In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down performances across the country, the news that innovative new music group Ensemble Offspring would not be receiving support through the Australia Council for the Arts’ Four Year Funding for Organisations program was a blow for Artistic Director Claire Edwardes. “We are absolutely devastated,” she tells Limelight.

The Australia Council’s announcement revealed 95 organisations receiving funding for the years 2021-2024, well down from the 128 organisations listed in the 2016 round – which was itself dubbed Black Friday for the 62 organisations who lost their funding that year. With the industry having essentially been ground to a halt by the COVID-19 crisis, the Australia Council has reduced the new cohort’s first year of funding to 70% in order to offer the 49 newly unfunded organisations an extension of one year’s funding, also at a reduced a reduced rate of approximately 70%. The list of companies whose funding will come to an end after this extension period includes the Art Gallery of South Australia, Australian Book Review, Australian Theatre for Young People, Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Queensland Art Gallery, Sydney Writers’ Festival, The Song Company and more.

Claire Edwardes, Kontiki RacketEnsemble Offspring Artistic Director Claire Edwardes performing at Kontiki Racket in 2019. Photo © Christopher Hayles

Less than a month ago, Ensemble Offspring was honoured with a prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award, so the loss of funding came as a surprise. “To be honest it was pretty unexpected based on the feedback we had been getting from both funding bodies and audiences in recent times,” Edwardes says. “We should have prepared ourselves better given these funding rounds are indeed a lottery. There is simply not enough funding to go around so the peers are forced into what must be an awful situation whereby they have to choose between different forms and modes of excellence. It is really hard – for everyone.”

The loss of funding means Ensemble Offspring will have to completely change the way it operates. “We had grown administratively and our program had also strengthened in the past four years with our last round of successful funding – we even had an office! So all of that will have to be reviewed. Our programs for emerging artists (including Hatched Academy) as well as our Kontiki Racket Festival, which we had planned to make annual, will be the hardest hit as much of our core funding was funnelled into those initiatives. We will obviously work very hard to find money elsewhere but it is a big hit to our program to suddenly not have that ongoing national government support.”

Like all of the organisations who will no longer be on Four Year funding, Ensemble Offspring will benefit from the contract extension. “It is obviously better than being defunded from the end of 2020,” Edwardes says. “That said, due to COVID-19 I think the Australia Council realised that if there was no transitional funding supplied we would all be in a situation whereby none of our 2020 programs could be realised, and that is just too depressing for words. So this transitional funding definitely brings some respite.”

For Edwardes, the cuts don’t bode well for the sector. “The sheer fact that only one NSW music organisation was funded [New Musicals Australia & Hayes Theatre Co, one of 28 organisations new to the Four Year funding program] is a death knell for NSW music making,” Edwardes says. “The other slightly alarming statistic on the successful music organisations was the lack of female leadership among them – especially given Ensemble Offspring’s work on gender equity in music, this is particularly disappointing. Our national service body, the Australian Music Centre, was successful, which is just great for Australia composers, but the fact remains that if there are virtually no actual ensembles funded to perform the music of these living composers there is a big gap. The ecosystem in NSW is now broken and an investment from the state will be more important than ever now to keep new music making alive in NSW.”

Another company to lose its funding was The Song Company, which was in danger of folding last year before the intervention of a significant donor. “The Song Company is Australia’s only national professional vocal ensemble, so to lose federal government funding on this scale is a real kick in the teeth,” Artistic Director Antony Pitts tells Limelight. “However, we knew some time ago that we weren’t even being considered for this funding round after our Expression of Interest was rejected, so we had already come to terms with the blow and have been planning accordingly. Essentially, we had our major existential crisis a year before those other ensembles who are now feeling the shock. We have already developed, and are working to, a new strategic model that takes into account this level of setback. But at the same time we totally share their pain and incredulity!”

The Song Company’s most recent success was its performance at the Adelaide Festival as part of the 150 Psalms event, performing alongside international ensembles including The Tallis Scholars – an undertaking that would simply not be possible without major financial input, Pitts says. “Without a serious reconsideration of federal support for the small-to-medium arts sector, we won’t be able to tour nationally as regularly over the coming years,” he explains. “Simply put, we will be unable confidently to plan national tours without new support from state and local agencies to make up for the lack of federal funding. On the plus side, this means engaging with local communities more to build audiences in each centre and over the longer-term could make our new touring model more sustainable.”

