Sunday, May 17, 2015

‘Having a go’ at Australia's arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2

What we are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind.

There’s been a great deal of coverage of the impact of the most recent national Government budget on ‘the arts’. The first thing to say is that while we need to focus on what is happening with support for ‘the arts’, and on the Australia Council, it’s critical to remember that ‘the arts’ are only a part of the broader cultural sector and we have to be careful we don’t lose sight of that.

Still, I am concerned about the $13 million in ’savings’ mentioned in the comment in Minister Brandis’ media release, ‘The Government will find savings of $13 million through “efficiencies” to arts and cultural programs run by Screen Australia, the Australia Council and the Attorney-General's department.’ Over four years this comprises $7.3 million from the Australia Council, $3.6 million from Screen Australia and $2.2 million from the arts programs of the Attorney General’s Department itself. The savings for the Australia Council will be met through reduced funding to the ArtStart, Capacity Building and Artists in Residence programs. Other than this, what that means in practice is difficult to say, though it’s worth noting that amongst the arts programs of the Attorney General’s Department are what remains of the Indigenous cultural programs.
Craft ACT during DESIGN Canberra - an event which brings together artists, creative industries, education bodies and the general public to explore the central role of design in an innovative regional and national culture

Australia Council and Ministry for the Arts
Is anyone surprised that the Government has transferred so much from the Australia Council to the Attorney-General’s Department? The Coalition has never loved the Australia Council – alarmingly located at arms length from government. Even though it was established by Holt and Gorton, it has always been seen as the baby of Whitlam, who gave it statutory authority. Philosophically the Coalition don’t like agencies that are removed from government in any way, preferring to focus all their support through Government departments. It gives more control and is also cleaner and clearer in their less than enthusiastic embrace of any role for government in just about anything.

It is also true that not everyone around the country is so enamoured of the Australia Council that they think all arts funding should be channelled through it. There have been numerous charges of it being Sydney-centric. Whether this is true or not is hard to tell, as there is always a tendency for artists to drift to the capital cities and especially the largest one of all. Does the funding follow the artists or do artists follow the funding? New York has been accused of exhibiting the same reputed tendency to become a cultural black hole from which no light escapes, disconnected from the rest of the country like an island with its own critical mass.

Some things in the changes are just shuffling the deckchairs. The touring programs were transferred to the Australia Council under the previous Government in a period of staff cuts to the Ministry for the Arts and rationalisation and restructuring. The Australia Council offered a larger home with more resources to support them. They’ve now come back. From my understanding, they were originally established as a counter-balance to the Australia Council, anyway, so it’s not all that surprising.

Under the change the Visions of Australia and Festivals Australia programs will return to the Ministry for the Arts from the Australia Council. Interestingly, the ‘Major Festivals Initiative’ will also be transferred and funding doubled to $1.5 million. Overall the government is redirecting $110 million over four years from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the Attorney‑General’s Department. This funding will transfer the Visions of Australia and Festivals Australia programmes and the Major Festivals Initiative to the Ministry for the Arts, and provide for the continuation of Creative Partnerships Australia’s matched funding program for a further three years. Most significant of all, it will fund the establishment of a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, to be managed by the Ministry for the Arts.

I am not too concerned that the touring programs and the smaller festivals program have moved back to the Ministry for the Arts – after all, it managed them quite successfully for many years.

The Indigenous cultural programs were also very successfully managed through the department for many years after their transfer from ATSIC. Whether this will continue in an era of cuts and restructures and, most recently, a greater focus on art rather than culture, only time will tell.

Once again the major performing arts companies are quarantined from these changes. As the media release of Minister Brandis notes, ‘There will be no reduction in the Australia Council’s funding to the 28 major performing arts companies as a result of this initiative.’

Perhaps we need to recognise the reality of what has been happening in practice for a long time now. Perhaps the funding for all the major performing arts organisations should be transferred to the Ministry as well. It manages the funding for the national arts training organisations and the national cultural institutions, so these companies would sit well in that environment.

