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The arts funding divide between the haves and have nots is counter-intuitive, poor business and immoral

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Last week I attended the Melbourne chapter of the Australia Council’s national consultation on the strengthening and enhancement of the Major Performing Arts Framework. I came away with a mix of emotions that a week later settled into unease then dread.

I’m going to try to unpack that feeling through this essay.

I believe the contest for funds in the context of the Australia Council grants allocation is a tipping point for the Australian arts sector. I believe it to be symbolic of a pervasive morality within the arts that is driven by class and wealth, and which replicates similar battles within other sectors. It is a battle between the haves and the have-nots, the well-connected and the disconnected, the patricians and the plebeians, between stasis and change. It’s a battle for natural justice, fairness and equity.

The MPA Framework 

Quarantining 62% of the agency’s future grants allocation for 28 performing arts companies whose audiences number half that of the non-MPA community is counter-intuitive, poor business and immoral. 

The MPA Framework is a mechanism for systematic and institutionalised financial discrimination. It privileges 28 major performing arts organisations above 590 companies and thousands of individuals that comprise the Australian small to medium companies (S2M) and independent arts sector. Since the establishment of the Framework twenty years ago, direct funding for individual artists alone in Australia had fallen by about a third up till 2010. More specifically, by 2016, ‘the number of Australia Council grants to individual artists and projects had decreased 70% since the 2013/14 financial year’. By any standard, this is an evisceration of the sector. The agency’s own research has tracked reductions in artist-populations and the ever-increasing precarity of the artist’s life. Quarantining 62% of the agency’s future grants allocation for 28 performing arts companies whose audiences number half that of the non-MPA community is counter-intuitive, poor business and immoral. 

The story of the MPA Framework, its genesis in the MacLeay Report of 1987, its development via the Nugent Report of 1999 to its current iteration is the story of a way of thinking about the arts and arts funding that suited the 20th Century but is manifestly inadequate in 2018. Artistic and cultural production simply does not occur the way it used to. In 2013, the Australia Council Act was upgraded to reflect these changing circumstances. However, the agency’s major implementation mechanism from last century, the MPA Framework, remains. In working one’s way through the Act, it is difficult to identify anything in the statutory authority’s functions that justifies its ambition to  ‘strengthen and enhance’ the MPA Framework. In fact, there is such a mismatch between its functions and the ambitions for a revised Framework (and its potential effects) as to constitute an argument that the authority is acting against the spirit of its governing legislation.

The MPA mechanism is also a story that is intertwined with the rise of neo-liberalism and its enforcer in the public sector, managerialism, and uses ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ at its discretion to favour those interests closest to government, those with powerful lobbyists and those whose socio-economic framing aligns to the profile of a white, middle-class, privately educated, Gof8 university graduate with a penchant for classical music and a smidge of independent wealth. A pertinent footnote to the story of the MPA mechanism can be found in this tweet from musician Daryl Buckley at the announcement of Adrian Collette as the new Australia Council CEO. 

The Man from the Opera replaces The Man from the Australian Youth Orchestra who replaced The Woman from Musica Viva 

Daryl omitted The Woman from Telstra in this lineage, but his point is clear. Of the 28 major performing arts organisations, 15 are classical music companies. To fine-tune the connection, Collette is the Chair of the MPA Panel that instigated the current consultation process.

National Context

This is where the MPAs share the shelf with coal-fired power stations and the Big Four Banks. They are protected by the same kind of system, by the same kind of mechanisms, by the same kind of values for the same kind of reasons.

The MPA Framework is the centrepiece of a discriminatory funding regime replicated at state levels. In 2018, Create NSW funded 2% of all applications in one round of project funding (due to a Ministerial decision to re-allocate $400K from the program to the MPA orgnanisation, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra), Creative Victoria’s success rate was 21%, nominally better than the Australia Council’s 16%, but commensurate with those of other states. These figures should be read in the context of the dismantling of Arts South Australia and that state’s arts architecture as a whole, where the burden of cuts will fall to the independent arts sector ahead of cultural infrastructure projects. It is important to see the South Australian development as part of a broader re-interpretation of the arts as a dispensable commodity, a human activity to be immersed in other portfolios such as economic development and creative industries. The erasure of arts ministries from Government portfolios is a worrying sign for anyone concerned for the health of democracy, but it is entirely consistent with neo-liberalism’s objective to disable democracy in order for profit to be maximised by the wealthy, the powerful and ‘the elite’.

