In a Federal Budget that saw few surprises, one announcement that caught many off guard was the last-minute revelation of almost $105 million in funding cuts to the nation’s major cultural funding and advisory body, the Australia Council.
Over the next four years, $104.7 million will be diverted from the Australia Council to a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, to be administered exclusively by Senator George Brandis and the Arts Ministry, in a shock move said by Shadow Arts Minister Mark Dreyfus to have come without warning.
The council will also cop $7.2 million in efficiency savings over the next four years –combined cuts that effectively halve Australia Council’s annual budget of $230 million.
The Australia Council makes objective funding decisions separate from the interests of the government. However, this new program will “deliver a number of government priorities including providing national access to quality arts and cultural experiences” and will be administered by the Arts Ministry without peer review.
Many in the arts sector have reacted unfavourably to these new measures, which have been described as a “devastating move” for the small to medium arts community.
“This is a Government that says it supports freedom of expression but will only fund those who agree with them,” Mr Dreyfus said. “Senator Brandis is now intent on building a grand new private arts fiefdom to dole out money according to his own personal whims and wishes.”
However, not all arts leaders are upset at the diversion of funds, with Opera Australia CEO Craig Hassall saying it was also too early to be critical of the program, because “we don’t know yet where the funding is going to end up”.
“I always ask, what is the funding ultimately for? The funding is ultimately for audiences,” said Mr Hassall. “Wherever the funding goes, audiences should benefit. If audiences benefit then I’m happy.”
The new measures are on top of more than $100 million in slashed funds from last year’s budget, including a $28 million reduction to the Australia Council over four years, $33.8 million from various arts programs, and $25.1 million from Screen Australia.
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During times of economic hardship, funding for the arts is usually one of the first casualties. Art pundits may not consider Senator Brandis’ actions ideal, but at least the funds are just being redistributed. It is fortunate for the arts sector that they haven’t been pared back further.
Like many Australians, I am passionate about art. I believe that art is the language of humanity, an insight into the social psyche, and a necessary expression of the people.
Money isn’t necessary to produce great art, otherwise the myth of the starving artist wouldn’t exist. And as long as artists can afford the materials they need to create their work, art will always exist. In this instance reduced funds are not the big question. The big question is what Mr Brandis will do with the money.
The ‘arm’s length’ funding scheme conducted by the Australia Council, which has been in place longer than this government has been in power, has been integral to the production of excellent art for over 40 years. ‘Excellence’ may be a matter of opinion – after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the fact that funding for the arts has been decided by an external body in the interests of freedom of expression and objectivity is essential, and should be preserved. The government taking control of arts funding and deciding what is excellent is a dangerous path to tread.
I recall another national leader in the late 30s handing control of his nation’s art output to his ‘Arts Minister’ to decide what suited his ideology and what was considered best for his country at the time. Any art that did not fit the bill was considered degenerate and burned, and many artists were forced to leave the country.
I’m not trying to compare Mr Brandis to ‘he who shall not be mentioned’, however, I still believe the correlation is worth pointing out.
Artists should have the right to be critical of the government and to speak out, on behalf of the people, about any perceived political injustice prevalent in society.
There are fears that Mr Brandis will focus on the major players in the arts field, leaving the small to medium arts sector out in the cold. There are also reservations about funds not being distributed to artists who aren’t approved by government or who won’t attract support from the private sector.
So then, what of the work of artists who champion the rights of indigenous peoples and the plight of the refugees? Will we be denied access to the work of artists who comment on the state of government, religion, or express political viewpoints in opposition to those of the ruling party at the time? These are the questions that need to be answered by Mr Brandis.
In all fairness though, no one yet knows what Mr Brandis plans to do with the money. He may well employ many great minds to help him with his decisions. If the government wants to take back some of its money and put it towards art projects that will bear a return for its investment, then that’s a good thing, isn’t it? The added revenue could then be put back into the small to medium galleries and art sectors, and money could be given back to the Australia Council or similar arts advisory bodies. At the moment there is only speculation as to what he can, and will, do with the diverted funds.
One thing Mr Brandis should keep in mind though, is that the arts community is a powerful beast, and a starving artist can be dangerous thing.
What do you think? Do you think that the government of the day should determine who in the arts receives funding? Do you fear for the future of the arts should government interests take priority over freedom of expression? Do you think that the arts are worth funding at all?