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Catalyst is dead but questions linger

Federal Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield finally pulled the plug on the controversial Catalyst funding program yesterday, the last link to the disastrous reign of his predecessor, Senator George Brandis, who, at best, can be described as accident prone.

Daily Review first reported the plan last October as Fifield consulted with funding agencies and state governments in how to unscramble the mess Brandis had made. In raiding $105 million from the Australia Council, Brandis installed a “slush fund” in which he could distribute the funds directly from his own office and left those companies he took the money from in financial chaos.

Fifield announced he would replace a third of the funds soon after he was made Arts Minister by the new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and yesterday he formally announced that approximately $61 million of uncommitted funds (which includes that earlier third) would be transferred back to the Australia Council to allow the funding body to “continue to focus on supporting small to medium arts organisations”.


Fifield was barely known in the arts when he was appointed to the portfolio, but immediately impressed with the conciliatory approach he took in trying to rebuild the bridges Brandis destroyed in his ill-thought, clumsy and ideologically driven frolic.

While yesterday’s announcement is the best the arts could have expected, much damage has been done. The many small to medium arts companies affected by the cuts will take a long time to repair, but more importantly the simmering tensions between the 28 major arts companies (who were exempt from the cuts) and the rest of the arts sector linger.

When Brandis unleashed his wrecking ball only Circus Oz, Wesley Enoch at Queensland Theatre Company, Rob Brookman from the State Theatre Company of SA and Kate Cherry from Perth’s Black Swan theatre protested. Opera Australia’s CEO Craig Hassall (now departed from OA), effectively applauded Brandis’ move, but the others sat on their hands.

While both Melbourne Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company were part of a network of theatre companies who planned to protest Brandis’ cuts, they were stopped after their boards’ interference.

This whole mess should shine some light on how the boards of our state subsidised arts companies act when a crisis affects the entire arts sector. Should the (in the main) lawyers, accountants and bankers appointed to these prestigious (unpaid) posts by their state or Federal arts ministers have the power to instruct their CEOs and artistic directors to shut up when scared of the repercussions of talking out for their peers? Or should those arts administrators and artistic directors of our major companies have the will to speak out and show leadership when the entire industry they work within is under threat?

The answers seem obvious, but as actor Neil Pigot points out in his essay today Market Forces Have Rendered Artists Risk Averse Managers of Content: “We have virtually no spokesmen or women, no revered figures who engage actively with public issues or speak for our profession”.

Culture wars are bruising, and in the new world order of the rising right there will be more to come. At this point, it’s hard to see which leaders in the arts are prepared for the fight.


Main image: A scene from Circa’s When One Door Closes in Brisbane in 2016.

7 responses to “Catalyst is dead but questions linger

  1. It would be good to have an in-depth analysis of George Bigot Bookcase Brandis’ current tripping outside the country on taxpayers’ funding – the level of flight – the level of hotel – how many flunkeys to carry his bags – with whom he has met and why – and maybe reports of how the media in those foreign places responded to his presence! If determined not to have achieved much – could he then be charged for the excesses of his travels – or will this all be as secret as his boss’s squillions in George Town, Grand Cayman…

  2. Just More Chaos as these Neo conservative dinosaurs slowly discover that meteorites do exist. That running a business and running a government have very little in common. That they live in a complete fantasy world and shouldn’t be allowed out on their own for both the public and their own safety.
    But we get to pay dearly for their moronic incompetence. Perhaps this is the only true evidence that the LNP are great economic managers.
    Fifield may have restored the funding but now we have to watch the ballet and opera in the dark. Maybe George could bring the torch back from japan while he’s swanning around as the worlds greatest duffer.

  3. Al, mate, we’re talking about a different “Catalyst” you know/ But its no wonder we get confused because the Arts Minister’s staff copied the name from somewhere else in the first place. And Pete do not be so rude to George. One day soon he will be far far away in a place where they have both kinds of art – opera and ballet – and he won’t be around to hurt anyone; just soak up years of taxpayers’ salary and several flunkies to help him continue to believe that he is still “excellent”.

  4. “controversial”

    How was the catalyst funding controversial? Except to say that government objected to it, not on the semi-privatisation of ABC grounds, but on lack of enthusiasm for science being broadcast on the national network. It’s the government’s relationship with science that is controversial, not the program funding I’d have thought.

    1. Alastair, I think you’ve confused the arts funding program Catalyst with the ABC TV program of the same name. Did you actually read the article before you commented?

  5. Somebody like George Brandis cannot be expected to understand that human beings cannot find happiness by only having a good enough job to provide shelter, food, raise the kids and provide 24/7 escapism via TV or the latest twiddle toys. Nor could Senator Brandis be expected to listen to one of our first Australian brothers or sisters, but if he did, he would be told that art – not ART for the wealthy middle class – was a birthright of every human being. To treat the arts as a service industry might even be a move the Senator could comprehend.
    He will find that every small town of a few thousand has a book club, a group of painters, a group of musicians who probably will play Mozart badly musically but with a will and devotion to make up for it as well as a small acting group with similar talents. The Council of my own 25,000 people home town have on their books a totally new town centre, comprising a small theatre, small concert hall, painting and sculpting studios, a combined picture gallery and history exhibition, a sound proof hall for the kids to play music and dance, set into a shady park where people can meet and share their company.
    Please note, Mr.Brandis, that the arts are a rapidly expanding service industry ideally situated to absorb the people losing industrial jobs. In short. they should be provided with generous finance.


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