New funds with old money
My main concern is the establishment of the new ‘National Programme for Excellence’ in the Arts’. The recent history of discretionary grants to Ministerial favourites does not bode well for the future of this fund. The only way this is transparent is that it’s very clear how it works: the Minister is approached by an organisation which he likes and decides to fund. I suppose you can’t get much more transparent than that.

Of course it means that the likelihood of funding being used in any sort of cost-effective way for the most worthwhile purposes is much reduced. Of course the Ministry for the Arts will wrap decisions in a blanket of process and rationale because that’s what departments are obliged to do. It would be a brave and strong official who said no to a request from a Minister, especially in the climate of moral collapse throughout the public service in the last few decades. It’s been done for previous governments and it will be done for this one. The Minister is their main stakeholder and can at least claim he has more of an elected status than they, so take it as read this is the way it will happen.

The engine room of the arts sector
Then the Australia Council could really focus on funding small to medium organisations and individual artists. It would do this with a much smaller level of funding overall but since so much of its funding is already locked up, in practice it wouldn’t represent much of a change. It would just make the reality more obvious, even more transparent. It would dent its pride but it wouldn’t be much of a change in what it really does. The task then would be to argue for this pool of funding to be increased over time. It’ such a small amount of funding relative to other government programs, that it is not a big ask. It would also be an opportunity to move even further along the track of an artform neutral ‘content’ fund, enabling greater collaboration and interactions across artforms and media.

Support for individual artists and small to medium arts and cultural organisations is what most concerns me. With funding for the major performing arts companies quarantined, every time the Australia Council has its funding reduced, these are the areas that inevitably lose out. Unfortunately this is where the creativity and innovation of the arts and cultural sector comes from. The long-term effects of this steady attrition of support will be dire but we won’t realise it until one day we stop and wonder why Australia has only a tired, ossified and top heavy arts sector. When these organisations are supported from the few buckets that aren’t quarantined, it’s inevitable that the impact of any overall cuts hit them worse because they will be magnified as they are squeezed into a few areas only. The steady decline in support for this part of the arts sector is just as much a threat to the major arts organisations, as they need it to help breed a climate of innovation in directions and approaches.

So the last thing we need now is a new ‘National Programme for Excellence’, which will almost certainly fund yet more of the big end of town, more of the safe ‘excellence’ politicians love so much. When most politicians think arts and culture they always seem to think of large performing arts companies, large festivals, large buildings, big opening nights and dressing up. It’s so conservative and conventional – just more of the same. We definitely don’t need a new ‘National Programme for Excellence’ which bleeds even more from the miniscule arts funding pool.

At the moment the Australia Council is in the middle of assessing expressions of interest for six year funding from all the small to medium arts and cultural organisations to which it has previously provided longer-term support. This process has now abruptly been placed on hold as a result of this decision. We face the very real possibility of scores of organisations - if not hundreds - that play an invaluable role in Australia’s arts and cultural sector having to close their doors. This could potentially strip away much of the most important layer of arts and cultural infrastructure across this country.

Worse still, this change at national level doesn’t happen in a vacuum. At the same time states and territories are also trimming budgets along the same sort of lines, so the overall effect will be magnified.

I have no problem at all with the larger companies being properly funded – the arts and culture sector as a whole comprise a complex package in which all the elements play a part. It’s more a case of ensuring two critical things – firstly, and most importantly, that governments and government funding bodies recognise that the sector as a whole flourishes or none of it flourishes. Secondly, that the large companies recognise that they have an important role in supporting the sector as a whole – through providing career paths, expertise, opportunities to collaborate and general advocacy for the entire sector.

However, what we are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind.

Note: Because of the critical significance I attach to small to medium arts and cultural organisations, I am a member of the Management Committee of Craft ACT, one of the many organisations which is currently engaged in the expression of interest process for Australia Council support.

