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.