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After the Brandis Heist: arts sector needs to become a political player

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The public hearings for the Senate Inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts are underway. Artists and arts organisations are telling members of the committee that the impact on them is, or is likely to be, calamitous. Some organisations fear that they will have to close their doors.
Federal Arts Minister Brandis has raided the Australia Council budget to set up a new grants fund which he personally can control. Mostly, he has been vague as to the purpose. But in one statement in Senate Estimates, he said that he wants to give more support to the orchestras. This is a zero sum game and he is well aware that as a consequence individual artists and small arts organisations will lose funding support. He has even deliberately excluded individual artists from his own fund, after saying in Estimates that he is not interested in supporting them because they care only for themselves and not for their audiences.
That is a ridiculous proposition. But even were it not, it is the artists, not Arts Ministers, who are indispensable in creating the art that we support as a public good.
In more than 30 years, this writer has not seen such a concerted response by the arts community. A peak body of representative arts organisations instigated the Senate inquiry. More than 2,300 submissions have been received and the small number already published are overwhelmingly negative. Artists’ criticisms are being published in the media. They have little to lose, after all. The Australia Council, as an organisation within Brandis’s portfolio, has confined itself to presenting factual consequences in a formal submission. They are sobering.
Assessments of the new arrangements would normally confine themselves to policy objectives and potential outcomes. But Minister Brandis has taken these steps abruptly and without any clear policy discussion. He earlier subtracted half of the Australia Council’s budget for literature, already parsimonious at about $4 million a year, to give to an as yet non-existent Book Council. Eight months later he has given no clear description of purpose or operation.
These seem to be poorly explained decisions having mostly to do with Brandis’s personal tastes, proclivities and thought balloons. The ball is lost in the rough and there is not much else to play but the man.
In an interview in The Australian on August I, Brandis said “I’ve received extremely strong endorsements personally for this program from a number of the major performing arts companies. I haven’t seen a single word of criticism about this proposal from any of [these] companies.” But it is clear that they are to be the main financial beneficiaries and rumour says that some of them were advised by his chief bureaucrat to stay silent.
Of the criticism by artists, he said: “I’ve found it entirely predictable. Whenever a group of people have a cosy arrangement that they’re comfortable with and a reforming minister comes in and proposes to change those arrangements, the loudest screams come from the protectors of the status quo.”  So no need to worry about them.
What about the artists who are not screaming? Brandis as Arts Minister hears complaints from artists who have failed to get Australia Council funding. Given the amount of funds available, the number of applicants who do not succeed in getting funding is four times larger than the number that succeed. And guess what. The best artists last year are likely to be the best artists this year. They do not achieve and lose their skills annually. The membership of the selection panels can change each year but successive panels are likely to give high ranking to many of the same artists.
So the Minister hears from the others. Come on George. Do you think you and your own fund will not in due course receive the same criticisms from the many many applicants it rejects? Whose fault is it that you don’t recognise their genius? Not theirs! To whom will they complain? Not you, but your enemies. Arm’s-length funding protects the Minister as well as freedom from political interference.
The Australian article puts the Minister’s proposition that his fund will provide an alternative for projects that the Australia Council will not fund. Examples: the Australian World Orchestra could not get Australia Council funding and Brandis came to the rescue with a grant of $600,000 – to tour India! Is this a silly idea? Well no, not at all, but given the available funds, what priority should it have?
The Australia Council situation is that it has a set budget for the major orchestras and its allocation is tied up through formal agreements with state governments. It would have had to reduce funding to those orchestras to support the AWO; the alternative, the Music Board, had a budget of about $5 million so funding to about one in eight of its grantees would have had to be terminated.
Brandis gave $275,000 to the Melba Foundation for its recording company. For the Australia Council, that is over 80% of its entire budget for recording and questions of merit aside, there is no way it could go to one company. The Council must have a concern for sustaining the entire arts sector, and for balance, merit and equity. Brandis’s fund apparently will not have this worry. Having stipulated that it will avoid ongoing commitments by not giving “operational funding” (“operational” is a handy word for this government), it will have maximum freedom to cherry pick, give generously to a few spectacular projects, and be a hero.
When the Inquiry gets down to business, it is bound to give the Minister a hard time. It is in the hands of Labor, the Greens, the independents. One can only assume the motivation will be political. So everyone can have a jolly good time skewering the Minister.
Brandis has presaged his response in the interview with The Australian. Opponents are members of a comfy in-group motivated only by self-interest. The inquisitors are the same old opposition, making hay. His cause is noble. Get lost.
What then happens for the arts in the 2016 budget? The Minister has been derogatory about, and damaging to most of his arts constituency so now there is open warfare and he is held in low regard. He has the means of retaliation and the excuse that the national budget is still in deficit.
When the skirmish is over and Labor et al have had their shot at the Minister, what will be their position? Presumably they will criticise him for undermining the arm’s-length principle in deciding arts funding, for the lack of consultation and considered policy, for self-indulgence and the power grab, they will defend the Australia Council, they will note the importance of individual artists and SME organisations and their need for more, not less, support.
All this will have integrity if they take to the election a well-founded policy that commits them to reversal of the Brandis decisions, support of arm’s-length funding and the Ozco, and at last, realistic financial support for the small end of arts-town. We can live in hope. Shadow minister (and what do you know: shadow Attorney-General!) Mark Dreyfus must have a first-hand understanding of the arts ecology. His father is a leading composer, his mother a talented piano teacher.
As for the arts sector, it may have found its voice. Of course, it should use this to defend and promote itself and its needs, as does any industry group.
But if it is to seek wider relevance, it should go beyond this self-interest. There are broad principles around which the sector could rally: for instance freedom of expression, freedom of information, truth in government, an effective and equitable education system. At election time, it could use its immense talents to give campaign support to candidates who agree with its principles. It becomes a player.