See also

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future 
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, caused by lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding and falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts
‘I’ve said before that the traditional saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. If anything, there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth’, Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts.

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
‘National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwhile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important’, Arts funding – it’s not all about the money.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts 
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less
‘The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. In a context where there have been significant long term cuts to arts and culture funding in the last two budgets, particularly the 2014-15 one, these changes only worsen the situation’, Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less.

National arts and culture funding – follow the money
‘In the continuing furore over the transfer of funds from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015-16 budget, most of the focus to date has been on the Australia Council. What has been happening to the funding of the Ministry for the Arts itself? Based on the publically available budget figures since 2012, it is possible to compare the level of program funding managed by the Ministry for the Arts and see the reduction in funding following the election of the current Government’, National arts and culture funding - follow the money.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Notes from a steadily shrinking universe 
‘Following the Big Bang the universe may have been steadily expanding but in the world of Australian Government arts and culture the universe has definitely been heading the other way. In the end does government of any shade really think at heart that Australian arts and culture is important? Why should it when it’s a vexed question for our society as a whole and we are ambivalent about its worth? Yet this part of the Australian Government’s public service is incredibly important. To have a real impact though, it needs to be refocused and reinvigorated to operate once again across the broader government landscape’, Notes from a steadily shrinking universe.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Getting wild out West – Western Sydney’s long unhappiness at arts funding neglect
‘Western Sydney has long been unhappy with the tiny share of arts funding – both national and state – it receives. Across Australia there are many hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major art galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture and they are the level of arts and cultural infrastructure closest to the very grassroots of our country – the Australians who vote, who get unhappy and who change governments. They rarely do it because of matters related to arts and culture but sometimes matters related to arts and culture, added to other concerns, can help tip things over the edge. More than a few of these organisations are based in the great mixed expanse of urban, suburban and outer-suburban Australia which is Western Sydney’, Getting wild out West – Western Sydney’s long unhappiness at arts funding neglect.

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

A journey to a strange land ­– making sense of the senseless 
‘There we were, over 65 of us, from every state and territory and from every artform, all crammed into one tiny room in Parliament House, so even the visiting politicians sometimes had to stand. Despite the great diversity, the level of focus was frightening. It was helped along by the Chair, who clearly had a degree in alchemy which qualified her to turn chaos into order. If only she could turn the base metal of this example of bad policy into the precious coinage of strategic vision – but that must be the higher degree. Here we go again, I thought. It all felt too familiar, much like previous eras I have lived through, when good things were undone by narrow vision for short-term advantage. Sometimes I think it’s better when government is inefficient – that way it does less damage’, A journey to a strange land ­– making sense of the senseless.

Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats
‘The impact of the changes to national arts funding flowing from the Budget are likely to be deep and severe. The main issue for me is what will now not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. There are hundreds of small to medium arts and cultural organisations that play a pivotal role in supporting Australia’s cultural life. They need to be seen as every bit as important a part of Australia’s cultural infrastructure as the major performing arts companies or the major arts galleries and museums. They are essential infrastructure for our arts and culture’, Arts funding changes – rearranging the deckchairs while we ditch the lifeboats.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

National and local - putting arts and culture upfront
‘Arts and cultural policy is an important way out spelling out why and how arts and culture are important to both Australia as a whole and to specific states and regions. Developing arts and cultural policy for the ACT is unique because it is both the capital of the nation – hosting most of our national cultural institutions and a strong international diplomatic presence – and at the same time, an important regional centre’, National and local - putting arts and culture upfront.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The Indigenous cultural programs – what is happening to them?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

Indigenous culture and the gap in Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.’ Real jobs in an unreal world.

Earlier articles about the impact of the 2014-15 Budget on arts and culture

Support for small scale arts and culture
'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow.

Long term effect of broader Budget cuts far more damaging
'Wider budget cuts combined over years will have a compounding effect on arts and culture far more damaging than anything immediate.' After the Budget: the future landscape for Australian arts and culture

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