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Pain in the arts: only a transparent Australia Council will do

It doesn’t take a censor to silence an artist — a sufficiently opaque and discretionary funding body can achieve the same effect. The Australia Council Review, which has grown out of the Cultural Policy Review initiated by Arts Minister Simon Crean, is doing an excellent job of illustrating this principle.

Since the Cultural Policy Review was launched last year, Crikey’s Ben Eltham has been shining a light on the fate of artists and arts bodies that fall foul of the Australia Council’s whims. His is a lonely voice; few of his sources are willing to go on the record in support of his claims. But there’s plenty of applause from “Anonymous”.

With the Australia Council accountable to no one outside itself, elements of the council have a shameful track record of serving their own agenda rather than nurturing artist-led organisations. Their decisions are inconsistent with their own guidelines; their processes and protocols opaque. That’s the experience of the stage and screenwriters the Australian Writers’ Guild represents and, judging by Eltham’s recent columns, dancers, crafts people and many others that the council is designed to support, share it. The unlimited tenure enjoyed by the council’s influential staff has further suppressed any criticism of an organisation whose real decision makers cannot even be subjected to Freedom of Information requests.

The review has finally created the opportunity artists and organisations have hoped for — to expose the workings of this super-bureaucracy to someone with the power to make changes.

What’s been said must have given the reviewers pause for thought.  The Australia Council Review has now launched a national survey to publicly consult on whether the Australia Council remains relevant today. Minister Crean said many of the 450 submissions received during the consultation process “discussed the role” of the agency.

It seems likely that many organisations who made public submissions “discussed the council’s role” rather than risk stating their specific concerns for fear of losing crucial survival funding should the council continue to operate in its current form once the review is done.

Three key issues they might have “discussed” more openly had the Australia Council been less of a fiefdom are transparency, independence and artist focus.

Each grant board within the Australia Council has a set of criteria according to which it supposedly transparently allocates funding. For example, the Literature Board’s published application material for the 2010 funding year stipulated that all three of its most basic criteria must be met in order for an applicant to even get past the first hurdle. The criteria were: a minimum of two grants from the Australia Council in the past three years; a minimum of 40% in income from sources other than the Australia Council; and that it must be legally constituted as an organisation.

However, just because the criteria are published and advertised as universally applicable doesn’t mean the Literature Board has felt bound by them. In that year, the board awarded funding to Writing Australia, which met none of these criteria because it did not even exist until the Australia Council coaxed it into being. The new entity was so far from being an organic, needs-based initiative, that the Australia Council had to give it a grant to pay a consultant to write the business plan that allowed it to become an entity. The Australia Council suggested that the business plan should be geared towards having Writing Australia recognised as an “emerging key organisation” and indicated that a quarter of a million dollars would be available for such an organisation. Then the council created a funding pool that had not previously existed. Lo and behold, it was for “emerging key organisations”.

It didn’t go unnoticed in the arts community, of course. When the AWG asked why a new national writers organisation was needed in addition to the long-established Australian Society of Authors, Australian Writers’ Guild, Australian Poetry, sundry state-based writers’ centres and the brand new Playwriting Australia — the answer was a cross between “because we say so” and “because our guidelines have changed”. The imperative of the guidelines appears to ebb and flow.

These flexible guidelines might not be such an issue if personal agendas and the public interest were separated through clear conflict-of-interest policies. But not only does the Australia Council have a habit of generosity toward organisations that it has been significantly instrumental in establishing, there are apparently no rules against the board members who set them up or approve their funding personally benefiting from those very funds. In one instance, the freshly funded Playwriting Australia, beneficiary of the limber guidelines mentioned above, awarded the chair of the theatre board a commission of $10,000 — the only one awarded that year — and an invitation to the National Script Workshop in 2010, one of only six highly coveted  spots for playwrights nationwide.

In this context it is not entirely unconcerning that the two chairs of the review both have had long-standing commitments, including board appointments, to organisations that consistently receive some of the Australia Council’s largest grants — more than 10 million annually between them.

It is an encouraging sign that the review has approved an anonymous survey to allow worried artists to do more than just “discuss” the role of the Australia Council. It would be more encouraging still if artists were able to speak out openly about their experiences without the fear of losing access to funding in future. Only fair, open and transparent processes can achieve that.

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  • 1
    Andrew Chalmers
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Oh, for the love of god. The Australian Writers Guild complaining yet again whenever some money goes to assist the writing industry.

    The AWG have a terrible track record in doing this, making them the poster child for ‘arts organisation whinges whenever money goes to another arts organisation’. The same happened when PlayWriting Australia was created.

    Writing Australia came out of a meeting in 2009 with the literature board and the heads of a number of state based writers’ centres. God forbid that there should be some federal investigations into ways to support the state based orgs.

