Why We Need To Support Young Artists Now More Than Ever

Patrick Lenton is a writer and the author of A Man Made Entirely of Bats.

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Approx 5 minute reading time

Seeing my first story published in print was a thunder and lightning moment of importance to me. This isn’t just because I was swept away on a sea of ego after seeing my name on the byline, but because it validated me as a new writer. I was twenty years old, and it was the first time that my goals and dreams to become an author seemed recognised, seemed achievable. It was a turning point, a moment of crystallisation – all the training and learning and dreaming that I’d done had just paid off. I now believed I was a writer, and I planned to continue being one. It was exactly the moment where I stopped feeling like someone who maybe wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know if it was possible, to being a writer. That incredibly clear and significant moment was an opportunity that only came about due to the support of Voiceworks magazine. They’re a youth oriented literary journal, aimed at people under twenty-five years of age. And they, through their parent company Express Media, have just had their major funding cut.

It’s quite clear that the arts in Australia are currently under attack, best represented by the ‘Black Friday’ announcement of severe cuts to 62 arts organisations in the latest round of Australia Council grants. All sorts of vital and important arts companies are now fighting to survive, and even those that will manage to continue on in some fashion will surely have to limit the scope and effectiveness of their programs. There’s been a lot written about this crisis, and the danger and devastation that Australian arts are facing – but I want to touch briefly on a very defined target amongst a large list of casualties: young artists.

It’s no fluke that organisations like Express Media and PACT Theatre have been targeted by these cuts, organisations who have a strong mandate to support young artists at the beginning of their careers. And this is because the act of supporting a young artist is a nebulous proposition. Looking at a lot of the organisations that did receive their funding renewal shows a juxtaposition to this – fund a national ballet company, and you are providing money for more ballet shows. But funding a youth arts organisation is about funding opportunities, fostering creativity and nurturing talent. It’s more difficult to tick these off on a list of outcomes. Providing the space for a kid to grow as a writer is something that may not pay off as a product for decades. We might not see a book written immediately, but you can be sure that having that space to grow as an artist was the first step in a long and sometimes torturous road.

The path of an artist is also difficult to plot to the outside eye – it’s not like there’s ever a guarantee that the time and money spent learning to become one will ever result in success as defined by capitalism. Unlike a trade, which can follow a clear path from apprenticeship to working in that trade, you can never be sure exactly what the crucial moment will be for an artist – which is why providing a space for that to happen early on can be so important.

The lived experience of an artist’s development has to be unique by definition. It’s too personal to follow a linear path, based off fickle requirements like creativity and inspiration. It would be weird if two artists were able to claim exactly the same paths in their practice, because it would mean they would need to live exactly the same lives. But at the same time, there’s also privilege at work. Being supported as a young writer made all the difference for me, but honestly there’s no reason why I wouldn’t have kept plugging away. For someone born with less privilege than me – anything from being geographically distant from cultural hubs, to being less educated, less able to earn money, having a disability – being supported at an early age can be the literal deciding factor as to whether they continue to be artists. I’m not going to take the fact that art is a crucial part of any society for granted, despite the evidence that we are still forced to justify it in Australia. And because I see the arts as being so important, then it follows that having these young and less privileged voices represented is also vital for the health of the arts as an industry in our country. Without places like Express Media, which have several programs designed to reach out specifically for these kinds of voices, we run the risk of losing them, which would result in a bland, homogenous culture, populated only by those who already have that support.

I don’t believe that creative success is measured by publication, awards and acclaim – being an artist is a kind of ideological battle in itself, where you are continually justifying to the world that creating is important, and that your voice deserves to be heard. However, it would be interesting to see exactly how many celebrated Australian writers also got their start via Voiceworks or an Express Media program. Would that list of award winning novelists and critically acclaimed writers sway the naysayers towards the importance of these programs? Would it help validate the role of the young artist?

The injustice is that in order to survive, these programs are going to put the call out for support, which I wholeheartedly agree with. I’ll be renewing my Voiceworks subscription, with the hope that the next generation of writers can have the same opportunity for growth as me. But with 62 organisations having their funding cut, there’s going to be a lot of callouts for similar support – and because I made that decision a long time ago to be a writer, I definitely can’t support them all with my paltry funds. The artistic community is already cash strapped, which is why these grants are so important. We’re now being made to cannibalise our own community to help it survive.

In the end, I can’t convince anyone to support young artists if they don’t already believe art is crucial. But I refuse to believe that anyone who loves TV or reading or theatre or any sort of art can’t see the link between the fostering of young talent and the eventual creation of something they will love. Having the space to grow, think, create, discuss and play is like good nutrient rich soil, laying the fallow for all sorts of amazing things to grow.

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