What do the politics of the Australian and the New York independent arts scene have in common? Surprisingly, quite a lot – across funding, advocacy, cultural leadership and more.

In New York, 70% of arts funding is quarantined for the Cultural Institutions Group, the city’s 33 major performing and other arts and cultural organisations who inhabit the city’s key public buildings. The remaining thousand publicly funded organisations compete through highly competitive processes that occupy their time disproportionately to the funds received: 50% of all funded organisations work to budgets of under $250,000, while a third work on less than $100,000 a year.

The figure for all of Australia – the proportion of the Australia Council’s budget that’s committed to the 28 Major Performing Arts organisations, and only to the performing arts – is 62%. As with our situation, funding for the New York majors predates the Australia Council – however, not by a mere few decades: these arrangements date back to 1869, as part of a city-making strategy that would ensure that arts and culture would always be central to the experience of New York City.

The disparity stings as much for New Yorkers as it does for Australians. After all, it’s not the city’s long-established institutions that continue to attract adventurous and curious travellers. It’s New York’s thriving independent scene that astounds over 60 million tourists every year, as well as countless creative practitioners keen to immerse in their city’s critical mass of genre-busting work.

I visited New York last week as part of my research trip to North America after spending good time in Canada, with thanks to the Copyright Agency. I was keen to understand the focus of the renewed advocacy efforts of New Yorkers for Culture and Arts, as well as speaking with Americans for the Arts, who have twice now defeated Trump’s attempt to end the National Endowment for the Arts.

New Yorkers for Culture and Arts (NY4CA)  is a relatively new entity that has evolved out of the NYC Arts Coalition and Per Cent for Art. It draws on the three-decade history of the former and the campaign focus of the latter to offer a strong and comprehensive voice for the arts. Importantly, NY4CA seeks to do this with focus and rigour, overcoming the well-intentioned but piecemeal approach of the  past that has relied on the spare-time good-will of overworked volunteers. There’s now a committed board, a full-time executive director, and a new strategic plan.

NY4CA is not alone in advocating for the arts; other strong voices enrich the New York scene with more specific focuses that have national significance. The People’s Cultural Plan focuses on economic disparities and cultural inequalities that are exacerbated by inaffordable housing as well as inequitable funding outcomes such as the ones I’ve described above.

Recently merged with the National Centre for Arts Research with Southern Baptist University in Dallas, Data Arts is now a force in reliable data ready to be deployed for advocacy and planning purposes – that inequitable data I’ve quoted above comes from Data Arts, who make rich data sets available for purchase as well as releasing useful data that relates readily.

And for over a decade, Working Artists and the Greater Economy have led labour-focused campaign work that recognises the widespread refusal to pay artist fees and ‘demands payment for making the world more interesting’. While I was in New York, W.A.G.E. launched WAGENCY, a platform that empowers individual artists as WAGENTS to negotiate appropriate fees, or withdraw their labour.

To work towards redressing inequities and strengthening New York’s public discussion about the arts, NY4CA is looking at a range of strategies including advocacy training workshops and also corporate engagement. Following the financial crisis of 2008, the corporate dollar has all but left the arts – even in New York – with corporates engaging with the arts in more transactional ways.

Microfinancing projects, for example, or financial literacy services. The heyday of anchoring fundraising events around corporate mates who’d buy by the table is long gone, and there’s a very real fear that corporate philanthropy that’s generous and civic-minded will never return.

For this reason, Americans for the Arts are  also focused on the corporate sector in addition to their public and government-focused advocacy. I have long admired A4A’s powerhouse approach to arts advocacy, and their massive and highly mobilisable network. I got a great deal out of participating in their national convention in Chicago in 2015, then co-presenting on global best practice advocacy at the IFACCA World Summit on Arts and Culture in Malta the following year, both with thanks to the Australia Council.

A4A’s pARTnership Movement program offers workshops and toolkits that guide business to consider the role of the arts in nurturing their staff and their communities as well as framing their investments. The program sits alongside A4A’s National Arts Marketing Project, the Arts Action Fund, and Animating Democracy, a program that fosters civic engagement through arts and culture.

Democracy itself is the object and not just the context of current advocacy efforts in the US – and, increasingly, in Australia. Civic engagement, of course, is a risk: it’s risky at the best of times, and it’s particularly risky in a time where democracy is being radically undermined. According to NEA research and A4A’s own opinion polling, people who participate in the arts are 20% more likely to vote. The New York Public Library and many other museums and galleries are actively engaged in voter turnout and education programs, taking their civic leadership role as seriously as their role in cultural leadership.

For other public institutions, however, civic engagement is a political danger. Earlier this year, the director of Queens Museum was sacked for taking public positions that were not in fact in conflict with the Museum’s publicly stated policies.

In Australia, expectations on public institutions to engage in public advocacy has grown following the marriage equality debates so irresponsibly fuelled by the Australian Government via the postal survey. Many arts, social and commercial organisations made strong statements championing equality publicly, while protecting staff and communities privately. NAVA of course was a strong voice early on, while our chair, James Emmett, worked hard with pro bono legal collaborators to challenge the survey’s constitutionality. Among the many statements from our colleague organisations, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s response was a scandal that was deftly handled by incoming CEO Emma Dunch, encouraging yet more organisations to make their own public statements.

As a result, the landscape has shifted when it comes to public expectations of cultural leadership – and this fascinates me deeply. Australians, I’ve been told all my years here, are laconic and apathetic, relaxed and comfortable. And yet, where we were once happy to trust government to get on with the job, they’ve taken us for granted, indulging in petty revenge rather than taking their work seriously. Our current era of political disengagement seems an inevitable response – and yet, when we disengage, we give more power to the people we distrust. Disengagement is simply not an option.

And so, while we struggle with that disappointment, we turn instead to the public institutions we do trust. The arts organisations we know and love are dedicated, rigorous and ethical. We have come to expect much more from them than great artistic experiences. We expect action on gendered harassment and gender equity. We expect policies on ethical investment and environmental impact. We expect cultural leadership and we also expect civic engagement. We might be politically disengaged, but culturally, we expect clear and ethical leadership from those public institutions who nurture creative practice and foster public space. Where we continue to place our trust, we expect more and we participate more.

Unsurprisingly, New Yorkers are thinking the same way. An angel investor has bolstered NY4CA capacities, and they’re ready and energised for the challenges ahead. They’re sharpening tools, gathering data and marshalling advocates. And, given how much the politics of the Australian and the New York independent arts scene have in common, so are we.


This piece was first published in Arts Hub on 2 October 2018.

My trip to Canada and NYC was supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. The Copyright Agency is a not-for-profit rights management organisation that ensures artists, writers and publishers are fairly rewarded for the reproduction of their work. The agency’s Cultural Fund provides grants to creative individuals and organisations for a diverse range of projects which aim to enrich Australian cultural life.