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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Defunding the Arts

Defunding the Arts

Tony Abbott is currently focused on getting senate support for his Federal budget. Much has already been written on the many ways that the self-proclaimed ‘Minister for Women’ has let women down with this budget; between accusing mothers of being “double-dippers” when it comes to parental leave, to community legal centres (often on the frontlines of domestic abuse) losing their funding after 2017. 

But one aspect of the Federal Budget that hasn’t been scrutinised enough by the general public relates to defunding of the arts. There’s a proposal on the table to cut approximately $100 million dollars from The Australia Council – the Government’s arts funding and advisory body.

When he proposed the cuts, Arts Minister George Brandis also announced a new initiative called the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) – which will be funded by what he takes away from the Australia Council. Basically, Brandis will be taking from our leading arts body to create another one that nobody is really sure how it will function. Crikey’s Daily Review recently provided transcript excerpts from a Senate Estimates hearing in which Senator Brandis spoke about the NPEA plan … but Crikey observed that, ‘An arts ministry staffer called before the hearing struggled to detail how the NPEA would run, and admitted the department had not yet determined how the grants applications process will work.’

The old adage if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it certainly applies – but in proposing this new scheme, Brandis is already breaking Australia’s vibrant arts community before the senate even approves NPEA. Chairman of the Australia Council, Mr Rupert Myer and Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski were not told of the budget cuts ahead of time, and in the Senate Estimates hearing Brandis admitted that his office only informed Grybowski of the proposed cuts one day before the budget announcement. The Australia Council has since had to cut six-year funding grants in the wake of the proposed defunding – leaving many arts organisations staring down the barrel of closure.  

Leader of the Labor Party, Bill Shorten summarised a general feeling of anger that descended over the arts community in the wake of Brandis’ proposal; ‘People are horrified at having to pass the new Tony Abbott and George Brandis test for what constitutes art.’

A petition called “Australians for Artistic Freedom” has since been organised and in an open-letter to Brandis, leaders from Australia’s arts communities write; ‘The reason the Australia Council exists is to ensure a peer-reviewed, independent system of funding to the arts. This independence is vital to protecting democratic freedom of expression.’

Arts organisations will be waiting with bated breath to know the exact criteria for applying for funding from Brandis’ NPEA plan, especially since much has already been written about the Abbott Government’s favouritism of certain arts organisations over others.

Steve Dow writing for The Monthly called it “a high-culture war,” when he detailed in particular, George Brandis and Julie Bishop’s arts preferences. Dow noted that while, ‘the reshaped Australia Council will operate under a new directive. Its share of the cuts ($28 million) was delivered with a ministerial override that preserves funding for the 28 major performing arts companies, notably Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, capital-city theatre companies and state orchestras.’ Dow summarised that, ‘filmmakers, visual artists, writers and small arts companies will bear a disproportionate load of funding cuts.’

In fact, two arts organisations that did receive additional funding in this budget (thanks to those ministerial overrides and not NPEA) were the Bell Shakespeare Company, who will receive $1.28 million to continue its education program, and the Australian Ballet who will receive $150,000 to support their China tour.

There’s since been open-letters addressed to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Minister for Arts George Brandis from all arts communities – outlining their opposition to the proposed defunding.

Powerful letters from the literary community; Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Overland, and from Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, Lisa Dempster. The National Association for the Visual Arts has also penned an open-letter, while many other leaders from all corners of the arts community have voiced their opinions about Brandis’ proposed cuts.

A common thread throughout all of this opposition is the unease artists feel at having Government more involved in regulating the arts, the same Government that has already weathered heavy criticism for going back on their word of ‘No cuts to the ABC or SBS.’  Adjunct professor at New York University, Jennifer Hamilton writing for The Conversation (a Not-for-Profit online publication that has also lost its funding) said Brandis’ defunding of the arts is a way to ‘insulate the arts sector from the artists.’ Hamilton predicted one huge downfall of the proposed NPEA plan; ‘The main danger here is that some artists may, with the understandable desire to be pragmatic and secure funding, dumb down their politics, pull in their heads and make sure they do not offend the wrong people.’

For some, “the arts” can be seen as a collective enigma – an “other” industry so far on the fringe as to be obscure to the general public – but that’s simply not the case, and it’s important that we understand exactly how much of a threat George Brandis and his NPEA plan is to the wider community.

A group of authors writing an open-letter to Tony Abbott observed that; ‘In 2009, 11 million people visited an art gallery. To give that number context, it’s more people than went to the AFL and NRL combined. Those numbers tell us what many already know: that art is as crucial a part of our national identity as sport. Australians are passionate about creating, attending, consuming and investing in art.’

Speaking of authors – what would a domino effect of defunding arts look like for just one sector, the book publishing industry for example? Well, cuts to the arts means authors will not be awarded grants that allows them time to write, so we’ll see a serious decrease in Australian books being published. This will also have an impact on books being read,  if the industry is hit hard and this is a problem when almost half of our country is already functionally illiterate (that means people who can’t read the label on a medicine bottle, or follow a recipe), so losing programs/industries that promote reading and writing would be devastating. 

And of course all the industries associated with book publishing would be affected if there were a sudden decrease in Australian books being released – think of the editors, printers, typesetters, graphic designers, distribution networks, publicists, sales reps, booksellers, librarians … the list goes on and on because the arts is a vital part of Australian society, entwined in our community. It’s why we have to fight for it, to keep it out of George Brandis’ increased control. And because the earth without ‘art’ is just 'eh’.

So, what can you do? I loved Lisa Dempster's Top 3 suggestions: 
  • Add your opinion: share your thoughts using the #freethearts hashtag 
  • Voice your concerns: Write to your local MP and tell them that you do not support the proposed arts cuts. 
  • Or sign the petition to George Brandis.

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