Digital arts needs much more focus

James Riley
Editorial Director

It is hardly news that the Australian government’s Arts budget had been decimated by the proudly-culture free Tony Abbott and the Queenslander he put in charge of the portfolio, George Brandis. But numerically, the cuts are irrelevant in the Budget big picture, a rounding error on the health budget.

Yet taxpayers – rather than right-wing warriors – have never show any inclination to cut arts funding, and whoever emerges as PM has an opportunity to link their innovation programs to a fresh push for the emerging sector of digital arts.

So, here’s a suggestion and of how to help right the ship of arts in Australia with one eye on the future, rather than re-fighting the battles of the past few years.

Sydney rocks: The digital arts has huge potential in global commercial markets

Digital arts is a sector that should be prioritised in the innovation strategy: Fintech and startups have been looked after, but most of the rest hasn’t been thought through yet.

Innovation policy needs to improve, and one way to make that happen is to give arts – and not just finance – a key role. To boot, the government gets easy and rolling PR wins with lovely pictures and exciting new talent.

As a newish country without centuries of cultural traditions, we have been the bower birds of the west. Though in recent times indigenous artists, tribal groups and individuals have created a unique genre, a distinctly Australian style, something few white artists can match save a handful: Nolan, Whitely and Olsen to name a few standouts.

Digital is a guaranteed chance to play in the big new game in the arts, its multi-faceted and there’s an edge of creative experimentation that is hard to match in the established arts, save perhaps music, a leader in digital art.

By seizing the opportunity now, Australia at least joins a reasonably – but fast moving – level playing field in the international community.

Commercial success is always supposed to be the factor, but culture is not really about success. It’s about telling stories and interpreting and critiquing all facets of society and the human condition. It’s about achieving excellence.

Creative endeavours are also about creating relevant intelligent thought-provoking entertainment and even light touch entertainment with simple, solid life messages for kids – and former kids of course. Success comes when arts projects speak to people and start conversations that are often avoided elsewhere.

Australia is a society of limited philanthropy, some governments and a rich few have historically underpinned the arts.

While in Europe and the US governments are essential in helping foster a self-sustaining ecosystem in the digital arts that eventually grabs more of the corporate dollar. Across Asia, governments fund a hell of lots in arts and culture and are very proud that this is something they can do to help promote their people.

Australia is alone in the west in considering it more important for the government to spend $12m on refurbishing Brookvale Oval, home to Rugby League Team Manly-Warringah (yes that was an election promise).

Or course government support should evolve over time and there are innovative(!) ways of doing this.

Australian TV drama has always gotten by commercial because people love local soap characters, a driven cop, hospital family dramas, But the quantity of quality TV drama has improved in the past 10 years, because of the 10 per cent quota of local content imposed on pay TV stations.

They started with some quick and dirty stuff, but came to realise that good drama would usually find an audience. It took a while but now it’s firing.

Something similar could be constructed from innovation and (maybe) venture capital funds to get all the tax and other breaks, for the digital arts. And the glamorous young ‘Acelerati’ will get more added glamour in support of Australia’s very own arts sector.

What begins as a government imposed quota or subsidy can eventually turn a profit due to foreign sales, and take Australian stories to the world.

Funding disguised as subsidies and tax breaks should also be considered in much the same way as Australia tips good money after Hollywood’s bad with egregious tax breaks for popcorn flicks in the film industry.

And doesn’t Citizen Murdoch love it, it probably makes up for the newspapers.

And like film, many of the digital arts – for instance video games – straddle the creative/commercial boundary. There is no reason not to set a goal of making Australia a centre of excellence in this area.

With English as the mother tongue and multi language skills across the country, the global opportunity is in the video games sector is huge. More’s the pity, again then, about the second rate NBN.

Digital is something in which Generations Y and Z are native, the digital world provides information entertainment, learning, socialising, shopping. It’s natural they will look to that work for ways to creatively express themselves, new forms of traditional stuff is emerging. The Youtube TV channel, self publish and books now infinitely easier.

While many art forms, stage shows for example, are upgrading their production skills to embrace digital images and sounds to add texture and letters to performances. I saw this when Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s used a brilliant mix of video to take us back to ancient Beijing and real-time photoshop techniques to change the colours of chorus clothes for a stadium production of Turandot.

Pop music maestros across the board are pioneering digital techniques to significantly enhance their live shows. This is digital as upgrade.

The fact there is only limited history to ape or reference dissolved any natural limitations, as does the vastness of cyberspace.

This sense of endless possibility is the polar opposite of some arts forms where the tight restrictions of stage, orchestra size of a piece of canvas introduce immediate discipline.

Of course many individuals and groups already active in the digital arts. But as we have noted before, the role of government is to recognise and encourage sectors that are already stitching itself into the fabric of the nation.

This is what the brave new world government innovation policy, the so-called #ideasboom SHOULD be – the uncharted future of new ideas, not stapled together photocopies of the successful models of others from across the world.

There’s something in the boundary-less promise of digital arts and the sense of real innovation – a world of firsts – that resonates more broadly for innovation policy, the reason this publication was founded.

It’s time to actually innovate, get creative, inventive and make good models better in our innovation policy, so that it’s worthy of the name.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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