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Interview with Amanda Smith, Radio National Artworks
4 October 2009
SMITH: Peter Garrett has held the federal arts portfolio for nearly two years now and the last time he spoke with us in Artworks was just before the 2007 federal election. So we thought that a couple of years down the track in office, that it was a good time to have another chat.
Mr Garrett, welcome.
GARRETT: Hi, Amanda.
SMITH: Can we start actually with your very first speech in Federal Parliament, this is where you talked about, one of the things you talked about, was how profound a personal experience you’d had with Midnight Oil touring remote aboriginal communities.
Can I just ask you to talk a little bit about that Black Fella White Fella tour back in 1986. As far its influence on you as a person, as a musician and on your politics?
GARRETT: Well look, it was a really powerful experience for Midnight Oil as a rock band. I had grown up with an education delivery which didn’t tell me a great deal about aboriginal Australia or Indigenous history and I didn’t know any aboriginal people really very well at all. And we were immersed in that experience, touring with Warumpi Band and visiting remote communities in an atmosphere and an environment unlike anything we’d experience and it was an insight which went very deep and I think it was an insight and an experience which has remained with us.
It certainly influenced our music, at the time we recorded Diesel and Dust, which became a very successful record, but it was a record which was quite sort of shaped by that experience. And then over time I have continued my association and my interest both those communities and also the sort of challenges, struggles and opportunities that they have.
SMITH: Well there have been over the years, so many efforts and policies, failed efforts and polices, haven’t there, to address problems in aboriginal communities, including the Northern Territory intervention?
I wonder though, are the arts centres in some of these remote communities in a way more of a key than has ever been given consideration or credit? You know how the art centres are often the economic as well as the…
GARRETT: I do.
SMITH: …the cultural hub of many of these communities.
GARRETT: I do and I think that you are right in making that judgement and it is one of the things that I am really, really proud about, is that we have increased our support for art centres.
Whenever I go, in fact whenever I went to these communities, I could see that one of the institutions if you like, in remote communities, that were standing up were the art centres. Yes, they provide the opportunity for the painters and artists to be able to have their work properly promoted and on sold and sent into galleries and the like, but they were also places which were very, very important for the wellbeing of the community.
And I have just actually been back out in the Top End and across remote Australia and some of the art centres, I think, are absolutely staggering. The work in there is extraordinary in its reach, but the centres themselves generally are places where people are safe, where there is quite a lot of cooperative undertakings that people are experienced in retail and book keeping and marketing and those associated skills and finally, and not the least importantly, the artists that have their work in there are quite often the only people that are providing an independent income stream into their community.
SMITH: Well one of your 2007 election promises was to create a Resale Royalty Scheme in the visual arts. Now that is for the benefit of all artists but in particular Indigenous artists because often they are the ones that are paid low prices for their work that is then resold for so much more.
Now in the particulars of the way that you have conceived the Resale Royalty Scheme, opinions are pretty divided I think. Some in the art world reckon it won’t work at all, others are enthusiastic about.
Where though, are things actually up to though Minister with the Resale Royalty Scheme? The Bill hasn’t gone through either house yet has it?
GARRETT: Yes look it has passed through the House of Representatives, I am pleased to say but we are still awaiting it to travel through the Senate. I understand that the independent senators may want to have an additional look at the body of the legislation.
I am absolutely convinced by the way, that the model that I put forward is the right one. We have though long and hard about it, we have consulted very widely. It does have strong support form Indigenous artists and art centres and some other artists. I am not concerned by the way, Amanda with the requirements about book keeping and administration, I think they are things that can be very easily managed and done well. In fact I think it will bring additional accountability to the art market as a whole.
SMITH: Yes, well that is one of the criticisms, it will be too difficult to administer.
GARRETT: Yeah look, I just don’t accept that at all. I think that in an age of computers and appropriate software that is well setup and an organisation that has the responsibility for doing that, which we have provided the funding for, that should be able to happen easily.
But critically for Indigenous artists, Aboriginal artists, who quite often see secondary resales at much greater values than they initial sales of their product and their work, over time this will provide I think a very, very necessary benefit. Remember, composers have a royalty right, authors have one, visual artists should have one too.
SMITH: Yes, one of the problems that’s seen with this particular scheme though is that the royalty applies to the second resale.
GARRETT: That is right and the reason for that is that the Government’s advice was that we had to produce a scheme which wasn't to going to provide any levels of uncertainty in terms of delivery for the market, that wouldn’t offend potential constitutional issues and was capable of being enacted immediately and providing benefit into the medium and long term and that is what we have done.
SMITH: So just looking back over your first year in the Arts Ministry, Mr Garrett, the biggest controversy in the arts in Australia in that first year was over the Bill Henson photographs, you know that were seized by the police with the possibility of a child pornography charge being brought against him.
At the time, Kevin Rudd called those Bill Henson photos ‘revolting’. You stayed silent. Now that the furore has blown over and you have had the protocols out in place through the Australia Council for artists working with children, I wonder how you reflect on that controversy and your silence at the time?
