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During his testimony before a Senate Estimates hearing yesterday, Arts Minister George Brandis, the architect of the recent major shake-up of arts funding in Australia, confirmed that he sought no consultation with the Australia Council, or any arts organisations before announcement in the 2015/16 Federal Budget that over $104 million would be syphoned from the Australia Council to fund a new government administered National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.
The first person to learn of the unexpected changes to the arts funding infrastructure was Australia Council Chair Rupert Myer, whom Senator Brandis called two hours before the Federal Budget announcement “as a matter of courtesy.” Beyond this single phone call, the Arts Minister confirmed on multiple occasions during the lengthy Senate hearing that no other sources outside of the government were consulted or forewarned about the major restructuring of arts funding.
This has quashed rumours that have persisted in recent weeks since the Budget announcement that certain major performing arts companies may have known about the planned changes before the Australia Council, and even that money from the new Excellence Programme had already been promised to certain beneficiaries. One of the most significant repercussions of the announcement of the Ministry for Arts new Programme was the suspension last week of the Australia Council’s Six Year Funding Programme, which was developed after extensive consultation with the arts sector.
The details of the mechanisms that will be used to assess prospective applicants to the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts have remained elusive. However, during questioning by Labor’s Jacinta Collins, Attorney-General’s Department Staff Member Sally Basser confirmed that the guidelines would be available by “the end of June or in early July.”
She also confirmed that the new programme would deliver its funding in three streams: endowments, to fund arts foundations; funding for international touring and “cultural diplomacy”, and an enigmatically titled “strategic stream”, which Basser described as “a key mechanism for driving outcomes against planned and developing priorities and to respond to opportunities, challenges and issues.”
During the hearing Senator Brandis reaffirmed his belief, which he has articulated in several interviews since the Federal Budget announcement, that the motivation for creating the new Excellence Programme was to allow “contestability” so that organisations whose applications to the Australia Council are unsuccessful have the opportunity to apply for alternative money, administered directly by the government.
“There are those who take a very purest view and say that no arts dollars should be spent except at arms-length from government by a peer-reviewed process through the Australia Council, and there are those who take the opposite view and say that every dollar that is spent by government should ultimately bear the impress of the Minister's endorsement so the Minister can be answerable for it but, as in most of these debates, the sensible position I think lies in the middle,” the Minister said.
One specific case that was cited during the hearing was the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, which takes place annually in the Northern Queensland city of Townsville. The festival, which Senator Brandis said had been described by many in a recent estimates committee as “a very worthy music festival,” was unsuccessful in its application for funding with the Australia Council. The AFCM did however receive state funding from the Queensland Government's Superstar Fund to support 2015's festival.
One of the most contentious aspects of the changes in arts funding, and one that opponents to Senator Brandis’s new Excellence Programme have fervently debated in recent weeks, is the ring fencing of funding for the country's 28 major arts organisations, leading many to anticipate a future bias against small to medium scale organisations. Senator Brandis reiterated his belief that the major Australian arts organisations were the most important priority for arts funding, saying, “All the talk has been about the small to mediums and I understand that. But let us not forget that the major performing arts companies are the heart and soul of the performing arts sector in this country. They are the big employers of artists and arts workers. They are the people who undertake most of the touring, including the regional touring, as well as the international touring. They are the people who provide the performances that the great audiences of Australia enjoy. As I have always said, one of my misgivings about the exclusive peer-to-peer funding model is: who represents the audience around the table? The minister, being the responsible officer in charge of taxpayers' money, has to be the voice for audiences. What are the shows, what are the performances, what are the concerts that the audiences go to? Primarily, they go to the performances of the major performing arts companies, whether it be drama, music, opera, ballet, dance or whatever art form it may be.”
Senator Brandis did not elaborate on what research had been conducted, if any, by the Ministry for Arts to determine who the “great audiences of Australia” are and what their tastes may be as cultural consumers.