A key regional arts company in Queensland has gone under, throwing federal arts funding in the sunshine state into disorder.

Artslink Queensland, formerly the Arts Council of Queensland, is the state’s key regional arts touring organisation, which manages the bulk of schools touring programs in Queensland. Artslink also assesses and distributes the funding for the federal Regional Arts Fund, a Commonwealth program run out of Arts Minister Mitch Fifield’s department.

Artslink went into voluntary administration last week. Staff at the company have been let go without pay, and calls and emails to the organisation and its board are going unanswered. Administrators Oldhams Advisory are now sifting through the wreckage.

Artslink had been in trouble for some time. Crikey understands the company had a shortfall related to unpaid GST debts owed to the Australian Taxation Office.

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The collapse of Artslink leaves suppliers and artists in the lurch. Crikey understands several companies are working on current tours and projects with Artslink. The status of those productions is uncertain.

Also uncertain is the fate of schools touring in Queensland, for which Artslink has long held a quasi-monopoly.

Perhaps most importantly, the demise of Artslink throws federal regional arts funding in Queensland into chaos. The Regional Arts Fund (RAF) is a Commonwealth program that distributes federal regional arts funding into the states and territories. It was delivered in Queensland by Artslink.

A round of the RAF was due to be assessed by a group of peers last week. Crikey spoke to one peer, who told us that Artslink abruptly called it off the day before the assessment. Another peer assessor was contacted by a “weeping” Artslink staff member. That staff member had reportedly been laid off.

Regional arts companies in Queensland are now asking what will happen to the applications meant to be assessed by Artslink. Applications for touring projects worth several hundred thousand dollars are now in limbo.

A spokesperson for Fifield told Crikey: “The Ministry for the Arts is working with the Queensland government and Regional Arts Australia to identify an appropriate way to deliver the Regional Arts Fund to regional and remote Queensland.”

Artslink received a $100,000 grant from the federal Arts ministry in 2014. At the time, several sources characterised the funding as a disguised bail-out.

Crikey has tried to reach Artslink CEO Julie Tanner, as well as Artslink board members, but our calls and emails have not been returned.

A spokesperson for Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Arts Queensland was working closely with the administrators to identify a solution to ensure continued regional service delivery, as well as models for delivery of Artslink’s forward program.

“The process of administration will provide the necessary time to consider all options and identify the best solution,” Palaszczuk’s office told Crikey.

The chaos comes at a delicate time for Fifield. There is considerable anxiety in the cultural sector nationally, after the cuts to the Australia Council and cultural institutions in recent years. Rumours are circulating that there will be further funding cuts to the Arts portfolio in Tuesday’s federal budget.

Fifield is also hosing down criticism from within the arts industry about the apparently political nature of the government’s Catalyst program. In response to Labor’s criticism of the program as a “slush fund”, a spokesperson for Fifield strongly defended recent funding announcements through the Catalyst program.

“The Catalyst grants are entirely consistent with the guidelines,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “One of the three Catalyst streams is ‘Partnerships and Collaboration’.”

“Consistent with this, The Cedars (Heysen) project is eligible for Catalyst funding through the Partnerships and Collaboration stream, as the Foundation will leverage public and private sector support to acquire the property and to establish a public gallery and exhibition space, and the principle purpose is the arts and/or cultural heritage.”

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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