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Programme for Excellence in the Arts begs the question

Graham Strahle · May 25, 2015

There are fears that the diversion of $104.7M in funds from the Australia Council to a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) will compromise artistic independence in this country. The concern is that because the NPEA will operate under the Arts Ministry rather than at arms’ length to the government via a peer review process, its funding decisions will lack accountability. Grant allocations might be decided, as Peter Tregear put it, ‘on the whims of the Minister’.

How will music fare under the new system announced by Federal Arts Minister George Brandis? Major orchestras and opera companies will be quarantined from any cuts: funding to Australia’s 28 major performing arts companies will remain unchanged. But it’s all up in the air for the rest. “The Minister has also made it clear that it is the small to medium independent players who will feel the brunt of this change,” writes ArtsHub’s Deborah Stone.

In classical music these include numerous ensembles, choirs, individual performers, composers, festivals, record labels, recording projects, touring programs and so on. All are now faced with major uncertainty. Stone believes, on the basis of “additional information” provided to ArtsHub, that “the Minister will be looking for work with strong commercial value, international potential and traditional aesthetics”.

Further, instituting a ‘Programme for Excellence in the Arts’ begs the question how a government ministry is ever going to be satisfactorily clear about what it means by excellence in the arts. “The challenge to the credibility of Senator Brandis’ new programme will also come from the impossibility of objectively defining what makes art “excellent”,” writes QMusic Executive Officer, Joel Edmondson.

On the other hand, Peter Craven in The Age thinks Brandis may have come up with just the right answer. In his article ‘Arts Minister George Brandis could put an end to arts mediocrity’, he likens the Australia Council’s peer-assessment process to “a nest of vipers” and reasons that “a classical music label like Melba, run by the extraordinarily enterprising Maria Vandamme, is likely to get a fairer shake from a Ministry of the Arts” under the new model.

But a tide of opinion is mounting against Brandis. Protest rallies have been staged around the country, and more than 8,500 people have signed an open letter protesting the announced changes. It declares: “It is deeply disturbing for any Minister to attempt to directly control the kinds of culture produced in a democracy that values freedom of expression”.

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