“Thanks to Mr Rudd’s efficiency dividend, I have been deemed ‘excess to requirements’,” the group email began.

And so it goes for 13 public servants of the Australia Council for the Arts who have been given the tap on the shoulder in response to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s enforced efficiency dividend.

But there is no love lost between the nation’s major arts funding body and artists who have been crying out for less bureaucracy for years. Particularly individual artists.

In total, 28 people are leaving the Australia Council through a combination of voluntary and non-voluntary redundancies, reducing the overall staff numbers from 150 in 2007/08 to 122 this coming financial year. It makes the Council one of the leading lights in Rudd’s commitment to save $1.8 billion across the entire public service.

Various fearful emails from disgruntled staff should start making the rounds, but artists should be the last to complain, with CEO Kathy Keele making a full commitment to not cut grants.

“We are putting in place measures to maintain our funding for artists and arts organisations by streamlining the organisation and making $2 million in administrative savings,” she said at the time of the 2% efficiency dividend announcement.

Yesterday, Keele told Crikey that a formal business process review ran from January to March this year which “identified seven key areas for efficiency improvements: travel, finance, property services, grants assessment and management, project management, relationships with arts organisations and the research function.”

The key concern for artists though is the business of giving them money. And with the bureaucracy stuck just a stone’s throw away from the News Ltd empire in Sydney’s Surry Hills, cost cuts will mean those in other regions of the country have even less access to council staff.

Indeed, there is a key proposal in the business process review to “reduce the amount of face-to-face meeting time and associated travel cost for the peer assessment panels through online assessment and other processes,” Keele said.

But that has always been a problem for artists not close to Sydney ever since the Council was established by the Whitlam Government in 1973. In fact, a blanket enforcement of artists to go online to apply and acquit their grants may actually create a more level playing field.

To streamline the grant application and acquittal process, the Australia Council is moving the way of the world and shifting it to a focus on “online management of the grants process, specifically online grants reporting and online applications from next year,” Keele said.

Future challenges facing the Council, however, are looming. It’s all very well to trim the fat, but if Rudd decides to extend the efficiency dividend further you could see an organisation start digging substantially into grant finances. And for arts organisations who are already running on the smell of an oily rag, particularly in the small to medium sector, any cost squeeze will bury their future.

Maybe that’s why the Council has had the foresight to be “best in show” with the efficiency dividend request. It could produce favours down the line.

Kathy Keele, chief executive of the Australia Council for the Arts, responds:

There are factual errors in the Ben Eltham and Nicholas Pickard piece above which I would like to correct for the benefit of Crikey readers.

Of the 28 people who are leaving or have left the Australia Council in 2007-08, only 13 were due to their roles being made ‘redundant’. The other 15 left of their own accord during the year – natural attrition – or because the projects they were working on ended.

The second error of fact is about Australia Council staff spending less ‘face time’ working with artists around Australia. The reduction in ‘face-to-face meeting time’ refers exclusively to travel to Sydney by members of the various peer assessment panels. It is one of the new measures to streamline the grant making process; reducing administrative costs (airfares, accommodation and per diems), taking advantage of new online technologies to assess applications and most importantly, ensuring that the available funds go to Australian artists to make art.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.