Funding cuts: is this the end of Youth Arts?

It appears the term “youth arts” might be about to be taken out of the Australian vocabulary. When the Australia Council for the Arts announced the recipients of the latest round of project funding last week it signaled a fundamental change in the cultural landscape. In 2007 there were 21 youth arts companies in receipt of federal government funding. In 2016 there will be just four.

The youth sector has been raising concerns about future funding since the Australia Council first announced changes to programs in 2014. Until this year the nation’s leading youth theatre companies received operational support through the Youth Program Fund. The only exception was the national company Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) who took a gamble in 2008 and successfully applied to become a ‘Key Organisation’. The others were on a capped annual program that distributed $790,000 annually to 13 companies nationally.

With changes to the Australia Council in 2015 it was announced the Youth Program Fund would be disbanded and companies would instead be eligible to apply for multi-year funding under the ‘Arts Projects – Organisations’ category. The argument was there should be no difference between how a ‘youth theatre’ and any other theatre company should be assessed. Artistic merit would be recognised whatever the type of company. Youth companies should be able to present their case for support as clearly and compellingly as anyone else.

This announcement caused immediate concern to youth arts companies. The majority sit at the smallest end of the small-to-medium arts sector. More than 50% of Australian youth theatre companies have less than three full time staff. The wages paid to those staff, according to Theatre Network Victoria’s industry review, are on average the lowest for the professional theatre sector. They are companies that have limited people covering multiple roles and responsibilities, often at an early stage in their management careers. Their time and energy is consumed delivering their programs on very limited resources.

The youth sector is very efficient at making a little money go a long way. The largest expense for most of the nation’s youth theatre sector is wages for professional staff – that’s the artistic staff contracted to deliver programs, not the administrative staff running the company. Very little money tends to be absorbed for administration, marketing, publicity and operational costs. These are companies that tend not to do so well at telling the world what they have achieved. Instead their focus is on getting their work done. With the exception of ATYP there are no dedicated full time marketing managers, development managers, publicists, production managers or finance managers within the youth arts sector. One or two people at each company are responsible for all these things.

So there was a fear that youth arts companies would not be positioned to compete with much larger, better resourced companies across the nation. This fear was raised with then Federal Arts Minister George Brandis and the CEO of the Australia Council Tony Grybowski in 2014. When George Brandis announced cutting $104 million from the Australia Council over four years it became apparent that all companies were in danger of being defunded. Suddenly every independent and small-to-medium arts company faced an uncertain future.

In response to the cuts the Australia Council agreed to extend the funding of Key Organisations for 2016 at current levels while they reassessed the future of their programs. Unfortunately the same courtesy was not extended to the Youth Program companies. They were still required to apply for project funding in 2016. Of course now though the level of competition for those funds had escalated. The lack of clarity around who would be supported through the new money distributed by the Ministry of the Arts meant the youth arts sector had become the first victim of the 2015 arts funding reshuffle.

So why is this important? Because the youth arts sector is the canary in the coal mine for the professional arts industry in Australia. These are the grass roots companies that connect professional artists and the wider community. While they lack the publicity and profile of the larger companies this sector is integral to the development of our future artists. Most of our professional theatre industry has been involved in the youth arts sector, either as young people participating in programs or as professional artists being paid to share their skills with young people.

I know there are many people who have grown tired of references to “the ecology of the arts” but like it or not it most accurately reflects the interconnection between artists and companies. Our smallest companies play a vital role in Australia’s arts community. The trick with the youth arts sector is that their influence takes the longest time to measure. There are young people and emerging artists we are working with today who will take another ten or more years before they are considered cultural leaders. The inspiration and effect of their experiences now takes years to gestate and emerge.

The impact of Australia’s youth arts community is almost too great to measure. People like Nicole Kidman, Paul Capsis, Toni Collette, Michael Gow, Hugo Weaving, Rose Byrne, Rebel Wilson, Wesley Enoch, Deborah Mailman, Tommy Murphy, Alana Valentine, Baz Luhrmann, Cate Blanchett and Jacki Weaver are amongst the thousands that have been supported by youth theatre companies.

The youth theatre sector is now facing a difficult future. If federal funds are not allocated to support companies like Outback Theatre for Young People, Riverland Youth Theatre, Southern Edge Arts and Backbone Youth Arts it is difficult to see how they will survive. Unless something changes urgently I suspect we will see more than half of the nation’s youth theatre companies disappear over the coming three years. The impact of that loss will then resonate for years to come.

Featured image: ATYP’s production of War Crimes, photo by Tracey Schramm

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