    As many writers know, the AWG are unhelpful at the best of times and lack the nuance to run proper arguments to government whenever issues concern writers. They are knee-jerk reactive at best.

    Is it any wonder that this toothless outfit from Rozelle are jumping up and down when the train has already well and truly left the station? They should stick to what they’re good at, keep running those workshops and stop complaining about other arts organisations.

  • 2
    Holden Back
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Can someone trace the origin of the Gerund Australia format for naming organisations?

  • 3
    calyptorhynchus
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    My favourite bit in the Australia Council surbey was the question:

    What is artisitic excellence?”

    My reply: “If the Australia Council doesn’t know what artistic excellence is, what would be the good of my telling them?”

    In my experience a book with the Australia Council log in the front is highly likely to be unreadable, embarrassingly bad.

  • 4
    Bob Withers
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    From what I understand, the survey on the Australia Council isn’t being run by the council, but rather the chairs of the review.

    Is it wrong for them to ask the sector what they see as artistic excellence?
    In fact, given the Australia Council has a pretty firm view on what excellence is, wouldn’t it be wrong if the reviewers didn’t ask artists what they thought?

  • 5
    Keele Kathy
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    The Australia Council takes the issue of conflict of interest very seriously. Because our artform boards are made up of members who work in the arts sector, we need to be ever-vigilant on this matter, which is why we have a robust conflict of interest code in place. This code ensures that any conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived, do not influence discussion about, or decisions on, grant applications. For anyone wanting to see our code in full, please go to: http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/grants/information_for_applicants/assessment_and_review

    This article also references previous grievances of the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG), who were unsuccessful in becoming a Key Organisation in 2009 and who also took issue with the establishment and funding of Writing Australia. AWG took their grievance to the Commonwealth Ombudsman who investigated whether the Australia Council:

    • In reaching its decision did not apply its own published criteria for Key Organisation funding;
    • Had favoured organisations that were instigated by, and/or financially dependent on, the Council;
    • Did not base its decision on the expression of interest submitted and took into account irrelevant or wrong information or assumptions;
    • Provided conflicting advice to AWG in the lead up to the decision; and
    • Had provided conflicting explanations for the rejection.

    In all instances the Commonwealth Ombudsman found no grounds to support the allegations.

    We’re open to criticism, conversation and ideas. And we certainly agree that the public survey is a great opportunity to have a say about the Australia Council. Submissions close tomorrow (Friday 9 March) though so head to http://culture.arts.gov.au/australia-council-review-survey and have your say.

    Kathy Keele
    CEO, Australia Council for the Arts

  • 6
    El Dreco the Rationalist
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    The only transaction that makes sense for an artist is the direct transaction between the artist and a known sponsor. This transaction is now possible through the Australia Cultural Fund, a division of the Australia Business Arts foundation (AbaF). The Australia Council is a redundant white elephant that should be abolished, as I argued long ago in my online article posted at http://www.revolve.com.au/polemic/abolish/01-introduction.htm
    Australia Council funding is essayed by outwardly transparent but inwardly convoluted processes of which the only demonstrable one is judgement by committees of peers. It is an inherently venal arrangement to have peers passing judgement on the putative merit of their own rivals to receive funding, since artistic judgement is notoriously subjective and is also covertly hostage to extra-artistic factors many of them suspect in motivation. It is also an inherently unsatisfactory situation to have paid bureaucrats earning a living by processing applications for funding because the raison d’etre of their employment is to have a greater number of artists applying for funding than can be accomodated by available funds. At frequent intervals the Australia Council engages (at great expense) external bodies (seemingly at arm’s length) to gather data pertaining to the need of artists and arts bodies for funding. This involves gathering data to prove how poor the dependant mendicants are. These exercises are spruiked as having benevolent intent, this being to garner community support for “the arts”, but the benevolence of the bureaucrats who promote such demonstrations is rather directed towards themselves to prove the social relevance of the organization which employs them and to persuade successive governments to provide funds to ensure their own continuing employment.

  • 7
    Ursula
    Posted Thursday, 8 March 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    The AWG has a hide talking about fiefdoms. As Andrew Chalmers notes, the AWG will tend to whinge whenever someone other than them gets awarded funding. They’ve never been happy with the existence of Playwriting Australia, seeming to believe that they (the AWG) are the natural representatives of playwrights. What they don’t recognise is that theirs is an organisation that is still primarily geared towards those working in the area of film and TV, and that offers little of value to the playwrights who have found themselves members by virtual default (there no longer being any body that specifically represents playwrights). The AWG obviously saw the demise of the ANPC (the previous playwrights’ representative body) as a great opportunity to build its membership base, and it has done that voraciously. What’s becoming clear is that the building of the membership base, particularly among playwrights, was done primarily in order to position themselves for an ever greater slice of the funding pie, if not to give it grounds to argue that it should completely absorb PWA. This is why they complain when PWA gets money for funding play development, and why they take potshots at established and respected playwrights because they happen for receive workshop support. It’s time the AWG looked at what it does for its actual playwriting members, because from my experience they are doing very little apart from talking themselves up and lining their own coffers. And I know AWG talk about being a non-profit organisation, but it might be time some of their operating costs were looked at a little more closely.

