The Arts

May 23, 2016

‘Devastating’ OzCo grants just the tip of the iceberg

The Australia Council budget cuts are even worse than they seem. And the worst is yet to come.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

The dust has settled on the wreckage left by the Australia Council’s May funding round. Plenty has been written already, as artists, critics and arts workers around the country lament the disastrous decisions. Regional Arts Victoria’s Esther Anatolitis called it a “dark outcome”. For the Emerging Writers Festival’s Michaela McGuire, it was “devastating”. Next Wave’s Georgie Meagher described it as “heartbreaking”. The Australian Design Centre’s Lisa Cahill was “stunned”. Red Stitch’s Ella Caldwell echoed her comments. “It's a difficult environment to be creatively brave and visionary in," Caldwell lamented. Some of the most famous arts organisations in the country missed out. The Australian Design Centre has a 50-year history of supporting Australian design and craft. That wasn’t enough. The literary magazine Meanjin was the place were A.A. Phillips first published his seminal essay on “the cultural cringe”. In an indication of just how penurious arts grants can be, the journal was receiving just $95,000 a year from the federal government. But that’s now gone. The cuts definitely seem to have punished organisations that support younger artists, particularly in literature, dance and theatre. The Next Wave festival in Melbourne is recognised as Australia’s premier event for young and emerging artists. It just finished yesterday; I saw a fine show by emerging choreographer Angela Goh called Desert Body Creep. Next Wave alumni include some of the nation’s most exciting performing arts talents, as well as many of the most likely young artistic directors, such as the Performance Space’s Jeff Khan and the Wheeler Centre’s Emily Sexton. The same could be said for a swag of the organisations that have been defunded. Express Media, the publisher of Voiceworks magazine, has produced some of the nation’s best younger writers, including Tom Doig, Romy Ash, Anna Krien, Liam Pieper and Anwen Crawford. For the tiny amounts of funding invested, the output of talent has been staggering. And these are just a few of the casualties, which also include highly rated Adelaide companies Vitalstatistix and Slingsby, Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography, and north Queensland’s Jute Theatre. How did it come to this? By now, the backstory to the funding disaster is well known. A succession of cuts to cultural funding under the Coalition -- totalling close to $300 million since 2013 -- have placed cultural institutions and agencies like the Australia Council under severe strain. In particular, the responsibility for this funding cut can be sheeted home to one man: former arts minister George Brandis, whose decision to cut $105 million from the Australia Council’s funding in 2015 has directly led to the current crisis. Brandis moved the funding out of the Australia Council to a new ministerial funding program, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, set up in parallel and intended to operate without the arm's-length independence the Australia Council enjoys. When Brandis was replaced by Mitch Fifield in September 2015, $32 million was returned to the council as a half-hearted concession to the industry backlash. But more than $70 million in funding cuts were locked in. The inevitable result of that funding raid played out on Friday, May 13, when the results of the four-year funding round for small arts organisations were announced. These funding cuts are bad enough, but the sad truth is that the worst is yet to come. Close analysis of the Australia Council’s financial statements, in consultation with a number of industry sources, shows that the Australia Council has shuffled the deckchairs with its funding programs in a way that will hit solo artists and applicants for project grants particularly hard. It works like this. The Australia Council’s appropriation has declined from $218.7 million in 2013-14 to $193.2 million this year. Of that, $107.7 million is quarantined for the major performing arts companies. The smaller organisations that suffered so badly on "Black Friday" will receive a further $28 million. Staffing costs make up about $24 million. Some smaller government programs account for roughly $14 million. That leaves just $18.4 million for “grants and initiatives”: the kinds of grants that ordinary artists can apply for. The project grants and initiatives matter, because they are often the grants that support cultural production -- the money for artists to write a book, produce an artwork or tour a show. Grants and initiatives have been slashed by a whopping 59% since 2013-14. Critic and novelist Alison Croggon points out that the total number of projects funded by the Australia Council has fallen by a staggering 72% since 2013-14. It gets worse. To try and make the woeful outcomes on Black Friday look better, the Australia Council increased funding for the four-year grants, from $22 million a year to $28 million. On the face of it, this increase is welcome. Without this extra $6 million a year, even more small organisations would have missed out -- a sobering thought indeed. But where can the magic pudding have come from? The Australia Council is losing $25 million from its appropriation this year alone. How can the Australia Council increase its funding to smaller companies by $24 million, at the same time it is losing more than $70 million over the forward estimates? Crikey asked, but the Australia Council wouldn’t tell us. In response to a question asking where the extra $24 million for smaller companies was sourced from, a spokesperson told us that “the council’s budget is responsive and, like all organisations, we revise it as needed to deliver our programs”. “We are committed to delivering three project grant rounds as stated,” the spokesperson continued. “The breakdown of future budgets is not available at this time.” But reading between the lines, unless the council sacks many staff, the extra funding for the smaller companies must come from project grants. These grant pools will now decline even further from their current historic lows. The Australia Council has axed a number of funding rounds that are not part of four-year funding, including funding for youth theatres, six-year grants to community arts organisations, the Program Presenter and MAPS rounds, and funding for young artists through ArtStart. While most in the arts are still in shock, anger is building. The rage is being directed not just at the Coalition, but also at the Australia Council itself, which has consistently been opaque and confusing in its public dealings. Artists are again asking why the Australia Council and its board -- studded with well-known artists and media celebrities like Robyn Archer and Waleed Aly -- have been so silent in the face of the carnage. To date, for instance, the Australia Council’s board has made no public statement on the week’s funding cuts. Many arts industry sources are also furious with the approach taken by Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski. In the jarringly optimistic media release published 10 days ago, Grybowski lauded the funding results as a vindication of the council’s widely ridiculed "Culturally Ambitious Nation" strategy. The sector was galled by one sentence in particular, in which Grybowski claimed: “It was always intended that slightly fewer companies would be funded at a higher level.” It was a rather insensitive assertion under the circumstances. It was also inaccurate, given that many companies were funded at much higher levels under the old system (Sydney’s The Performance Space, for instance, moves from $544,000 a year to $300,000). For his part, Arts Minister Mitch Fifield was doing his best to disassociate himself from the whole sorry mess. The campaigning Senator, so happy to present Catalyst grants in marginal seats, was suddenly nowhere to be seen, eschewing media appearances and putting out a media release of just five sentences.

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