This is where the MPAs share the shelf with coal-fired power stations and the Big Four Banks. They are protected by the same kind of system, by the same kind of mechanisms, by the same kind of values for the same kind of reasons. It goes much deeper than the parade of bankers and business people sitting on MPA boards. They are not there by accident but because they share the interests of the major performing arts organisations. It is a nexus that creates the gross inequity in the arts sector which is facilitated by the MPA Framework and is dependent upon the financial exploitation of artists.

This pathology in the arts is wholly consistent with the prosecution of neoliberalism across society. Science, for example. Science, like the arts, is a public good. Both are located in the non-monetary and the non-political in that they refuse to align with any government policy. In fact, by definition, the arts and sciences must maintain this constancy of refusal. Neo-liberalism perceives any public good as an obstacle to profit-maximization and must root out its ideal from the operation of government for the economic project to succeed. This intent is currently visible in the media with the assault on the independence of our national broadcaster, the ABC, and in higher education in the ministerial intervention in the ARC grants process. There are many other examples in the environment sector, social services, and, most violently, in the immigration sector.

Why is it important to understand that the mechanisms that govern the arts are the rule and not the exception in society? Largely because in Australia the arts tend to exist outside the national conversation. This is a function both of a broader set of perceived national values and the way in which the arts perceives its functions within society. Historically, the consequence has been to isolate the arts which makes it vulnerable to a strategy that picks off sectors one by one. Until we understand that what is happening in the arts is intimately connected to what is happening in the rest of society, we will not understand the nature of our problems with inequity, entitlement, discrimination nor devise solutions to resolve them. If we continue to operate in isolation, we will continue to be isolated, absorbed, disappeared.


I will resist the formation of a culture that consists only of 28 performing arts companies selling tickets I can’t afford, values I don’t hold to and artistic work that is, in the majority of cases, of questionable quality.

So, we need to build alliances with other sectors, bring our issues to tables outside the arts, prosecute the idea that what is happening within the arts is happening outside the arts. We need to build a coalition of cross-sectoral interests that includes the arts. This is a long-term contextual strategy.

We also need to act directly, and in the short-term.

The MPA Framework is subject to a sign off from the Meeting of Cultural Ministers, a forum for the Australian, state and territory arts and culture ministers. All ministers need to approve the new Framework which will be offered up in early 2019. So, if you do not agree with the Framework you need to actively work on your Arts Ministers or those Ministers who have responsibility for the arts in your state. There is a Victorian election in three weeks’ time on November 24 and a NSW election on March 23, 2019. 

Outside election cycles, advocacy is key. Since the #freethearts campaign – which emerged in response to George Brandis’ 2015 sequestering of Australia Council funds – advocacy on a national scale has defaulted to historical artform settings around visual arts and performing arts. Other advocacy configurations are running important single-issue projects but there is no national co-ordinating body or mechanism to counter, process or resist the implementation of the MPA Framework. So more individuals need to step up and speak publicly alongside platforms that are making articulate noises in this space such as NAVA.

My takeaway from the Melbourne meeting was this: whilst changes to the Framework might include a more rigorous assessment process, bringing in gender, access and diversity quotas that the rest of the sector has been working with for years and uplifting a couple of Key Orgs into the MPA pantheon (Queensland’s Circa andVictoria’s Back-to-Back, the most likely candidates), what is not being entertained is the abolition of the MPA nor the less radical solution, a reduction in the MPAs 62% allocation from the Australia Council’s grants budget through a new, equitable redistribution of funds that reflects current circumstances in arts practice, public behaviours, audience reach and international reputation.

To make this happen, we need to get ministers to vote against the Framework at the Meeting of Cultural Ministers in 2019. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a fairer and more equitable Australian culture for the next generation of Australian artists, and to save the current crop from extinction. And if you don’t believe that’s on the cards, then either you refuse to believe the statistics, you don’t care, or you have a vested interest.

