with passion at an AICV event during the Melbourne Fringe Festival. For Baillieu, trusting the powerful, edgy independent arts will be key to successful policy.

Arts policy is about sustaining the conditions that ask new questions, engage communities and foster public space. As well as increased funds, arts policy needs a whole-of-government approach, understanding the complex relationships between art, education, health, community development, innovation and urban planning.

An effective policy, collaborating with the independent arts, will create partnerships with those smaller organisations already immersed in artist development. A devolved funding approach overcomes the stop-start nature of project funding, securing the commitment of expert organisations for programs such as mentorships, audience development, public space creation and artist grants for new work.

The infrastructure that facilitates arts practice is thus informed by direct artist engagement, remaining relevant and responsive. Ensuring the success of the independent arts and indeed, powering the arts across the state means supporting the agile, specialised organisations of the independent arts.

Just as independent artists are the driving force of the Victorian scene, independent arts leaders are our leading business innovators. They sustain the unlikeliest conditions for the most vital new ideas, present new work in the unlikeliest spaces, build the unlikeliest partnerships, and work within the unlikeliest budgets. These are business models based not on speculative profiteering, but on responsibly sustaining what is by definition unprofitable: the things we value most in life.

In 2011, Victoria’s arts policy must take the creativity, diversity and sheer scale of the independent arts as its starting point. With a strong peer-review culture, and unencumbered by the preposterous art-form boards of the Australia Council, Arts Victoria is well placed to collaborate on new models. The alternative, as the Premier sees it: “Life without the influence of artists would simply be miserable.”

First published in The Age on 17 January 2011.