When quoting him in yesterday’s article on state by state arts funding, the Australian Financial Review should have declared that David Throsby is not only a Macquarie University economics professor but also Chairperson of the NSW State Government’s Arts Advisory Council.

In her article “Great States: Claiming the cultural crown” Katrina Strickland wrote that “NSW shaved nearly $20 million or 6 per cent, off its arts budget this year and its cultural spend lags [behind] all except the Australian Capital Territory on a per capita basis”.

Strickland was quoting Australia Council analysis which shows that the NSW State Government is way behind its counterparts, especially Victoria which will spend more than any other state or territory on the arts in the 2007/8 financial year.

“Per capita figures tend not to favour NSW because it has more heads to distribute a fixed amount over,” Throsby told the AFR.

If Throsby was just an economics professor from Macquarie University, you could believe that his statement was an independent commentary on the state of arts funding in NSW, but as Chair to Frank Sartor’s Arts Advisory Council, it raises the issue of a conflict of interest.

Throsby, who is one of Australia’s most well-known cultural economists, even suggested to the AFR that “NSW is a place where a lot [of arts] is produced and consumed. Of course when the financial strings are loosened, you’d hope that more could be done in the way of public expenditure that might make a difference, but a lot happens in NSW anyway, that’s just a fact”.

This less than proven fact is the same tune that Arts Minister Sartor is also singing. Strickland writes that the minister “also rejects any negative reading of the budget comparison, pointing to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that show Sydney’s per capita cultural spend is among the highest…”

NSW may certainly enjoy more exposure to national touring companies who use Sydney as their base, but they are primarily looked after by Federal money.

The other problem is that the ABS data Mr Sartor is quoting is from 2002/03 and includes expenditure on other areas including nature parks and reserves which the Australia Council figures do not.

Much of the $20 million which was taken away from the arts at the end of the last financial year by NSW Treasurer Michael Costa will directly affect grassroots and community grant projects.

Instead, the state government prefers to funnel money to big arts institutions namely a $1 million opening night party for the Sydney Festival in January, the redevelopment of the Sydney Opera House and the Museum of Contemporary art and this week’s announcement to provide $1.8million to the Sydney Film Festival.

Consequences of this type of spending must be that the funding of arts activities and community arts development in greater Sydney and in Regional NSW will be drastically cut, underlining the fear amongst many arts practitioners and audiences that NSW will have some beautiful arts venues with nothing very much happening inside.

At a recent forum in Sydney, Company B Artistic Director Neil Armfield asked “who is looking after the breeding grounds, the grasses at the end of the creek where you find the little fish feeding, the place from which a culture can grow with safety and strength? This is what needs our attention now.”

Instead of following the Victorian example of providing appropriate levels of funding to keep arts venues alive with arts events ($406.7 million in 07/08), NSW has continued to slash the arts portfolio which will end up targeting grassroots arts development (only $286.6 million in 07/08).

Coupled with the State ALP’s unwillingness to tackle liquor licensing laws head on, NSW could become a state not only filled with huge empty arts spaces but with huge empty pubs as well.

When will the NSW State Government get serious about grass roots arts? The question has to be asked, does Treasurer Michael Costa and Arts Minister Frank Sartor want to raise the exposure and market share of innovative and locally made events or do we want to ride on the back of imported arts events that put a sticky-tape solution over a major cultural capital problem in this state.

On the day of the AFR article, Sartor’s office put out a press release announcing an immediate review into NSW’s Cultural Grants Program to “identify opportunities to make our grants program more strategic [and] also look for opportunities to increase the number of joint programs between arts, heritage and other programs.”

That’s because smaller arts organisations have to continue dealing with budget cut after budget cut with a state government arts policy that is lagging behind the rest of the country.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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