Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Silent retreat – is arts funding becoming project funding?

There’s lots to be worried about in the flurry of recent changes to national arts funding arrangements. Amongst it we need to be concerned at what might be the beginning of a bigger trend – the tendency for government to withdraw from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding.

The arts and culture sector is contemplating the first full set of projects funded by the new Catalyst program and awaiting the announcements next week by the Australia Council of their decisions about which organisations will receive four year funding. It’s a good time to think about the implications of what has been happening in the arts funding landscape over the last year.

Amongst the many concerns about the recent changes to national arts funding arrangements I am deeply disturbed that we might be witnessing the beginning of a bigger trend – that is the tendency for government to pull back from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding.

'We might be witnessing the beginning of a bigger trend – that is the tendency for government to pull back from longer term operational support for the arts in preference for short term, one-off project funding'

It’s a complex picture because in many ways the current Australian Government in its quest to reduce ‘red tape’, in many areas has moved even further along the path of multi-year contracts and minimal oversight, particularly in the brave new (and old) world of Indigenous Affairs. However, at least in marginal areas like arts support, it is a tendency that seems to be developing momentum. Potentially it marks a creeping government withdrawal from serious long-term effective support.

Parliament House in Canberra was designed so that anyone could walk on it to remind politicians that they answered to the will of the people - a message that seems to have been forgotten.

Even cheaper outsourcing
Perhaps we have to see this as a form of even cheaper outsourcing in the community sphere than at present, parallel to the more lucrative outsourcing dreamed of – and occurring – in the business sphere. After all, as Peter Shergold has pointed out, if government wants certain outcomes, a highly cost-effective (cheap) way to get them is by funding community organisations who live (and die) on the smell of an oily rag. Unfortunately project funding is a particularly erratic and ad hoc form of outsourcing.

The trend fits into the broader ‘neo-liberal’ agenda of withdrawing from servicing the community and minimising the role of government – which this government trumpets and the opposition doesn't oppose nearly as vigorously as is could. It completely ignores the implications of the growth in the economy and population and the need for services supported by government to keep up with these increases.

It also works very well for politicians, since ministers have a constant stream of ‘announceables’ that usually entail relatively little funds but big trumpets – potentially in every marginal electorate.

'This creeping trend makes it ever harder for organisations to find the long term operational funding which small arts and cultural organisations need to keep their doors open so they can deliver base level "frontline" services'

So far this seems to have only been happening at national level though, in the interests of accurate intelligence, if it is the case that it is occurring elsewhere I would be keen to hear.

My major concern with this creeping trend is that is makes it ever harder for organisations to find the long term operational funding which small arts and cultural organisations need to keep their doors open so they can deliver base level ‘frontline’ services. It transitions arts and culture funding into support for the more ephemeral and enables support to be reduced or even ceased with far less impact and reaction.

Major philanthropic fund realises crucial role of operational support
It’s no accident that the second largest philanthropic fund in the US, the Ford Foundation, has recognised the importance of operational funding to community organisations by changing its guidelines to prioritise such funding.

The Foundation announced a major overhaul of the support it provides community organisations, including arts and culture bodies. This is a really interesting development. It is moving its focus to building social infrastructure through support for operating expenses. Coupled with greater flexibility about what can be funded, this refocus will make the fund much more effective.

The Foundation reviewed it practices and consulted widely with the non-profit sector. A common comment was that the sector felt it was being ‘project-supported to death’.

'The second largest philanthropic fund in the US, the Ford Foundation, has recognised the importance of operational funding to community organisations by changing its guidelines to prioritise such funding'

Underpinning all this with a focus on social justice gives it a strategic direction that means it might have long term impact in a country where there is a lot to impact. It's provenance as a body that originally supported civil rights social infrastructure is fascinating.

From the perspective of someone who managed arts and culture funding programs for many years, these are really important changes and they really resonate. The move to build infrastructure through support for operational expenses, such as rent, staff wages and technological support is absolutely critical. There is a risk with this that it can become a case of funding to keep organisations operating for the sake of operating – and I have seen this in Australia on occasions. However, when the organisations involved are focused and effective and it works, it can really help change the world.

Massive unintended consequences
This news is very interesting at a time when the Australian Government has just made serious changes to the way it funds arts and culture. These changes will turn out to have massive unintended consequences for the ability of small arts and culture organisations to continue to operate. The new focus of the Ford Foundation on the importance of support for operational costs highlights how crucial such support is to building and maintaining critical social infrastructure. It is a lesson we will have to relearn here in Australia as a whole layer of arts infrastructure is at risk of beginning to rapidly unravel and disintegrate.

The main issue for me is still what will not be funded – by the Australia Council or by anyone else. This is the hard reality of all these changes so far and changes likely to come. What is disappearing into the project bucket is essential core funding for a whole broad strand of arts and cultural infrastructure which makes possible greatly magnified impacts from the relatively small amount of funding involved. Without this funding what will be lost is not just the immediate effects of the funding but the much greater magnified impact as well.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

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.

Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?
‘A policy and the understanding of issues that leads to its adoption, provides arts and culture with a stature that underpins funding by providing a rationale for support. Otherwise funding will always be ad hoc and insecure, piecemeal, project-based, intermittent and at the mercy of whim and fashion. We have to get arts and culture to the stage where it is seen like public health or education and debated accordingly’, Election mode for Australian arts and culture – a policy-free zone?

Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?
‘In response to steadily diminishing support for arts and culture by government, it's crucial to recognise that Australia's arts are central to everyday life and should be firmly on the main national agenda. Apart from their value in maintaining a thriving Australian culture, the range of social and economic benefits they deliver and their role in telling Australia's story to ourselves and the world make them an essential service’, Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity 
‘Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It helps ensure innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect, differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged. This is essential to the new clever and clean industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape. The national Indigenous cultural programs play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture. What is clear is that these programs have been affected by the range of cuts as part of the search for savings since the Coalition Government took office. Funding community organisations for services government would otherwise have to provide is a great way to get things on the cheap. If you don’t fund them at all, it’s even cheaper’, Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity.

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support 
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda
‘There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

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.

National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes
‘I am not too concerned who manages national arts funding. Both the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts have long managed numerous funding programs. I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs much sooner. Well- known and respected figures in the arts and culture sector have been expressing this concern sharply’, National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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