JUDITH WHITE. The Australia Council latest funding – the arts betrayed.

Apr 16, 2020

The latest round of The Australia Council funding, announced on 3 April, marks a new level of government interference in the arts. The council was never meant to police the arts on behalf of government, but under the Coalition that has become its function.

Entities that have lost their previous multi-year funding fall into three categories, each anathema to conservatives. They are:

  • Forums for ideas – the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, the Australian Book Review (federally funded for six decades), the Sydney Book Review, Overland magazine and the Sydney Writers’ Festival;
  • Creative small to medium companies – from Melbourne’s La Mama theatre to new music company Ensemble Offspring;
  • Youth – notably the Australian Theatre for Young People, nurturing talent since 1964.

News of the funding round came just as the cultural sector was hit by the double whammy of coronavirus closures and the Morrison government’s refusal of targeted financial support. (A belated $27 million package produced on 9 April is about 3% of what the sector is asking for and is aimed mainly at the regions, for which read National Party electorates.)

On top of this, hundreds of thousands of the sector’s casual and freelance workers fall outside the Job-Keeper provisions. “The line has to be drawn somewhere” is the government’s mantra – and it’s been drawn against the creative, the innovative and the young.

Some Australia Council applicants who had spent countless hours and precious resources on the highly bureaucratised application process have been told that there is “simply not enough money”.

Since the Coalition came to office in 2013 budgets have been repeatedly slashed, but that’s only part of the story. There has also been a remorseless trend to greater ministerial interference.

Founded by Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967 and brought into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet by his successor John Gorton, the Australia Council was fully funded only by the Whitlam Government, which made it a statutory authority under the Act of 1975. It had the power to delegate some of its functions to specialised Boards, an effective way to manage peer assessment and recommend grants. Ministerial involvement was kept at arm’s length.

Under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, all that has changed. In 2014 Arts Minister George Brandis threatened support for Sydney Biennale artists protesting at Transfield, one of whose companies had a contract at the Nauru immigration detention centre. The following May he cut Council funding by $26 million a year – a third of the total – diverting the money to establish his own arts slush fund.

Brandis’ successor Mitch Fifield restored a small portion of the cuts, but more than 60 small-to-medium organisations still lost funding. In 2017 he appointed former Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh as Chair of the Council. Just what you need, a mining executive in charge of the arts. Fifield also instigated a review which resulted last October, under the current minister Paul Fletcher, in a Major Performing Arts Framework that earmarked 60% of the Council’s budget for 30 big and increasingly commercially-minded companies.

At the time more than 700 independent artists signed an open letter, warning: “The independent and small-medium sector is the lifeblood of the national arts. This sector, on which Australian culture depends for its productivity, efficiency and international reputation, is on the verge of collapse. The MPA Framework is a roadblock to Australian culture’s growth and survival.”

This month’s funding announcement signals that the arts have hit that roadblock.

Unfortunately the Coalition’s interference in the work of the Council has been facilitated by changes made under the Gillard government. In 2011 the 1975 Australia Council Act was amended to specify that the Council “must have regard to the policies of the Commonwealth Government in relation to the arts” and further that “where the Minister is satisfied that it is desirable in the public interest to do so, the Minister may, by notice in writing to the Chairperson, give directions to the Council with respect to the performance of its functions or the exercise of its powers”.

Two years later this fundamental change was incorporated in a rewritten Act which also terminated specialised Boards, replacing them with advisory committees, and charged the Council with producing a detailed corporate plan at least once a year.

George Brandis and his successors picked up the new Act and ran with it, and we are seeing the results today.

Back in October, just after the imposition of the Major Performing Arts Framework, Australia Council CEO Adrian Collette, formerly of Opera Australia, gave a curious speech at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum entitled “Anxiety Culture and the Future”.

In it he claimed: “We’ve only just started walking towards a creatively connected nation. Towards more socially engaged art. And a level of anxiety is perhaps a necessary part of our journey. A price we must pay for an ability to imagine an uncertain future.”

That doesn’t read well today, when anxiety has become an extreme condition for many. Anxiety on this scale is not a “necessary part of our journey”; rather, it will drive a lot of talent out of the arts forever. Creative connection is being ripped away from us, not just by the coronavirus but by neoliberal dogma and increasing government interference.

The need for a self-governing body was recognised 70 years ago by “Bill” Emrys Williams, founder of the UK’s Arts for the People movement in the 1930s, Secretary-General of the Arts Council of Great Britain from 1951 to 1953, and editor-in-chief of Penguin Books from 1936 to 1955.

“The policy of artistic freedom is, and must remain, paramount,” he wrote. “The health of the arts depends on their being governed by numerous different groups which, in turn, are free to select the individual composers, conductors, soloists, dramatists and actors of their own choice. It is not the business of the State, working through the Arts Council, to furnish a matrix of artistic performances for a receptive and captive audience. The arts flourish best when they are self-governing, and self-government is not incompatible with the acceptance of State subsidies.”

He was right. Give us back the Australia Council, well-funded and self-governing, as it was meant to be.

Judith White, a former executive director of the Art Gallery Society of NSW, is author of the book Culture Heist: Art versus Money and blogs on the site www.cultureheist.com.au

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