As the year winds down, many of us start to loosen up a little. Thoughts turn to holidays and Christmas. The staff parties of many organisations happen over the final two weeks of December.

But in the arts, the final two weeks of the working year can be a fraught time. This is the dreaded time of waiting for funding announcements.

Many state arts funding agencies put mid-year deadlines on their annual and triennial funding programs, which means that by the time the slow wheels of bureaucracy turn it can be well into November or December before arts organisations find out the crucial information about just how much money they’ll have next year.

The waiting can be agonising. After grants are assessed at the departmental level, often in a complicated process that involves peer review, the finalised funding announcements are then sent to the minister’s office for final sign off.

And there they wait. Grants waiting for a signature can often sit on a minister’s desk for weeks. Sometimes it’s months. In one notorious recent example in NSW when Frank Sartor was the arts minister, final approval didn’t come until March  the following  year. Until the minister gives the final go-ahead, the grants can’t be announced. The department can’t inform the winners and losers. Everything stops.

That’s the situation many arts organisations face in Victoria this morning. Premier and Arts Minister Ted Baillieu has so far refused to sign off on the 2012 funding announcements. There are dozens of arts organisations affected, including some of the best-known arts organisations in the state.

The Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, for instance, is waiting on its triennial funding. This major institution derives a significant portion of its income from Arts Victoria. A spokeswoman for the centre told Crikey: “ACCA is still waiting for word regarding funding. Were hoping for a good outcome in the next day or so.”

According to Nicole Beyer, director of the Theatre Network of Victoria, many organisations are in the same boat. “It’s really tough on the companies and artists who are trying to finalise plans for next year,” she wrote in an email. “They can’t sign any contracts, and in some cases it jeopardises existing funding or contract fees, as they can’t confirm matching funding.

“Victoria is regarded as the leading cultural state, so it’s a shame that a simple delay like this has such a negative impact on the morale of arts organisations and artists.”

HotHouse Theatre in the border city of Albury-Wodonga is experiencing that negative impact. General manager Bernie Haldane told Crikey that “the big thing for us is we have a skill shortage in the regions”. HotHouse’s staff contracts finish on December 31, and yet the company still hasn’t been able to give them any word on their 2012 employment. “We can’t make offers for 2012 because we are still waiting on Arts Victoria.” HotHouse is concerned key staff might go elsewhere. “The risk for us if we lose that team is to replace them in the regional context.”

HotHouse has only recently heard about its funding from the NSW government. Arts NSW was late with its announcements this year, too. The situation was only resolved after a public conversation about the delays between Haldane and Premier Barry O’Farrell on Twitter. “By the Monday afternoon, local MPs, particularly regionally, knew what was going on,” he said.

HotHouse is contractually committed to a slate of touring productions in 2012, which will be difficult to sustain if the funding does not eventually arrive. “We’ve got Moth, we signed up for that two years ago for 2012, we’ve had to wait and wait for various funding rounds for that. When we don’t know if we can even pay that bill it makes us very nervous.”

For St Kilda’s Theatre Works, the situation is similar. Theatre Works’ Dan Clarke told Crikey that “it makes things very difficult for us — we are waiting for our triennial finding application, and  technically without that notification we really shouldn’t be locking anything in for next year”.

Theatre Works staff will now have to work over Christmas — traditionally their holiday period — in order to catch up on planning for the start of 2012. A new board meeting will have to be convened.

“It’s frustrating,” Clarke added. “I’ve never experienced this type of uncertainty before … We’ll need to re-budget and our first shows start in January.”

Clarke admits he has called Arts Victoria many time seeking clarification. “I’ve called a lot … they tell me that it’s in process and they don’t know any more than we do.”

Crikey can confirm this: Arts Victoria wouldn’t make a comment on the matter when we contacted them.

When we contacted Baillieu’s office, a spokesman replied to our queries on the arts funding announcements with a statement: “The government will be making announcements on these programs in the near future. It is important that grant programs involving the expenditure of taxpayers’ money be subject to proper scrutiny.”

The irony of the annual delays in arts announcements is that they fly in the face of the ongoing push by arts bureaucracies to make their various client organisations more “sustainable”. Constant pressure is applied to boards and managements of arts organisations to deliver on key performance indicators, to increase their organisational cash reserves, and to develop sound business plans for the future. But when it comes to announcing funding results on time, many arts agencies and their responsible ministers fail a very simple test.

Then again, perhaps that’s how arts ministers and bureaucrats like it. Arts funding is one of the last bastions of ministerial patronage in Westminster government. The annual charade of “will they tell us, won’t they tell us?” highlights the supplicatory relationship of many small organisations to their parent arts agency. Nothing reminds arts organisations of the generosity of the public purse like being told to wait their turn.

And wait. And wait.

Peter Fray

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