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Brandis pulls the trigger on artists

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Not too many eyes in Australia’s arts community were glued to last night’s federal budget. The general expectation was that there may be some extension of the cuts announced to arts funding last year, but nothing all that notable. Nobody seemed to anticipate that Arts Minister George Brandis would snatch money away from the independent federal arts funding body, the Australia Council, to establish his own “National Programme for Excellence in the Arts”.

Looking back, it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

Brandis will extract $104.7 million from Australia Council’s budget over four years (approximately 16% of its total funding) to establish the program, which will be administered by the ministry, rather than through the Australia Council’s arms-length process. In addition, the Australia Council will lose a further $1.8 million a year, which comes after the body had its funding slashed by $7 million a year in the 2014-15 budget.

The new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will support: “endowments, international touring and strategic projects, with an emphasis on attracting private sector support”.

There’s little detail available as to how the program will operate, and no indication as to whether it will be peer-reviewed or if there will be any mechanism for review at all. Artists have already expressed concerns that the money will just go towards the Minister’s pet projects.

A statement from Brandis’ office said:

“Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council. The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia’s audiences.”

That first sentence certainly has some bizarre logic — that arts funding has been limited to the projects favoured by the independent, expert body established to distribute arts funding. Instead, a significant chunk of that money will now be entirely within the Arts Minister’s control.

During his time in as Arts Minister, Brandis has sought to influence or circumvent Australia Council processes at several points. In March 2014, he wrote to the Australia Council chairman Rupert Myer, demanding that the council implement a policy to deny funding to any artist who refuses private sector support. Then in September, he made a grant of $275,000 to classical music label Melba Recordings, bypassing the Australia Council.

One of the major reasons that arts funding has traditionally been at arms-length is to protect the right of artists to be critical of government in their work. There’s no indication yet that Brandis’ “Excellence Programme” will have similar protections built in, or if the money will just go to the individuals and organisations who have the Minister’s ear.

Brandis has long been critical of Australia Council processes but told Crikey in 2013 that there “will always be debate about what the arts do, that’s why we have an arms-length and peer-reviewed structure for the allocation for the funding.” He has spoken extensively about supporting “excellence” in the arts ever since that time, but hasn’t offered any real explanation as to how “excellence” is measured.

One indication might be in the minister’s repeated calls for artists and arts companies to “respect popular taste”, and that’s echoed in last night’s statement. While it’s certainly preferable for a government to spend taxpayer money on art that taxpayers will actually experience, it’s a difficult standard to measure.

The thing with art that becomes immediately popular is that it usually finds a paying audience and supports itself. History is littered with thousands of examples of works that haven’t immediately found an audience but have gone on to become hugely influential.

In June last year, Brandis told The Australian: “Frankly I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves.”

In fact, Brandis has indicated that the 28 major performing arts companies will be quarantined from the cuts. These companies already take up a little over half of the Australia Council’s funding, which means that the 16% reduction in funding will need to be made up almost entirely from the council’s grants and initiatives. Those grants and initiatives fund independent artists and small-to-medium organisations, who may very well be left out to dry.

Last year, artists and administrators warned that cuts will hurt the artists and smaller companies who can afford it least, and are a major source of innovation and creative energy. Without the grassroots artistic projects funded by Australia Council grants, the entire arts ecosystem suffers. If the situation was worrying last year, it’s potentially catastrophic this time around.

Read more on Brandis’ Australia Council raid:

Circus Oz weighs in on Brandis’ program for excellence

Brandis’ arts budget: “Excellence” and “heritage” are not dirty words

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30 responses to “Brandis pulls the trigger on artists

  1. Surely Arts Money is a gift not a right, and Ministers have a responsibility to bear when handing out largesse funded by taxpayers?

    1. Absolutely. And there is an expert organisation set up to ensure the money is allocated fairly and without political bias.

