Last week it was Film Victoria’s $45,000 party for departing CEO Sandra Sdraulig, and its strangely un-apologetic “open letter” to the screen community (as Crikey mused on Friday). This week, it’s the turn of Film Victoria’s colleagues at arts funding agency Arts Victoria to feel the heat, after the release of a report by Victorian Ombudsman George Brouwer into corrupt practices by an Arts Victoria official.

The Arts Victoria purchasing officer apparently accepted kick-backs in return for buying over-priced printer cartridges and toner, costing the department $80,000 over what it should have paid. Arts Victoria has reportedly been left with a stockpile equalling 40 years worth of printer toner.

The Ombudsman’s findings in regards to 40 years worth of extra printer toner have been widely reported, much to the amusement of many in the sector (perhaps it’s time for Arts Victoria to announce a print-making or small press grant to disperse the extra ink?). And the matter is certainly serious, given the Ombudsman identifies lax management and auditing procedures and “a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

But Brouwer’s findings about ticket freebies for arts bureaucrats will have much wider ramifications, perhaps even for arts funding agencies in other states and federally.

The Ombudsman identified “a culture at Arts Victoria where benefits and gifts to stakeholder events (such as opera, theatre and ballet) are regularly accepted and not declared or recorded by staff on the grounds that such gifts relate to staff members’ professional roles”. “I consider this rationale to be naïve,” he continued, “given that providers of these gifts are bodies which exist and survive on the basis of grants, many of which are supplied by the State Government”.

Amazingly, the report found that Arts Victoria’s register of gifts did not contain a single entry.

Brouwer is, of course, dead right. As anyone even vaguely associated with the arts knows, free tickets (or “comps” as they are known) are regularly given away to the top brass of funding agencies. When I was a performing arts reviewer, I used to regularly find myself sitting next to program directors and departmental officials from state and local government arts bodies — always in great seats in the rows reserved for comps tickets.

The practice is not just widespread, it’s almost universal, and is often driven by performing arts companies themselves, desperate to ingratiate themselves with influential policy-makers upon whose favour their organisation’s solvency often depends.

In reply to the Ombudsman, Arts Victoria’s Penny Hutchinson argued that “for Arts Victoria [officers], attendance at cultural events is a fundamental obligation of their professional life, and their responsibilities as Arts Victoria staff” — but this doesn’t really address the core of the Ombudsman’s criticism.

The attendance of senior staff from key funding agencies at opening nights and other key events is far more than a useful exercise in maintaining cultural literacy. For many organisations, it’s a critical indicator of whether their work is being seen and taken seriously by the “stakeholders” that control their next funding round.

The report makes the reasonable point that if improving staff understanding of the arts is really a “fundamental obligation” for Arts Victoria’s employees, then perhaps Arts Victoria should put aside some money to pay for it. Not only would this prove a boon for the box office receipts of many companies, it would also remove the concern that key cultural institutions curry favour with senior funding officers by the provision of free tickets.

The broader issue here is that our funding bodies have become increasingly corporatised in their provision of support to arts and cultural organisations, demanding the same sort of logo and naming rights that corporate sponsors would, despite the fundamental difference that funding agencies are not corporations, but dispensers of taxpayer funds. While it is reasonable for the ordinary public to know that their funds are supporting cultural activity, this shouldn’t automatically extend to the various other perks that sponsors demand, such as free tickets, access to key creative staff or the ubiquitous free drinks and canapes to be had on opening nights.

After all, if anyone in the perennially impoverished arts sector can actually afford to shell out for tickets and subscriptions, it’s the well-paid senior officials of local, state and federal arts bureaucracies.