Arts cuts leave sector in turmoil

May 20, 2016

The Coalition government's arts funding cuts have deepened in a confused, inconsistent fashion that has only added to the sector's turmoil.

The Australia Council for the Arts has told 62 small-to-medium-sized arts companies and organisations that their applications for grants for the next four years have been rejected. Yet more than 40 new organisations have been given grants.

ABC News said that industry insiders said May 13 was the “blackest of Black Fridays” for the arts in Australia. With many companies facing potential collapse, the Confederation of Australian State Theatre Companies (CAST) released a statement calling for a government review of the cuts, which it said threatened mass job losses.

The funding rejections come after the federal government stripped $60 million over four years from the Australia Council's budget last year. Of this, $12 million has been diverted into the new Catalyst program, which is providing the funds for the more than 40 new grants.

Speaking to The Conversation on May 13, Jo Caust, associate professor of cultural policy and arts leadership at the University of Melbourne, said: “The arts sector in Australia is in turmoil and confusion. Early last week it was announced that 75 arts groups had received funding from the new Catalyst fund. Later, another 45 grants were announced.

“Some of the earlier recipients received two lots of funding for different projects. Several recipients received more than the stated upper limit for grants … Companies such as Kage Theatre ($130,000) in Victoria and Brink in South Australia ($160,000) received money through the Catalyst Fund but have been defunded by the Australia Council.”

Caust noted that some of the groups defunded by the Australia Council “are of serious concern in terms of the intent of the cuts. For instance, funding was cut to both the National Association for the Visual Arts and the journal Meanjin — both places where alternative points of view to government policies have been expressed.

“NAVA has played a national leadership role in organising protests against the Australia Council changes. What does this say about democracy?

“The South Australian theatre scene in particular has received a mortal blow. Three theatre companies that have been at the forefront of artistic innovation have been defunded: Brink, Slingsby and Vitalstatistix. The latter is a women's theatre company that promotes the work of female playwrights, actors, writers and directors…

“Is the Australia Council using the Catalyst Fund as an excuse to offload some of its less popular clients? More importantly, has the Council taken the wisest course of action in the circumstances? There is a sense of shock in the arts sector.

“What does all this say about the government's approach to national arts policy? It appears there is no overall plan, vision, communication, transparency or fairness.”

Maria Miranda, a research fellow at University of Melbourne, told The Conversation: “The impact of the Australia Council funding cuts will be felt throughout the arts ecology in direct and indirect ways.

“In addition to those companies that have lost direct support — and the few that have gained it — there'll be hidden impacts on the small, artist-run organisations that support and produce some of Australia's most interesting art and artists.

“Whether it's a gallery, interactive art or turning a whole street into an exhibition space, these small groups are often run without direct funding, through the efforts of volunteers. They provide a space for artists, especially — but not exclusively — for young people, to practise their craft, take risks, and build a community.

“They won't disappear entirely, but the cuts will have negative impacts on the organisations' ability to mount specific projects. The volunteers who run these spaces are themselves working artists, who depend on funding (and, often, part-time jobs within the arts sector) to survive.

“It's particularly disappointing because this is not expensive art, yet it provides so much. Small and medium arts organisations are outward looking and connected to their communities.

“They don't require expensive infrastructure and — to use the appropriate economic term — they're cost-effective. Small amounts of money make a huge difference.

“It's sadly ironic that in 2014 the Australia Council itself released a report called Arts in Daily Life finding that 95% of Australians engaged with the arts in some way in the year before, and nearly half of Australians created art in some way themselves.

“Australians understand that art is an important part of their lives and doesn't just happen in a museum. It's actually quite strange to have to be arguing the importance of the arts still, in 2016.”

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