“The Arts funding arena is already so ridiculously competitive and the small-to-medium organisations – i.e. the ones that are actually doing new and original work – are already unfairly weighted against,” Pitts says. “Australia’s geography makes any kind of national arts activity extremely costly, which is why the Federal Government needs to support the arts wholeheartedly and substantially.”

For Pitts, private philanthropy can’t be expected to make up the difference, and he sees the lack of a titled Department of the Arts and fully-focused role of Arts Minister (Paul Fletcher is Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts) as “a fundamental part of the problem at a national level”.

“We rely partly, but very significantly, on government funding to fulfil our mission to create, educate, and collaborate: music-making at a world-class level and immersive mentoring of the next generation of Australian singers,” Pitts says. “I just hope we can do just that.”

The cuts have hit the youth arts sector particularly hard, with Gondwana Choirs – who lost their multi-year funding in the 2016 Black Friday round – missing out again this round. “We were incredibly disappointed,” Executive Director Bernie Heard tells Limelight. “We had put a significant amount of resources and effort into the application. Getting through the EOI and then to the final stage is a large body of work that involves everyone from the board right through the whole senior management team and the rest of the team. We really gave it our full effort.”

Gondwana ChoirsGerib Sik and the Gondwana Indigenous Choir at the Gondwana World Choral Festival. Photo © Robert Catto

“Since losing the Australia Council multi-year funding in 2016, we’ve had extremely limited government support. We are grateful to receive multi-year funding through Create NSW,” says Heard, who puts overall government funding at about eight percent of the organisation’s income each year. “That has meant that the organisation has had to work extremely hard to diversify our income. We work extremely hard to receive project funding through private donations, through trusts and foundations, and we’ve worked to increase our corporate support – that is an increasingly difficult market to be in, and certainly now with COVID-19 as it is. I guess we are more vulnerable to the impact of the shut downs on the industry because we are so much more reliant on corporate and private funds.”

Gondwana Choirs regularly commissions new works by Australian and international composers, and last year launched the first Gondwana World Choral Festival. “We certainly don’t want to change the way that we’re presenting new work, but it is increasingly difficult to provide the resources and the framework within our operations team and our administration to present these projects when we’re continuing to be stretched within our team,” Heard says. “I’m concerned about what this means for the future of the organisation.”

The results of this funding round leave Heard concerned for the arts sector as a whole, but also the youth arts sector. “There’s been continued reduction in support for youth arts organisations,” she says. “But I’m also concerned for the music sector as well.”

Many of the organisations who have missed out on funding, like Ensemble Offspring and Pinchgut Opera, feed into the larger arts community. “We’re all part of the ecosystem, which includes the major organisations who engage us to collaborate with them,” Heard says. “We train their professional artists and provide training for the composers who work with them. But we also provide employment to a whole range of artists and composers as well – we have a number of artists who work for us on salary, but we work with up to 90 independent artists in projects and ongoing programs throughout the year.”

Another youth arts company losing its funding is Australian Theatre for Young People. “It’s an extraordinary decision,” ATYP’s Artistic Director Fraser Corfield tells Limelight. “It’s very hard to take in, that one.”

The company is already looking at ways to move forward. “One of the things that’s quite extraordinary about it is that it’s been really difficult for the arts in general, since Brandis’s intervention into arts funding and the upheaval that that has caused the whole of the arts sector, and the youth arts sector in particular,” he says.

For ATYP this is exacerbated by the fact that the organisation is between venues, while its new home – alongside Bell Shakespeare and the Australian Chamber Orchestra – is built on Sydney’s Pier 2/3. The company will move in the year that it loses its Australia Council funding. “So it has serious potential consequences for us, depending on what kind of solutions we can find,” Corfield says.

While Corfield describes ATYP as “an extraordinarily resilient company” – which, he says, has been working hard to meet the new reality of delivering workshops and other offerings online –  “there’s no doubt that it’s challenging on morale, and it’s devastating for the whole of the arts sector.”

“Australian Theatre for Young People I think is very clearly recognised as an essential part of the theatre ecology in Australia,” Corfield says. “We’re the largest investor in playwriting and commissions of new work, we are the larger investor in the development of emerging playwrights, and most of the playwrights that have emerged into our professional companies over the last decade have come through ATYP’s programs, or have certainly been touched by them. Young artists from very young ages step off ATYP stages and workshops and straight into leading professional productions, film and television. So ATYP is recognised as a very important component of the wider industry. So for this to impact us in the way it has, reflects that there is significant challenges that are industry wide.”

