Tasmania's arts scene is moribund. Only MONA shines. Here's how to turn the smallest state into the nation's leader.
It may not be quite fair to call Tasmania a cultural desert, but it’s more than somewhat arid. The arts scene – such as it is – is in serious need of a government that cares.
There is no state theatre company. The art gallery is still just another department of a museum, a model long abandoned by all jurisdictions other than the Northern Territory. There is little or no money for acquisitions. The festival scene is moribund. The Federation Concert Hall was built not by the government but by the hotel next door. The state’s cultural reputation, such as it is, rests on MONA and its two offshoot festivals – the idiosyncratic product of one man’s money and ideas. The government had little to do with it.
But like any policy area, poorly directed and inadequately resourced arts initiatives will sink without electoral – or cultural – trace. Properly done, they can change the way people think about their community and themselves and change the way others regard us.
My detailed proposals for an arts policy for Tasmania can be read or downloaded here.
The state government has issued a document labelled A Cultural and Creative Industries Recovery Strategy, allegedly about rebuilding the arts sector after the devastation of Covid. It is 26 glossy pages with lots of pictures, not many words, and no initiatives for change. The only promised funding was a one-off emergency injection of $550,000.
According to the last state budget, the government spent $26.5 million on the arts portfolio in 2020-21 and planned to spend $28.6 million this year. From next year, though, that will drop to $21 million – a cut of 21% compared with 2020-21 and of 27% compared with this year.
Contrast this with the record of the next-smallest state, South Australia. That state government spent $155.5 million last year. SA has three times Tasmania’s population but an arts budget that’s over six times the size.
Another issue is whether Tasmania’s arts money is being put to the best and most productive use.
Necessary reforms include:
- Separating the art gallery from the museum, giving it its own premises and a substantial acquisitions budget to improve its long-neglected collection.
- Putting the various uncoordinated streams of arts funding under one minister and a discrete Department of the Arts.
- Establish a fully professional theatre company, able to draw on the best acting, directing and backstage talent from Australia and overseas.
- Properly fund the Van Diemen’s Band baroque orchestra. This is a highly professional group of musicians already attracting international attention. It should be able to employ eight to ten musicians on permanent contract. They would also form the basis of Australia’s only baroque music school.
- Fundamentally reform the festival scene. Money is currently going on third-rate events while other projects of far greater merit are starved or ignored altogether.
- Establish a headquarters for arts in the former (and mostly unused) former Treasury building in Hobart. This collection of top-quality colonial buildings covers a city block and could house the gallery, the theatre company administration and workshops, the baroque orchestra and music school, and public servants in the reconstituted Arts Department.
Increasing Tasmania’s per-capita funding to the level of South Australia would accomplish all this and much more.