  • 8
    Campion Decent
    Posted Friday, 9 March 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I feel compelled to respond to the following statement in the AWG article: “In one instance, the freshly funded Playwriting Australia, beneficiary of the limber guidelines mentioned above, awarded the chair of the theatre board a commission of $10,000 — the only one awarded that year — and an invitation to the National Script Workshop in 2010, one of only six highly coveted spots for playwrights nationwide.” This is inaccurate. The commission you refer to was generated and commenced by HotHouse Theatre; and PlayWriting Australia was approached to co-fund it in a pilot scheme (hence the only one) looking at a new partnership model between a theatre company and development agency to facilitate the creation of new work on a shared-risk basis.

    I think what dismays me most about your article is it indirectly belittles the worth of a playwright’s work for your organisation’s agenda and I find that distressing given you purport to represent the interests of playwrights. The writer you refer to as ‘chair of the theatre board’ is a significant theatre artist and an emerging playwright who deserves support. Are you saying this artist has no right to access industry opportunities during tenure of the theatre board? If you are, this has grave consequences for the ongoing viability of peer assessment in this country because who among us could afford to make such a commitment?

    Finally, in the interests of transparency, I would like to acknowledge I was artistic director of HotHouse at the time you write about and I am currently (volunteer) Chair of the Australian Script Centre (both organisations funded by the Australia Council); I have recently received workshop support from PlayWriting Australia for a new play; and I am a member of the AWG (and have lent a hand there too over the years). I also worked for the Australia Council many years ago. And that’s the point … those of us who love and work in the arts will wear multiple paid and unpaid hats over time.

    I understand your organisation’s frustration about accessing funds from the Australia Council - who among us has not experienced that from time to time!?! - but please do not attack your colleagues or omit the significant commissioning role of a theatre company to make your case. It isn’t really helpful.

  • 9
    Jacqueline Elaine
    Posted Friday, 9 March 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    The AWG is a Guild, a collective of more than 2500 writers, run by writers, for writers for over 50 years.

    Most of Australia’s most recognised and respected playwrights are among our ranks serving on the Board, and forming the playwrights committee which steer our work. David Williamson stands proudly as our Emeritus President.

    We were the founder of the ANPC which Ursula laments the passing of and suggests the very playwrights who established it and fought its defunding exploited its passing.

    We are not the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle which Andrew Chalmers may have confused us with.

    We work hard for, and embrace every dollar of the scarce resources allocated to the arts, which are used to support Australian playwrights and see their work on stage.

    The Ombudsman, who Kathy Keele refers to, is only permitted to assess the Australia Council against very limited administrative criteria, with information provided by the council itself. It is this very lack of accountability to anyone other than itself which is contrary to the best interests of the people it is there to serve. It is this circularity and insularity of accountability, the inconsistent and untransparent approach to the distribution of millions of taxpayer’s dollars

    In its response to our claim of the Australia Council’s failure to observe due process the Ombudsman’s office said that while they noted that the Australia Council’s reasoning “does not appear to relate (at least overtly) to either the content of your EOI or the any of the published criteria”, the Australia Council was acting within its own remit to do so, and that the documents which guided the decision were not subject to Freedom of Information rules so the AWG was not permitted to see the staff’s submission to the Board which guided this decision.

    The Australian Writers’ Guild has clearly and repeatedly communicated to the Australia Council that we do not seek to replicate or undermine the work of Playwriting Australia; quite the contrary. Playwriting Australia’s mandate is very different to, and complementary with that of the Australian Writers Guild. They work intensely with select writers on the development of their work, and work with the companies to shepherd these plays and others, to promote new Australian work in their theatres. It is the Australia Council who confuses our respective roles and seeks to draw an either/or distinction. Their written position was that Playwriting Australia was better able to do the work that the AWG does. They are not, and do not claim to be – and we are not, and do not claim to be better able to do the work that they do.

    The Australian Writers’ Guild, as a collective of hundreds of professional and aspiring playwrights does not receive any funding from the Australia Council to run its organisation. Staff positions are not dependent on it. It has not received more than $25,000 a year for particular projects from the Australia Council in ten years, while others similarly positioned received many multiples of that, several hundreds of thousands in some cases.

