Now that the dust has settled on Arts Minister George Brandis’ shock $105 million raid on the Australia Council, attention is turning to what is at stake.
The answer, according to smaller arts companies affected by the funding cuts, is more than a billion dollars in cultural activity and hundreds of jobs nationwide.
The funding cuts to the Australia Council announced in the May budget equate to 28% of the federal arts funding body’s discretionary funding. In response, the Australia Council has already cancelled a number of funding rounds and programs.
The sphere of cultural activity most affected is likely to be the so-called small-to-medium sector: a substructure of hundreds of smaller arts companies in the performing arts, visual arts and literature.
Because of the way that Brandis has directed the austerity, the bulk of the funding cuts are likely to fall on these companies, as well as on grant programs for individual artists.
Robust data on the size of the small-to-medium sector is hard to come by, but recent Australia Council data obtained by the author shows that the smaller companies are the most innovative and productive section of the entire cultural ecosystem. Small-to-medium performing arts organisations produce the bulk of the new Australian work, for instance. Collectively, these small and nimble ensembles produce twice as many productions as the major performing art companies, and nearly three times as much new work.
Collectively, the small-to-medium sector accounts for thousands of cultural workers across the country. These companies typically depend on a mix of federal, state and self-sourced income for their precarious survival.
Worse, many of these companies’ state funding is tied to Australia Council funding. Without federal funding, they may be at risk of losing their state-based funding too.
Immediately under the gun are the 145 so-called “key organisations” currently funded by the Australia Council on an ongoing basis. Crikey has obtained a list of them.
The list includes some of Australia’s best-known cultural exports, including storied Geelong theatre company Back to Back, Melbourne’s contemporary dance ensembles Lucy Guerin Inc and Chunky Move, and Queensland’s world-beating circus company Circa.
Whole sections of the Australian cultural ecology appear under threat: most of our indigenous theatre and dance companies; the entire funded literature sector; and all the contemporary art galleries.
In a submission to Labor’s long-dead national cultural policy, the 11 key producers of the Australia Council’s community partnerships program were able to show an eight-to-one return on federal investment.
According to Norm Horton and Sarah Moynihan of Queensland-based Feral Arts, one of the key producer companies, “if the $30 million investment by the Australia Council in six-year funding for small-to-medium companies does not go ahead as planned, what is actually at risk is $240 million a year of leveraged funds.” The total impact, extrapolating from this data, could be as much as $1.44 billion over six years, with thousands of jobs at risk.
The sector-by-sector impact is also very significant. Indigenous, visual arts and literature organisations will be hit particularly hard. There are more than 40 key organisations in the visual arts category affected by the funding cuts, including key industry players such as the Australia Centre for Contemporary Art, the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Smaller publishers will also be badly hit, such as the Australian Book Review, Meanjin, Artlink, Island, Eyeline and Art Monthly Australia. Indigenous companies include Ilbijerri, BlakDance, Kultour, Magabala Books, Tandanya and Yirra Yaakin.
It’s symptomatic of the poor cousin status of these smaller organisations that there is relatively little firm evidence or statistics explaining the extent of the impact the cuts will have. There is also no proper peak body for the small-to-medium sector, although a grass-roots campaign is now emerging. A meeting between prominent smaller arts companies and the Arts Ministry is planned for Canberra on Thursday. The sector is attempting to corral support from across the cultural industries against George Brandis and his quixotic crusade against peer review.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Australia Council attack has been the silence by key industry figures and the Australia Council’s board in response to the funding raid.
The Australia Council’s board, which Crikey understands was utterly shocked by Brandis’ sneak attack, has also refused to publicly defend the funding body.
The board does have some heavy-hitters. It counts some of the cultural industry’s best-connected individuals, including philanthropist Rupert Myer, director and performer Robyn Archer and prominent columnist and television presenter Waleed Aly.
However, despite the devastating attack on the Australia Council by the Arts Minister, the Australia Council’s board has been silent.
Crikey understands the board’s reticence to speak against the minister’s attack relates to a reluctance to exceed its formal role. A narrow reading of the Australia Council Act 2013 suggests the role of the board does not extend to public advocacy, and relates only to “ensuring the proper and efficient performance of the Council’s functions”.
Even so, at a time of unprecedented attack by the Arts Minister himself, artists and arts organisations have a right to ask: why is the Australia Council’s board refusing to speak out?