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Australia’s cultural sector is in a tough spot following the re-election of Scott Morrison.

Many people, and the organisations they represent, pinned hopes on a Labor government. Bill Shorten is an avowed supporter of the arts, and a Labor victory was expected to deliver modest funding increases and a much more hospitable political climate. Now, they’re facing down the culture wars against a newly confident conservative government.

There are few solid supporters of the arts within the Coalition, and the mood isn’t helped by the state of the economy. Business conditions in culture and recreation are not great, with the cultural sector feeling some aspects of the retail recession rippling through Australia’s consumer economy.

Policy settings remain constrained. Arts funding has declined in real terms since the election of Tony Abbott in 2013, and the funded sector is still riding out the shockwaves of the tumultuous George Brandis years. With the departure of Mitch Fifield, the policy orientation of new Arts Minister Paul Fletcher is still unformed. The reigning sentiment amongst arts leaders is uncertainty.

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When Labor left office in 2013, the Australia Council’s grant funding budget was $199 million — or $222 million in today’s dollars. After six years of Coalition austerity, the 2019-20 portfolio budget statement puts the Australia Council’s budgeted grant spend at $187 million. That’s a 19% decrease in real terms. The situation got so bad in 2017 that the agency was forced to raid its own reserves

This austerity has resulted in genuine pain in an already impoverished sector. With major performing arts companies protected from any funding cuts by Coalition diktat, the burden of the funding decline has been borne largely by independent artists and the smaller arts organisations.

The inevitable denouement is playing out across the sector in the Australia Council’s current funding round for small-to-medium organisations. Around 400 organisations were in the running for the four-year operational funding program. In a two-step process, the Australia Council knocks out most of the applicants in the first round, before a final decision picks the lucky few winners.

There is only enough money for around 100 organisations to succeed. The first round of rejections went out early in August. As expected, hundreds of organisations had missed out.

As the bad news trickled in, it was clear that many respected and successful arts organisations have been unsuccessful. The writing and literature sector took a particularly hard hit. Noted small publisher Overland was knocked back, along with both the major national playwriting organisations, AustralianPlays.org and Playwriting Australia (which is effectively on life support after its board made the entire staff redundant). Melbourne theatre company Theatreworks also missed out, as did a number of smaller organisations. 

As Overland’s outgoing editor Jacinda Woodhead noted in a measured editorial, “the four-year model is supposed to invest in the arts and organisations long-term, but now it seems more like it’s reinforcing the project model: prioritising new programs that are disposable, that will be abandoned for some different idea in the next funding round”.

To make matters worse, the process is shrouded in secrecy, with the Australia Council refusing to publish a list of successful organisations, or of those denied funding. 

“For privacy reasons we never publish the names of organisations or applicants who have unsuccessfully applied for funding,” an Australia Council spokeswoman told us. “The list of organisations awarded four-year funding for 2021-24 and the peers involved in both stages of the assessment will be published at the end of the process, in early April 2020.”  

University of Melbourne academic Jo Caust has been researching Australian cultural policy for many years. She’s not surprised by the dire outcome of the small-to-medium funding round. 

“When you look at the figures you get really depressed; they haven’t actually returned the funding from the Brandis years,” she told Crikey. “In terms of the country as a whole, Australians are the richest citizens in the world, and yet the amount we give to the arts and culture is so minimal. That lack of generosity from a wealthy country is appalling.”

Some organisations are now faced with difficult decisions about whether they can continue. Theatreworks has already hinted that it could be in trouble. “We express our deep disappointment and concern, not only for our theatre and its future but for all the artists who will also be affected,” the company’s chair Rosalind Willett wrote in an email to subscribers. 

National dance organisation Ausdance National announced it would wind up in early August, while AustralianPlays.org has publicly admitted the funding loss “places the organisation’s viability in jeopardy”.

The body count is mounting. And, with no relief in sight, artists are left wondering: who’s next?