    The Australia Council staff told Writing Australia in an email forum to apply for $250,000 before it existed to cover staff and other overheads when it did exist, and the only avenue to its existence was Australia Council funding. Immediately after the AWG raised concerns about the appropriateness of this lack of due process, it was blocked from the discussion forum. It was subsequently defunded from being a key organisation for the first time since the category existed without warning.

    We do not need the Australia Council funding for our very existence and only request funding from the Australia Council for activities explicitly for the benefit of playwrights. Odd that the only national playwrights collective in the country, one of 50 years standing, representing hundreds of playwrights, whose numbers are swelling, was suddenly and without warning considered to have ceased to be a key organisation when it raised its concerns about due process and transparency. It is the only funding door in town and public criticism of its current practices in allocating that funding is a legitimate and essential role for Australian playwrights and their guild.

    Our mistake apparently seems to be to have raised our concerns with them directly rather than in corridor conversations. Having the conversation now publicly, during a federal review of the role and relevance of the Council is vital. We represent hundreds of playwrights whose voices should be sought out by the council not silenced.

    If our concerns about the Council’s vicissitudes was interpreted as a desire to see less funding for playwrights, or for that funding to be channelled only through the Guild it was certainly not our intention. A diverse range of opinions, agendas and opportunities is healthy and exactly what we seek. A one-stop shop with no external accountability is not. We have brought the corridor conversations out into the open on behalf of our playwrights and in response to their concerns. It is only proper that we do so.

    Ben, keep up the good work.

    Jacqueline Elaine
    Executive Director, Australian Writers’ Guild

  • 10
    Andrew Chalmers
    Posted Friday, 9 March 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    We are not the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle which Andrew Chalmers may have confused us with.”

    I wasn’t confused and know exactly who you are.

    Campion Decent’s revealing comment was very telling of how the playwriting sector view AWG (for clarification - not the NSWWC).

    The negativity of the AWG does no one, especially Executive Director Jacqueline Elaine, no good at all. Perhaps it’s time to get a consultant in to turn AWG around from a complainant to a constructive member of the arts community that doesn’t shit all over industry colleagues.

    The NSW Writers Centre on the other hand are a formidable organisation under the excellent direction of David Ryding. He has brought the place alive since his tenure started. They are constructive, activist and community driven. Qualities to be emulated.

  • 11
    Ursula
    Posted Friday, 9 March 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Organisational culture is not a static thing, as I’m sure Ms Elaine would agree. And I’d suggest that the AWG is a very different beast now to it was several decades ago when ANPC was established.

    I have no knowledge as to what, if any, role the AWG played in the demise of the ANPC - what I’m saying is that the AWG has exploited the demise of the ANPC, actively recruiting playwrights in order to build their own funding base. I have no objection to a representative body seeking to recruit new members - I do object when the representative body takes up those members without offering anything tangible in return. Being able to cite the names of prominent playwrights who are members or who’s on what playwriting committee or even the number of playwrights on their books is vastly different to actually doing something of value for those playwrights. And I’d suggest that many playwrights are members of the AWG despite the little that the AWG does for them rather than because of what the AWG has to offer.

    It’s also a little disingenuous to say that the AWG has no problem with Playwriting Australia when the AWG recently sent out an email to its members asking members to write to the Australia Council to support the AWG’s assertions that, because of the number of playwrights on their books, they have a right to a greater slice of the funding pie currently going to Playwriting Australia.

    But all that aside, I’d still like to hear Ms Elaine’s defence to the issue raised by Cameron Decent - that she unfairly undermined the reputation of a respected playwright - one of the very people she purports to represent - in order to advance the AWG’s claims.

  • 12
    Pearn David
    Posted Sunday, 11 March 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Is it Sydney based?
    If so, just like all such Australian taxpayer funded institutions (theABC for instance) it will be navel-gazing, self-indulgent, narcicistic and with a born-to-rule sense of self importance and a divine right to be as geographically unrepresentative as it deems fit……..no argument there! (I did mention tax payer funded, didn’t I?)

  • 13
    Andrew Chalmers
    Posted Monday, 12 March 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Alert, alert! Another ignorant right wing idiotic comment. Industries that receive subsidies aside from the arts include energy, education, transport and agriculture. Snore David Learn. Snore. Go away and make a useful contribution.

  • 14
    Pearn David
    Posted Tuesday, 13 March 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    In terms of the nationally broadcast news and current affairs would anyone seriously suggest that the ABC and SBS, as just two examples, are not simply Sydney networkers.
    The arts/media alliance is seriously unrepresentative of all Australians not living in NSW and that is not the view of a “right wing idiot” but simply an unblinkered 66 year observation by just one of those unrepresentated taxpayers.

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