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Mitch Fifield scraps controversial Catalyst Fund

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Mitch Fifield scraps controversial Catalyst Fund

The Turnbull Government’s volte face will see $61 million returned to the Australia Council over four years.

In a major arts policy volte face, Mitch Fifield has today announced the scrapping of the controversial Catalyst Fund and the Turnbull Government’s decision to return $61 million in uncommitted funds to the Australia Council over the next four years. This figure includes the $32 million previously announced as to be returned in late 2015. In addition, the Australia Council will also be given control of the $12 million currently allocated as part of existing Catalyst funding agreements and the $7.2 million presently shared between the Major Festivals Initiative and the Australian World Orchestra.

"The Council welcomes this decision, and we see it as a positive indication of the Minister's confidence in Council and our programs and activities," said Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski. "In the long-term, the new funding arrangements will assist us to deliver our strategic goals more effectively, increase the coherence and responsiveness of the national arts funding framework, and provide greater clarity for the sector."

The change of focus is also intended to empower the Australia Council to address specific recommendations from last year's Opera Review related to Victorian Opera and Opera Queensland, as well as to address funding sustainability for Queensland Ballet and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. However, as there is no extra money on the table there is no specific indication as to how the Council is to implement the other recommentions of the Opera Review, all of which require an increase in overall funding.

“Victorian Opera is immensely proud to have received Minister Mitch Fifield’s endorsement to be supported to become a major performing arts company,” said Victorian Opera MD Andrew Snell, welcoming the news. “As Australia’s youngest state opera company, we are honoured to receive this support and acknowledgement of Victorian Opera’s contribution and significance in the Australian operatic landscape... This support for Victorian Opera signals a vibrant and healthy future for the company within the Australian arts scene.”

In what many will see as a major condemnation of the policy decisions of the Abbott Government under former Arts Minister George Brandis, today's statement says that it will allow the Australia Council to “continue to focus on supporting small to medium arts organisations”, although that news may come too late for many of the companies who have already suffered irreparable cuts over the last two years.

Senator Brandis originally set up the National Program for Excellence in the Arts back in 2014, depriving the Australia Council of $105 million and causing an outcry among arts organisations. The Federal Opposition branded the NPEA a “slush fund” and there were numerous criticisms that crucial monies were being channelled into Senator Brandis’s pet projects. When Malcolm Turnbull sacked Senator Brandis as Arts Minister in 2015, his replacement, Senator Mitch Fifield set up the Catalyst Fund as a halfway house, while declaring his intention to listen to the concerns of an increasingly vocal arts sector.

“While Catalyst has been successful in supporting a broad range of arts projects, especially those by small to medium arts organisations, the Government has listened and responded to feedback from the Department, the Australia Council and the arts sector regarding the ongoing arrangements for the Australian Government’s funding for the Arts portfolio,” said today’s statement.

The Department of Communications and the Arts intends to retain $2 million each year to provide alternative avenues for organisations that do not receive funding through the Australia Council.

Statement from the Department of Communications and the Arts:

The Turnbull Government has announced changes to Arts portfolio funding arrangements, with the transfer of the majority of funds from Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund to the Australia Council.

Under these arrangements there will be a transfer of approximately $61 million in uncommitted funding over four years. This includes the $32 million transfer to the Australia Council as announced in late 2015. These new funding arrangements will see a total of $80.2 million over four years in committed and uncommitted funds transferred to the Australia Council from 2017-18.

This will also include the transfer of administration of $12 million in Catalyst funding agreements and $7.2 million in funding for the Major Festivals Initiative and the Australian World Orchestra.

This will allow the Australia Council to continue to focus on supporting small to medium arts organisations. It also provides scope for the Australia Council to address specific recommendations from the Opera Review related to Victorian Opera and Opera Queensland, as well as address funding sustainability for Queensland Ballet and the Brandenburg Orchestra.

To date, Catalyst has provided $35 million to 189 projects across the arts and culture sector, 159 of which were small to medium organisations. A total of 1086 individual activities were undertaken. Of these, 833 were undertaken across Australia, including 436 activities in regional and remote areas. Catalyst has funded a broad range of projects across all states and territories such as sculpture, music, playwriting, performances, visual arts, dance, theatre, art installations, digital arts, ballet, puppetry, tours and festivals.

While Catalyst has been successful in supporting a broad range of arts projects, especially those by small to medium arts organisations, the Government has listened and responded to feedback from the Department, the Australia Council and the arts sector regarding the ongoing arrangements for the Australian Government’s funding for the Arts portfolio.

The Department of Communications and the Arts will retain $2 million per year to provide an alternative avenue of funding for organisations which are not receiving funding through the Australia Council. This may include the galleries, libraries, archives and museums sector and some regional and community, education and health organisations.

The Department will also continue to administer the Visions of Australia and Festivals Australia initiatives that were transferred from the Australia Council to the Department as part of the 2015-16 Budget. The Australia Council supports these activities remaining with the Department. Creative Partnerships Australia will retain the funding allocated in that Budget.

Applications received by 18 March 2017 will be assessed according to current Catalyst guidelines, and the Department and the Australia Council will work together on the management of Catalyst grant contracts to ensure a smooth transition to the new arrangements.

Funding decisions for applications that were submitted by the end of December 2016 will be announced in the coming weeks.

In addition to these new funding arrangements, the remit of the Department’s economic and statistical research unit has been broadened to encompass the Arts sector as well as Communications. Initial analysis conducted by the now titled Bureau of Communications and Arts Research will be available next month.

These changes pave the way for the Department of Communications and the Arts to focus on the priority work of connecting the Arts sector to the broader innovation agenda. Further details will be announced in coming weeks regarding the work program and consultation process.