GARRETT: Yes look it was very interesting Amanda, because in fact I wasn’t silent but the commentary that I provided to media when we were asked wasn’t sufficiently at one end or the other of the debate for it to get an airing. And we consistently said at the time and I said I recognise that Henson was an artist of considerable standing but at the same time I thought there was a need for us to consider whether or not the material as it was presented may or may not offend any regulations and particularly the rights of children. And that was what I said all along but frankly it wasn’t a sexy enough or a strong enough commentary and it didn’t get a run.
SMITH: So are you saying it was too nuanced?
GARRETT: Well I think that is exactly what I felt. I didn’t think it was up to me to be diving into a debate and seeking to strike an extreme view that might satisfy some people who were championing this idea that somehow the liberties of artists were being contained. I don’t think that that was the case and I don’t think it now.
What I did say was that I recognise absolutely that Henson is an artist of considerable standing but at the same time when there is government funding of work of any kind then the government has a responsibility to consider the way in which that work is portrayed and produced and shown and whether or not it is going to offend criminal legislation or other kinds of legislation or the rights of kids. And I still feel exactly the same way about it.
SMITH: Well in addition to those children in art protocols that you have had put in place and in addition to the Resale Royalty Scheme, if and when the Bill goes through the Senate, another thing that you have just recently done, an election promise that you have recently got up, is a new kind of support for emerging artists. This is the ArtStart scheme. What is the problem you are wanting to address with that? What is it?
GARRETT: Well look, Amanda on ArtStart as with a couple of the other election commitments we brought through – Artists in Residence, Creative Communities – these were things that we identified in opposition as absolutely critical barriers to increasing creative activity and endeavour.
And in the case of ArtStart it is very clear that for young and emerging artists that first stage of getting themselves setup and established and getting their business in place to be able to make a living from the work that they do is one of the most considerable hurdles. And here we wanted to provide $10,000 grants to artists to enable them to access say for example, legal advice, some infrastructure support, office or studio space, so they could actually get on with the business of creating that work and not have this as a perennial obstacle to them.
It is a new way of looking at support for artists and arts communities. I really encourage people to have a look at the Australia Council site and if they are practicing artists and they think that they qualify, have a go.
SMITH: So it is for recent arts graduates to really get their business side of things started?
GARRETT: That is right. We look at things like business skills and costs, marketing and promotion, office space and equipment, training and skills development – the kinds of things which artists generally aren’t trained in because they are trained in their arts practice but also may not have access to those sorts of resources and yet which are quite critical to them actually building a decent platform for a sustainable career. And it is one of the things that I am really pleased about and I think it is going to be a very successful program.
SMITH: Now this time last year, Mr Garrett you were getting a lot of mail over the Australian National Academy of Music when you pulled its funding. And I would say that you are probably now getting mail about the uncertain future of the Victoria College of the Arts and Music in Melbourne.
Background is that its problems started when it lost its federal government funding back in 2004, Melbourne University has been covering that shortfall but it will only do it for another two years.
As Federal Arts Minister, will you, can you take a role in re-establishing the VCA as a leading training institution in this country for all sorts of artists?
GARRETT: Well look again, Amanda you give me an opportunity to correct the record. We didn’t actually pull the funding on ANAM, we made the funding on ANAM conditional on them taking onboard issues that had been identified in the reviews that had been done, which they have actually undertaken. And part of that was broadening the skills and the repertoires of their students there and the other one was being much more engaged with other parts of Australia and also working more closely with Melbourne Uni. And I am pleased to see that they have done that and I am really pretty pleased with the way in which progress is going there.
Look, on the VCA it is not funded through my portfolio even though we do fund some training institutions, we don’t fund that one, it comes through Minister Gillard’s portfolio. Of course I am aware of the debate, I do know that the Commonwealth and the University and the Victorian Government are still working through some of those issues there but it is not something which is specifically funding through me and I don’t anticipate it being something which I will be funding.
SMITH: Can you, will you advocate on its behalf though, as the Arts Minister?
GARRETT: Well again, it is a matter that the Deputy Prime Minister, in this case, the Victorian Arts Minister and education ministers and the institutions themselves are working through. I am not going to involve myself specifically in that debate. I think that they’re in the process of talking it through and I hope that they can resolve the issues.
SMITH: So then what do you still want to get done in the arts portfolio? We’re two years down the track, what is the thing that you most want to achieve in your time?
GARRETT: Well I guess the thing that is really striking to me is that we actually have ticked off on a lot of the things that we brought through as election agendas and commitments. I am really pleased about that.
I think the one thing which for me is really striking is being able to argue successfully for the education ministers to consider arts education in the second tranche of consideration for the national education curriculum. I think in the long term, depending on how that travels, that may be one of the most important things that I actually do do and it is not one that resulted in extra expenditure I have got to say.
SMITH: So isn’t it a contradiction with being so supportive of that and saying that you are going to stay completely hands off with an arts training institution like the VCA?
GARRETT: I don’t think so, I mean I think the question about how states drive their curriculum is basically a matter for the jurisdictions, Amanda and the Commonwealth can have a view, in this case it is the Education Minister’s view.
