It’s been expected for a while now but finally it’s official – Jennifer Bott is leaving the Australia Council after seven and a half years as the funding body’s CEO, and it would seem she has decided to jump before she gets shoved.
Katrina Strickland broke the story in The AFR today, reporting that Bott announced her decision to a meeting of the council’s board last Friday. It was the first meeting presided over by new chairman James Strong.
The veteran arts administrator is said to have signalled her intention to leave her post at the end of September, although her contract is not due to expire until next February.
Strickland is known to have strong contacts at both bureaucratic and ministerial level in Canberra, so much weight can be given to her claim that “Bott is believed to have fallen out of favour with some ministers, particularly arts ministers Helen Coonan and Rod Kemp, and is unlikely to have been offered a third term.”
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Bott is leaving at a particularly critical time for the Australia Council. As Strickland pointed out, the council has an October deadline to prepare its submission for its triennial funding agreement: “Her early departure leaves the crucial task of pushing for a hoped-for increase to the council’s $152 million annual funding through the next budget to a brand new team – an interim chief executive, the council’s new chairman, Mr Strong, and its new deputy chairman, Melbourne lawyer turned investment banker Joe Gersh.”
Given that James Strong is going to be very busy in his Australia Council role, it is all the more urgent that he quits his other big arts job as chairman of the Australian Business Arts Foundation. With plenty of potential for turf wars between the two arts bodies over funding and operational matters, it is not a good look having the same person chairing both organisations.
A spokesman for junior Arts Minister Rod Kemp told Crikey that the Government is hoping to finalise the appointment of a new AbaF chairman soon, which is not nearly soon enough considering that Strong has been in the conflicting roles for the past six weeks. At the very least, he could resign from the AbaF gig and allow an acting chair to do the job until a permanent replacement is announced.
There is enough concern in the arts community about ethical issues at the Australia Council without its chairman having such an obvious, albeit inadvertent, conflict of interest.