As Australia’s two biggest arts agencies shirk responsibility for “Black Friday”, arts leaders offer words of guidance.

In the wake of last Friday’s news that 62 Australian arts organisations would no longer receive vital multi-year operational funding from the Australia Council, the arts sector has been left looking for decisive leadership to guide the creative industries through what has been described as the worst arts cuts in 40 years. The scale of the funding crisis has been linked to the drastic changes in the arts funding infrastructure, instituted by former Minister for the Arts George Brandis in the 2015/16 Federal budget, which saw $105 million diverted from the Australia Council to supply the Government administered Catalyst Fund (formerly the NPEA). 

However, instead of providing a positive voice advocating for arts organisations facing closure, the Ministry for the Arts issued a statement late on Friday blaming the Australia Council for the disaster, dismissing the overwhelming outcry from artists and arts consumers across the country, who have called for funding to the Australia Council to be restored.

The press release, issued by current Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield’s office, said: “The Australia Council has increased its operational funding grants for small to medium arts organisations by $6 million per year, that is $28 million per year, up from $22 million. As the Australia Council points out in its media release regarding today’s announcement, “It was always intended that slightly fewer companies would be funded at a higher level”. This strategic direction was developed by the Australia Council prior to last year’s federal budget. The Australia Council’s funding contracts are for fixed terms, and are not in perpetuity.”

The Arts Ministry statement has highlighted certain aspects of the Australia Council’s Four-Year Funding platform which appear to have exacerbated the scale of defunding that has ripped through the Australian arts ecology over the past few days. The average level of successful applications was raised to $219,000 across the four-year period, compared to $157,000 on the previous four-year grant round. A third of the organisations funded – 43 of the 124 successful applications in total – are new recipients who have not received multi-year funding in the past. In addition to this, applications from all disciplines and practices were simultaneously assessed for the first time, meaning the number of defunded organisations revealed in a single announcement was substantially higher than in previous years.

Some of the new strategic parameters that have been applied to the Australia Council’s funding programmes over the past year highlight concerning shortcomings which may threaten the longevity of emerging companies and the diversity of work that is being made in Australia. The four-year funding platform is intended to allow companies to focus on developing their artistic offering while its administrative aspects are financially underwritten. However, the funding initiative, which enables companies to expand to support more ambitious work, fosters reliance on subsidy to cover operational expenses, meaning many unsuccessful organisations have now been left unable to support their key outgoings, such as payroll or other administrative overheads. New Australia Council guidelines also indicate that recipients of the coveted Four-Year Funding grants will no longer be eligible for individual project funding from 2017. This means that organisations which have been successful in this grant round will need to fund production, research and development, commissioning fees and other implementation costs for their artitsic works without Australia Council subsidy (although the Arts Ministry’s Catalyst Fund does appear to be accessible). 

With the country’s two biggest arts agencies, the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council, seemingly unwilling to provide much-needed advocacy and guidance in this time of emotional and financial turbulence, some of Australia’s top arts leaders have issued statements encouraging solidarity, kinship, objectivity and hope within the sector. 

Wesley Enoch

Former artistic director of Queensland Theatre Company and new director of the Sydney Festival, Wesley Enoch, took to social media on Saturday to offer words of inspiration to his colleagues across the country. 

Enoch’s statement made reference to the “impenetrable pall of doubt and uncertainty” that has hung over the arts community over the last year, acknowledging the inevitability of the damage caused by Friday’s funding announcements. “The ideological arrogance which has dismissed expert advice and precedent has brought us to a moment where the artistic community is personally demoralised, professionally dismissed and collectively in mourning,” he said.

His post went on to acknowledge the difficult responsibility of the Australia Council’s staff and peer review panellists, who have had to make choices that would inevitably cause significant harm. “I feel for those who were placed in this position,” Enoch said. “The staff of the Australia Council, the panellists who had to push and shove through the darkness and ultimately the artists and audiences who will not have the public resources to make and see art.”

Enoch also challenged the Arts Ministry and Australia Council’s unwillingness to acknowledge the inevitable cultural cost of Friday’s announcement, encouraging artists to use their vote in the upcoming Federal Election to enact change to the arts funding infrastructure. “I am so thankful to be in a democracy. I am thankful because I can use my vote to make a difference. I can also use my powers of persuasion to assist others to use their vote. I can also use my art of speaking and writing, my storytelling and my cultural powers to make sure these stories are known by as many people as I can reach,” he said, adding, “This is not the week the Arts died in this country. This is a week we will look back on and say it was the week we found our voice. It is the week we stepped up not down.”

Brisbane festival director David Berthold offered a thorough analysis of the funding results that explored the difficult contradiction that while many companies lost funding, more money was invested by the Australia Council this year than ever before. “The results of this funding round are less to do with cuts and more to do with the philosophical shift that emerged after a long consultation process with the arts and culture sector aimed at finding a new funding model for organisations. As part of the shift, the Australia Council set new strategic goals,” Berthold observed, adding that Friday’s announcement also included good news about increased investment in regional and First-nations organisations. 

However, Berthold also recognised that national investment in the creative industries vastly undervalues the level of income generated by arts and culture events every year. “It’s difficult to understand the reluctance to more reasonably support arts and culture. More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to the AFL and NRL combined. Culture employs more people than agriculture, construction or even mining, and indeed contributes as much as 75% of the economic benefit of the mining sector.” Berthold also called for the Government to not only restore Australia Council Funding but to double it, citing similar initiatives which have had manifestly positive outcomes in other countries such as Canada.