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Arts need inspiration, not more disruption


One of the few industries lacking a national advocacy platform, the arts was stunned when a political move was made to undermine the key policy and investment body — at precisely the implementation point of its most rigorously developed strategic plan in 40 years.

Mitch Fifield For the first time in Australian history, public investment in the arts was about to foster the complex national ecology as a whole, offering a long-term foundation of support for vital organisations, as well as relevant and sector-responsive funding and development programs.

Instead and without warning, the work of the Australia Council was deliberately disrupted by crippling budget cuts lacking an evidence-led approach.

Adding insult to injury, a parallel fund called the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) was announced. It possessed none of the Australia Council's transparency or expertise, and explicitly excluded individual artists and operational costs for organisations. It thereby unleashed unprecedented destabilisation of a scale unparallelled in any other industry.

The Australia Council is still reeling, and arts leaders from around the country are scrambling to save their organisations and support their colleagues following the Council's drastic cancellation of entire funding rounds. Meanwhile these same leaders have written millions of words to submit over 2200 documents to the weighty Senate Inquiry on the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts — the biggest ever response to such an inquiry.

Unsurprisingly, given the number of notable suicides in the community, there has been a strong focus on health and wellbeing, with frequent publications and forums this year across cities and regions.

At stake here is the nature of Australian culture and the public experience of it, both now and into the future. Art is publicly funded because it is a public good. A primary purpose of government is to support, uphold and champion the public good — to understand it, to be sensitive towards its complexities, and to develop expert approaches to its development.

Through highly competitive means, governments fund independent organisations because they achieve what government cannot: expert, engaged and agile approaches that ask new questions, reinterpreting the world back to us, making life as complex, challenging and beautiful as it can possibly be.

Art is honest and adventurous. Art is therefore political, exposing the assumptions, tensions and values that make up a nation. Sustaining an engagement with art takes courage. Likewise, it takes courage to stand by the proven expertise of artists — or indeed, of climate scientists or public health experts.

Within a year, half of the nation's leading independent arts organisations may have vanished. In response — and having told industry leaders at a national roundtable that they would be happy with his alternative approach — new Minister for the Arts Mitch Fifield announced Catalyst, the rebranded NPEA, a fortnight before the Senate Inquiry was due to report.

Was the Minister hoping that this announcement would one-up the Inquiry's findings by coming across as responsive, relevant and strategic? If only that had been the approach.

Instead, the renamed program continues the NPEA's exclusion of individual artists, which undermines its capacity to support art at the most agile end, while extending the funding cuts' damaging impacts on such artists.

Catalyst continues to offer rolling assessment rather than fixed rounds with deadlines. This undermines its capacity to support proposals of merit given it will be impossible to assess them against one another. At the same time it extends the disadvantage against smaller organisations less able to mobilise quickly to attract funding before the open pool is drained.

The program continues to lack any artistic criteria for assessment, and continues the NPEA's use of non-peer non-expert assessors, undermining its ability to foster artistic excellence.

Given its duplications and inefficiencies, it's only a matter of time before Catalyst is dissolved and funds returned to the Australia Council. Meanwhile, the damage will have been done.

There are many lost opportunities here. For example, Catalyst repeats the NPEA's focus on partnerships for co-funding, international cultural diplomacy, and greater access and participation. The first of these is the remit of Creative Partnerships Australia; the second, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

One opportunity for real innovation would have been, after returning the great bulk of funds to the Australia Council with haste, to focus entirely on the third stream: what Catalyst calls Innovation and Participation. A substantial fund specifically designed to open artistic opportunities to people disadvantaged by ability, cultural background, socioeconomic factors, access to technology, or regional remoteness would have been revolutionary for massive, multicultural Australia.

The Australia Council has recently released rigorous new research on audiences and participation in Indigenous arts which would have been very helpful in developing this approach.

Once the Senate Inquiry has reported on 2 December, we expect the Prime Minister to speak publicly in championing the arts — given his friendships with key strategists and philanthropists, his family involvement on boards, and his own commitment to the arts. We expect Minister Fifield to re-approach the industry with policy and strategy, and with expertise and evidence, as informed by its policy and investment agency. The arts industry is committed to their success, because it's premised on ours.

This is a test of leadership: how will we foster the Australian culture? With an arbitrary succession of disruptions? Or with confidence, expertise and inspiration?


Esther AnatolitisWriter and curator Esther Anatolitis is director of Regional Arts Victoria and an advocate for the arts. She tweets @_esther

Topic tags: Esther Anatolitis, arts funding, Australia Council



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Existing comments

Most unfortunate. We need all our artists and their skills. My sympathy to Australian artists. I wish you the best.

Noelene Champion | 26 November 2015  

Many years ago I read a science-fiction short story. Some time in the future, a massive global conflict breaks out, and 'our country' becomes involved, putting all its resources into the war, in order to 'keep the world free for poetry'. The war escalates, technology takes over every aspect, cities lie in ruins, noxious gas fill the sky, no order, or kindness, or succour anywhere to be found. The last line of the story was something like "Meanwhile, quietly and without fuss, the last poet on earth died".

Joan Seymour | 27 November 2015  

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