If there is a lesson that can be learned from the NSW Arts Minister’s controversial shift of $404,000 from the small-to-medium sector to assist the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, it is that ministerial interventions like this stand to inflict much damage to the arts ecosystem.
Arts Minister Don Harwin’s personal intervention to redirect 61 per cent of $660,000 pool funding away from the sector has created widespread bewilderment, particularly because it was made without warning or transparency. By obtaining documents under FOI, ABC’s arts reporter Michaela Boland was able to show that Minister Harwin approved of only six of 17 applications that had been recommended for funding by an independent panel. “He drew a line through the applications and scribbled a “no” in the margin at the end of the list of unsuccessful candidates,” she reported.
As has been widely noted, this episode bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Brandis heist’ of 2015 in which the then Federal Arts Minister George Brandis appropriated $104.8 million from the Australia Council to fund his own ministerially controlled National Program for Excellence in the Arts. This ‘Harwin heist’ has similarly exacted a heavy toll amongst arts groups and individuals who in normal circumstances would have received funding: Boland revealed that 11 applicants missed out including the Sydney Fringe Festival, Articulate art space and Sydney artist Paula Abood, and are having to cancel programs.
The decision created understandable antagonism towards the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as can be seen in reactions quoted in an article Ben Eltham wrote for The Guardian.
However, consider the orchestra’s situation. While the Sydney Opera House concert hall closes for refurbishment from early 2020 to late 2021, the SSO is forced to use a variety of other venues, including Darling Harbour’s International Convention Centre. The 2,500 capacity Darling Harbour Theatre there is simply not designed for orchestral concerts, so appropriate modification work is needed to bring that venue up to required standards.
The price tag for this is a not unrealistic $1 million. But what should not have happened is for $404,000 of this sum to have been taken from smaller arts groups and individuals. Their needs are just as valid and they feel the government has taken away money that is rightfully theirs.
Esther Anatolitis, executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, explained their situation thus: “Let’s be clear: artists have earned this money,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald. “They’ve earned it through the hard work it took to reach the professional standing that made them such outstanding applicants, and they’ve also earned it by putting hundreds of hours into participating in this highly competitive funding process.”
The result of heavy-handed ministerial intervention as we are again seeing here is that the arts scene is thrown into chaos. Smaller arts groups do not have the flexibility to go out looking for alternative funds on short notice: they operate on tiny budgets and have long lead times in their programming such that arbitrary changes to the funding process places their future at risk.
Minister Harwin has so far resisted calls to return the money to the applicants who were denied funding. A spokesperson for the minister told Books+Publishing, “There are occasions when funding flexibility is needed to support emerging issues across the sector. In this case funds were diverted to the Create Strategic Support Fund. This is not unusual for any government body and will continue to be the case.”
The spokesperson stated further that total spending in arts and culture by the NSW Government has increased from $52.9 million in 2017-18 to $54.8 million in 2018-19.
But that can be little comfort for any of the 11 casualties who received nothing in this grant round.