An inquiry into arts funding is waiting in the wings, but most of the major players are ducking the spotlight. By Steve Dow.

Senate inquiry into George Brandis’s arts funding plans

Minister for the Arts George Brandis.
Minister for the Arts George Brandis.

In this story

In Adelaide on Monday, the eve of opening night of his production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about the consequences of hiding the truth, State Theatre Company of South Australia artistic director Geordie Brookman consulted his chief executive and producer, Rob Brookman, who is also his father. 

They searched for apt words to express Senator George Brandis’s divide and conquer campaign in the arts. “The impact of this Darwinian struggle will be profound,” the pair tells The Saturday Paper

“We have already seen the death of regional theatre, the death of theatre-in-education, the death of community theatre, the steady stripping out of the second-tier companies and youth theatre. 

“Further incursions into the small-to-medium theatre sector will seriously threaten the future health of our art form in toto – and, in doing so, diminish our already fragile culture, which has for decades tottered on the precipice of international homogeneity.”

Among Tuesday’s opening night crowd was Brett Sheehy, artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, which will host Betrayal in August. 

Unlike the Brookmans, neither Sheehy nor his executive director, Virginia Lovett, were willing to discuss arts cuts or the fact that 28 major performing arts companies have been quarantined from those cuts, at the expense of small-to-medium arts organisations and individual artists. 

Instead, MTC and its fellow 27 big theatre, opera, dance, orchestra and circus companies are signatories to the Australian Major Performing Arts Group’s (AMPAG) written submission to a senate inquiry called by Labor and the Greens, in which the legal and constitutional affairs committee will examine the impact of the 2014 and 2015 federal arts budget cuts and funding shake-up.

Brandis’s surprise announcement in May to sequester $104.8 million from the Australia Council, and create his own National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), triggered the senate inquiry. Its first public hearing will be in Melbourne this Wednesday, with a quick turnaround report to the parliament on September 15. 

Brandis released guidelines for the NPEA in early July, which did nothing to allay fears the minister would play favourites with arts funding decisions. The NPEA will use “at least three assessors” for each grant – chosen and appointed by the ministry, including ministry personnel, with the minister signing off. 

The only guideline concerning potential “conflicts of interest” is applied to applicants, not assessors. This approach does away with the peer-reviewed, arm’s length methodology required of the Australia Council, which last year had already taken a $28 million, four-year cut as part of the Abbott government’s $100 million arts funding chop, from which the big companies were also granted immunity. 

Almost all the major companies have decided against making their own individual submissions to the senate inquiry – the deadline passed two weeks ago – with notable exceptions being the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Queensland Theatre Company and Circus Oz. 

An MTC spokesman said the general AMPAG submission and an MTC board statement issued in June – which made no specific mention of the federal budget cuts – “illustrates our unflinching support for the small-to-medium sector”. There would be no further comment.

The 10-page AMPAG submission is detailed, and calls for additional arts funding to help the small-to-medium arts sector, rather than the NPEA funding being directly linked to Australia Council cuts. 

But the AMPAG submission also “broadly” supports Brandis’s NPEA, which “could stimulate support for new arts initiatives and activity that potentially will strengthen the sector”. 

Unlike Labor and the Greens, which dubbed the NPEA as Brandis’s “slush fund”, it seems the major performing arts companies have collectively run up the white flag and believe Brandis’s ministerial vision cannot be undone.

Queensland Theatre Company outgoing artistic director Wesley Enoch was among the first to criticise the funding shake-up last year and this year, with an open letter to Brandis on May 15 warning his decision “could jeopardise the ability to sustain an already strained cultural ecology”. But QTC executive director Sue Donnelly said this week that if big companies were cut, that too would harm the “viability of the arts ecology”.

The beleaguered Australia Council has in total lost 27 to 28 per cent of its discretionary spending, usually for the small-to-medium sector and individual artists. 

In this distrusting climate, Brandis has not only protected the major companies from cuts, but unlike individuals, the 28 companies will be eligible for NPEA grants, alongside their fixed Australia Council funding. There is extra sugar on the table for the big end of town.

1 . ‘Taking fright’

On Monday night, in the mock Italian piazza interior of Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, Brandis was in the audience for the 15th annual Helpmann Awards for live performance, and mingling at the afterparty. Various industry heavyweights were on stage, but it was left to Live Performance Australia president Andrew Kay to allude to budget cuts. Kay pointed out that small arts companies, too, are “part of Australia’s cultural ecosystem, but being small, they are also the most vulnerable, and warrant our ongoing support”. 

