Isn’t it way past time that everyone started singing from the same hymn sheet?
This morning’s announcement that 62 of Australia’s small to medium arts companies have lost their on-going funding has come as a devastating blow to many. The community is rightly up in arms, with many who have lost out now prepared to slam the Federal powers that be for what is seen as the inevitable effect of successive cuts over the last two years. The result of hiving off millions from the Australia Council’s operational funding budget to float the project-focused, government administered Catalyst fund is now there to see in black and white. The news earlier this week that Catalyst has already allocated half of the reserves that should be spread over the next four years can only add to the feeling of uncertainty. Where are the losers in today’s game of fiscal Russian roulette meant to go next?
However, what many cultural commentators are calling “Black Friday” prompts two questions: Didn’t we see this coming? And who is really standing up for the Arts? Former Australia Council boss Michael Lynch put it in a nutshell a few months back in a Currency House address. “The major organisations seem to have been struck dumb by the minister’s decisions and only a very few uttered any reaction to what was being done to artists and in particular small and medium arts organisations,” he said. Today he put it more strongly. “The Australia Council is in an invidious situation that lies directly at the Government’s door. Malcolm Turnbull has seriously let down the arts community. I am incredibly disappointed.”
Not everyone was so on the money. Today’s announcements drew a strong condemnation from the Confederation of Australian State Theatre Companies (CAST), which considers the defunding of arts organisations to be “a deeply concerning outcome that will cause a devastating cultural and employment deficit with widespread and long-lasting impact.” But Executive Director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG), Bethwyn Serow, could only manage the most wishy-washy of censures, pointing out that “stable investment in the arts is vital”, that now “funds are stretched” and that the Australia Council’s capacity to provide investment for small to medium arts organisations is “diminished”.
So how did it come to this, and why do some still seem cautious at reproving what most see as the systematic dismantling of the traditional framework for industry support? One possibility is we really didn’t think it would go quite so far quite so fast. Cuts to an organisation like the Australia Council don’t take effect immediately. It has been five months since the MYEFO unexpectedly axed $52.5 million from the sector. Perhaps people thought an election would put things right. After all, Malcolm Turnbull loves the arts, doesn’t he? This is just the fag end of Tony Abbott’s final farewell. Any which way, few arts leaders in Australia were prepared to go out on a limb and blow the whistle on what many lower down the food chain were calling ideological cultural philistinism.
But there’s another more insidious problem here. Today the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) learned that the Australia Council would not continue to fund its core operations. The 33-year-old organisation’s Executive Director Tamara Winikoff has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Abbott-Turnbull government’s successive rounds of cuts. And with so many funding decisions now going on behind closed doors, might others be afraid to put their heads above the parapet? Look at how Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs was treated when she appeared to step out of line. Certainly, the feeble attempt to put a positive spin on things that came out of the Australia Council today, suggests it lacks the cojones to stand up and holler “foul” when forced to hand down the worst day of financial news in the memory of the Australian arts sector.
The sheer scale of the cuts, however, has meant that some people, at least, are now speaking out. “I have a lot of respect for Tony Grybowski and many of the staff of the Australia Council,” said Jo Dyer, Chair of dance theatre powerhouse Force Majeure, and one of today’s high profile casualties, “but it is frankly insulting to say on this day of devastation that no companies have been cut or defunded as a result of this process. Many fine companies, including ours, have gone from having stable, multi-year funding to having to apply for reduced, one-off, project-based funding in hyper-competitive rounds. They’ve been defunded.”
Other champions too are emerging. “We are stunting the future potential of Australia,” said PJ Collins, leader of the crowd funded Arts Party. “Virtually all the standout artists, actors, musicians and performers who entertain us, make us think and feel together and so often make us proud to be Australian, all got their lucky breaks somewhere small, somewhere local… That framework is being dismantled in Australia today.” But with an election budget that stands at around 0.1% of the funds available to the LNP, with the best will in the world, what chance does the Arts Party have of being heard outside of the often-insular arts community?
Meanwhile, if you are one of the lucky ones to have been funded, it’s no good putting out press releases commiserating with those who haven’t if you are afraid to stand up and bite the hand that’s currently feeding you. When Ausdance acting Chief Executive Neil Roach says the cuts will “cripple” his 40-year-old organisation and that “the voice of dance will be diminished by a federal government policy that concentrates arts production in existing companies, and subjects it to a political influence through Catalyst funding,” shouldn’t we all take a deep breath and get behind him?
As the roll call of the wounded grows over the next few days, perhaps the focus needs to be on finding a champion for the arts – or at least to pull together, rally round and shout with a cohesive voice. Whether you are the head of an arts funding body or you manage a choir, whether you run an arts festival or write a column on culture, whether you play in concerts, or just attend them, isn’t it time to say enough is enough? If not, you might only have yourselves to blame when it’s your turn next.