The new Arts Minister pledges to hear artists’ concerns, but still stays true to much of Brandis’ vision.

It’s been a nail-biting, roller coaster ride for Australian arts in recent weeks, as general relief following Senator George Brandis’ ousting as Arts Minister in Prime Minster Turnbull’s first ministerial reshuffle was followed by disappointment when newly appointed Minster for the Arts Mitch Fifield pledged to continue championing the controversial and hugely unpopular National Programme for Excellence in the Arts in an ABC Radio National interview last week. However things may once again be, albeit very slightly, on the up as Senator Fifield has now promised changes to the draft guidelines for the NPEA which had strongly implied a disadvantaging bias against independent artists and small to medium sized organisations. 

In an interview with Fairfax Media, the new Arts Minister promised he would listen to feedback from the sector, saying “There has been a period of consultation about the guidelines and there will be changes to the guidelines that reflect some of what came through the submissions.” The Senator did not make reference however to the many thousands of written submissions made by representatives across the Australia’s arts community to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee currently investigating the detrimental impact of the NPEA on the vibrancy of Australian Arts. The overwhelming number of entries to that inquiry have called for the unpopular new funding platform to be scraped.

Senator Fifield also remained firmly attached to his predecessor’s assertions that the “quantum of money in the arts portfolio is the same,” insisting that the number of government dollars committed to the arts had not been altered despite almost $105 million being carved out of the Australia Council’s allocation. Despite this belief several analyses published by various media in recent months have shown that the stipulations for eligibility of significant portions of the Australia Council’s funds, in conjunction with the forced cancellations of several key Australia Council funding programmes in response to diminished budgets, would offer far fewer dollars to small to medium scaled organisations, arts start-ups and independent artists.

Senator Fifield also looks keen to inherit his predecessors self-appointed role as the national taste maker, with final decisions on successful applications to the NPEA still remaining the prerogative of the Minister, in contrast to the peer review system of the Australia Council. By way of reassurance, Senator Fifield promised he would be both a “steward” and “student” of the arts, although when quizzed about his thoughts on the arts community’s largely hostile attitude to Senator Brandis he responded, “I don’t pay too much attention; all I hope is that the arts sector take me as they find me.” Given the level of activism and protest that has become commonplace in Australian arts since the Federal Budget announcement, Senator Fifield may not have to wait long to find out exactly how the sector he now represents do find him.