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The Arts

May 9, 2012

The arts: dividend squeeze, but cash for Wolverine and galleries

The 2012 budget was largely neutral for the arts, with a couple of bright spots for SBS and the National Portrait Gallery.


The “small target” strategy is something of a cliché in politics. But when it comes to budget priorities, being little can sometimes be very useful.

Compared to the behemoths of immigration or defence, the federal arts portfolio is so small that even a mean-spirited minister could find little in the way of savings without abolishing whole programs altogether. That hasn’t happened, thankfully, and there’s even been some new money found for some of the hard-pressed museums and galleries funded by Simon Crean’s department.

What there isn’t, of course, is any mention of the National Cultural Policy. That’s been put on the back-burner, as we reported last week.

There were some pleasing announcements for arts and culture last night. Over in Stephen Conroy’s Communications portfolio, there was $158 million for SBS, which has been struggling with rising costs and falling advertising revenue in recent times. Around $95 million is a straight top-up to ensure quality and services are maintained, while there’s a pot of $63 million to establish a national free-to-air indigenous television service. Conroy is calling it “the most significant funding boost SBS has ever had”.

While we’re talking screen, Hugh Jackman fans will also be pleased to note that $12.8 million is budgeted for the new Wolverine movie, to be produced at Fox Studios. The money is supposedly a “one-off” bribe to Hollywood studio Marvel, and has been promoted by Crean and Julia Gillard as bringing “over $80 million of investment in Australia and creat[ing] more than 2000 jobs”.

Contemporary music has had a small win, with $3 million “to boost contemporary music industry innovation and export”. The government says this will “address skills development in songwriting, stage craft, audience development and communications, while building further the Sounds Australia program for music export”. The contemporary sector will probably be pleased. However, no funding was found to renew Melba Recordings’ controversial out-of-channels grant, despite some characteristic huffing and puffing from prominent critic Peter Craven.

It’s not all rosy news, though. Dig down into the nitty-gritty details of the Portfolio Budget Statement and you can see the ongoing squeeze of the efficiency dividend.

The Australia Council, for instance, is losing funding in real terms. Its total government funding of around $182 million last year will rise by less than the budget’s forecast inflation figure of 3.25%. The forward estimates look equally lean, meaning the council will actually be shrinking in real terms out to 2015-16.

This funding freeze is putting the bite on many of the other federal cultural agencies. The Australian Film, Television and Radio School’s funding will rise by less than 4% over the next four years. Screen Australia’s departmental funding will rise by less than 2% between now and 2015-16. As a result, the forward estimates say that Screen Australia will be giving out less money in screen grants in 2016 than in 2013.

There is some brighter news for the so-called collecting institutions. These are the National Gallery, Library and Museum, the National Film and Sound Archive, the Australian National Maritime Museum, the National Archives, the Bundanon Trust, and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. New funding has been found, to the tune of $39.3 million over four years.

The government is billing it as funding “to open up their collections for community, education and research uses, including providing curriculum resources for the national school curriculum”. But it will also help protect them from the forced attrition that is eating into arts and screen funding owing to the efficiency squeeze.

A particularly welcome announcement concerns the future of the National Portrait Gallery. This Howard-era institution was something of an orphan child previously. Commissioned under the previous government, Labor was somewhat unsure of what to do about it because it officially sat inside the department, rather than enjoying independent statutory status like the National Gallery or Museum. This budget will begin the process of setting up the National Portrait Gallery in its own right from July 2013, “to bring it into line with other major national cultural institutions.”

There was also $6 million for arts education initiatives over in Peter Garrett’s schools portfolio. Bell Shakespeare, the Song Room and the Australian Children’s Music Foundation will all receive money to develop education programs for school students.


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