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Restoring Australia's cultural ambition

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Last week's Australia Council shortlisting of organisational funding applications was always going to be bad news. Even for organisations who've made it through to the next round.

Woman standing in an empty gallery (Paper Boat Creative / Getty)The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), of which I am executive director, is one of those organisations. We made the decision not to make a media statement, but when we were inundated with queries from members and colleagues, we knew we had to say something at this difficult time, so we posted a couple of sentences of solidarity on social media.

Because unlike the majority of applicants to the Australia Council's Four-Year Funding for Organisations, NAVA is not a presenting organisation. We don't make new work, we're not curators, and we're not a gallery or a venue. We're a national peak body, a sector service organisation with thousands of individual and organisational members, and tens of thousands in our social media community. We support artists to sustain careers, we develop the sector that exists to develop and present their work, and we make sure that the arts voice is heard on national issues that impact on policy affecting artists.

We might be through to the next round, but our chances of success aren't great when the peers who make those funding decisions are weighing our work against the work of the nation's most impressive artists and arts organisations. After all, we too want those artists to succeed. And as we look around the country and start to get a sense of which of our fellow organisations weren't shortlisted, it's not good news for sector development across all of Australia.

The work of Australian Plays is critical to the future of the performing arts sector, but they have missed out on being shortlisted; also critical is Playwriting Australia, who are currently under review. Ausdance National's record of achievement is extraordinary, but they have recently announced their closure. Overland is one of Australia's leading critical voices, and they too have missed out.

Many others have let their communities know whether they've been successful in getting past the EOI stage, and many more are keeping the outcome quiet, given the impacts on artists, audiences and staff. And while in a competitive funding process nobody is truly 'defunded', what's lost is a comprehensive understanding of what the Australian arts sector needs most right now.

At stake here is who takes responsibility for sector development in the arts as both a cultural and an economic good. Because right now, there is no national organisation or government agency whose role it is to take a responsible, long-term, national view, making sure there are programs in place to address key priorities.


"A government with confidence in artists is a government with confidence in democracy as open and critical, trusting in our great diversity of First Nations and migrant images, stories and experiences to shape Australia."


The Australia Council used to be that body. It used to have the capacity to identify national sector priorities and then address them through funded strategic initiatives delivered via peak bodies or sector partnerships. Cultural diversity, regional arts, experimental art, and young and emerging artists were all developed through programs such as ArtStart and Jump Mentoring, and organisations such as the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, the Next Wave Festival, Regional Arts Australia, and Kultour, now Diversity Arts Australia.

Four years ago, right in the middle of the shortlisting process for the first iteration of this funding program, the minister, who just a few months earlier had launched their strategic plan, suddenly and without justification took so much money from its budget that the Australia Council had to rethink its entire sector development strategy. The then Six-Year Organisations program — designed to give long-term certainty to the powerhouse small-to-medium sector whose work leads artist, artform and audience development in Australia — was cut down to four years. Under-resourced non-profits who'd dropped everything to write those demanding applications had to apply again. It's hard to believe that the timing of such large-scale industry disruption was not deliberate.

When public investment in the arts is so minimal, the impact of cuts to one funding body really do make that much of a difference to the entire sector.

Yes, the arts are entrepreneurial — and creative producers lead the way! — but public investment in the arts is a public good that the nation has long neglected. Philanthropy doesn't tend to fund operations, and the heyday of corporate sponsorships is long past. Gone are the days when cash partnerships meant an organisation could employ a staff member for a couple of years.

Ambitiously investing in the arts is how we create our future. A government with confidence in artists is a government with confidence in democracy as open and critical, trusting in our great diversity of First Nations and migrant images, stories and experiences to shape Australia.

In 2013-2014, the Australia Council's grants budget was $96.1m for artists, small-to-medium companies and initiatives (discounting the quarantined funding for the Major Performing Arts companies, on which overall funding changes have no impact). That was slashed by over 30 per cent to $65.9m in 2015-2016, rising a little back up to $78.3m in 2017-2018 with the return of some of the funds taken four years ago.

To put that in perspective, the Australian government has alarmed war veterans by spending $500m on unnecessary renovations to the National War Memorial, while the rest of our National Cultural Institutions face funding and staff cuts that threaten maintenance and collections. And in the 2018-2019 budget, the government's central arts and culture funding commitment was a $50m Captain Cook commemoration on the site of our First Nations' first experience of foreign colonisers — an experience that became violent within the first 15 minutes.

In the meantime, as the Australia Council's longitudinal research shows, artists' career prospects are dwindling, incomes are falling, the numbers of visual arts and crafts practitioners are falling, it's taking more years to become established, and the gender pay gap is dire. Meanwhile, with the funding cap having increased for individual applications but no new money in the Four-Year Organisations program, the Australia Council is expecting to fund fewer organisations than last time, further weakening the sector's capacity to lead long-term development. Demand from audiences continues to grow, and investment in bricks-and-mortar infrastructure such as galleries continues apace, but with no new investment in the artists and organisations who create the work and support the sector, what will Australia's arts look like in the future?

Under the current organisational funding model, and within the limits of the Australia Council's current funding, it's not possible to address that question with the confidence and the ambition that Australians expect. It's up to all of us to advocate for the vision, the strategy and the funds that are needed to restore Australia's cultural ambition.



Esther AnatolitisEsther Anatolitis is Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts. Author photo by Sarah Walker.

Main image: Paper Boat Creative / Getty

Topic tags: Esther Anatolitis, Australia Council, arts funding



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Existing comments

Good art, like truth, always outs - and usually at personal cost. Persistence is all, as the greats have shown.

John RD | 22 August 2019  

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