A meeting of Australia’s arts and cultural ministers in Adelaide on Friday has seen a major overhaul of the way the Major Performing Arts sector is funded through the Australia Council for the Arts, and contemporary circus company Circa – whose Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz once described the system as a “protectorate of the privileged” – welcomed into the fold of Major Performing Arts companies.

Circa En MasseCirca’s En Masse. Photo © David Kelly

The new Framework, billed as the National Performing Arts Partnership, follows a consultation process in 2018 which included 8,026 survey responses, 370 formal submissions and 15 forums. It will see Partnership Organisations (formerly MPA Companies) funded for eight year terms, with a review at four years. The new eight year contracts will begin in 2021.

Previous criticisms of the MPA Framework, such as those by Lifschitz, took aim at a system which saw the MPA Companies “inured from change” and protected during funding cuts that ultimately fell on the small to medium sector. “I challenge the major companies to demand their funding pool is opened to anyone who can compete on merit,” Lifschitz said in 2017.

While the meeting didn’t address the challenges facing the small to medium sector, the new Framework offers a pathway for selecting new Partnership Organisations, and the funded organisations will be “subject to regular and robust monitoring processes that measure achievement, ensure accountability, and where absolutely necessary, form the grounds for a company being deemed as no longer qualifying for funding under the Framework”.

“In securing agreement to this framework, the Morrison Government has delivered a significant outcome for Australia’s performing arts sector. All jurisdictions will continue to work together in relation to further improvements between now and early 2020,” said Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher. “We listened to feedback from the arts sector and the public on the previous Major Performing Arts Framework in developing this new framework, which provides a flexible and transparent approach to supporting Australia’s leading performing arts companies. It also opens the way for other successful and innovative companies to be considered for support.”

The Australian Major Performing Arts Group has welcomed the changes, as has Lifschitz. “This is a transformative moment for Circa, and will help increase our ability to continue delivering extraordinary arts experiences throughout the state, across the country and around the world,” he said.

The meeting of the ministers in Adelaide appears to have done little to address the concerns of the 700 industry figures who signed an open letter calling for them to withhold their endorsement of the revised MPA Framework. “We firmly believe that without this significant, structural change involving the MPA Framework, the small-medium and independent sector will collapse precipitating a crisis in the national arts ecology,” the letter said.

AMPAG issued a response to the letter, calling for unity in the face of reduced arts funding. “While everyone in the Major Performing Arts companies agrees that the situation for the small to medium arts is of grave concern, it needs to be considered within an overall context of declining government support and strategic development for the arts across this country,” the response said. “It is the overall situation that needs to be addressed with increased support across the board – not by destroying one part of the sector in a bid to help the other survive. AMPAG and its members have and continue to actively advocate for increased Australia Council funding.”

No new Australia Council funding was announced at the meeting in Adelaide.

The National Performing Arts Partnership Framework and a summary of the meeting in Adelaide is available here.