Martin Foley

News & Commentary

Victorian Arts Minister on why arts funding shakeup makes sense

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When Australia’s arts and culture ministers met in Adelaide last Friday, they agreed to overhaul major performing arts sector funding. The current process will soon be replaced by the National Performing Arts Partnership Framework. Reaching this stage of reform was the easy bit, Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley writes. Now comes the implementation, and what it means for our wider cultural ecology.

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The October meeting of the nation’s Cultural Ministers saw the first green shoots of policy change in arts and culture since the horror cuts of the Abbott Government’s 2014 Budget and George Brandis’ ill fated “Catalyst” experiment. It was a tentative step to begin undoing the damage of attacks on arts funding and providing the chance for a new approach to cultural organisations’ relationships with government as a reliable partner.  

The two-decade old Major Performing Arts (MPA) Framework has long been identified as problematic and almost fossilised in its operation because of an inability to reach an agreement on meaningful reform. 

Now, states and the Federal Government finally have a path to begin repairing the train wreck of cultural policy suffered over the last five years – highlighted most notably by successive cuts to the small, medium and independent sector.

Clearly, the existing MPA wasn’t working in anyone’s interests – organisations both in and out of it saw problems.

Clearly, the existing MPA wasn’t working in anyone’s interests – organisations both in and out of it saw problems. Soon, it will be replaced by the National Performing Arts Partnership Framework, intended to support the diverse companies and organisations that make up our performing ecology. 

Perhaps as a sign of encouraging things to come, Queensland was successful in bringing the outstanding 15 year-young, soul-stirring contemporary circus performance Circa into the fold – but it seems without any additional support as yet.

Under the new system there will be a process, set criteria and a degree of transparency previously not seen in accessing support from the Federal and State Governments for performing organisations.  At first blush, these measures include:

  • access to and participation in the arts for all Australians
  • a focus on First Nations arts and increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ representation in works and programs 
  • measuring performance across neglected areas of diversity, including disability, gender, LGBTIQ, and age
  • supporting new works that reflect contemporary Australia
  • growing audiences through regional and international touring,
  • a focus on arts education
  • collaboration across companies, arts forms and other creative partners.

Every four years following national consultations, the Framework will see new organisations invited to discuss joining. 

Importantly, the Framework is more contestable and transparent, and existing organisations are to be regularly reviewed ─ if they do not measure up to the criteria they could be asked to reform or face an exit from the framework. 

In return for meeting and reporting these measures, funding certainty and the ability for long term planning is on the table. Eight years support is contemplated – a level of security unprecedented in the Australian cultural landscape.

There are of course still unresolved issues of policy and process that States are understandably pushing for. All these arrangements will be finalised in early 2020.

After 10 years of demands for reform, a new era of Commonwealth and State sector partnership is temptingly close. Surely a new dawn of creativity and diversity in performance voices, platforms and outcomes is on the horizon? 

Not quite.

Surely a new dawn of creativity and diversity in performance voices, platforms and outcomes is on the horizon? Not quite.

If anything, reaching this stage of the framework reform was the easy bit.

The implementation and what it means for our wider cultural ecology is the hard work that awaits all Governments and the Australian creative community.

The new expanded framework will only meet its potential if it is backed up by new funding and resources.

It will not come cheaply or easily to meet the demands and expectations for certainty and creativity for the now 30 organisations in its ranks. The goals of excellence, the cost of productions and the benchmarks for diversity of practice and community engagement the framework will set for creative platforms won’t be easily accommodated in the existing models of support. 

The demands for transparency, diversity and measures of achievement will be significant.  

Then the issues around the caste system of funding support that still favours the most secure and high level of support for Goliath performing organisations will need to be addressed.  

The demands for transparency, diversity and measures of achievement will be significant.  

Arguably, this is the system you get when we have our national companies and organisations of sufficient cultural significance and scale that demand this level of support.  

Equally arguable is that many of the same principles should apply to the wider creative cultural landscape as well as these worthy 30 organisations.

If organisations like Circa ─ and I would predict the many others who meet the new criteria including many ready to go in Victoria ─ move into the framework, will the framework be funded to accommodate them?  Equally, will the many innovative, worthy, defunded organisations of recent years move into their place in the ranks of Australia Council backed four-year funded organisations?

Will the principle of long-term funding, support for diversity of practice and reward for meeting challenging new criteria apply to others outside the Framework? 

What about the significant erosion of small and independent creatives and companies still wearing the backwash of “Catalyst” and subsequent cuts – can they ever be restored? What about programs to welcome the emerging fields of other creative endeavours – our booming digital, games, screen and design community, and others to come that will demand a place at the table?

Perhaps most importantly – will the new National Performing Arts Partnership Framework be a step in returning the Australia Council to the national leadership role? A goal the framework rightly proclaims to be:

“…a vibrant performing arts ecology that is consistently growing and collaborating, developing audiences, producing new and diverse Australian works, creating opportunities and employment for Australian Artists and Arts workers and reflecting and shaping Australian society and national identity.”

The decisions of all governments and the creative sectors make in the coming months will point us to the answers. 

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