7 responses to “After the Brandis Heist: arts sector needs to become a political player

  1. Yes yes yes. Especially this “But if it is to seek wider relevance, it should go beyond this self-interest.” Artists need to stand up on other issues impacting our communities – fracking, climate change, gender based violence, awful treatment of asylum seekers etc.

  2. Wait, precisely WHO is in cozy situations? Couldn’t be the fossil fuel industry could it? Or these over-entitled corrupt politicians? Or their tax-evading mates? Oh no, much more likely to be us ‘overpaid’ (ha ha) artists. Yes of course, we’re such a drain on the public purse.
    As Richard and Alex state, yes this is a great opportunity for artists to get political. But we all know that as independents our freedom to do exactly that is one of the core reasons we’re being punished! Escape from Woomera in their last reign, the Bienniale boycott in this. They’re trying to take away our breadcrumbs to keep us silent. Silly fools don’t realise that we have the best resilience of all sectors. As independents we are used to working on the smell of an oily rag and work best under pressure. Just look at how we’ve rallied together over this. We are strong individually and collaborative to our very core. Thanks for reminding us of that, pal.
    Personally I’d already started to make the shift from core arts to creative activism when all this kicked off. The funny thing is that it’s not that big a shift from the art world in that it’s completely connected to creative thinking, problem solving, audience engagement…
    So you want your war, Brandis? Well you’ve got it! Careful what you wish for…

  3. It will be ,at least , two years – June 2017 budget , before it can be reversed. And ” undoing something once it has been set running by any government, is very hard to do in practice “. There will be significant groups that have adjusted their programs,and future commitments, to the new system and so on.
    A better target to aim for would be to increase the total pot of money available I.e keep funding the NPEA and at the same time restore the australia councils funding.( in the scheme of things increasing the total spend on the arts by say $30 million is stuff all, ‘tea bags and loo paper’ spends).
    After all PJ Keating back in the early 90s also saw a real need for alternative sources of funding that were ,not controled by the council, but what he did was fund his initiative without cutting funds to the council. Cannot see anything wrong (quite the opposite) with a minister thinking that ‘Emily’ deserves a grant, but is outside the councils ‘rules’, I know I will recreate the ‘Keatings’, provided, the money does not come out of the budget of the australia council.

  4. A broader audience? For classical music? I love classical. When ever I try to talk about it I am met with disinterest and silence. Who wants to talk about melodic strategies of Beethoven? People don’t even know what Im talking about. If he wants a broader audience, it seems a bit rich to promote classical. Nobody cares about it. If it means more Bach though, I will betray all sense and reason and get a ticket.

    1. Yes Bach is something else!
      BTW the opera runs a schools program the young members of the company go out to different schools and meet the kids and sing and talk, several times a week ,am told that it is quite popular.

  5. Australian Arts don’t just need to be more politically strategic we also need to look very critically at ourselves. In Visual Art the whole of Australian art is basically controlled by Government institutions. Art history in Australia is now NOT created in artist’s studios and private commercial galleries, artist’s spaces. Australian art is now overwhlemingly formed by curatorial decisions made by Government employees in the National Gallery and the State Galleries and maybe MCA. Only MONA is private but it too traffics in the status quo. If the Australia Council had been more proactive and creative maybe it wouldn’t have been targetted. Brandis won’t be there after 2016 and Labor is not interested in the arts. BUT why are we all sitijng around behilden to Government?
    Its because that’s where the steady flow of money comes! That’s where many people are employed and in the end its their own jobs that are the priority, so nothing will change except individual artists will be even more marginalised than they were under Brandis’s “status quo”. And as someone who has felt the full negative force of that statust quo i think on that point Brandis is correct.
    This whole thing it is NOT Brandis it’s Australian art and its cozy little world of contemporary art that is to blame. What good is strategic political thinking if your product is not popular outside a very small group of people. Take the Government funded IMA in Brisbane. It shows the most esoteric post conceptual art that only the rent a crowd after the free beer see. And yet it is impossible to make any headway for change at all there. I’m sure its the same across all the Arts. The Futurist in me agrees with Brandis BUT I’d ditch his Opera first. Useless upper middle class carp!

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