Sydney cares for the arts — as long as there’s a photo op in it.

NSW Arts Minister Frank Sartor recently announced an enormous funding boon for the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), to the tune of around $38 million. (Was it a last-minute decision? Word on the street is that the MCA didn’t even know that its $10 million was coming.)

But for the majority of the state’s artists, it’s just more salt in the wound. When funding for the small to medium sector was finally announced in February, almost three months late, it was clear that their budget had been slashed.

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When it comes to the arts, NSW is just not in step with the rest of the country.

Sartor was unable to attend the recent Cultural Ministers Council Meeting with new Federal arts front man Peter Garrett, which gave his counterparts from Australia and New Zealand the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of a ribbing.

For the Arts Ministers, who hadn’t met since the end of 2006, his absence presented the perfect opportunity to focus on the rogue state that is going against the trend of all other states and territories.

Of most concern to the gathering, particularly those representing Queensland and the ACT, was why NSW remains the only state that would not increase its share in national arts initiatives – namely the development of Indigenous arts and culture, contemporary music development and disability access to arts industries.

At around the same time in Adelaide, artists from NSW were arriving at the 8th Australian Performing Arts Market to try and sell their creative wares to producers, venues and festivals. The lead-up to the market was a bit tense for many of the state’s small to medium companies and independent artists. They’d all expected to know the outcome of the 2008 round of NSW arts grants well in advance of the market.

It was too much for one person who broke the story in Crikey on the 19 February:

Does the Minister for Everything in NSW, Frank Sartor, have too much on his plate? Arts organisations around the state are still waiting to hear if they are to receive funding for 08 even though it is middle of February. They usually hear November/December… does he have too much on or just or is it just not a priority?

Just days later, The Sydney Morning Herald picked up the story and it was all on. It appeared that the NSW Arts Minister had been too flat-chat with the various other problems in NSW to sign off on the funding recommendations – which had been made months earlier.

For the artists on the ground wanting to know if they could still develop shows they wish to sell at the Adelaide market it was all a bit too late – especially when they found out hours before that funding for the small to medium sector had been substantially cut for many.

For the unhappy contingent from NSW, morale was further sapped when they met with their delightfully chirpy colleagues from the other states, quite satisfied with how things are growing – especially those from Victoria and Queensland.

The problem that both artists in NSW and the Cultural Ministers Council have in common is they don’t have the splashy, firework-starting initiatives that the NSW Government likes to support.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa like big bangs for their buck. They will happily hurl millions at the established institutions at the most opportune times to give the impression that they are all arts savvy. Last week’s additional $38 million and a couple of million to the Sydney Festival to fund their opening night party are just two examples.

The other side of the coin of course is that the areas where arts practice is created, the areas where artists develop — small to medium and community arts organisations — are all bearing the brunt of the major cuts.

But what with Wollongong corruption scandals, s-x charges against an ex-Minister in Newcastle, public health inquiries, babies dying in toilets, energy industry privatisation, an infrastructure crisis and poker machine gambling addicts, there probably isn’t any real need for further arts funding… The theatrics are already down at Macquarie Street.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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