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Is the new board for the Australia Council dominated by inner-city elite art lovers who ignore their regional brethren? That’s what opposition spokesperson for the arts George Brandis declared last week, after the 12-person board was announced by new Arts Minister Tony Bourke:

“The board seems to have been tailor-made to cater to the tastes and prejudices of a narrow group of people from the two largest capital cities, rather than representing the breadth and variety of Australia’s art forms, arts practitioners and audiences.”

New Australia Council board members include artistic director Robyn Archer, broadcaster Waleed Aly and former Opera Australia CEO Adrian Collette. Two-thirds of board members live in either Melbourne or Sydney, while Queensland and Western Australia have one representative each.

Brandis adds that regional Australia is “barely represented”, with only one board member (Tim Orton, chair of the Geelong Performing Arts Centre) living outside a capital city. Regional arts organisations told Crikey that while they may not agree with Brandis’ specific board complaints, they find it infinitely more difficult to prove their worth — and secure cash — than those in urban areas.

“The Australia Council has looked at what they think is appropriate for Sydney and Melbourne and if it doesn’t fit into that mould it’s just not valuable,” said Leigh Warren from Adelaide’s Leigh Warren Dance. Back in 2011, his company had $250,000 of Australia Council funding cut without warning. “What have you go to do to prove that you have value? I’ve got to move to Sydney or Melbourne,” declared Warren.

Paul Jenkins, the executive director of Tasmania Regional Arts (which lost $500,000 from the Australia Council earlier this year) agrees regional areas get ignored. “Quite often it’s given as an either/or argument: quality elite work happens in major capital cities and there’s the work that comes from the regions,” he told Crikey. “Now that’s not the case at all, there’s an incredibly large contribution to our national cultural discourse from regional communities.”

An examination by Crikey of the Australia Council funding figures for the last three years (from July 1, 2010 to June 20, 2013) shows that Melbourne and Sydney dominated the funding grants.

Each successful grant (including grants for major performing arts organisations) is accompanied by the recipient’s electorate. In the last three years, Greens MP Adam Bandt’s inner-city hipster electorate of Melbourne received 529 Australia Council grants, while the southsiders in Melbourne Ports received 183 grants. The artists of Coburg and Northcote, in Martin Ferguson’s seat of Batman, nabbed 175 grants.

Health minister Tanya Plibersek’s electorate of Sydney — which covers trendy Newtown, Surry Hills and Kings Cross — received 449 grants. Malcolm Turnbull’s well-heeled Wentworth received 182, while Anthony Albanese’s seat of Grayndler — including Marrickville and Enmore — got 175 grants.

Meaning that of 4031 grants nationally during that time, 1693 of them came from inner Melbourne or Sydney. Meanwhile, the whole city of Canberra received just 30. At least arty Hobart and its electorate of Denison got 85 grants.

What can be done to improve how the Australia Council works with regional Australia? Good cross-government fertilisation, says Jenkins, noting the government’s new cultural policy is “very silent on regional issues” and doesn’t discuss regional development or cultural infrastructure issues.

Remote artists have their own issues with negotiating with the Australia Council. Craig Mathewson, the general manager at Red Hot Arts, an arts organisation from central Australia, notes that return plane tickets to Sydney cost $1000, yet face-to-face meetings with Australia Council representatives are the most successful way for them to attract funding. Red Hot Arts did not have its three-year Australia Council funding renewed last year.

He thinks Australia Council representatives need to spend more time in the regions — not just a fleeting two-day trip packed with 10 one-hour appointments — in order to understand their art communities. “Let a local person take you to places that the government representatives won’t take you,” he said.

For Warren, the most critical thing is regional representation on the Australia Council’s new Peer Assessment Panels and Sector Strategy Panels, which will assess grant applications. “If it’s a fund manager living in Sydney, it’s going to go back to square one,” said Warren.

Over in Western Australia, art organisations in the electorate of Perth, currently represented in Parliament by retiring Defence Minister Stephen Smith, received 61 Australia Council grants. Other Perth electorates, such as Swan and Pearce, received just a handful of Oz Council grants.

Central Australia numbers are also fairly low: 49 grants for Warren Snowdon’s electorate of Lingiari (which includes Alice Springs) and 59 for Solomon, which covers Darwin and Palmerston. In Queensland, the big winner was Kevin Rudd’s Brisbane seat of Griffith, which had 112 successful grant applications, while the nearby seat of Brisbane, including the leafy suburb of New Farm, received 108 grants.

In South Australia, artists and art organisations in the electorate of Adelaide were awarded 132 Australia Council grants, Port Adelaide received 26 and the western suburban Adelaide electorate of Hindmarsh received just seven.

Peter Fray

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