In the same way that I take seriously my responsibility as an artist and a citizen to ensure a safe environment for future generations, an independent media and national research culture, an honest system of financial governance and a humane immigration policy, I will resist the formation of an Australian culture that consists only of 28 performing arts companies selling tickets I can’t afford, values I don’t hold to and artistic work that is, in the majority of cases, of questionable quality. How about you?



15 responses to “The arts funding divide between the haves and have nots is counter-intuitive, poor business and immoral

  1. This is fantastic and so important! As with many S2M artists I’m sure, I’ve wanted to make a contribution to this discussion but have been hamstrung by wanting to spend my precious ‘free time’ actually thinking about and making art. Thank you David for this vital piece. It has inspired me, and will many others.

    1. Thanks Hannah, I believe the more we understand that thinking about art, making art and defending art come from the same source ,the better we’ll be at creating our own conditions for being artists

  2. Thanks, David, for your piece. I do believe its feelings and applied thought are shared, if not yet articulated, by the disenfranchised many. There is nothing that valorizes the MPA Framework, nothing in legislation, nothing in appeals to excellence (excellence is already compromised by the Framework) or accessibility (the prices!), nothing in metrics . . . the survey sent out seeking comment is asinine and sinister . . . easily discernible in it is the drive to enforce the MPA Frame into the whole picture, into being the whole picture.

  3. Thanks, David, for an excellent article and for highlighting what is a national scandal as well as the most retrograde policies for the sake of some assumed budget savings, which will simply result in improvising not only the arts but all of us.
    Art feeds the soul and gladdens the heart. Reflect for an instant about what I have stated … I’ve never met a anyone who doesn’t like something that can be described as an artist endeavour or creative pursuit. Every Australian deserves to have access not only to being encouraged to pursue their artistic talents but to become an audience for those who do.
    Withdrawing funding for the arts base, the emerging and middle level artists across the art spectrum is simply a disaster and deep loss of joy for the whole of the Australian community, a theft of our capacity to develop our ‘national’ identity and to leave our artistic historical legacy.
    I’ve never understood what it is with (in particular) the conservative sectors of our political parties that leads them to consider the arts to be unworthy or somehow irrelevant. Were they deprived of creating and or encountering any artistic expression and or enjoyment as children?
    Where do they think the actors come from for the films they like or the books they may want to read or heavens the landscapes (sorry I do like landscapes!) they may want to see…
    I too implore that everyone contacts their respective arts minister plus the leaders of the political parties and those who are independents, across Australia.
    Tell them of the tragedy in the arts sectors that will result, and the wholesale reduction in the enjoyment and access to the arts this proposed loss of arts funding will bring, to every community sector and to themselves as well.
    Shame shame shame on them if they don’t listen and stop this foolishness. So much poorer we’ll all be if we don’t succeed in what you are proposing as a nationwide advocacy campaign for the return and retention of arts funding across all arts sectors in our nation. Let’s all say no to the rollout of the Major Performing Arts Framework (MPA) now.

  4. I agree with the general thrust – the policy needs a serious rethink. Trouble is, Australia has a problem with the arts way bigger than a change in funding policy can resolve.
    You mention that some of the 28 PACs in the MPA produce art of questionable quality. Art is always of questionable quality. That’s the point. Nobody knows. It’s indeterminate. That’s what makes it exciting. That’s what makes it scary. The reason why a PAC qualifies for MPA funding is that it tends to pick reliable pieces to reproduce: so the fatcats who go along can feel confident about what they’re seeing or hearing. They can quibble about the second violin’s dress sense but they can all confidently share their love of Mozart (or Shakespeare or Caravaggio) over sherry in the foyer and go home confident that the government’s subsidy of their ticket was justified.
    Trouble is, perhaps in response to the conservatism of the MPA, the rationale for most of the rest of the funding tends to be “innovation”. When it comes to funding independents the Ozco provides its panel with a list of criteria that fails to mention entertainment or pleasure. This is symptomatic of a pervasive atmosphere of pretentious snobbery choking any potential for Australia to produce a body of work that genuinely represents the extraordinarily broad, colourful and charming culture of the nation.

