The new Federal Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, visited a very political meeting of arts industry leaders a few weeks ago. It was called by #Freethearts to continue opposition to recently ousted Arts Minister Senator George Brandis’s transfer of $105 million of Australia Council funds to his own Arts ministry.
Senator Fifield was warm, conciliatory, and — for a few moments — frank in his criticism of Brandis’s management.
By way of introducing himself to his audience, Senator Fifield said that he was often asked whether he attends arts performances.
And yes, he does. He reeled off a list of events in which the artists were disabled people.
At a guess, this was meant to surprise. But I recall meeting him years ago when he was supporting music education programs in disadvantaged schools because, among other things, they were so broadly beneficial to the kids. There was no apparent political advantage in this. His interest in the disadvantaged and disabled seems quite genuine.
The music education program is an example of the “instrumental use” of the arts. Senator Brandis proclaimed that he was an art-for-art’s-sake man. He was critical of Labor’s Simon Crean who as arts minister created an arts policy that “joined the dots”– the dots being all the places in which the arts could bring public benefit. This could include using the arts to rehabilitate prisoners, give stroke victims back their voice, or children the desire to be at school.
I would assert that the arts do all of these things best when the arts are at their best. Arts for art’s sake and arts for people’s sake.
For Brandis, art for art’s sake meant support for high “heritage arts” and that tends to be the world view of conservative parliamentarians. But not, apparently, of Mitch Fifield.
The very strong opinion of the #Freethearts meeting was that Senator Fifield should return all of the funds Senator Brandis hijacked from the Australia Council.
He was asked at the meeting to explain what was the benefit of putting the Australia Council funds under the control of the arts ministry. He had no answer. You can add him to a very long list of people who have been unable to describe any benefit.
So would he return the funds to the Australia Council then?
His answer was he would decide within the next two weeks, because “people needed certainty”.
Senator Fifield has made his decision. As was announced last week, about a third of the purloined funds will be returned to the Australia Council ($8 million).
He is retaining the rest and putting it into a fund, no longer under Brandis’ t‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’, but now called ‘Catalyst’.
Catalyst will in particular support innovation. The guidelines do not mention ‘excellence’ though it surely will be a criterion.
In Daily Review recently I suggested the new minister could bring something positive out of this debacle by supporting innovation in the arts — following new PM Malcolm Turnbull’s declaration that Australia should be an innovative nation. And so Senator Fifield has.
But I also made the suggestion that he return the funds to the Australia Council and not keep them in the Arts ministry.
Can there be any advantage in his ministry running a program in support of innovation in the arts (or indeed any other arts grants program)?
Perhaps one. Arts assessments are inevitably partly subjective. Different panels may make different choices among applicants. The ministry and the Australia Council will use different panels.
But then there is a question about the expertise of assessors. Will the best projects be funded? At the Australia Council, applications are assessed by panels of artspeers whose expertise is, as far as possible, matched to the art of the applicants. It seems that in the Arts ministry there will be panels of three assessors of whom one may be an artist peer and the others are arts bureaucrats.
Which arrangement looking at innovative projects is more likely to be expert at assessing projects?
To know what is “innovative”, you have to be on top of art as it now exists in its myriad manifestations. To assess the value of proposed innovations you have to make judgements about their significance; that requires not only a knowledge of arts as they are, but also of arts as they might be.
To say that Arts ministry officers will be less competent than Australia Council arts peers is not uncomplimentary. Too much will be asked of the arts ministry bureaucrats. The Australia Council spreads a complex task across many expert assessors; the ministry across a few assessors with less expertise.
You’d think that the Commonwealth would want a coherent national arts policy. How will all of these innovative projects fit together? No-one will know.
The Australia Council had spent enormous effort in formulating a new policy and was just beginning to implement it. It is extraordinary that Senator Brandis apparently did not wait to see the outcomes before cutting the ground from under the new regime — and now Senator Fifield seems set on the same course.
Given the fierce unanimity in the arts sector opposing Brandis’s actions why does an apparently sympathetic new Arts Minister persist with them — albeit with modifications? It has been suggested that the reason is that Senator Brandis is still powerful in the party and must be appeased.
Senator Fifield is bound to argue the merits of his decision to keep most of the funds in the ministry. But that is a very difficult assignment.
Catalyst, he says, will not compete with the Australia Council, but will complement it. That seems to mean that Catalyst will support activities not supported by the Australia Council. Following are a few of his examples.
* Funding innovation will not compete with the Australia Council.
(But funding innovation has always been one of the principal objectives of the Australia Council.)
* Cultural diplomacy –the presentation of performances or exhibitions by Australian artists as part of the government’s international promotion of Australia in diplomatic and/or trade circles.
Yes, says the Minister, the Australia Council does supports cultural diplomacy but Catalyst will ‘open this up’ to other organisations.
(But the Australia Council guidelines exclude no legally constituted organisations. The limitations appear only to be budgetary. If the Ministry is simply diverting funds, that begs the question about what is losing out.)
* It is implied that Catalyst will differ from the Australia Council in that it accepts applications from libraries, museums, galleries and archives.
(But this conflicts with Catalyst’s own guidelines, which say applicants must have as their principal purpose the arts or cultural heritage. On the other hand, the Australia Council requires only that applicant organisations are legally constituted so would accept applications from any of those institutions.)
* Catalyst will do ‘even more’ in the regions, and do more to support involvement of the disabled.
(Supporting activities in the regions and by the disabled are already part of the Australia Council agenda but it will do less because it has lost funds and the Ministry will do more because it has gained funds.
The question is one of balance. The Australia Council decides issues of balance somewhat painfully in a zero sum game. At the ministry, the Minister can decide swiftly based upon his or her own predilections. Different ministers, different predilections, policy considerations optional. What actually has been added except, possibly, imbalance?)
* There’s more, for those who like forensics.
The Australia Council used to be called the Commonwealth Government’s principal arts advisory and funding organisation. It is interesting to find on its website that the ministry has now claimed supremacy. Historically, there has been competition between the two.
This is the worst of it. The situation has now been created where at budget time, the Minister will have to decide on the division of funds between the Australia Council, legally protected from direct Ministerial instruction, and the Ministry, totally subject to his wishes.
This could be a creeping disaster for the Australia Council. And the Australia Council — while certainly not beyond its criticism– is very strongly supported by the arts sector as the most insightful, ethical and effective steward of arts funding. So it could be a creeping disaster also for the arts.