        1. Politics doesn’t deal with perfect systems and science doesn’t deal with perfect knowledge.

          That’s not a justification to degenerate to a worse system that’s less politically fair and more politically biased.

    2. In addition to what Ben has said, I don’t agree with the word “gift”. Privilege, sure, but not a gift, there is an exchange. i.e – money for a cultural contribution to society.

      “The thing with art that becomes immediately popular is that it usually finds a paying audience and supports itself. History is littered with thousands of examples of works that haven’t immediately found an audience but have gone on to become hugely influential.” Right on. I can’t believe the “arts minister” would not be aware of this, it leaves me feeling very unconfident in his knowledge of what he now has an influence on.

  2. A gift? I suppose you could call everything in the budget a gift.
    No-one has claimed arts funding as a right either – but neither is the funding for defence, roads or industry a right.

    Thankyou O Great Government for your wondrous and generous gift to we, the humble road and freeway constructors so that we may continue with our vocation of building roads, freeways, overpasses and yes, even the humblest of underpasses and cyclepaths inall possible places that will meet your eyes.

    1. Without the funding for roads, defence, etc. this country would be in big trouble. Without Art funding this country would continue to function even though lacking an important part of our heritage.
      When we can get back to somewhere near where we were before the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd disaster, some lower priority items have to be cut.
      A little like me when I was younger, I could not afford some of the art and music I now have.

      1. This article isn’t about diverting arts funding to infrastructure, it’s about the ministry deciding who gets the money instead of a more independent body.

  3. Perhaps Mr.Brandis can tell us what he considers quality production or excellence in art. If it’s velvet Elvises or more productions of My Fair Lady then I think we have a problem. Art by its nature is experimental and controversial, meant to provoke, involve, disturb and enlighten, not dull into mediocrity. Who does he think he is to suggest his tastes are the benchmark? Or even possibly indicative of the average Australian, considering that it is the average Australian that his government has bastardised for the last two years.

  4. This is payback over the Biennale protests last year. Also, the smug bastard thinks he knows everything about the arts and want his own private sandbox to play in. It’s an outrageous and unconscionable attack on decades of best practise in peer-assessed funding, and a slight on the integrity of Australia Council staff. And given the dust hasn’t even settled since the last major restructure, it’s difficult not to read this as a deliberate step in the process of dismantling the OzCo altogether.

  5. By giving the Ministry of Arts job to the egregious George Brandis, Tony Abbott has demonstrated one of two scenarios. A total disinterest in the Arts, or a profound ignorance of the Arts. Dare I imagine the equally egregious Tony Abbott has pulled off a rare double?

  6. So now as well as seriously threatening the idea of arms length decision making in the arts, certain art forms and artists are to be punished more than others. Clearly the decion to quarantine funding for major performing arts companies preferences music, theatre, dance and opera above literature and the visual arts. Moreover it preferences the arts in major cities – where the vast majority of major performing arts organisations are located. Regional Australia should be as outraged as writers and visual artists everywhere.

    So should all who worry about the big end of town’s stranglehold on power. The major companies are also those that can and do attract corporate sponsors – precisely because they are well funded and thus high profile and thus offer good promotional opportunities. Not only does the big end of town have the power to determine the political and social agenda , it is now firmly in control of the culture and doing its best to stifle dissent. The long term effects on innovation and creative R&D will be profound.

    1. Shazza, I live in regional Victoria. Why should I be outraged about this. Of all the things regional Australia gets outraged about I reckon cutting funding to a bunch of nobody, wannabe, hipster wankers in Fitzroy et al who think excrement is the new best pottery product should be the last thing we rage about. We want roads, jobs, and infrastructure. How dare you talk for us. I bet you live within 10km of Melbourne or Sydney GPO. If you do a Uni degree in fine arts and have a 2% chance of employment don’t sit there waiting for us to prop you up. Christopher PYNE for PM. Brandis for deputy.