  5. In the same way that successful capitalists hide trillions of their substantial spoils in off shore shell companies, so it is with the arts, only power rather than the accounts are hidden. The so called flagship companies of the arts (such colonial metaophors of hierarchy that by now in the 21st century surely need a cannonball up their rear ends) have as much God given right to control arts funding in this country as the hereditary and ridiculous Saxe-Coburg and Gotha lot.
    As Foucault put it ‘Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanism’. Only speaking as a musician, we’ve had enough of it.

    The MPA report reads that the The Major Performing Arts are here to stay and no one dare question why these companies with guaranteed public money should exist in 2018. The basic assumption is that all we need to do is make them more cost efficient, bigger dividends, create the impression of reaching out to more of the tax payers. No one questions the art they make and its relevance in contemporary society. They have always been there haven’t they? Well no they haven’t. Even in the aberration that is western classical music over the last 500 years (and compared further to our species’ music practice world wide since the last ice age), we are accepting that the music made for the aristocracy and the church should still maintain its position in the 21st century, What we, as a supposedly new and go ahead country still continuously have to deal with, are the aesthetics, constructions of hierarchies, assumptions of grandeur connected to the late 19th century ruling class.

    As a creative musician working in the 21st Century, I challenge these assumptions, and I guarantee that the majority of working musicians in this country also do. But musicians don’t run music, others do.

    Imagine if 62% of our rulers (members of Parliament) were unelected, there would be a revolt, not to say a revolution. Yet this is what we have to put up with in regard to the way $188.424 million (the OZCO budget) is collected democratically by our government (via taxes), but handed out with no democratic peer reviewed accountability whatsoever to the 28 companies in the MPA (Major Performing Arts).

    These companies exist to defend and exercise power and privilege. As such this giant slush fund reflects the widening gap in late Capitalist economies between the 1% and the rest. (Support of Bangarra is liberal tokenism to make the rest feel comfortable with the massive take from the pudding. In any case, no aesthetic criticism is tolerated, so it exists outside of the judgment of its peers).

    This MPA state of affairs has existed for nearly 20 years and nobody in the Australian arts world ever questions it – not even when ex-minister for the arts Brandis stuck his nose in the trough for an extra hand out to his mates.

    My main issue is with the MPA abuse of power, a corruption that goes hand-in-hand with politicians. And in this respect the MPA operation is not alone in the arts. For example (and these are only what the public knows about): Last month NSW Arts minister Don Harwin yanked out $ 1million from the pitiful small arts fund (usually reserved for individuals and small groups of artists and musicians), to give to the Symphony Orchestra for the ‘acoustic enhancement of the International Convention Centre’. Just his decision, no peer review, no possibility to challenge his whim. Vandalisation of an already poverty stricken sector. It left only 6 out of 17 peer reviewed projects (involving 100s of artists) with a pathetic $256,000 total.
    Last week, ex-minister for Education Simon Birmingham, without consultation and in secrecy was found to have rejected 11 major research arts grants (future fellows and ARC grants) – grants which had already undergone rigorous examination by peers in a two stage process. As if Birmingham is an experienced expert in any kind of art, music, or humanities at all! This kind of political interference is clearly rife and most of it goes on under the table.

    Compared to the huge range of performance practice in this country, the MPAs do not represent the culture of this country – neither the best or the worst. Most of the money ends up supporting legacy performances and institutions or training up kids to keep the whole thing stumbling along. It’s the defence of privilege.

    Enough. it’s time to play some music.
    Jon Rose

  6. This retraction of perceived value in civic life, in recognising soul, connection, social and community values – has been happening for the past ten years I have been back in Australia. In the face of human disconnection, high anxiety, broken promises and entrenched disadvantage in civic planning and design – we know that the arts works into the cracks, connects people, makes children light up and love learning, makes people at the end of their life resonate with purpose and pleasure, makes people move, dance, sing and enjoy this one precious life we get etc.. The arts / cultures guide us, nourish us and surprise us. The crazy levels of mindless administration, ‘governance’ and non-artists in paid jobs whilst actual trained artists go begging in the ‘gig’ economy alongside the new styled labor force of the precariat… Ah. Public money is a human flow directed by the powerful into their golden cups – to reassure them that their children will get the manna from heaven (and f&*K the rest).

