The arts industry in New South Wales is coming to grips with the latest overhaul of the way Create NSW grant funding is processed and allocated, with the state’s arts policy and funding body announcing a “streamlined approach” in which funding recommendations will be made by Artform Assessment Boards chosen by the Arts Minister.

The new Arts and Cultural Funding Program 2019/20 guidelines have reduced the 14 previous individual funding rounds to two open rounds each year in the categories of Project, Creative Koori Projects and Annual Organisation funding. Assessment criteria have been reduced from 26 elements to three: merit, viability and impact.

Don Harwin, Arts MinisterMinister for the Arts Don Harwin

“We’re also changing the way that applications are assessed,” said Create NSW Executive Director, Investment and Engagement, Elizabeth W. Scott. “We’re calling on the sector – artists and leadership across organisations of all sizes – to help us create inclusive artform-specific Boards that will inform funding recommendations for the Minister,” she said.

The changes are a move away from the previous peer review system. “These Boards will open up conversation across the sector through a shared depth of artform experience from different perspectives,” Scott said. “This will not only inform strong recommendations for funding, but also deliver important gap analysis and enhancements for the NSW creative ecology in the process.”

The boards will be led by Chairs from major NSW arts and cultural organisations, and Create NSW has launched an expression of interest process to inform the choice of board members. “I will choose Chairs, and the Chairs and I will select the artform members,” Arts Minister Don Harwin told Artshub. “There will be no fewer than six and no more than ten members on each Board.”

In the new system there will be ten Artform Assessment Boards: Aboriginal Arts and Culture Board; Classical Music Board (including Ensembles and Chamber Music); Contemporary Music Board; Dance and Physical Theatre Board (including Ballet); Opera, Musical Theatre and Chorus Board; Literature Board; Multi-arts and Festivals Board; Museums Board; Theatre Board; Visual Arts Board.

All applicants will be able to nominate which Board they would like to assess their application, and the Boards will then provide recommendations for the Minister’s approval. Members will serve for an initial term of up to two years.

The changes have generated much discussion in the arts community, with many ambivalent about whether they are an improvement or not. “If the minister selects the chairs of these boards and then selects the members with those chairs, how will integrity be maintained?” asked Executive Director of the National Association of the Visual Arts Esther Anatolitis, in a series of queries about how the new funding model will operate. “How are ‘recommendations for funding’ different to funding decisions? How will the minister’s decision or veto be exercised? Will this be documented?”

Anatolitis also raises an eyebrow at the claim the changes have been the result of industry consultation and feedback. “What consultation was undertaken to arrive at the new structure? Which organisations and which artists were consulted?” she asked. “Specifically what feedback informed these changes and on what basis was that feedback sought? What specific problems were identified to which this new model was proposed as the solution?”

Mezzo-soprano Jenny Duck-Chong, founder and artistic director of Sydney-based contemporary music ensemble Halcyon, says Anatolitis’ questions need to be answered, “before this is indeed ‘transparent’ in its process” and she is wary that, without more details, it remains to be seen whether the new process will deliver all it promises – especially for the often under-served small to medium sector.

“A clear advantage is that the timelines and dates of notification are now clearly announced which has not been the case in the recent past, causing much distress for the sector and the cancelling of many events,” she says, but she is sceptical about some of the “glossy marketing language” around a new system being billed as streamlined, open and flexible.

“Removing the funding limits sounds like a plus but I am concerned it means that funding will be directed to fewer large projects, especially infrastructure-based ones, and that the S2M sector will see even less of this money.”

Likewise, she says, two open funding rounds could either be an advantage or a disadvantage. “Does it mean that more of us are then competing more broadly for the same pool of money, in a way that the smaller targeted individual funding rounds did not?” Duck-Chong says. “And that we will therefore not see the same diversity of funding supported as they will all be assessed concurrently?”

“Our sector works very hard on minimal budgets,” she says. “Smaller grants to smaller organisations is an excellent investment of government funds because it has a multiplying effect in growing many projects to fruition.”

Duck-Chong hopes that it does prove to be the case that the application process is simpler and less onerous, as the act of submitting grant applications themselves requires significant resources for small organisations and individual artists, and applying in rounds with only a slim chance of success can be demoralising. “The appalling rate of funding in the last NSW round of 2.7 percent of applicants felt like a real slap in the face to our already struggling sector and meant many planned projects and tours had to be cancelled,” she says. “This is a real creative loss for both audiences and venues around the state and the arts practitioners themselves. To discover that money from this round was reallocated elsewhere at the minister’s direction leaves many of us sceptical about these new changes, how they will actually be carried out and the amount of political direction that may continue to have a bearing on these funding outcomes.”

While Minister Harwin cited feedback from last year’s Arts 2025 summit as informing the changes, Duck-Chong is dubious about the level of consultation with the small to medium sector, given the Minister told the Sydney Morning Herald that “creative leaders working in our major performing arts groups and in the state’s galleries and museums have a lot to offer giving advice to me as minister on what their artform needs and how we should be nurturing emerging talent from that art form.”

“This seems to be an odd way to find out what the S2M sector needs,’ Duck-Chong says. “Where are the voices from our sector in the conversation?

“I hope that my concerns are proved baseless and that these changes promote a more equitable and better targeted funding model for a wider range of practitioners with more transparency, which really does ‘remove barriers’ and make the process easier and fairer,” she says. “But there are many questions that still need to be answered before I am willing to be confident about revitalised funding for the S2M sector.”

Composer Matthew Hindson, who has first-hand experience on both sides of grant funding applications, believes that the changes to funding in NSW aren’t a bad thing, in theory, with the new Artform Board model similar to that used by the Australia Council for the Arts, before its restructure, where Hindson was Chair of the Music Board from 2009 to 2013.

“The great thing about this new (old) system is that the Minister and his staffers can get direct advice from both the Chair of the particular area, and the members of the panel. The Minister can ask them to develop strategy, for example, that relates to their area of expertise,” Hindson says. “And given that the panel members will all be assessing many grants, they get much more efficient in the process, and will really get a good sense of what’s going on around NSW. There’s no better way to get informed.”

For Hindson, this puts artists directly at the centre of the process. “Not just grant assessment, but other important strategic areas as well,” he says. “For example, the panel could recommend to the Minister that a special initiative is run to address a particular need.  These sorts of recommendations can very rarely arise from a constantly ad hoc group of peers.”

His support of this system is not without caveats, however. “The choice of Chairs and diversity of Artform Panellists that are appointed will be of paramount importance. The Chair and the entire panel needs to come into the process with an attitude of mutual respect – including respect for those putting in the applications,” he explains. “There must be a culture of fairness and impartiality imbued into every dealing, especially grant assessment. Assessing by the criteria, not just on the mood or ‘vibe’ of the application, is vital to ensure that equity is best achieved.”

Claire Edwardes, percussionist and Artistic Director of Sydney’s new music group Ensemble Offspring, told Limelight that she has applied to be on the Classical Music Board and is recommending others apply for it as well. “As many of us as possible have to put our hat in the ring,” she said, “to potentially get the best possible board we can.”