The New Excellence: Australia Council for the Arts funding changes

The Adelaide Review speaks to South Australian arts organisations about proposed changes to the Australia Council for the Arts’ funding model, introduced by George Brandis in the 2015-16 Federal Budget.

“Shock”, “disbelief” and “very out of left field” – the arts sector was left reeling by the 2015–16 Federal Budget, in which Senator George Brandis announced an overhaul of the Australia Council for the Arts’ funding structure. “It took a few days, I think, for people to realise what had happened,” says Vicki Sowry, Director of the Australian Network for Art and Technology. ANAT is one of 145 small–medium arts companies (Key Organisations with ongoing funding from the Australia Council) flagged to be affected by the Council’s drastic shake-up. In brief, Senator Brandis introduced surprise measures in the Budget that contradicted and derailed more than two years’ work by the Australia Council. The outcomes of the 2012 Australia Council Review – a process that involved extensive and intensive consultation – were significant. Most important, and a measure that has now been suspended pending further notice, was the introduction of Six-Year Funding for Arts Organisations. More than 400 small–medium arts companies across Australia applied, and The Adelaide Review understands the successful EOIs were about to be approached when the Budget announcement disrupted proceedings. Budget estimates will see government-directed programs – Major Performing Arts framework, Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy, Playing Australia, Contemporary Touring Initiative and Contemporary Music Touring Program – funded as usual. These programs take 66 percent of the Australia Council’s budget, leaving $62 million at the Council’s discretion. This may seem like a lot, but it is $23 million, or 28 percent, less than the Council had been promised. Beyond the cut of nearly one third of the Council’s discretionary funds, the announcement was multi-pronged: the introduction of Senator Brandis’s as-of-yet undefined “National Programme for Excellence in the Arts” (NPEA); the reallocation of Australia Council funding to support NPEA; the lack of information regarding NPEA’s structure or commitment to arms-length funding; the quarantining of the 28 Major Performing Arts Companies, which include from SA the ASO and the State Theatre and Opera companies. The problem, says Sowry, is that the money for NPEA has to come from somewhere, and with the Majors immune to any cuts, it stands that the small–medium sector must take the fall. Beyond the suspension of the six-year model, the Australia Council has had to make immediate changes to funding plans: they’ve cancelled the June round of funding and certain key programs – ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative and Artists in Residence. Multi-year funding will be honoured up to the conclusion of contracts in 2016. The missing $23 million must come from the kitty that supports the Australia Council’s grants, Key Organisations (more than 15 of these are based in SA), national and international development, research and capacity building. In short, the initiatives designed to make Australian contemporary arts practice sustainable. With the Majors – orchestras, opera and state theatre companies, classical ballet – protected from the harsh winds of change, it also paints a “really scary” picture for the future of Australia’s creative culture, says Rosemary Myers, Artistic Director of Windmill Theatre (pictured). “That’s not to say that the opera, ballet and state theatres don’t do contemporary work – but it’s more that you don’t want us to have a museum culture,” says Myers. “There’s a lot of very good work being created in Australia and a lot of interest in the work, and if that stops it’s hard to regain momentum.” Marginalised communities, Indigenous arts groups, disability arts companies, rural companies and contemporary, experimental visual arts are disproportionately represented. The diversity of these organisations is testament to the Australia Council’s dedication to supporting art from outside the mainstream; but the double-edge of the sword means these coal-face companies are the first to be harmed. “There aren’t immediate financial changes, but there are changes of perceptions of what’s possible in the future,” says Nick Hughes, Company Manager of Restless Dance Theatre. “For instance, you didn’t get the Artistic Director on the phone today because she is working at the School for Vision Impaired on a project that is funded by an initiative of the Australia Council. Now, those initiatives have been cancelled. So we can’t – we would have to find another way to continue working with the school.” Until they know more, many of RDT’s activities have a murky future. “We may not have a workshop program next year; that’s quite possible. We may not have funds to employ the staff next year; that’s quite possible.” Long-term funding derailments also put pressure on small–medium arts groups’ eligibility for State Government funding. “Many states, certainly South Australia, require evidence of a substantial investor over the period of time for which you’re applying for a grant,” explains Sowry. “Because the six-year EOI procress for the key organisations has been suspended and funding only guaranteed until the end of 2016, that of course means that most of us won’t be able to demonstrate that commitment over a multi-year period, and thus we will be limited to applying for just annual funding for 2016, certainly. “The other issue is of course that in some regards this could be seen as a cost-shifting from the federal government to the states, with an implied assumption that the states will take up the slack in supporting the small­–medium sector and individual artists who will no longer be able to be supported through the Australia Council for the Arts, so that is another issue.” RDT has been “wonderfully supported” by the State Government, with a new venue complete with sprung-wooden dance floor now at their disposal. However, the State does not have the chequebook to take on federal responsibilities. “The State cannot support arts organisations if they’re not supported federally; there aren’t the resources to do that,” says Hughes. “If a small–medium loses its federal funding, then the state will struggle to keep it going.” The suspension of the long-term funding process has left Windmill and Patch Theatre in a similarly uncertain boat. “Patch is already winding back international tours planned for 2016-2017, and we cannot currently commit to any new activity in 2017 and beyond,” says Christine Schloithe, General Manager of Patch. “We’re a little bit tentative to make commitments when we don’t quite know what’s happening,” says Myers. As Windmill plans its tours around international programs –planned well in advance – a stall now could have ramifications for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. A further concern is that Brandis will not publicly commit to arms-length, peer-review funding. In a Senate hearing following the Budget, Brandis seemed to confirm a move away from this towards more ‘Captain’s calls’: “There are those who take a very purist view and say that no arts dollars should be spent except at arms-length from government by a peer-reviewed process through the Australia Council, and there are those who take the opposite view and say that every dollar that is spent by government should ultimately bear the impress of the Minister’s endorsement so the Minister can be answerable for it but, as in most of these debates, the sensible position I think lies in the middle.” It is not yet clear what the NPEA’s charter will be – Brandis promised the Senate hearing that an outline would be available by June/July this year. In the meantime, a Senate Inquiry has been launched into the NPEA. “We’re now waiting two or three months for something that may in fact have much greater benefits for us, because of the nature of the Inquiry and its being on the public record,” says Sowry. ANAT is a member of ArtsPeak, one of the driving forces (along with Free The Arts) behind the Senate Inquiry. “In a sense, the Inquiry is forcing the Minister to undertake the consultation that he neglected – that he has openly stated that he didn’t undertake – before announcing the Budget measures. I think that’s very good news.”

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