  7. Thank you David. Yes the Oz Co after all the reviews represents a funding model that is very out of date, rooted in conservatism and is not supporting a sustainable arts eco system. I firmly believe that the Gov subsidy provided to the big MAO’s. should in part be seen as leverage to enable them to develop and secure other income streams and not just always be there to support their overall operations, If they can’t garner the income they feel they need to manage a sustainable business then they need to reinvent themselves or close. There is not nearly enough money at the bottom of the food chain to support innovation and development. The eco system is out of balance and really needs a major adjustment. A big new injection of funds as we saw in Creative Nation would be good but that is a political decision that I don’t think will be forthcoming in the new future.

  8. GREAT piece, congrats. I have been trying to say similar for years after my 35 year experience in Visual Art.

    It is however Government that is to blame. I will give an example here in my State Qld. The Labor Qld Govt is obsessed with Cultural Tourism, in fact all the State Governments are. This is fine BUT the needle has gone to far in one direction. What the Labor Party, State and Federal forgets is that artists VOTE for them because we are mainly progressive. So we are taken for granted. Bill Shorten has NO POLICY for the Arts, only the Greens had an Arts Policy last election. I SAY dont vote Labor at the next election just write ARTIST or CREATIVE on your ballot and DENY Labor your vote. THIS is the ONLY way a politician will listen.

    The Palaszczuk Govt in Qld has the most pathetic Grants to Individual Artists Program imaginable. ALL the money goes to QAGOMA and regional community arts which one could see as a political slush fund. Recently the token artist appointed to the QAGOMA Board resigned as they were totally outnumbered and every thing the artist suggested was voted down six to one. This artist reported that ALL QAGOMA wanted to do was Cultural Tourism, so QAGOMA is just a rubber stamp for Government Policy. The idea of Qld artists is anathema to QAGOMA. I know I have worked with them.

    The art world loves to imagine they are somehow DEMOCRATIC…NO, the art world is an aristocratic, hierarchical and hegemonic world run by Public |Servants. Nepotism Rules in Australian Art AND Nepotism is a form of CORRUPTION.

    1. Thanks Scott, your story about the artist’s board experience is one I’ve heard in multiple configurations. Artist representation is but a token in the decision-making process. Arts board culture is entirely problematic in Australia. It’s a ‘known’ elsewhere, and I know of a number of instances where potentially excellent international candidates have decided not to apply for positions here because they don’t want to deal with our board culture, not to mention excellent local candidates.

  9. A timely punchy article David. Thanks for speaking out.
    I am not in theatre though have travelled with theatre my adult life with my family. I have witnessed the power and necessity of independent theatre/artists in all areas of society and no more so in the development of countless young people.
    The answer? I have just seen “Gloria (Steinem) A Life” in New York, many blocks from Broadway, and with the impact still rattling every cell of my body, can only say keep the voices loud and constant. The stakes are high for our very soul as a society.

  10. Arts Funding in Australia has become so paltry, so ramshackle; in truth, so self-serving to the “Orgs”; so mean and nasty. As a musician who has been observing the OzCo since close to its inception, I remind young artists that in those early days we older colleagues nurtured our dreams with some confidence. There really were some good people. in, or associated with the OzCo., who genuinely cared about the life-long wellbeing of artists, and the flourishing of our work. Are young artists reading this now doubling up in disbelieving laughter? Today, there isn’t one organisation ‘serving’ music that doesn’t need major review. NOT ONE! The Australia Council heads the list. When you complain you are treated ignominiously:
    you get bad-mouthed and blacklisted. In my case, that state of affairs is likely to go on till I die. Who in government gives a rat’s buttock! A Royal Commission scared the b-Jesus out of the Churches, et al. Probably did only scratch the surface, in bringing to light, so many horrendous grievances. And may or may not succeed in definitively establishing secular rule over religious glamour (old meaning) and power.
    So, why don’t we artists cry out for a Royal Commission into the Arts in Australia. We’ll need to prepare carefully and well: make brilliant proposals for change, and nominate ‘good guys’ (all varieties of human) to take over and set new standards. For too long now, we have put up with so many tired journeymen running our show! For how much longer . . . for how much longer?
    Thank you, David Pledger and to all those who responded to David’s paper. Thank you to Daily Review for inviting us to respond.

