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Brandis' controversial NPEA finally killed off

Former Arts Minister George Brandis intended to make his National Program for Excellence in the Arts a defining feature of his time in the ministry. But after six months of concentrated campaigning by an arts community who understood the full impact of Brandis’ changes, the program has been drastically revised and renamed by new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield.

Overnight, Fifield announced that he would return $8 million a year to the Australia Council, almost a third of the funding cut from the body to create the NPEA. The NPEA will be renamed Catalyst — Australian Arts and Cultural Fund and will only distribute $12 million of funding per year as opposed to the planned $20 million.

The NPEA was announced in a budget night shock in May this year and after six months of delays has not distributed any funding.

The Catalyst Fund has a substantially different remit to the NPEA — gone is the word “excellence”, and the fund promises to support innovative projects from arts companies, recognising the role of the small-to-medium sector, which has been at the very centre of this debate. Fifield released the guidelines today which state that Catalyst will “give priority to projects involving small to medium organisations”.

Individual artists will still not be eligible to apply to the Catalyst Fund, but some portion of the $8 million returned to the Australia Council will be available to those artists.

The move comes after substantial pressure on both Brandis and Fifield to repeal the NPEA. A senate inquiry into the funding changes, launched by the Greens and Labor in May, received a reported 2200 submissions from individuals and leading arts organisations. The vast majority of those submissions were not in support of the NPEA and called for the funding to be returned to the Australia Council.

It seems clear that this pressure was a consideration in Prime Minister Turnbull’s decision to remove Brandis from the portfolio.

Brandis will long be remembered by the arts community for his NPEA — an ambitious and bungled plan to reform arts funding in Australia which never got off the ground. The program was unashamedly designed to shift funding away from individual artists and smaller companies who, according to Brandis, are responsible “only to themselves”.

The former minister wanted to see more funding flow to the companies who reached the “great audiences” (despite the fact that the small to medium sector reaches a larger audience more efficiently than the biggest arts companies) and address some of the concerns expressed to him about the Australia Council’s funding processes. He consistently stated that no body should have a monopoly on arts funding and that the NPEA was designed largely as an alternative funding mechanism for those who may have been overlooked by the Australia Council.

In the end, it was probably the lack of consultation which killed off Brandis’ grand plans more than any ideological war about the role of arts funding. Had he floated the idea of the NPEA with the arts community (more broadly than listening to disgruntled organisations who had missed out on Australia Council funding) it would have been immediately clear which elements of his NPEA were unworkable, as well as the full extent of the damage it could have done to the entire arts ecosystem.

Fifield’s Catalyst Fund still has the same basic framework as the NPEA, but the substantial reduction in its funding and change in its remit should please the arts community. And the fact that he has consulted widely over the last few months should win back some goodwill from a community with almost none left for the former Abbott government.

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