Following the news yesterday that NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin personally intervened to divert funds away from 11 projects recommended in Round 2 of the Create NSW Arts & Cultural Projects fund to finance a secret ‘special project’, the National Association for the Visual Arts has called for those funds to be returned to the artists.

The investigation by the ABC hinged on documents obtained through Freedom of Information laws and while the name of the ‘special project’ had been redacted, Harwin has since revealed after questioning in Parliament that funds were diverted to a one-off grant made to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for an acoustic enhancement at the International Convention Centre. The ICC in Darling Harbour will host the SSO’s piano festival, The Keys to the City Festival, in the 2019 season and will no doubt be an important venue for the orchestra in 2020 while the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall is closed for renovations.

“The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has received funding from Create NSW to assist with acoustic treatments required at the new venues we have to use while the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall is undergoing major refurbishment,” a spokesperson for the SSO confirmed. “The Sydney Symphony Orchestra is not privy to the government’s internal decision-making process around this funding decision.”

According to documents obtained by the ABC, Create NSW investment director Sophia Zachariou warned Ministerial Advisor George Ober that a failure to fund the projects recommended by the independent panel in Create NSW’s Arts & Cultural Projects Round 2 risked a “loss of trust” and “concerns that funding decisions are being politicised”.

In a statement from NAVA in July this year, in which the peak body was joined by 64 arts organisations, Executive Director Esther Anatolitis decried the result of the funding round as “one of the lowest outcomes in Australian history, with many artistic projects of excellence having missed out on being experienced by audiences in NSW.”

“It’s even worse than what had concerned us all back in July,” Anatolitis said in a statement following yesterday’s revelations. “Public investment has been taken away from artists and audiences across inner and Western Sydney and regional NSW, and instead it’s gone towards some secret project that wasn’t even disclosed through a journalist’s FOI research. In fact, the Minister confirmed in Parliament after questioning this afternoon that that ‘special project’ was the compensation of a colleague organisation for operational costs, and not an artistic project at all.”

“Let’s be clear: artists have earned this money – they’ve earned it through the hard work it took to reach the professional standing that made them such outstanding applicants, and they’ve also earned it by putting hundreds of hours into participating in this highly competitive funding process,” she said. “Taxpayers will rightly be wondering why public funds earned by artists have not ended up where the transparent process of peer review intended.”

Anatolitis clarified that the issue is not with the funding of the SSO’s acoustic enhancement itself. “By all means, Create NSW’s capacity to fund ‘special projects’ should be championed by the Minister – and bolstered by special funding,” she said. “Taking money away from artists who’ve been independently assessed as successful grant applicants is an unacceptable way to reallocate taxpayers’ money. Funds intended for artistic projects that instead compensate others for operational losses rob our state of the artistic ambition we admire and applaud.”

“NAVA calls for the prompt return of these public funds to the artists who’ve earned them,” Anatolitis said. “NSW audiences deserve to experience what our state’s finest artists have worked so hard for us to enjoy.”

Harwin has defended his decision to reallocate the funds. “There are occasions when funding flexibility is needed to support emerging issues across the sector,” a spokesperson for the Minister told Limelight. “This is not unusual for any government body and will continue to be the case.” The spokesperson also pointed out that the NSW Government has increased its overall investment in NSW arts and culture from $52.9m in 2017-18 to $54.8 million in 2018-19.