Film, Music, News & Commentary, Stage, Visual Arts

Editorial: Brandis leaves a fine mess for Fifield to fix

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Former Arts Minister George Brandis has arguably been the greatest force in uniting the Australian arts community in recent years. Some commentators have suggested that his sweeping changes to arts funding and introduction of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts were part of a “divide and conquer” strategy, but they mostly worked to galvanise artists by giving them a common enemy: Brandis himself.
Of course, there have been some internal community scuffles around the edges as individuals and companies who stand to benefit from Brandis’ changes have stayed silent. A few, including Opera Australia, have come out in defence of Brandis, calling him a very “engaged” arts minister. He may well have been engaged with certain elements of Australia’s artistic ecosystem, but his favouritism and attempts to remove the traditional “arms-length” funding principle from the arts sphere alienated almost the entire arts community.
Mitch Fifield, the new Arts Minister, has a lot of work ahead of him if he wants the arts community to gain some confidence in the Turnbull government.
At the top of the list is Brandis’ bungled NPEA — introduced with next to no consultation with the broader artistic community. Fifield has previously labelled the Senate Inquiry into the NPEA “absurd“, but the submissions it has since received paint a picture of an arts community in crisis, fighting to protect its independence and the individuals and companies most vulnerable.
There are now almost 1000 of the reported 2200 submissions to the Senate Inquiry uploaded for public viewing and there are submissions from audiences and those working in almost every field and at every level of the arts community. The overwhelming response is a negative one with concerns expressed about artistic independence, the health of the sector and even the administrative framework, which would involve the necessary duplication of some layers of bureaucracy.
And there are plenty of submissions from those who are quarantined from the cuts and who stand to benefit immediately from the NPEA. As just one example, the State Theatre Company of South Australia said the changes will have “A Devastating Impact on Small to Medium Arts Organisations and Individual Artists.”
The company wrote: “In putting the medium and long term security of those in the small to medium sector and individual artists at risk, the changes introduced by the Government not only threaten the wider arts ecology but act as a discouragement of artistic courage, innovation and continued exploration throughout the industry”.
This kind of consultation should have occurred prior to the NPEA’s introduction. Any sensible government would have then realised that the program, as it stands, would damage the entire arts industry as well as audiences. That the former Arts Minister brushed aside the clearly articulated concerns of the arts community as “predictable” is disgraceful.
In a gobsmacking mischaracterisation of the response, Brandis told The Australian: “Whenever a group of people have a cosy arrangement that they’re comfortable with and a reforming minister comes in and proposes to change those arrangements, the loudest screams come from the protectors of the status quo”.
But there are other decisions which require Fifield’s immediate attention, including the new Book Council of Australia, which has attracted a barrage of criticism from authors concerned that it will not cover the full scope and diversity of Australian literature (although how it could do so with a budget of just $2 million annually, cut out of the Australia Council budget, is another question). There are also concerns that the Council’s Chair Louise Adler, a respected figure in the industry and CEO of Melbourne University Press, may have various conflicts of interest in her new role.
Then there are the grants which Brandis has personally made to organisations outside of the Australia Council’s arms-length process, including the controversial funding of classical music label Melba Recordings and the Australian World Orchestra.
Brandis has repeatedly stated that he wants to respect popular taste and fund companies which reach the broadest audiences, but his actions as minister have not reflected that aim. Melba Recordings received ministerial favouritism despite low sales — so low that in the 2011-12 financial year, government funding made up almost 80% of the company’s income. And the small-to-medium arts sector, which stands to lose out under the NPEA, reaches larger audiences than the country’s 28 major performing arts companies and does so with far less government funding.
If Fifield wants to avoid these mistakes, he must listen to the arts community and consult more broadly. Audiences are the focus of all artistic endeavour, and the arts community understands audiences better than anybody else.
Brandis seemed to constantly be operating under the false assumption that the more traditional art forms attract the largest audiences (they blatantly don’t) and that those working in more contemporary or avant-garde areas are more concerned with artistic navel-gazing than reaching audiences. Fifield must listen to the arts community as a whole — from those working at the largest companies to the individual artists forging ahead in new fields. Perhaps if Brandis had done so, the arts portfolio wouldn’t be the mess it is today.

3 responses to “Editorial: Brandis leaves a fine mess for Fifield to fix

  1. Ben I think it also worth noting that Brandis was also the architect of the Producer Offset and the creation of Screen Australia. The latter has had its funding steadily reduced while the Producer Offset has such a wide definition of an “Australian film” that tens of millions of dollars have funded Hollywood productions in Australia such as The Great Gatsby, Gods of Egypt, The Lego Movie, I, Frankenstein to name just a few. All the copyrights and all the revenue from these films flow to Hollywood. It is time that there was an inquiry into the Producer Offset and the government reveals just how much money has flowed to these productions since Brandis created the Producer Offset nearly a decade ago. Meanwhile funding Australian stories is as hard as ever. Nothing much changes does it.

  2. Re; ‘reaches larger audiences’- Comparing the cost and audience numbers of live performance activities to audiences for art exhibitions, digital installations or literature, as in the link you’ve provided, is a clear case of comparing apples with oranges.
    The performing arts is labour intensive and requires ongoing production for each new audience. MPAs create works of scale, from 100 professional performers on stage to the production of an intimate 2 hander by leading actors. Their funding is further leveraged to provide musical fellowships, playwriting awards and other training and artistic development opportunities as well as co-productions and collaborations with other parts of the sector. MPA expenditure is predominantly on people – the artists and the arts workers.
    As a group, the major companies sit between contemporary music and musical theatre in size measured by revenue. In terms of attendance, the majors sit just behind the same two categories, selling 2,850,000 tickets, compared to contemporary music with 6,386,058 and musical theatre with 3,182,478 tickets sold. The majors’ attendance figure does not include free performances or schools performances, which are considerable.

    1. Apples and oranges , yes. This sort of confusing of categories is so widespread and so often repeated, that it is evidence of an intention to mislead.

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