(IMAGE: AAP/DAN HIMBRECHTS)

The Cultural Ministers Council (CMC) — the top-level national cultural body — normally does very little in the policy sphere. But, that wasn’t the case this month. After long deliberations, the CMC released a new plan for Australia’s leading performing arts companies — the so-called “majors”.

Those who follow Australian cultural policy will know the esteemed status of the majors is a perennial sore point for much of the arts sector. For decades, funding for this exclusive club was automatic and perpetual, membership was by invitation only, and no one was ever asked to leave (even when they went broke, as the Sydney Dance Company did in 2007).

The majors have been protected from budget cuts — by official favour and a dense thicket of Commonwealth-state agreements — while the rest of the Australia Council’s funding recipients have copped the full brunt of austerity.

In the current fiscal year, the majors soaked up 61% of the entire Australia Council budget, despite producing less work and attracting fewer bums on seats than the small-to-medium sector. As a result, the rich companies have gotten richer, while the small-to-medium sector and individual project grants have been squeezed or defunded altogether.

(Image: 2018-19 Australia Council Annual Report)

Artists and cultural workers are growing increasingly resentful. In the run-up to this year’s cultural minister’s meeting, artists David Pledger and William McBride released a protest letter signed by nearly 900 artists and cultural leaders. For the first time, a critical mass of artists and practitioners openly protested the majors’ funding arrangements, describing them as “a roadblock to Australian culture’s growth and survival”, and calling for the framework to be “dismantled altogether”.

That hasn’t happened.

Instead, the new arrangements announced by the cultural ministers offer more of the same — albeit with a small dose of cautious reform.

After two decades of the “major performing arts framework”, the new policy (with apparently no irony) will be called the “National Performing Arts Partnership Framework”. The Australia Council CEO, Adrian Collette, calls it an “evolutionary framework” that “still supports and acknowledges the significant contribution of the current major performing arts companies to Australia’s cultural landscape”.

The key feature of the new policy is that the major companies will no longer enjoy automatically guaranteed funding. The new plan envisages “contestability” — meaning that they will have to apply for funding every four years. Some companies — wait for it — might even be unsuccessful. But with an eight-year timetable starting in 2021, any such funding drama has been pushed out to 2029 at the earliest.

Notably, there’s still nothing here for the rest of the cultural sector. Smaller companies will still get much less funding than the big guys, and individual artists will receive the least of all. There is also nothing for literature — a sector experiencing a growing sense of crisis after the council defunded both Overland and Island magazines.

Australian artist and director David Pledger told Crikey that he saw the new framework as merely a technical adjustment, rather than meaningful reform. Pledger called it an “administrative solution to instrumental problems between federal, state and territory governments, rather than a funding solution to the very real problems of 21st century artistic production in Australia — problems which are largely borne by the small-medium and independent sector”.

State cultural ministers don’t seem particularly happy either. In a media release, Queensland’s Arts Minister Leeanne Enoch said the Palaszczuk government will “continue to call for Queensland’s fair share of arts funding from the federal government”.

Victoria’s Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley bluntly observed that “the existing MPA wasn’t working in anyone’s interests — organisations both in and out of it saw problems”.

“Surely a new dawn of creativity and diversity in performance voices, platforms and outcomes is on the horizon?” he mused. “Not quite. The new expanded framework will only meet its potential if it is backed up by new funding and resources.”

And that’s the rub. With no new funding attached to the policy, it does seem unlikely that Foley’s new dawn is breaking.

Can this new arrangement really stick? Defunding a struggling major could send it crashing into insolvency, which would leave the minister of the day with the thorny dilemma of whether to save a big company or let it die. A more likely scenario is a bail-out, like the Sydney Dance Company received in the 2000s.

The new framework ultimately does nothing to mollify critics of the majors and their enduring privilege. With no immediate change and only incremental reforms on offer a decade from now, more internecine tension is likely to ensue.

Peter Fray

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