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Editorial: shameful silence over arts cuts

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The adage is that a person’s true character is tested in a crisis. If that’s the case then those who run Australia’s largest subsidised arts companies have been found wanting.

There has been a shameful silence from the artistic directors, CEOs and board members of most of the country’s major performing arts companies as federal arts minister George Brandis strips funding from freelance artists and small companies.

Brandis’ plot to strip $105 million from the arm’s length Australia Council to fund a shambolically planned and politically suspect “national programme for excellence in the arts” was quietly nursed and stealthily executed. This new body (NPEA) will use taxpayer cash to fund arts projects that Brandis’ department alone — apparently — will deem worthy of the label “excellent”. However the 28 large companies who make up The Major Performing Arts Group known collectively as AMPAG are immune from the Australia Council cuts. These include our major opera, ballet, orchestras and theatre companies.

So far AMPAG has only issued one feeble statement on the controversy. Its executive director Bethwyn Serow said the day after the plan was revealed: “The partnership between private sector, government and audience support is critical to the arts — but there is still a lot we don’t know about this program. We wait with interest to see how the funds will be allocated”. The statement went on to say: “She (Serow) welcomed federal funding for the major performing arts companies which has been preserved at current levels”.

So, they’re all right then.

But at least a few AMPAG members — with Circus Oz first among them — were selfless enough to point out the blindingly obvious; any funding cut that targets freelance artists affects all arts companies and all audiences. The artistic directors of the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Black Swan in Perth and the Queensland Theatre Company also spoke out about Brandis’ plan, but other than they, the AMPAG members have either been pressured not to speak out or have chosen not to.

In the case of Opera Australia, the most generously funded performing arts company in the land, its CEO Craig Hassall told Fairfax: “Speaking [for] Opera Australia, my first thought is that I am relieved and delighted that major performing arts companies’ funding hasn’t been cut. I don’t really have a view on where the money comes from, as long as the government is spending money on the arts”.

If the national opera company suffers from the perception that it’s elitist and out of touch, then Hassall’s statement did it no favours. His comments are as shortsighted as they are selfish.

The Australian arts and entertainment business — both subsidised and commercial — is too small and too reliant on all its interconnected elements not to be outraged by this attack on what is the engine room of Australian arts: our individual artists most of whom are trained in our publicly-funded art, drama and music schools.

These are the people who provide the work, imagination and daring that fills our stages, galleries and screens. Those who rise to the top of their fields not only help forge our culture, but also our national identity, and are widely embraced by both mainstream media and governments to proclaim — if not crow — about our national character to the rest of the world.

Before Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Hugh Jackman et al became de facto ambassadors representing Aussie talent and sophistication they were jobbing actors.

While Hassall can airily dismiss a sweep of talent around the country who haven’t entered his orbit yet, it might pay him well to remember that Opera Australia has historically always looked beyond its own Surry Hills HQ to find exciting young theatre directors to innovate its productions and make them meaningful to modern — and new– audiences.

Baz Luhrmann and Barry Kosky did not arrive at Opera Australia ready made; they were shaped by the work they staged as young directors working with other artists hopping from one small project to another, and often funded by one small grant or another.

The silence among most of the AMPAG members is matched by the apparent disinterest of much of the commercial sector even though it too is a business based on the talent of individual artists.

A few years ago when the Victorian College of the Arts was facing funding cuts one of the targeted casualties was its puppetry course. Quaint, old – school puppetry — who needs it the new digital world! That was the argument, but as it turned one of Australia’s most successful companies — both locally and internationally — Global Creatures, did need puppeteers to stage its animatronic Walking with Dinosaurs and King Kong.

Although the Australia Council is far from perfect, it’s (relatively) removed from the intervention of ideologue politicians. Brandis’ move to strip $105 million, which is mostly used by the Council for individual projects and artists, and put it into his own department (the Opposition calls it an “arts slush fund”), should be widely and loudly condemned by all who work in, or enjoy the arts in this country.

Read more on the Brandis’ Australia Council raid:

The Brandis Heist

9 responses to “Editorial: shameful silence over arts cuts

  1. Another casualty of Australia Council cuts is the loss of the overseas residency programme that has made sure Australia has had a voice, and exposure to many overseas art markets and communities. Most countries have these programmes as a way of extending their ‘soft power’ overseas. Now Australia will have none.

    1. An Australia Council staff member clarified for me that the overseas residencies are still in place and those contracts are being honoured. The “Artists in Residence” program that’s been cut is actually an artists-in-schools residence initiative – mostly administered by each state funding body on behalf of the Australia Council. Apparently it’s caused a lot of confusion.

  2. This is evidently a Government stuck in Opposition mode and motivated primarily by the spirit of negation, resentment, revenge, payback and ‘punishment’ (to cite the word Abbot ominously used in his graceless election-night victory-speech) – towards artists, environmentalists, human rights activists and any other groups whom they see as having hijacked the political, social and cultural agenda for too long under Labor. Brandis and his reactionary ilk have long seen artists in particular as their tribal enemies and viewed the Australia Council itself as the illegitimate child of the Whitlam Government – and therefore symptomatic of everything they hate about the Left. Brandis himself is only interested in the arts as the cultural ornaments of wealth, power and privilege: hence his preference for boutique classical chamber music festivals and record labels, and major organisations serving up traditional opera, ballet and theatre for his coterie of friends and allies. I agree with my colleagues at Daily Review that as the recipients of safely quarantined Australia Council funding it’s incumbent on all the major organisations to stand up and be counted (as Kate Cherry, Wesley Enoch and a few others courageously have) on behalf of smaller companies, project-based artists and the Australia Council itself, all of whom are being punished for ideological reasons. The silence or weasel-words that have thus far issued from the larger State and national organisations is a shameful indictment of their obsequious relationship with government and corporate power.

  3. Opera Australia is happy…..well that’s nice, isn’t it!
    Aloof and out of touch….yeah, that sounds about right.

  4. There is little doubt that Brandis intends to assign some of his new funds to the major performing arts companies – for instance, to regional and international touring and to implement recommendations from his Opera Review. Given their protection from arts funding cuts in the last two budgets and that they now take considerably more than half of the Australia Council grant funds, they should neither seek nor accept additional funds until the money taken from individual artists and SMEs is restored.

  5. If these “artists” are any good they wouldn’t need taxpayer funding, this is the real world of sink or swim, it’s almost unbelievable that I’m working everyday do some unwashed hippie can sit at home and call themselves an “artist”, time to strip ALL funding from Arts, ammature sports teams don’t receive the same level of funding so why should Arts be any different.

  6. If the mining industry, agriculture industry etc etc were any good they wouldn’t need taxpayer funding either.

    The cultural sector leverage more about $8 for every taxpayer dollar invested. And they employ more people Tha agriculture. Please get informed.

  7. Wayne, if the Australian mining industry, agriculture industry, coal industry, gas industry, gas industry, biotechnology industry, education industry were any good they wouldn’t need taxpayer funding either.

    On average, the Australia cultural and creative industries sector levergae 8$ for every taxpayer dollar and employ more people than the agriculture industry. To compare this sector with ‘amateur sport’ is pathetic.

  8. The major arts orgs would do well to remember that political favour ebbs and flows, and that the more they gain from their sycophantic relations with Brandis now the more they have to lose when Labor is returned. I doubt anyone would shed a tear for Opera Australia if their funding was drastically reduced by an incoming Labor government.

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