In May, Crikey reported that in the run-up to a day of national arts protest in capital cities, several big companies had been drafting a letter criticising the Australia Council cuts. But, after “one or more advisers” from Brandis’s office met with Sydney Theatre Company chairman David Gonski, the STC “backed away from any public statement about the funding cuts, and other majors, sniffing the wind, took fright”. 

An STC spokesman said both AMPAG and Live Performance Australia represented STC’s views, adding: “Any loss of resources for the sector needs to be viewed seriously. Cuts to one part of the industry can have knock-on effects throughout.”

The possibility was floated this week that Brandis could be open to High Court challenges by artists and state governments, potentially throwing all federal arts grants into doubt. University of NSW constitutional law professor George Williams told The Sydney Morning Herald the Commonwealth had never had “clear constitutional power” to fund the arts, though he conceded artists were unlikely to challenge the program because they stood to gain from arts funding. The government has said it is “confident” about the legal basis for its funding arrangements. Brandis told Radio National’s Books and Arts program: “This is about the best allocation of public money.” He acknowledged, however, there were a “variety of views” about the NPEA.

During the raids on the Australia Council now dating back 15 months, council chairman Rupert Myer and Labor-appointed CEO Tony Grybowski have remained silent, such is the climate of fear. The vast majority of the 28 major performing arts companies contacted by The Saturday Paper with questions about arts funding and the distribution of cuts said they preferred to let the AMPAG submission speak for them at the senate inquiry. Belvoir Street Theatre would only add it endorsed AMPAG’s “emphasis on supporting arts companies at all levels”. 

Bell Shakespeare said cuts were “never welcome news” but noted a revised Australia Council grants program “appears to bridge some gaps”. Malthouse Theatre argued it is “vital there remains a model for supporting individual artists”, but security of Malthouse’s own funding was vital to commissioning new work and providing independent artists with opportunities. 

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, that state’s only major performing arts organisation, “is concerned about the size of the funding pie becoming smaller overall”. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra “has concerns” about funding issues, but declined to spell them out. State Opera of South Australia artistic director Timothy Sexton said it was “purely a factor of time” that the company hadn’t made a separate submission, but “the current lack of certainty and future possibility for a number of the [smaller] companies with whom we have a close association make for a very unstable and unsatisfactory situation”. 

Musica Viva, which works mostly with small-to-medium artists across its 2000 performances a year, would only acknowledge it had “attended various meetings” with other companies. An Australian Ballet spokeswoman said: “You’ll be best to speak with AMPAG regarding this.” 

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Queensland Ballet, Opera Australia, Opera Queensland, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra all replied, but declined to make any further comment beyond citing support for the AMPAG submission. West Australian Symphony Orchestra said a spokesperson was not available. Several others, such as West Australian Ballet, Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Dance Company, did not respond.

“I don’t envy them the position they’re being placed in by the government,” the opposition’s arts spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, told The Saturday Paper

“It is invidious. They’ve been told their funding is quarantined, told they might be eligible for some of the money that’s been removed from the Australia Council, and they don’t see themselves in competition as such. They understand it’s one large community.” 

A profound Darwinian struggle? 

“I’m sorry if that’s the outcome of this. AMPAG seem to be saying they’re not sure what the impact will be. By contrast, many small-to-medium companies, and many individuals, have made it crystal clear in their submissions, and to me directly in a number of meetings, that the effect will be a very negative one.” 

Dreyfus emphasises he is not being critical of AMPAG. He believes there have been more than 2000 submissions to the inquiry, although at time of publication the secretariat has uploaded fewer than 150 submissions for public viewing. 

These include a submission from Dan Daw, an established dance artist with cerebral palsy, who points out: “In order to be [a] contributor … I needed to start somewhere.” Circus Oz writes that the removal of $104.8 million in Australia Council funding will “deeply destabilise” small-to-medium artists and “could have an impact on their immediate survival”. Playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer writes: “When significant arts funding goes, then the making of artwork goes. And finally the artists go.” 

Asked why the Australian Chamber Orchestra was part of the AMPAG submission but did not write its own for the senate inquiry, ACO general manager Tim Calnin said the inquiry seemed to be aimed at undoing the NPEA. “We took the view that’s a decision the minister has already taken,” says Calnin, “and the most constructive thing we could do was provide some feedback to the detail of that program.” 

Dreyfus concedes the senate cannot block the NPEA, but public pressure could still be brought to bear on the Abbott government, much like it did to reverse plans to scrap provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. The government could still return the NPEA funding to the Australia Council.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 1, 2015 as "Artless dodgers".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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