  7. This guy is shaping up like that other arrogant power monger Richard Alston (remember him?) OMG spare us from these Liberal Party types who rise up and believe in their own genius to the exclusion of anyone opposed to their narrow world view. The dude from Queensland Campbell Newman was another one dedicated to the idea of Art being great as long as it’s the kind they enjoy. No that’s giving him too much credit he probably hated Art. I hope Brandis suffers the same fate as Newman and soon 🙂

  8. Is Brandis’ response a playback to the past? The Australia Council is an important initially Labor initiative and now a national institution. Think back to the funding before the Australia Council – very little from government, no national profile or identity in the arts, populist and parochial, with little voice. Is that what he’s crafting through cost shifting? How many budgets till this is effected?

  9. Ha, the Futurist in me says we should stop all Arts Funding especially the bloated Operas and Ballet. Let the rich fund that if they value it so much! As to the Visual Arts I have got funding from OzCo and I have used it well I think. However I must say that if OzCo were doing a great job with Visual Art and other areas they would have a stronger case. I believe OzCo has really not succeeded in the visual arts at all. There has been no clear direction of what we want to achieve nationally and internationally.

    A lot of the problem is vested interests. After 30+ years in Government funded visual arts I have encountered some appalling examples of nepotism and abuse of the system. Its particularly bad in the so-called Contemporary Arts Organisations such as IMA, Brisbane; Artspace, Sydney; ACCA, Melbourne, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra etc. i have witnessed all these places turn into personal fiefdoms where the Directors manipulate the Boards and basically just give projects to their friends.
    I have had retaliation in the form of homophobic and untrue essays written on me that one Director wanted me to allow published in a catalogue with my work!
    It can happen at State Galleries and the NGA as well. And when we get to local government galleries, the Regional Galleries, forget it. They just do what they like, publish images without permission, exhibit works in an appalling state, cancel planned works in shows at no notice. And as to our Arts Journals!? Well they, in some cases, have been run by the same people for 30 years! So much for cutting edge art.

    Also all the curators and Directors of big and small Government funded Galleries blatently have their favourite artists. They all play “you’re in/ You’re out!”. I could sit here for hours listing it all. Also the Galleries favour shows by big names and by artists linked to the big commercial galleries, this is a problem worldwide.

    So what I am saying is why criticise Senator Big Bookshelf for only doing what the gatekeepers and curators and the powerful do and have done in the Arts since the beginning of time? look in the mirror everybody. What really angers me is how these Government Arts Public Servants refuse to listen to other ideas. I of course have been singled out for speaking my mind and I pay for it dearly I can assure you. In my opinion sack the lot of them and start again! And I mean it!

    1. Thanks for confirming, and clearly putting, what I have suspected is the case. The arts arena is full of little ivory towers. I think, the more the merrier.

    2. To what extent do you think you might be turning your bad experience with the arts bureaucracy into a justification for a worse arts bureaucracy?

      It’s sounds like you’re saying:

      a) because people have abused power since the beginning of time, we shouldn’t criticise the government for this particular abuse of power;

      b) in short, we should uncomplainingly accept or welcome a shift from multiple expert, vested interests to one inexpert, narrow-minded, surveillance-state populist-conformist vested interest governing the arts.

      But by the same logic: since bureaucracy’s are always corrupt, why criticise them for only doing what they’ve done since the inception of bureaucracy?

      What would be more valuable is to identify what kinds of checks and balances would prevent those kind of biases perpetuating, e.g. mandatory limited terms for directors and editors, non-continuous terms, a clear ratio of established vs non-established artists, etc.

      It sounds like you’re sitting on a goldmine of examples and could suggest some better alternatives than some of the existing bias and Brandis, who at the very least is not the person to be deciding Australia’s artistic vision. No matter how personally frustrating and humiliating, why use a completely predictable bias to justify a surrender of the arts to right-wing censorship or populism?

