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TRACKER: Federal Arts major funding dilemma.

<Tracker – May Edition>

KISSmyBLAKarts by Sam Cook

Federal Arts major funding dilemma.

The 21st of October 2011 was the deadline for response to the Federal Government call for submissions to inform a National Cultural Policy. Not only was this significant for the fact that we’ve not had a national cultural policy anything since 1994, but it was the open call opportunity for organisations, individuals, peak bodies and community groups to lodge responses without having to go through a laborious process of submission. Once adopted, this policy is looking to have tenure for ten years. In other words, if you don’t influence or shape this policy, you’re stuck with it’s direction for a decade, which for many artists and individuals, could be a potential career burner, or career advancement, depending on how you view your cup.

Approximately 450 submissions were lodged. All are available for general review online via What became an immediate theme was that there was an overwhelming response for a call to review the role of the Australia Council for the Arts. The message was loud and clear and on 19 December 2011, Arts Minister Simon Crean announced an independent review chaired by economist and banker Angus James and lawyer Gabrielle Trainor.

Interesting to note is that Ms Trainor is a board member of the Noel Pearson led Cape York partnerships alongside Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Youth Orchestra and corporate executive Mr James the deputy Chairman of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Further supporting the shaping of the National Cultural is the appointment of the 21 member national reference group announced on 6th March 2012. Within its membership, there is Wesley Enoch director, Queensland Theatre Company and Stephen Page artistic director, Bangarra Dance Theatre on board as the two Indigenous appointments and at the helm of major performing arts companies.

Media largely picked this up as ‘for information’, however questions were raised within opinion pieces, blogs and social media networks. Where are the small to mediums? Where are the artists? Where are the Independents? Where are the Indigenous women?

Meanwhile 9th March 2012 was the end of the opportunity to complete an online Australia Council review survey. Again the general arts community and indeed anyone with an internet connect and an interest to participate was able to undertake this survey. I was one of them and found that it was largely a question set of strongly agree/disagree measures, with no real opportunity to make any disclosure or comment. At the time of writing this column, no outcomes have been reported, which is no doubt due process, given the research, collation and measurements need to be assessed and distilled into reports and related documents.

This didn’t however quell the social networks from widening their opinions and on 13 April 2012 a broadcast on ABC radio national sought to provide platform for the Australia Council for the Arts to respond to its critics.

Speaking were Australian composer and chair of the music board Matthew Hindson, Stephen Armstrong, recently retired executive producer of the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, before that he played senior management roles at a series of theatre outlets including the Sydney Theatre Company and the Queensland Theatre Company, and chair of the theatre board. The ‘independent voice’ was loaned to Dr Julian Meyrick, former Melbourne Theatre Company associate director and literary advisor. In summary, all males and all affiliated in some way to the major performing arts.

While this suggested an opportunity for fair review and reflection, it served to further illustrate the divide between the wider sector and the mechanism itself. I personally felt undernourished by the defaults to comments such as “it's money well spent” (Hindson), and in relation to arms length and peer assessment comments such as “those aspects, while they've frequently been under attack, have survived better in Australia than they have, for example, in the United Kingdom.” and “I find the obsession with what the Australia Council are doing really quite odd” (Meyrick).

This defensiveness produced no capacity to self-reflect, no evidence of the opportunity to take on board any sense of review with the purpose of reformation or to even suggest there would be the potential to bring the Australia Council into the 21st Century.

What it did outline is that of the $175 million from the federal government to the Australia Council for the Arts $97 million of that money to the majors (29 companies). This leaves $78 million to be divided amongst hundreds of small to mediums, independents, strategic initiatives and operations.

And here’s the major dilemma. This process of both review and of National Cultural Policy is swimming with a litany of varying levels of the Major performing arts and with this a disconnect to the reality of ‘everything else’. You might possibly consider it stacked.

In my wildest dream, I imagined that if enough people spoke to say ‘STOP SUBSIDISING THE MAJOR ARTFORMS’, they would be compelled to address this. This in turn would crack open the nexus that binds the lions share of government arts funds so that they can be re-allocated for the betterment of many over a small few. If this did occur, the major Institutions wouldn’t disappear as private sponsors would bail them out. Australia wouldn’t be the first to break such ground, it already occurred in Europe when the Dutch Government got with the program and shook the tree, now they have a vibrant and engaged arts scene firmly set in the epicentre of society.

But how can you do this when the whole process is appearing to be an undertaking to further entrench the major arts within the national funding mechanism and in turn, within the National Cultural Policy? Those 450 submissions spoke and many are potentially silenced in a process teeming with inequity.

As part of the Radio National Interview Stephen Armstrong stated, “One of the things that we have to remember is that we are responsible to the Australian public…”

Yes you are. I would hope this to become less rhetoric and more reality. It’s time for change, real change. It’s time for reform, real reform. We ALL matter.


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