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Editorial: the worst week ever for Australian arts?

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Over the last few years there’s been plenty of bad news for the Australian arts sector. Successive funding cuts have threatened highly influential arts companies which have contributed meaningfully to our culture for many decades. Those threats have never been as present and real as they are this week.

Today and tomorrow the small-to-medium companies that applied for Key Organisation funding from the newly shrunk Australia Council are waiting to hear whether they’ve secured funding for the next four years. For many of these companies, bad news will mean they have to fold and, as many leading arts figured have remarked over the last year: these companies are the life-blood of Australia’s cultural sector.

One General Manager of a small arts organisation waiting to hear its fate told Daily Review they’d been asked to wait by the phone today and tomorrow for a call from the Australia Council.

“My experience of Australia Council staff is that they are really good people — they are passionate, hardworking advocates for the arts — however this process of waiting by the phone is well-intentioned but misguided,” the arts manager said. “There are a lot of very neurotic artists and arts administrators who now have to endure not one but two sleepless nights.”

It’s estimated about 130 companies have reapplied for the funding to underpin their day-to-day activities (worth somewhere between $75,000 and $300,000 a year) but only 60 to 80 will be successful. The next round of applications isn’t until 2019.

Last week one of those companies, Griffin Theatre, said there was a chance it would have to close if it missed out. Griffin has been a hothouse of new Australian writing for 40 years and nurtured many of our greatest playwrights and plays during that time. Government funding makes up 30% of Griffin’s income and Artistic Director Lee Lewis said the company would find it difficult to adapt quickly enough if that money was no longer available.

Griffin helps to shape the Australian theatrical voice as much as any company in this country and a threat to its existence should be concerning to all Australians.

This comes at a time when the publishing industry is still coming to terms with a Productivity Commission recommendation (in a draft report) to repeal Australia’s parallel importation restrictions on books. Literature heavyweights Richard Flanagan, Tom Keneally and Peter Carey have all been out warning of the potential impact of the proposal which threatens the livelihood of the book industry.

Add to this the bungled and confusing roll-out of the newly introduced Federal arts fund Catalyst, and you have a very dire week.

Catalyst was Arts Minister Mitch Fifield’s attempt to repair some of the damage done by his predecessor George Brandis to the government’s relationship with the arts community. Brandis’s National Program for Excellence in the Arts was set to rip more than $100 million from the already stretched Australia Council, and redirect it to the Minister’s office. Fifield rejigged the program as Catalyst and returned a decent chunk of money to the Australia Council.

On paper, at least, Catalyst is a better program than the one which it replaced. Its objectives are clearer and better targeted to the small-to-medium sector which faces the biggest threat, and although the program has become a clear political plaything (Shadow Arts Minister Mark Dreyfus isn’t far off the mark when he accuses the government of pork-barrelling) many worthy applicants have received funding for their projects.

But the roll-out of the program has proven disastrous.

In April, the first major list of recipients was announced, with $12 million allocated (and there were more than a few controversial decisions, including $1 million for the preservation of landscape artist Hans Heysen’s home). But on the weekend a further $12 million of grants were quietly announced, the day the government entered election caretaker mode, leaving plenty in the arts community scratching their heads.

The allocation of $24 million over the course of just a few months seems to leave very little in the bank for the coming years. According to the Arts Ministry website, Catalyst accepts applications quarterly, which means the $48 million allocated for the next four years should be spread out across 16 funding “rounds”. Almost half of that money has now been distributed in the first two.

By the end of this week, we’ll have a clearer image of how Australia’s arts industry will look into the future. And it’s hard to be optimistic.

It’s deeply disappointing that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s “innovation” and “creativity” rhetoric doesn’t apply to an industry which creates jobs and economic growth while thriving on these qualities.

[box]Featured image: Griffin Theatre’s production of The Bleeding Tree, photo by Brett Boardman. Read Ben Neutze’s four-star review here[/box]

2 responses to “Editorial: the worst week ever for Australian arts?

  1. It seems the only good news of the week is that the Arts Party’s crowdfunding campaign to fight for the Arts at this election was successful. A bitter sweet victory when we look at the week overall, but a victory nonetheless.

  2. Good point Collins; crowd funding is the way to go: we makers have to start getting organised and fund the institutions / new unions that support our guilds and disciplines. I am not necessarily a lefty, but united we will never be defeated!

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