I should be writing about the Sydney Writers’ Festival this morning, about the conversations, speeches and readings, but a media release from the Australia Council arrived suddenly late yesterday which stopped me in my tracks. Anyone with even the slightest connection to the Arts will be aware by now of the extraordinary attack launched on Australia’s Artistic community in the 2015 budget where funding to the Australia Council was slashed and diverted to Minister Brandis’ Slush Fund (also referred to as the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts).
We all knew that this would translate into a decrease in direct support for many individual artists and smaller grass roots companies. Already various organisations and individuals where starting to look at what the medium and long-term implications might be and to begin planning for a reduction in government support. But the Australia Council yesterday blew any notion of careful planning out of the water when, less than two weeks before applications closed, they cancelled the June funding road. The press release (http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/news/media-centre/media-releases/australia-council-outlines-2015-16-budget-impact/) detailed the immediate action that the Council will take :
- the Australia Council June grant round, including government programs, will not proceed
- existing applications can be assessed within the September round, which will include multi-year project support for individual artists and arts organisations
- the six-year funding for organisations program is suspended
- the Australia Council will honour the current contracts of multi-year funded organisations until their conclusion at the end of 2016
- the ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative and Artists in Residence programs will not be offered in the future.
So what does this mean? Well any individuals or organisation looking to start projects later this year will have to put them on hold and hope that they get through the log jam of applications that will pile up in the September round. The scrapping of ArtStart is of particular concern as the program is designed to assist graduates from an accredited creative arts course to begin their transition into the area of arts practice. By scrapping this program without consultation the Australia Council could be seen as passing judgement on the relevance of creative arts/writing courses and/or admitting that there is no point in trying to create a career path for young and emerging artists/writers.
The suspension of the six-year funding for organisations is also problematic, especially for funded literary magazines and journals. Ivor Indyk points out today in the Sydney Review of Books (http://www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/22-may-2015-patron-brandis/) that “The Australia Council’s six-year funding program, on which the Sydney Review of Books and other literary journals had been depending, has been suspended. If there is no corresponding program forthcoming from the Ministry for the Arts, our existence will be threatened”. The certainty that this funding program was designed to support has vanished over night and one can assume that there will be some nervous editors and publishers following this decision – We may be about to return to the past where the Literature Board often found themselves in the position of “killing off” journals on a yearly basis and editors were placed in a position where there was a perception that if you didn’t publish the sort of journal that the Literature Board favoured then your funding would disappear next year (for a perspective on the situation in 1989 see ‘Literary Magazines Turn Full Circle at Word Festival (1989)’ (https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/literary-magazines-turn-full-circle-at-word-festival-1989/).
On the positive side it is useful to see the Opposition starting to step up the attack on the Government over these decisions. The Sydney Morning Herald has today reported that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is meeting with various “arts leaders” including “Sarah Neal of the Malthouse Theatre, Michael Webster of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and Jacinta Woodhead and Alex Skutenko of Overland magazine” (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/australia-council-cuts-sixyear-funding-in-wake-of-brandis-budget-cuts-dance-protests-planned-20150522-gh7694.html). He has also been reported as saying “Australia is, and has always been, a place of creativity, of people with big dreams. They should never shy away from being, critical of injustices or afraid to take on matters of significance in our national debate. Arts funding shouldn’t depend on George Brandis’ obsessions – it should be independent and based on merit, He thinks everyone has the ‘right to be a bigot’, but only he has the right to be a critic.”
The Australian arts community is mobilising. We are sharpeningour pencils, refilling our pens, trimming our brushes and pulling on our dancing shoes. I suspect that this is going to be a long campaign.
– Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic and editor of Rochford Street Review.
Rochford Street Review currently receives no funding from the Australia Council or any other government body.