Local governments leading the way in Arts and Culture funding

Children embrace a Belmonster character created by the City of Belmont in Western Australia for a community book project.

By David O’Loughlin, President of the Australian Local Government Association, and Mayor of the City of Prospect (SA).

Local councils across Australia are proud to invest in their local communities’ art and cultural sectors.

You only need to look at a council’s homepage or its social media presence to see how much we celebrate our artists, festivals and other cultural activities that help define our communities.

For the first time, the Big Picture study by A New Approach puts a figure on just how much that pride is worth – more than $1.5 billion in expenditure by local government alone in 2017.

That equates to 26.2 percent of all money invested in arts and cultural activities by all levels of government in Australia, and this was an increase on the 22.4 percent invested in 2007, the report added.

Australia’s arts and cultural sector contributes more than $111 billion to the economy, or 6.4 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and employs around 600,000 people, or 5.5 percent of the workforce.

The new study showed that spending on culture is split roughly evenly across three categories – film, television and radio, museums; art museums, libraries, cultural heritage and archives; and arts.

While local councils typically don’t spend on the first category – apart from advertising or hosting a film festival, for instance – most of their arts-related capital expenditure goes into buildings and maintenance, and recurrent programs such as art and cultural activities like festivals.

Combined, this investment forms the building blocks of cultural experiences and life in local communities, be they in metropolitan, regional or remote locations.

In my own council, City of Prospect in Adelaide’s inner north, we offer grants of up to $10,000 for local community groups and cultural organisations to help them develop public festivals and other events.

We prioritise cultural festivals and events which celebrate and raise awareness of our inclusive and tolerant community, especially through dance, stories, music and food.

On public art, we also offer grants of up to $1,000 for temporary public art projects which have a quick turn-around, such as pop-up galleries.

And we are not alone as an active and innovative council. One West Australian local council used art – a children’s book and costumed characters – to promote its community.

City of Belmont won a 2019 National Award for Local Government for its Adventures of the Belmonsters book.

One secondary benefit, City of Belmont officials noted, was that the book inspired children to physically explore their communities with their families.

Investment in cultural activities has also been demonstrated to improve the health and wellbeing of our communities including celebrating the heritage and culture of multicultural and indigenous communities. 

And, while many of our communities are suffering in extended drought conditions, local theaters, music and arts can bring people together and collectively lighten the load during stressful times.

Arts and culture also support a range of creative industries and innovation, engages young people, and provides local employment. 

An example of innovation and creativity is the Silo Art trail which began in one wheatbelt community in Western Australia and now spans dozens of silos and water towers across regional communities in WA, SA, VIC, NSW and QLD.

What began as one community’s way of adding a splash of colour to their bland concrete structures has, with the support of local councils, grown into tourist attractions that are magnets for local and international tourists who now visit and spend their money in those towns on accommodation, food and other tourism services. 

Lastly, consider this example featuring seven councils along the Murray River border region and spanning across two states of NSW and Victoria.

These councils have agreed to work together to create a Murray River Interpretive Centre that will showcase their region, improve cultural and Indigenous awareness about the area, support local businesses and encourage more tourism.

This is why ALGA continues to advocate for federal financial support to maintain the vital infrastructure and services that underpins art and culture in our communities.

Image: Children in the City of Belmont (WA) embrace a Belmonster character which was created in a city-sponsored book project.