  11. It is about time this kind of robust argument was made. I’ve been making it with respect to the so called “creative industries” for years. My worries are that symptom is being taken for the problem – the funding of the MPA is the problem, redistributing to the minors/ independents the answer. Wrapped up here (and Scott Rankin’s equally cutting work comes to mind) is an attack on colonial culture, or heritage art, and classical music/ theatre. This is also linked to the idea that the ‘elites’ are consuming all this art. Much of this is true – just broke the pages of the opera/ orchestra brochures to get a sense of the astounding conservatism of the Australian “classical” music scene. But the problem is deeper. The MPA are not like the coal companies. They are absolutely controlled by business/ legal/ political elites, and they have been ravaged by the metrics imposed and the marketing bullshit (hampers, wines of the month, binge yourself silly, big names blah blah) this inspires. But coal is bad, what is locked up in the MPAs is not coal, it is a huge set of wasted resources, locked up in conservatism, set to build regional economies when they could be diving for pearls. The ‘elites’ – well, the MPAs are not the 1% either, because the 1% care nothing for the arts. IN fact, the lIberal party are now moving to the position of the global alt-right (and governments like Putin’s and Modi’s) and defunding art, or any art that does not have ‘national benefit’. 500M on a war memorial anyone! The elites in the sense of opera going toffs – well they are there, but they don’t exist like the used to. If they did then the liberals would be courting them – but apart from in Wentworth a bit of Muslim bashing does more than a production of Tosca. Take what the MPOA do out of that golden cage, untie the audiences from the mast. Do not redistribute a pathetic 200M a year and do not subject the MPAs to the same metrics as the rest. If you do that the result will not be more money for the indies but a further reduction of art to economic impact, R&D for the creative industries and tourism. It is hard to avoid anger against the MPA and the whole sorry bunch of careerists at the OzCo. We might have a similar argument about universities. But let’s not take what the MPAs deliver as the enemy, just how they do it (artistically and financially); let’s not attack the audiences as elites, because this is about educational capital as much as it is about money (a pop concerts costs way more than an opera, though it is not subsidised). You take down the MPA as coal and its audiences as the 1% and you are playing the game of the alt right, who, by the way, own culture for large swathes of the population. The link between neo-liberalism and the MPA is there, for sure, but the MPA is a rump of an older system that the liberals only now feel able to get rid of. The task is not to help them do it but to open them up to what you say – about art and life, and its transformative effects, and how it is part of the soul of the nation. These are the arguments that have been relentlessly imposed on all sectors (Victorian music conference this week – all about music and industry and ‘export ready’. This is not just the ‘high arts’). If we start with the language, and see it through, all the way up the food chain it will take us beyond the OzCo into the heart of the treasury, where the dragon of neo-liberalism remains, sat on its piles of gold.

  12. The way we support the arts here in Australia somewhat reflects the social stratification of a country like Mexico. Yes, it is no different to the Big Four.

    Until we can challenge the notion that ‘higher” arts and ideals is not a vehicle for humans to achieve perfections and refinement of the mind then we might never be able to embrace the myriad of cultural traditions that go beyond the current status quo.

    The notion of arts in many cultures does not even exist. In the west, thanks to school headmaster Mathew Arnold. His essay Culture and Anarchy is ultimately responsible for the situation we are in today.

    Australia is in an ideal situation to steam ahead and forge a new identity which goes beyond individualistic and 18th & 19th Century Western Classical, Operatic, Music, Ballet and visual arts traditions.

    Until we can recognise that the arts is a subset of culture then we will see very little progress. Ofcourse, the way we support the arts goes hand in maintaining the status quo at all levels of society.
    Apologies for the ramble.

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