The Australia Council’s latest funding cuts have further devastated arts companies. By Steve Dow.

Arts companies hit hard by Australia Council funding cuts

Tom Conroy and Kate Mulvany in a production of Jasper Jones.
Tom Conroy and Kate Mulvany in a production of Jasper Jones.

The closed meetings were staged at the Australia Council for the Arts’ shopfront Sydney office in Surry Hills, in February and March. For two days, each of nine groups covering a specific discipline – such as literature, dance or theatre – met separately. 

In total, 73 peer assessors, acknowledged experts in their fields, gathered to determine which small-to-medium arts organisations best met the guidelines to secure four-year funding, and which had failed or qualified only partially.

All this came to a head on May 13, Black Friday, when 53 of 147 organisations that previously received multi-year key organisation funding were told their applications for the new four-year funding program had been rejected.

A dozen of the 147 had not reapplied, effectively meaning 65 organisations lost funding. 

From 2017, 128 companies – about half of the number that applied, including 43 awarded multi-year funding for the first time – will receive a total of $28 million a year for four years.

The peer assessors’ homework prior to flying to Sydney was to read applicants’ mission statements, budgets, costing and business plans. Peers then went online, ranking each application in their field. 

Then came the face-to-face meetings: deliberate, considerate and judicious, mixed with passion, much stress and occasional tears. 

“To be in a room and collectively make decisions which may force the closure … of certain organisations was awful,” says one assessor. “What was palpably acute from the start was that with a bit more money … we could help sustain what is already a very fragile sector.”

No one in the meetings quite knew where the funding cutoff line would fall. “What we had to talk about really was the 50 or 60 per cent [of applications] that sat in the middle,” says a second assessor.

Were examples of excellence ultimately not funded? “Absolutely. No question about that … Looking at the ones either at risk of not getting up or the ones that weren’t going to get up: that’s when a few tears were shed, at the idea some really terrific companies doing great work weren’t ranked more highly.”

A third assessor said: “There was a seriousness with which everyone took the process, including when we were making awful decisions. It’s stressful. It’s worse for the Australia Council staff, who have to give feedback to the applicants.”

In 2014, the Abbott government cut $100 million from the arts over four years, including $28 million from the Australia Council. In 2015, then federal arts minister George Brandis seized a further $104.8 million from the Australia Council over four years, to place in a program now known as Catalyst, under ministerial control. 

In 2013, the then Labor government had pledged an extra $75.3 million over four years for the Australia Council, but the subsequent cuts more than wiped out that undertaking.

1 . Job losses inevitable

Sitting in his office on Monday morning, Jonathan Green was awaiting a call from Jill Eddington, the Australia Council’s director of literature, to explain why Meanjin had been denied funding. First published in 1940 and an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) since 2008, the quarterly has been surviving with a staff of two part-timers, including Green as editor.

“Within the [council four-year] criteria – stimulate your audience, satisfy audience demand, deliver long-term benefit for the audience – of course we do all these things,” says Green.

“Are the criteria as easy to demonstrate when you’re a quarterly literary publication, as against being perhaps a regional-based Indigenous dance ensemble? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean either of us shouldn’t have some claim on the funds.”

Meanjin’s three-year funding, at $62,000 a year, ends this year. It had asked for $95,000 a year. Guardian Australia reported Meanjin may have to close, though alternatives are being investigated. Likewise, Express Media, which has given many young writers their start, has lost funding. But Queensland-based Griffith Review, established in 2003 and published by Text for Griffith University, will receive $100,000 a year. 

Dance group Shaun Parker & Company received $300,000 a year, but the lauded dance company Force Majeure got nothing. Theatre companies such as Arena and Red Stitch were also rejected. 

The arts minister, Mitch Fifield, offered no succour to losers, stating the Australia Council earlier made it clear “slightly fewer companies would be funded at a higher level”. 

Fifield says the total $28 million the 128 organisations will receive annually for the next four years, up from $22.4 million in 2016, is a $6 million a year “operational funding increase” for small-to-medium arts organisations. But Fifield’s statement, released late last Friday, fails to make clear the net impact on the Australia Council. 

Organisations with four-year operational funding beginning in 2017, for instance, will be ineligible for separate project grants, which some would have previously received, while rejected four-year applicant organisations may close up before getting a chance to apply for smaller grants.

Australia Council grants to individual artists and projects have fallen 70 per cent since 2013-14, as Melbourne arts writer and critic Alison Croggon noted in Guardian Australia on Thursday.

Job losses are impossible to quantify, but likely several hundred positions won’t exist this time next year.

2 . ‘Enforced shock’

On stage at Belvoir St Theatre on Monday night, rows of wooden pews and a piano were set up like a church for the current play The Events, in which a priest and a real community choir grapple to understand an attack on their sanctuary.

Playwright and actor Kate Mulvany, delivering the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, dubs this period a “state of enforced shock”. Her speech emphasises love and support. A recent Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance survey reported artists suffer depression and anxiety at twice the rate of the general population.

Griffin Theatre, where Mulvany’s next play as an actor, The Literati, will be staged from May 27, was until last week contemplating closure. Finally, the company got $300,000 a year from the Australia Council, a significant cut. Belvoir St, however, is among two of the 28 major performing arts companies quarantined from cuts.

“When we have had a governed sword of Damocles hanging over our industry for a full year of not knowing whether the company that has been lovingly nurtured in some cases for decades will be around for even its next season, I call ‘Bullshit’,” says Mulvany.

“And when I see my fellow artists – normally so strong and resilient and brave – suffering because it has been inferred that their life work has been worthless, I call ‘Bullshit’.”

The National Association for the Visual Arts, the peak industry body for visual arts, lost funding. Executive director Tamara Winikoff says the organisation cannot “be disappeared”, given its importance to artists’ careers: “The real problem is the government is not providing a sustainable level of funding to properly invest in growing Australia’s cultural sector.”

It’s a safe bet Winikoff’s organisation, an agile critic of the cuts, won’t get a look-in to what Labor calls the minister’s arts “slush fund”, Catalyst. 

Fifield has retained two-thirds of the controversial funds his predecessor Brandis took from the Australia Council, doling out grants including $1 million to the Hans Heysen Foundation for a property in the South Australian electorate of Mayo, held by Liberal MP Jamie Briggs, and for which Liberal senator Cory Bernardi lobbied. 

Unlike the Australia Council process, the Catalyst assessors never meet in person. They make their assessments of applications alone and online, without comparison with other applications, and are unclear about the level of ministry involvement in decisions. “It’s a deeply flawed process,” says one insider.

Meanwhile, the most recent damage to Screen Australia had already been done in December’s midyear economic outlook, with its third budget cut in 18 months, cumulatively stripping $51.5 million since the 2014-15 federal budget, with future subsidised film and TV production inevitably reduced.

Kate Mulvany says she knows there are “bigger issues” than the arts, with Indigenous people and refugees being “silenced”. But it’s the arts community that “historically has the guts to speak out on these issues”.

“Like so many of the characters and narratives that exist in society, there’s only so many times you can be told ‘You don’t meet our model of excellence’ before you start to get worn down and a very dark fear kicks in. 

“Our community suffers. Our families suffer. Our culture suffers. That moral compass spins out of control, unattended. When these things happen, our stories disappear – sometimes tragically.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Black Friday".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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