The arts and culture sector has escaped significant pain in the federal budget, with no announcements made in the portfolio.
After a horror 2015 budget in which then-arts minister George Brandis cut $105 million from the Australia Council, the sector was anxiously awaiting Treasurer Scott Morrison’s statement last night. In the end, it was an anti-climax, with no budget measures relating to the portfolio.
That doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory, however. Previous funding cuts from last year’s budget and MYEFO were locked in, meaning key institutions like the Australia Council and the National Gallery of Australia will have less money in coming years.
That’s a real problem for the national collecting institutions, which are already winding back their activities and laying off staff. The National Gallery recently closed a contemporary art wing that it had set up just two years ago, owing to the ongoing austerity. The National Library is cutting back on its digital activities.
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The Australia Council also faces a small cut, despite the traumas of last year. Its funding will be down around $1.1 million dollars from last year to this year (an appropriation of $183.4 million, down from $184.5 million). This is a reduction of around 2.5% in real terms. The budget papers say the Australia Council will keep staffing and grand distributions at roughly similar levels.
A similar story of gradual austerity can be found in the national collecting institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum. The NGA loses around $1.5 million in funding year on year, which equates to around 20 staffing positions. The National Portrait Gallery loses around $1.4 million over the forward estimates. The National Film and Sound Archive loses around $3 million over the forwards. The National Library loses $4.5 million to 2019, potentially threatening its world-beating digital archive Trove.
All of these cuts were previously announced in last December’s MYEFO statement, but the budget confirms them. As a result, the significant level of austerity imposed on the collecting institutions looks locked in, going forward.
Industry lobbyists were disappointed that nothing was done to restore the funding cuts imposed by last year’s budget and MYEFO, particularly after the widespread campaign against the changes to the Australia Council that kicked off after George Brandis’ raided the Australia Council’s budget to set up his short-lived “Excellence” fund.
Tamara Winikoff, spokesperson for national arts peak body ArtsPeak told Crikey that “the 2016 budget does nothing to redress the devastating impact of the cuts to the Australia Council and ongoing ‘efficiency dividend’ imposed by the government in 2014 and 2015”.
“Massive destabilisation of the arts industry is resulting from decisions made by the current government, and without any policy framework, it looks set to continue,” Winikoff continued. “Unfortunately when it comes to the arts, it seems this government is not concerned about forcing job losses and causing chaos, the very opposite of the Prime Minister’s mantra about jobs and growth.”
Live Performance Australia’s Evelyn Richardson told media outlets that “the live performance industry and the broader arts industry are completely missing from the government’s vision for the Australian economy. This budget fails to deliver jobs and growth for our industry.”
Arts industry insiders found the absence of any media statement from Arts Minister Mitch Fifield noteworthy, with one industry source labeling him “missing in action”. The Communications and the Arts portfolio was unusually quiet for a multibillion-dollar department with responsibility for the ABC, SBS and the National Broadband Network.
But some in the industry are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Further cuts to the budget of the Australia Council had been rumoured, but they didn’t materialise.
Labor’s shadow arts minister Mark Dreyfus was predictably critical, calling the budget “shameful”.
“This budget contains absolutely nothing for the arts,” Dreyfus wrote in an email. “Make no mistake, arts funding is in crisis in this country. Many small and medium organisations are having to close, thanks to the $105 million ripped away from the Australia Council under the Abbott-Turnbull government partly to create a ministerial slush fund.”
“Our national cultural institutions are struggling under $20 million in cuts that will result in job losses and cuts in exhibitions and services, and this budget does nothing to help. Australia is already losing Trove — the online repository of our history — because the National Library cannot afford to add new content any longer.”
“The Abbott-Turnbull government’s record on the arts has been marked by nothing but cuts and disinterest.”