Richard Letts. Mitch Fifield should dump it while he can.

Oct 24, 2015

In a Senate Estimates hearing this week, the new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield was gently questioned for ten minutes by Senator Scott Ludlam about his intentions with regard to the future of arts support: in particular, did he intend to implement the plan of his displaced predecessor, Senator George Brandis, to use funds taken from the budget of the Australia Council to set up a new fund under direct Ministerial control. This scheme created open warfare between Brandis and his arts constituency and doubtless was the reason for his removal from the post in PM Turnbull’s ministry reshuffle.

Fifield dodged and weaved. To be fair, he is still warming his seat as Minister for Communications and the Arts. But he has been left a mess, and no government action in living memory has put the arts in such a precarious position. If Fifield perseveres with Brandis’s plan, there will be enormous damage. He should at the least postpone that decision until he knows what he is doing.

The funding to the Australia Council was divided by Brandis into two categories: support to major performing arts organisations – the large theatre, dance and circus organisations, the orchestras and opera companies – and everything else. Support to the major performing arts organisations has been quarantined over the last two budgets. Support to everything else has been halved, firstly by a cut to the arts budget in 2014 and then, in 2015, by Brandis’s raid on that part of the Australia Council budget that does not go to the major companies.

Brandis never gave a coherent explanation of his policy intentions. He pointed out that the overall funding to the arts had not been cut. However, in a one-sentence improvisation in a Senate Estimates hearing, he said that his main intention was to give more funding to the major performing arts companies. So the major companies retain all of their ongoing funding, and will receive more from the funds removed from the Australia Council.

Of the $26m a year taken from the Australia Council, Brandis announced that $19m will be distributed via his National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). That will be divided into support for international touring (intended recipients: the major companies), matching grants for funds secured from the private sector (de facto recipients, the major companies, which have staff members devoted to fund raising), and the rest to “strategic projects” for which small organisations can apply. That leaves $7m. Could it be that the intention for this money was to fund the recommendations of Brandis’s National Opera Review?

Excluded from applying for NPEA support are individual artists (Brandis was dismissive of them as interested only in creating art – bye bye Beethoven; a recent statement from Malcolm Turnbull was even more scathing – indeed was the sort of abuse that many people direct at politicians.) Also excluded were applications for “operational” funding – the core funding that enables an arts organisation to have a continuing existence.

The NPEA would fund projects – one-off exercises that certainly are important but only in a scatter-gun sort of way support the existence of the art world. Private donors like the in-and-out thrill of project funding. It is governments that give ongoing core funding, the funding that allows an organisation to build skills, audiences, supporters, mount projects, raise money.

So the Australia Council is left with sole responsibility for funding operational budgets and it mainly does this through support to 145 “key organisations”. These are the small to medium sized organisations that make up a sort of informal infrastructure for the arts in Australia. The Australia Council has suggested that in the new circumstances, it may have to delete support to about half of them.

Here from the list are the “A’s”. (This being Australia, there is a bias towards national support organisations cf production/presentation organisations.) If the Australia Council has to close half of these organisations, which will they be?

  • Arena Theatre Company Ltd – 50 year-old theatre for young people, Melbourne
  • Art Gallery of SA (Adelaide Biennial)
  • Art Monthly Australia – major periodical for visual arts
  • Art on the Move WA. Organises state, interstate and international tours of visual arts exhibitions
  • Artback NT – visual and performing arts touring agency
  • Artlink Australia. Quarterly magazine covering contemporary art and ideas from the Asia-Pacific
  • Arts Access Australia – arts participation for the disabled. The national body.
  • Arts Access Society Inc. The Victorian body.
  • Arts Law Centre of Australia – legal advice to artists and arts organisations, policy formulations in advice to governments
  • Artspace Visual Arts Centre Ltd – gallery in Sydney
  • Asialink University of Melbourne – support to artist residencies, collaborations with Asian countries
  • Asian Australian Artists Association Inc
  • Assoc of Northern Kimberley & Arnhem Aboriginal Artists
  • Ausdance National – national organisation that speaks for the dance world, provides services to dancers and dance companies
  • Australian Art Orchestra Ltd – Australia’s only improvising orchestra
  • Australian Book Review Inc – monthly literary review, also gives annual awards
  • Australian Centre for Contemporary Art – major public contemporary arts space, in Melbourne
  • Australian Children’s Performing Arts Co t/a Windmill – children’s theatre company in Adelaide
  • Australian Copyright Council Ltd – the main copyright organisation in Australia
  • Australian Dance Theatre – one of the main contemporary dance companies. Based in Adelaide.
  • Australian Experimental Art Foundation Incorporated – important Adelaide organisation combining a gallery, bookshop and residency studio
  • Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) – innovations at the interface between arts and technology
  • Australian Poetry Limited publishes Australian Poetry Journal inter alia
  • Australian Script Centre collects, catalogues, promotes and distributes unpublished Australian plays and now holds hundreds of scripts.
  • Australian Society of Authors – the professional association for literary authors
  • Australian String Quartet Inc – one of Australia’s main string quartets; there are only 11 with a continuing existence
  • Australian Theatre for Young People – major Sydney company for young actors
  • Australian Writers Guild Ltd – the professional association for Australian performance writers including film, television, theatre, radio and digital media.

One year ago, then-Minister Brandis announced that he would take half of the funds provided by the Australia Council to literature and with them create a national book council, which would distribute the funds on new criteria decided, presumably, by the Minister and the commercial industry. There is still no book council and arrangements are in limbo.

The Minister announced the redirection of the Australia Council funds at budget time in May. There are still no guidelines for application to the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

Beyond the ineptitude in instigating and following through on his scheme, the problem with this whole initiative is that it seems simply to be an indulgence of the Minister’s personal artistic taste. There is no sense of an understanding of the ecology of the whole of the cultural sector, the interdependence of its parts. The arm’s-length status of funding under the Australia Council is bypassed in favour of direct ministerial control, leaving the arts open to political favouritism or censorship – only a good idea when your own side is in power. Pork-barrelling was seen, in the May Estimates hearing, as an exercise in democratic government. There is no sense of the importance of artistic creation. Malcolm Turnbull has said that we will be an innovative nation but the government’s arts policies withdraw support from the artists and organisations most responsible for artistic innovation. Mitch Fifield should dump the Brandis scheme while he has the chance. There is nothing in it for him.

Michael Naphthali was Minister Brandis’s chief arts advisor and Naphthali and Brandis made very similar statements about these initiatives in the middle of the year. Naphthali was on the Board of the Australian World Orchestra – which to date is by far the principal beneficiary of the new arrangements. (The lack of guidelines and applications did not deter Minister Brandis from deciding upon a number of handsome grants.) There is some speculation that Michael Naphthali was an originator of the Brandis scheme. At the least, they appear to have sung from the same hymn book.

Malcolm Turnbull has just appointed Michael Naphthali as his arts advisor.

Dr Richard Letts is Director of the Music Trust. In the 1980s he was Director of the Music Board of the Australia Council. He was founder and CEO of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and is a past President of the International Music Council. 


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