Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cultural rights and the future of museum visiting

It is a given that almost all museums are seeking to broaden their audiences and increase their visitation numbers. Some are more successful at this than others, but the GFC cannot disguise the fact that worldwide in broad terms those numbers just aren’t improving, and indeed may be going backwards. And it is not just our sector of the arts. US statistics from the National Arts Index show that overall attendance at museums, galleries, orchestral, dance, opera and theatre performances declined across the board by about 10% over the last ten years. And a key cause of this can be laid at the door of arts funding which in the corresponding period has dropped in relative terms by c 25%.

So I read with great interest an article in the Spring 2010 Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts on what we might be able to do about this. I must admit to being a very inactive Fellow of the RSA, but a great (tacit) supporter of all it stands for and in particular its’ thought provoking Journal. This article is by Bill Ivey from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Ivey’s basic premise is that the argument for public investment in culture is unable to compete with education, healthcare and the environment. The old arguments for the value of the arts to public policy have gone as far as they can, and culture is increasingly seen as something governments get around to funding with the money left over after everything important has been paid for.

We’ve seen this most starkly in Australia in WA where the state is riding its second mining boom, and yet the arts, having missed out on any benefit from the first, is now seeing funding cut back further.

So what does Ivey suggest we do about it? Firstly he suggests we start from the premise that artistic heritage and creative practice are at the heart of a wide range of human engagements that are critical to both happiness and the workings of democracy. And secondly we redefine our sector to encompass an arena of human activity that is just as important as healthcare and the environment, namely our 'expressive life'. This has both a past (our heritage) and a present (everything from ethnic and community traditions, and social dancing to amateur music making and arts education in and out of schools).

Expressive life is much harder to marginalize than the arts, as it engages so many components of our daily lives (and therefore our legislative and social framework). Ivey then comes up with an innovative and (I think) terrific concept of a Cultural Bill of Rights that can justify the pursuit of a vibrant expressive life as a democratic public good. It might read as follows:
1. The right to our heritage – the right to explore music, literature, drama, painting that define both our nation’s collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
2. The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and incorporation of their artistic visions in democratic debate.
3. The right to an artistic life – to the knowledge and skills to play an instrument, draw, act, dance, compose, design.
4. The right to know and explore art of the highest quality and to the lasting truths embedded in those forms of expression that have survived through the centuries
5. The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Will it wash with funding bodies? Certainly it would be so energizing to see public debate around the issues, as the current picture is one of minimal debate, and increasing marginalisation in forward funding for our collecting institutions. That in turn is going to do nothing to increase visitation.

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