Craftsmen and women of Australia, give us a hand.

Installation from the exhibition String Theory, Museum of Contemporary Art, until 27 October 2013

Installation from the exhibition String Theory, Museum of Contemporary Art, until 27 October 2013

Craftspersons have a privileged role to interpret the land Australians have been gifted – turning earth into ceramics, metal into jewellery, wool into textiles, trees into furniture and sand into glass. It’s a sign something meaningful can be made from good fortune, rather than just ship it offshore as raw material.

As a studio practice, crafts share many interests in common with the visual arts sector. These include support for Australia Council funding, artist fees and government procurement. But there are differences. Given the reduced secondary market, re-sale royalties are not that relevant. The decline of the TAFE sector is a special concern, but that is largely for state governments.

It’s the bigger picture that matters. Federal government needs to address the way Australia has been left behind in support for crafts. While here Craft Australia has been de-funded, Crafts Council UK and American Craft Council continue to play significant roles, producing magazines, television programs and national strategies.

Why have we fallen behind? While there are specific factors in play, the mining boom hasn’t helped. The ‘Dutch curse’, where resource richness causes decline in production, doesn’t inspire the making spirit. Why make things ourselves when a strong dollar brings in cheap imports? An important role of government is to honour individual creative resilience against the tide of economic expedience.

LNP – not conservative enough

LNP have been generally good for the arts. The Visual Arts Craft Strategy gave the sector an unparalleled burst of confidence. But they miss an opportunity to champion crafts in particular.

LNP is not conservative enough. A conservative party would speak to the importance of preserving culture and common traditions, such as craft skills. While this may not include contemporary practice, at least it acknowledges the worthiness of spending 10,000 hours learning your craft. The UK Conservative Party came to power with clear support for crafts in all guises. The Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey opened the national crafts conference claiming that ‘Craft is front and centre of our cultural thinking’.

In the recent policy launch, George Brandis championed art for art’s sake, rather than for instrumental ends such as nation building. He argued for a ‘self-confidence’ in arts, which means support for ‘international repertoire’ rather than the ‘cultural cringe’ of local content. This argument could easily be reversed: a truly confident culture produces new work of its own.

While the commitment to re-establish the Australian International Cultural Council is welcome, Brandis focuses on ‘the great classical works and artistic movements which have shaped and defined Western civilisation’, suggesting a limited creative dialogue with our region.

ALP – lacking a common story

The ALP comes to the election with the national cultural policy Creative Australia as a feather in its cap. This includes continued support for the Art Start program, which has particular relevance to graduates seeking to establish craft workshops.

How does Creative Australia fare on the election trail? Tony Burke’s policy launch was very general and lacked strategy, but at least he spoke about the role that arts play in ‘telling our stories’. It’s a shame this is not supported upstairs. On his return to leadership, Kevin Rudd repeated the call for Australia to ‘remain a country that actually makes things.’ But this translated into subsidies for overseas car manufacturers, rather than a narrative of pride in local capacity.

Historically, ALP identified itself as a nation-builder. Whitlam’s rallying call, ‘Men and women of Australia’, evoked a collective interest in the shared benefits of public infrastructure. Today, policies are framed to appease specific interest groups, especially the embattled ‘working family’, rather than contributing to a common national purpose.

Greens – big potential, but lost in detail

The Greens lack a substantial policy like Creative Australia, but some of their election promises are relevant to crafts. The aim to reverse recent government cuts to universities will have an indirect benefit in supporting the academics whose teaching and publishing make a valuable contribution to the craft ecology. In particular, the aim to restore TAFE will have a tangible benefit, though their capacity to implement this from Canberra is dubious.

Strangely Christine Milne’s policy launch in Darwin focused on support for regional arts, playing the game of courting sectional interests rather than evoking a common story. Support for crafts could so easily resonate with their argument for our responsible custodianship of nature.

Still, it is worth remembering that the only public concern expressed about the demise of Craft Australia came from the Greens. In 15/2/12, Christine Milne raised this issue at the Senate Estimates Committee. She spoke to the concerns about the implications for Australia’s place in the region. The incoming President of the Worlds Crafts Council from China was arriving in Australia with a large delegation, but found there was no matching national body to greet them. While government obviously takes the Asian Century seriously, it lets slip this critical point of contact with our region, confirming the worst regional stereotypes of our cultural insensitivity.

We all need a good cuppa

Overall, the parties miss an opportunity to champion crafts as part of the Australian story. What the crafts need is a broader vision of our capacity as a nation to make something meaningful from the riches the continent has provided. This entails recognition of the crafts as an essential pillar in our cultural life.

Recently, independents Xenophon and Madigan (DLP) purchased from their own funds a new Australian-made 750-piece crockery service for federal parliament. Major parties should drink from that cup.

This piece was commissioned by the National Association of the Visual Arts as part of their 2013 election coverage.

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