      At worst, that kind of slip could lead to a worse experience, or a deprivation of experience, for other artistic practitioners and audiences.

      Regardless, sorry to hear of your unfortunate experiences as an artist.

  10. Brandis is a poisonous cane toad who has no place in any party. One could hope he knows more about art than the law, but why should he?

  11. I am of the ‘let them starve in a garret to hone their talent’ tendency when it comes to arts funding but I’d like to start a book on when not if Brandarse will move to restrict funding “… of artists… critical of government in their work. There’s no indication yet…” yeah, not yet but, how long a month, certainly within a year there’ll be the usual crap about ‘enemies of the government’.
    Venise – surprised that you didn’t give Abbotrocious thge trifecta – I’d say that he hates/fears art because it threatens his self regard.

  12. The particular relationship between Maria Vandamme , the director of Melba Records and Mr Brandis during the Howard years requires a full reventilation in the press for all interested people to see just how favors are traded and given between parties – all of it ison the public record and none of it is subject to redactive litigation. That particular little arrangement very much resembles the dynamics of the recent arrangement for the donation of a “Scholarshp” to Frances Abbott by that Melbourne Design School.

    Having said that it is also clear to anyone with theslightest interest in Arts Admin in Oz that the Melba funding business exmplifies just how internally “Clubby” is the whole Arts subsidy world, particularly the so called “high” end of it.

    to say nothing of the Arts council and it’s own impenetrable reasons for executive appointments.

    The whole arts funding area needs to be bombed and started again with a clean hand.

  13. Of course the author has overlooked that expertise is superfluous in this government’s view of the world, whether arts, climate change, future energy sources or economics! All that is needed for policy is the opinion of the powerful, the rest is noise.

  14. First the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, and now the Australia Council. Brandis and Abbot want to control anything they see as tainted by the ‘intellectual Left’. Remind you of anyone? We are in dangerous waters, and it will only get worse whilst this Government is in power.

  15. Picking the biggest tool in the Abbott cabinet gets more difficult by the day. I thought Barnaby’s boorish public performance would take the prize this week but he’s pipped at the post by Brandis further extending his assault on civil liberties by imposing his own artistic preferences on us. I guess a Downunder Exhibition of Degenerate Art can’t be too far around the corner?

  16. Circa 1995 I sat with George Brandis in a cafe in Subiaco when he was on a fact fading mission around Australia. Most of the conversation was devoted to the then Shadow Minister bagging the Australia Council with little recourse to the facts or rational argument. It struck me as more of an opinion promulgating tour than a fact finding one. So perhaps Mr Brandis should be congratulated on consistency and perseverance. He has not let events, the passage of time nor the facts stand between him and his mission. When it comes to the arts, federal Liberal governments have always been vulnerable to lobbying by the powerful and the connected – ‘Get us out of that pesky Australia Council and give us more money’. The budget windfall to major festivals and their excision from the Australia Council is another example of a time honoured Liberal practice. At a time when some skepticism about what bodies such as major festivals are delivering and what benefits are actually flowing to artists and their audiences might be warranted, we are getting exactly the opposite. This is all underpinned by a lamentably compliant and every man for himself Australian arts community. Compare ours to the courageous and collegiate voices across the arts, including the major organisations, that we witnessed in the UK in response to the Cameron governments arts budget cuts in 2010..But that government left it to the arms length instruments to determine who would bear the pain. Not so this Minister who is confident he knows where arts dollars are currently being squandered and where they might be better deployed. This is in itself is evidence that Mr Brandis’ determination to swing the pendulum away from the artists and to the organisations is wrong.

  17. I have had growing suspicion that the arts especially visual arts has been a self serving clique to the exclusion of artists who do not share a vision of a contemporary and performance based arts realm in Australia. It’s about time that those of us who do not share these ideas of what constitutes art – especially fine art in this country, challenged these concepts and funds are made available to arts practices that fall outside of what has become the accepted standard.

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