Dark arts

In March last year, George Brandis wrote to the Australia Council asking that it urgently draft guidelines to cut funding to arts bodies if they refused private donations.

The letter followed the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to forgo money from Transfield Holdings, in response to a threatened boycott from some artists involved with the exhibition.

Transfield Holdings was a founding partner of the biennale, but was also a minority shareholding in Transfield Services, a company with operating contracts at immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.

The letter, written in Brandis’s capacity as arts minister, was duly leaked to The Australian. It read in part:

“The decision of the board of the Biennale is an appalling insult to [philanthropists]. Equally appalling is the fact that the board of the Biennale, apparently under pressure from certain individual artists, has decided to decline to accept funding from a generous benefactor, because of the political opinion of those individual artists, concerning a matter which has nothing to do with the Sydney Biennale.

“Artists like everybody else are entitled to voice their political opinions but I view with deep concern the effective blackballing of a benefactor, implicit in this decision, merely because of its commercial arrangements.

“Even more damagingly, the decision sends precisely the wrong message to other actual or potential corporate sponsors of the arts: that they may be insulted, and possibly suffer reputational damage, if an arts company or festival decides to make a political statement about an aspect of their commercial relationships with government, where it disapproves of a particular government policy which those commercial relationships serve.”

The merits of the biennale boycott are debatable, but this is separate to Brandis’s point. What the arts minister was saying is that he did not like artists. This week, he further decided that he does not like the body tasked with funding them.

The last significant review of the Australia Council, released in May 2012, recommended the body be given a further $21 million to fulfil its duties. In this week’s budget, Brandis preferred to cut its funding by more than $100 million over four years.

That money will be redirected into a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, to be administered by the minister and his department. Based on Brandis’s previous statements, this will likely mean fewer grants for artists and more money for major arts companies.

The model will be Brandis’s statement to The Australian in June last year. As with his letter to the Australia Council, his contempt for “individual artists” is scarcely veiled. “Frankly,” he said, “I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves.”

The Australia Council is an imperfect body. Since it was founded, it has been the plaything of its various ministers. But its politicisation under Brandis is unprecedented.

It is hard not to see his contempt for its peer-reviewed grants program as a contempt for artists more generally. The money here has not been saved, it has simply been placed in a purse from which he will please his preferred companies and art forms. It is a purse that says one thing, something he was beginning to say when he wrote to the council more than a year ago: If I do not like you, I will destroy you. This is what Brandis is doing to the arts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "Dark arts".

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