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.
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?
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