$8 million a year of reappropriated funds will be returned to the Australia Council, but some troubling aspects of NPEA remain.
The past six months will be remembered in infamy as the one of the most turbulent and politically charged periods in the history of the arts in Australia. With the shock announcement of the formation of the new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) in May as part of the 2015/16 Federal Budget, which was set to leach almost $105 million dollars from the Australia Council, former Minister for the Arts George Brandis set into motion a series of events that would disenfranchise almost every arts professional in the country. Today the ensuing months of petitioning, protests, demonstrations, government lobbying and a leadership spill which saw the arts portfolio handed to Senator Mitch Fifield came to a head. However while some of the changes have been well received by the arts community, other lingering facets of the NPEA in the reimagined arts fund have made today’s announcement divisive.
Senator Fifield has been on a PR campaign in recent weeks to heal some of the wounds left by his predecessor. A closer consultation with the arts sector has been key to winning back some of the lost faith in the Arts Ministry, and in stark contrast to Senator Brandis, the new Minister for the Arts has been transparent about his lack of indepth knowledge of the sector. Senator Fifield has gone on record several times expressing his desire to be educated by those working within the arts in Australia, and perhaps most pertinently he has met directly with arts leaders in a public forum – something that Senator George Brandis pointedly avoided.
Some of the changes to the fund are simply cosmetic, in an apparent bid to wash away the indelibly negative stain that the past six months of protests by the #FreeTheArts movement had left on the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original title of the NPEA, with its loaded use of the word “excellence,” has been scrapped, and replaced with a more dynamic name, the Catalyst Fund.
Senator Fifield also announced overnight that some $8 million a year of the reappropriated funds – almost a third of the amount cut by Senator Brandis – would be returned to the Australia Council. Now just $12 million a year will be left for the Catalyst Fund to distribute. While the amount of money administered by the Australia Council was always substantially higher than the amount syphoned to the NPEA, this is a clear gesture that restores a greater emphasis on the “arms legnth” administered Australia Council as the primary funding body for the arts, and has major implications for some of its cancelled programmes which were cut in the wake of the Federal Budget.
The Catalyst Fund has also restructured its original three streams of eligibility. Whereas the NPEA previously offered applications for “Endowment Incentives,” as well as “International and Cultural Diplomacy” and “Innovation and Participation,” the new fund will support “Partnerships and Collaborations” instead. This small adjustment suggests a less exclusive thrust for this part of the new fund, which was originally intended to foster the kind of corporate sponsorship that is commonplace among the 28 Major Performing Arts organisations in Australia, but which is usually inaccessible to small to medium sized outfits.
However some of the most troubling aspects of the original architecture of the NPEA, such as its exclusion of individual artists, remain in place. Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring, and leading figurehead of the #FreeTheArts movement, Claire Edwardes, expressed her continued concern about certain aspects of the new Catalyst Fund. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction with the use of words such as “innovation” and “novel” as well as a much clearer 3 pronged funding stream. But on the face of it, it actually seems very similar to NPEA in terms of who it is servicing,” she said. Another high profile opponant of the NPEA, the executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, Tamara Winikoff OAM, said of the newly announced changes, “This is a bittersweet moment for the arts in Australia. We are relieved that the Minister is prepared to go some way towards alleviating the havoc being caused by the original decision of his predecessor. However, the renamed Catalyst program is still being created at the expense of ensuring the survival of organisations that are the engine room for developing and presenting new Australian work.”
The findings of a Senate ordered inquiry into the NPEA is due to be tabled on December 2, following a national roadshow of hearings during which hundreds of arts leaders spoke to the destructive impact of the fund on the vibrancy of the arts ecology in Australia.