These challenges are part of an escalating crisis in the arts. “What we’re seeing is this ongoing contraction, and it’s hit a point that is now critical,” Corfield says. “I started working in youth arts in 2001. In 2007 there were 21 federally funded youth theatre companies. As a result of this funding round there’ll be three. With the constant reduction in funded companies is a constant reduction in opportunities for paid work, to keep professional artists moving. We’re already at a point where the industry is in a really critical phase. Unless there can be found some way of providing new opportunities for some of our key organisations, it’s difficult to see how the arts will be a sustainable industry in the years going forward.”

The survival of youth arts organisations is a concern shared by the National Advocates for Arts Education, which is calling for a significant increase in the Australia Council’s budget – as part of a set of stimulus measures proposed by an alliance of organisations across the industry – to save Australia’s arts industry from collapse. “The arts funding cuts represent a grave loss to the cultural lives of young Australians in metropolitan, regional and remote Australia,” said NAAE Chair John Nicholas Saunders in a statement. “Arts organisations play a significant role in the education sector, through the vast range of exceptional education and community programs they offer, as well as professional development opportunities for teachers. The funding cuts will significantly reduce these opportunities, as the future of many of the companies that were unsuccessful in receiving Four Year funding is now in serious jeopardy.”

“Youth arts investment has been decimated, damaging career pathways,” he said. “NAAE has great concerns about the impact on arts education and young people who are seeking to work in the arts industry.”

Christopher Lowrey in Pinchgut Opera’s Farnace. Photograph © Brett Boardman

It’s not just the companies losing funding who are suffering – other organisations have poured significant resources into the application process only to have it come to nothing. One organisation hoping to receive Four Year funding for the first time in this round was innovative period opera company Pinchgut Opera, who just last year won the Rediscovered Work category at the International Opera Awards for their production of Adolph Hasse’s Artaserse. “We are all disappointed as we felt that the application was really strong,” Helyard tells Limelight. “We were hoping multi-year funding would allow us to build on our growing international reputation, with invitations for collaborations in England and France, as well as solidify and expand our national profile beyond Sydney. We have always been small but we’re all continually working beyond capacity. Funding can alleviate that and helps us grow employment and performance opportunities for artists, in addition to increasing our audience reach.”

“We have never received multi-year state or federal government support, so in many respects this leaves us where we left off,” he says. “Committed and passionate is what Pinchgut is all about! We rely on our supporters and our audiences for income and as our capacity to perform has been squashed by the pandemic, our box office has been put completely put on hold. I think the hardest thing going forward for the entire sector is the uncertainty about timelines regarding the restrictions around mass gatherings and forecasting when audiences will feel safe to return to theatres.”

As for what this funding round means for the arts sector, “I think the goals of multi-year funding have radically changed recently, partly in response to COVID-19 but also partly in response to a shift in federal arts policy,” Helyard says. “That change has left a lot of companies like Pinchgut stranded. Certainly it will put stress on an already degraded and demoralised sector. I congratulate those who have received funding and commiserate with those that have lost funding or missed out entirely like us.”

Even amongst the organisations who have received Four Year funding, there is a sense of deep concern for the industry. “We are very sorry to see many valued friends and partners lose their funding at this critical time, and add our voice to the calls for additional government support for the arts,” said Multicultural Arts Victoria in a statement. “The creative industries are an interconnected, dynamic system of cultural production and consumption. If we weaken its parts, we weaken the whole.”

The Australian Music Centre also released a statement from its board and team in the wake of the announcement that it was successful in its bid for funding. “While we are relieved and excited, this news is also bittersweet. We acknowledge with great regret that our welcome news is not necessarily matched for other friends, colleagues and organisations across the country,” the statement said.

The AMC has pledged to act immediately in support of its community by announcing $10,000 of commissions, including two Peggy Glanville-Hicks Addresses to take place in 2020 instead of one, and eight commissions of online content from artists, ensembles or organisations. The AMC is also donating $25,000 from its reserves to the industry relief charity Support Act.

“We understand the responsibility that our good fortune entails,” the AMC said.

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