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Some relief on the arts funding front

image credit: dreamtime.com
Chris Bowen · November 24, 2015

First the good news. Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has returned $8 million per annum of the $24 Million controversially removed each year for four years by previous Minister George Brandis in the 2015/16 budget. The Australia Council has welcomed this decision. It will “enable us to increase investment in the two core grant rounds for 2015-16, providing project support for individuals, groups and small to medium organisation” said CEO Tony Grybowski. It will enable the Council to “invest approximately $22 million in the Four Year Funding program, which provides a level of stability.” He said.

This will increase success rates for the next two funding rounds and enable more organisations to continue operations.  It also means the returned funds will be delivered to a funding program and portfolio of organisations with demonstrated track records. For our part this is good news. It recognises that the adverse consequences we have been concerned about could have been severe, and that the Department would have had its work cut out to wisely spend the money by 30 June, one of our real concerns.

The new Catalyst Fund, has been opened, replacing the proposed National Program for Excellence in the Arts, and guidelines broadened. On one hand this is good news, as we advocated as did many others, for a broader and more diverse approach. Individuals remain an exclusion and this decision clarifies that funding individuals becomes the Australia Council’s role.

So much for the good news. On the other hand, activists who have argued for all the money to be returned are disappointed, with concerns not enough money has been returned to minimise unnecessary collateral damage. Free the Arts spokesperson Norm Horton said: “On balance we have to say this looks to be a bad deal for the arts sector, and small to mediums in particular. The government’s decision to push ahead with cuts to the Australia Council of more than $70m over four years will have damaging effects in the sector.”

So, this will get us through in the short term, but as far as many advocates are concerned there are still major issues to be addressed. This includes the real question about what the rationale for the new Catalyst Fund actually is. With broader guidelines (and less money) it is not clear that the two federal funds are sufficiently differentiated. Which brings us back to our earlier point where we advocated that the Minister of the day has all the powers needed to direct the Australia Council to achieve the Government’s desired objectives, without resorting to a separate funding mechanism.

And the issue of duplication remains, with the added, and for some, disturbing concern that a funding agency very similar to the Australia Council has now materialised within the federal arts department. As Julian Meyrick points out in the Conversation: “If Catalyst works, it will be duplicating the role of the Australia Council. If it doesn’t, it will be undermining it.”

From a music point of view this new fund offers opportunities. For example, contemporary music receives a small share of the Australia Council pie, as APRA AMCOS’s Dean Ormston noted in an article on our website “the Australia Council allocated $14.5 million or 7.3% of its $199.2 million funding to ‘Other music’, which included contemporary music” in 2013/14. And music is also under represented in touring funding. The majority of Playing Australia funding goes to non-music based performing arts productions. The reasons here are undoubtedly to do with the different dynamics of contemporary music and touring. With the Catalyst Fund guidelines being very broad, we encourage the music sector to seize this opportunity to make this case!

With Senate enquiry hearings into the subject now wrapped up, we await its report. Much time and goodwill has been invested in this process and, if the Government heeds realistic recommendations, then the rapport Minister Fifield has established with the sector will be enhanced. This could bode well as the sector moves out of this phase and prepares to mount strong advocacy for the case to increase overall investment in our national arts portfolio. As we argued recently, if the new Canadian PM can do it, ours can too!

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