Not too many eyes in Australia’s arts community were glued to last night’s federal budget. The general expectation was that there may be some extension of the cuts announced to arts funding last year, but nothing all that notable. Nobody seemed to anticipate that Arts Minister George Brandis would snatch money away from the independent federal arts funding body, the Australia Council, to establish his own “National Programme for Excellence in the Arts”.

Looking back, it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

Brandis will extract $104.7 million from the Australia Council’s budget over four years (approximately 16% of its total funding) to establish the program, which will be administered by the ministry, rather than through the Australia Council’s arms-length process. In addition, the Australia Council will lose a further $1.8 million a year, which comes after the body had its funding slashed by $7 million a year in the 2014-15 budget.

The new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will support: “endowments, international touring and strategic projects, with an emphasis on attracting private sector support”.

There’s little detail available as to how the program will operate, and no indication as to whether it will be peer-reviewed or if there will be any mechanism for review at all. Artists have already expressed concerns that the money will just go towards the Minister’s pet projects.

A statement from Brandis’ office said:

“Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council. The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia’s audiences.”

That first sentence certainly has some bizarre logic — that arts funding has been limited to the projects favoured by the independent, expert body established to distribute arts funding. Instead, a significant chunk of that money will now be entirely within the Arts Minister’s control.

During his time in as Arts Minister, Brandis has sought to influence or circumvent Australia Council processes at several points. In March 2014, he wrote to the Australia Council chairman Rupert Myer, demanding that the council implement a policy to deny funding to any artist who refuses private sector support. Then in September, he made a grant of $275,000 to classical music label Melba Recordings, bypassing the Australia Council.

One of the major reasons that arts funding has traditionally been at arms-length is to protect the right of artists to be critical of government in their work. There’s no indication yet that Brandis’ “Excellence Programme” will have similar protections built in, or if the money will just go to the individuals and organisations who have the Minister’s ear.

Brandis has long been critical of Australia Council processes but told Crikey in 2013 that there “will always be debate about what the arts do, that’s why we have an arms-length and peer-reviewed structure for the allocation for the funding.” He has spoken extensively about supporting “excellence” in the arts ever since that time, but hasn’t offered any real explanation as to how “excellence” is measured.

One indication might be in the minister’s repeated calls for artists and arts companies to “respect popular taste”, and that’s echoed in last night’s statement. While it’s certainly preferable for a government to spend taxpayer money on art that taxpayers will actually experience, it’s a difficult standard to measure.

The thing with art that becomes immediately popular is that it usually finds a paying audience and supports itself. History is littered with thousands of examples of works that haven’t immediately found an audience but have gone on to become hugely influential.

In June last year, Brandis told The Australian: “Frankly I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves.”

In fact, Brandis has indicated that the 28 major performing arts companies will be quarantined from the cuts. These companies already take up a little over half of the Australia Council’s funding, which means that the 16% reduction in funding will need to be made up almost entirely from the council’s grants and initiatives. Those grants and initiatives fund independent artists and small-to-medium organisations, who may very well be left out to dry.

Last year, artists and administrators warned that cuts will hurt the artists and smaller companies who can afford it least, and are a major source of innovation and creative energy. Without the grassroots artistic projects funded by Australia Council grants, the entire arts ecosystem suffers. If the situation was worrying last year, it’s potentially catastrophic this time around.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey