Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher said last week that he believes the arts in Australia are currently only enjoyed by inner-city elites in Sydney and Melbourne. He implied, to much booing and hissing from the orchestra pit, that he and his government have a much better understanding of the kinds of arts a society needs. So says the Liberal party; that bastion of working-class identity, that great movement of egalitarian artistic expression.
It's a strange line for a Government which has so proudly doubled the cost of liberal Arts degrees and cut funding to the ABC, ensuring that only the wealthiest private school dilettantes may pursue artistic education or training. It's almost like they don't give a shit about ordinary Australians' access to the arts, and are just reeling out anti-intellectual claptrap in line with the latest directives from the Daggy-Dad in the PMO.
But the arts have always been a vital part of the lives of working people.
The School of Design at Trades Hall
The poet Charles Bright’s description of the future Trades Hall encompasses all the grandest ambitions for a “people’s palace”. This was to be a place advancing not just the material conditions of the working class, but its spiritual and artistic needs too.
At the Artisans School of Design, formed in 1859 in the timber Trades Hall, working-class men had the opportunity to learn aspects of the fine arts. With courses led by famous artists such as Louis Buvolet, the artisans school would provide the first taste of high art painting to some of Australia’s most famous painters, including Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.
Frederick McCubbin recalled his Trades Hall experience in his notes:
“… the following Friday evening saw me off to the Trades Hall School of Design, Lygon Street, Carlton, sitting on the stairs of the old wooden building waiting for eight o'clock when the school opened… Well I was in seventh heaven, I had really got into the palace of Art. It was a joy all day while trying to knock out rusty bolts and help tire wheels and paint and putty the same to let my mind wander over the charms of painting."
Meanwhile, other workers accessed radical ideas and philosophies through Trades Hall’s library and literary institute. At a time when literacy levels were low and books were scarce, the library served as an important resource for working-class philosophers and budding politicians.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Trades Hall sought new ways to bring art and music to the working class. High in the South tower at Trades Hall, the Industrial Printing and Publicity Group burst onto the airwaves as 3KZ "Brighter Broadcasting Service'' in 1930. Radio stars and trade unionists took turns entertaining and educating Melbourne listeners hungry for diversion, even as bread lines snaked from the Trades Hall steps around Victoria street. 3KZ would eventually become Gold 104.3 FM, but the South tower remains dedicated to the use of connecting art with working life: visual artists have worked from studios in the Trades Hall towers from the early eighties to the present day.
The Arts have even featured in the industrial demands of unions. During the construction of the Arts Centre's famous spire in 1984, the Builders Labourers Federation workers took action to demand better wages and conditions. Amongst their demands - a "golden ticket" for building workers and their families to attend any future productions at the Arts Centre, indefinitely. A letter which now sits in the Workers’ Museum sets out the terms of a compromise - the union movement would instead be allowed to hold a production at the Arts Centre facilities on Labour Day each year. From then on, "Strike a light" Labour Day concerts were staged until at least 1990, but the practice mysteriously ended. (We're looking into how we can get this going again...)
Today, Trades Hall plays an active role in Melbourne’s arts scene. There are currently two artists-in-residence permanently housed at the Hall, with many more individuals and groups regularly using spaces in the building for rehearsals, workshops, collaborations and performances. The Melbourne Comedy Festival continues through to April 18th. Melbourne Fringe, one of the world's most renowned arts festivals, has a permanent, year-round home in Common Rooms at the old ballroom. Overland, Melbourne’s premiere progressive literary journal, is set to move in very soon.
The arts are for everyone. The only way to make sure that remains so is to keep the government (conservative or otherwise) out of the business of deciding what that means. Working people will decide for ourselves what brings us joy and nourishment. "Inner-city elites" are the artists who, let's face it, often struggle to make ends meet in the pursuit of their artistic vision. They don't live in ivory towers, and they need our support through funding for the arts and through our patronage.