As Arts Minister I think that we ought to have arts education happening at the primary and at the secondary level, including music education and I am pleased that it will be considered as part of the national curriculum.
The other thing that I think is really very clear to me is that we have put a lot of resources into Indigenous art, Indigenous music. I am pleased about that. We have been through the process of separating out the National Film and Sound Archive as we said we would, I am pleased about that. We have got these programs that we mentioned before up and running.
What comes next? I think there is a couple of critical things. One is to look at the way in which the arts model is funded, because I think there is problems with the arts model and its funding and I want us to move to a paradigm if you like, which is more about rewarding success than rewarding failure.
The second thing, and this will be an important advocacy role that I have, is to talk strongly in the public debate about the intrinsic worth and value of artists and what they produce. But also in the broader sense look at the potential for us to develop something which is a framework cultural policy for the country where we can actually start to draw in all those strains of artistic practice. Not only what we might listening to this program understand as the work, the music, the visual arts, the sculpture, the digital work or whatever, but also where the various streams sort of now emanate out to. And in a digital world, in a world where creative communities have got tremendous possibilities to be able to reach out to people more strongly and have them understand how central, how important and how critical creativity and the work that artists produce to Australia is. I think that is the next role for me.
SMITH: I get that cultural policy stuff but can I just take you back to the funding thing when you talked about rewarding success rather than rewarding failure? Can you tease out what you mean by that and what is behind that comment?
GARRETT: Well I think at the end of the day as a Federal Arts Minister in the Cabinet I can clearly see that there will be every be the opportunities for us to fund every single activity, whatever its merit or whatever its worth. So of course we want to continue funding, and I increased the funding in the last budget and I was really pleased for that; the next budget will be a tough one. But outside the sort of budgetary discussion about how we support the arts, two things have to happen: one is us to have much more greater engagement with community, with philanthropy, with commercial entities and the like and secure support there, and we are seeing that with local governments interesting enough, who have provided a lot of support to local community artists over the last five years. But at the same time in the funding model have a model which actually encourages people to do not only the best that they can in terms of their art work, but most effectively and most efficiently in terms of the budget constraints that every organisation works with.
And so there, what tends to happen is that if an organisation runs into trouble, I won’t speak about anyone specifically, then the hand will go up at the eleventh hour and government and others will be called upon to provide, if you like, some rescue funding. Now that is quite often appropriate and quite often there are genuine reasons for that happening but there is a pattern in that funding model which is quite consistent over the last five to ten years and I think we have to move away from it, I think we have to be much more innovative in the way in which we actually fund in particular major performing arts groups and I think we have to look very carefully at whether or not we are simply, in our funding model, not dealing with the deeper issues behind sustainability that sometimes lie at the heart of problems as they arise. And when we do have people that are doing fantastic work, who are running successful arts entities and are going out, they’re out-reaching, they’re drawing and building bigger audiences, their platforming their work in new idioms and in new ways, then I think we need to recognise that and provide some support for them.
SMITH: Well the other burning issue and finally, one that I must just mention to you is this new version of Beds are Burning that has just come out. Now it is Midnight Oil goes global pop really, isn’t it? Beds are Burning is one of those songs that really, you talked about, that really came out of that Black Fella White Fella tour, so tells us about how this new version came about and why you agreed?
GARRETT: Well look I didn’t have a great deal to do with this, Amanda I have got to say. I got an email from the Oils office saying that Kofi Annan and others wanted to rerecord Beds are Burning and have it as sort of a signature song in the lead up to Copenhagen.
But at that stage they were talking about recording the song with its existing lyrics and were seeking our permission, which they didn’t have to but which was good of them to do that. We just briefly conferred and felt that it would be better if it actually, if you like, more contemporary lyrics around that subject matter and I think Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie spent a bit of time working that through and got things sorted out and they sent some stuff down to me and I threw in a few ideas here and there and we basically ended up submitting a different set of lyrics for the song.
But is has all happened over there. It has all happened with artists some of whom I know, some of whom I have never heard of, to be frank. And it is interesting…
SMITH: It is a very kind of sweet, poppy version of it.
GARRETT: Yeah look it is that and you know, it is just one of those things. It is a little interesting to hear it from a distance and sort of think ‘hang on a minute, I used to sing and play this song a lot and now someone else has gotten a hold it and done something different.’ But it is a compliment and I think it is for a good cause.
SMITH: Were you tempted to sing on it? I mean after all Midnight Oil did reform earlier this year for the bushfire relief concert.
GARRETT: Yes look we did and I think that was a one off. It was a beaut thing for us to do and I was pleased that we could give the support and I was pleased that the boys were in very fine form and enabled me to get up and do what I had to do, but no, I am very, very busy in this job and it is a job I am really fully committed to and I wasn’t tempted to sing, not in any way, shape, manner or form.
SMITH: Well Peter Garrett, the Honourable Peter Garrett, Federal Minister for the Arts and the Environment, very good to speak with you and thank you for being with us.
GARRETT: Thanks, Amanda