The 2015/16 Federal Budget included a surprise announcement by Arts Minister Senator Brandis. The Ministry for the Arts, in Senator Brandis’ Attorney-General’s Department, will administer a new National program of Excellence for the Arts, with $27.7 million this coming year, and a total of $104.7 million over four years.
This all sounds fine, except the money is to be taken from the Australia Council to pay for it.
The Minister’s statement says the program will “deliver on a number of government priorities including providing national access to quality arts and cultural experiences”. This funding will also be used to cover the Visions of Australia and Festivals Australia programs and the Major Festivals Initiative which will be transferred to the Ministry for the Arts.
It is less than three years since the Department, under the previous Government, handed some of these programs to the Australia Council to administer.
Specific priorities include leveraging private sector support, supporting endowments for arts organisations, supporting international touring, and providing national access to high-quality arts and cultural experiences for Australian audiences.
The Australia Council also loses an ‘efficiency dividend’ of $7.3m over four years, after a similar reduction the previous year. These savings will be met through reduced funding to the ArtStart, Capacity Building and Artists in Residence programmes.
In what seems a clear back hander to the Australia Council, the Minister also said this funding would enable ”a truly national approach to arts funding”, and that “arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council”.
This announcement appears strange given that Minister Brandis not so long ago reaffirmed his commitment to ‘arms length funding’ when endorsing the new Australia Council Act. This is where decisions are made independent of Government using expert peers, a widely respected mechanism in the arts and many other sectors. It is also hard to fathom in an age of seeking maximum efficiencies, given the inevitable duplication with separate administration of two national arts funding systems.
The decision to double the funding for the Major Festivals Initiative to $1.5 million could be a small but good move, providing a pool of incentive funds to produce and present more quality new Australian work, and potentially more touring by State companies.
In our view transferring all funding programs to the Australia Council, as the previous Government did, and affirming the Federal Department’s policy making role, made good sense. This made clear that the Federal Arts Ministry sets the policy agenda, and the Australia Council as their agency administers the funding and provides advice, as traditionally found in other jurisdictions including the UK.
It is hard to see how this decision will not further pressure the already fragile independent arts makers and small to medium organisations. With funding for the Major Performing Arts Companies ring fenced through long term agreements, any cuts have a disproportionate impact on the small scale and on individuals. Having to knock on two doors to access funds may further complicate affairs. Read SBS Report here and Sydney Morning Herald Report here.
Total Australia Council funds for 2015/16 are $184,526, down from $211,764 million in 2014/15.
Other Federal cultural agencies such as The National Film and Sound Archive, National Gallery fared better, with most level pegging at their previous year’s funding. Screen Australia didn’t do as well with a $1 million reduction to $16,720 million. The ABC and SBS were also spared cuts this time around.