The NSW arts community has very mixed feelings about the proposed inquiry into museums and galleries by an all-party committee of the Legislative Council, or upper house. Arts administrators and supporters across the state are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. And they have good reason for pessimism.

The arts budget is under massive pressure from the NSW Treasury, aided and abetted by Premier Mike Baird’s own Department of Premier and Cabinet, headed by career monetarist Blair Comley.

For the past two decades, whenever a government, Coalition or Labor, decided to inflict “savings”, they headed straight for the arts budget. The recurrent cuts have delivered a catastrophic impact on the arts, creating a hand-to-mouth existence for cultural organisations and the closure of many worthwhile projects.

On the current timetable the Legislative Council’s general purposes committee No. 4 will receive written submissions until August 14 and table its final report on November 24.

Its task is to “inquire into and report on the performance or effectiveness of the NSW government agencies responsible for the organisation, structure and funding of museums and galleries”.

Arts supporters are alarmed by two of the committee’s agenda items: “g) the impact of the efficiency dividend on the budget of museums and galleries over the last 10 years and funding levels compared to other States; and h) the economic impact of museums and galleries on cultural tourism, and their role in supporting the visitor economy in Sydney and regional NSW”.

The clauses could have been written by Comley himself in his previous role at the OECD or as an executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers in its Canberra economics and policy team.

While the words seem like meaningless flannel to the average reader, they reflect neocon attitudes to arts institutions — i.e. they must become profit centres creating their own funding, and they must be integrated into the state economy as outsourced service providers.

Membership of the upper house inquiry has set alarm bells ringing. The chairman is Robert Borsak of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, who told MPs recently that he had eaten elephants he had shot during a big game hunt in Africa.

“Yes, I did [eat them], but it wasn’t in one sitting,” Borsak said. “It tastes like venison. There are parts of the head and the neck which we sliced and fried with a bit of butter. It’s very tasty.”

Borsak can rely for support on David Clarke, the former leader of the Liberal far-right faction, and Bronnie Taylor from the Nationals. Others on the all-party committee include Walt Secord and Shaoquett Moselmane (Labor), and Jan Barham (Greens), none of whom have a passionate pro-arts background, and Shayne Mallard, an inner-Sydney Liberal from the party’s reformist wing.

The Baird government’s arts agenda will be inviting the committee to deliver a cover story, a document ringing with promises and rosy images dreamt up by neocons at an advertising agency.

Meanwhile, the Coalition’s true arts agenda will unfold: privatisation of sites such as the art colleges at Darlinghurst and Rozelle and the current Ultimo site of the Powerhouse Museum, outsourcing of key functions such as security, catering and maintenance, and turning museums into private venues for entertainment, weddings, birthdays and corporate bashes.

The government’s principal campaign donors, the developers, stand to benefit from a further ransacking of NSW arts.

A fundamental clash is at the centre of the arts debate: the developers and real estate agents are hungry for profit while arts lovers, musicians, writers, actors and educationists (and even some smart business people) are demanding a thriving culture.

Advocates for the arts should inundate the inquiry with submissions through the NSW Parliament website.

Interested people should attend the public hearings when they are announced to ensure that a public arts voice is heard. But if the chairman invites you to his parliamentary office for morning tea and a meatloaf sandwich, kindly decline and make good your escape.

Peter Fray

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