A guide to OzCo’s new goals, codewords and thought gaps

Will changes support good artistic practice? (Pic shows Intrude by Amanda Parer). AAP Image/Junction Arts Festival, Tim Jones PR.

Last month the Australia Council announced a new strategic plan and approach to arts funding. As the sector comes to terms with what these changes may mean, it seems that there are more challenges to come.

Senior representatives from the Australia Council are presently travelling the country holding public information sessions to inform the arts community “face to face” about the detail of the changes.

In one such exchange in Adelaide on September 2 further clarification was provided about the intent of the new goals in the Strategic Plan and how they would be realised in practice.

While these goals are presented as statements they are seen by the Council as goals that they wish to aspire to:

  1. Australian arts are without borders
  2. Australia is known for its great arts and artists
  3. The arts enrich daily life for all
  4. Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures.

The expectation is that applicants will consider these goals when making grant applications and incorporate them also into their future thinking.

On the surface arts organisations look like they are getting a good deal because there is a commitment to provide ongoing funding for six years for selected organisations from 2015. As noted in the May 2014 budget, major organisations are protected from any cuts and will be getting real benefits from the government and the Australia Council’s increased largesse.

The announcement of six-year terms for other small to medium organisations does suggest that organisations in general may be also getting a generous ongoing forward commitment. But the reality is that while some small to medium organisations may receive this, there is concern that many organisations may be on notice from 2015 and not get any guaranteed ongoing funding after the end of 2016.

The three main criteria for inclusion as a six-year funded organisation are:

  • Artistic Merit
  • Organisational Competence
  • Contribution to the Strategic Goals of the Australia Council.

The third criteria may raise some concern. Despite vagueness around the meaning of the new strategic goals this implies more philosophical direction from the Australia Council than previously. Further, given the absence of artform boards, it is unclear who will be making the decision re the funding of the new six-year organisations.

Will peers from the major organisations be seconded to make judgments about the smaller ones or will individual peers be used from different artforms?

Small to medium organisations are generally more at the cutting edge of innovation in the arts. They are the one who are likely to be doing new and experimental work and are essential to the healthy ecology of the arts. It is argued that funding is there to support “excellence” in whatever form it takes.

But sadly “excellence” can be a coded word for large, major and important rather than necessarily for excellent artistic practise.

There is also a coded message about finding other sources of funding emanating from a recent media release from Minister Brandis’s office.

AAP Image/Juian Smith

This suggests that organisations will need to start looking for alternative sources of funding if they are to continue to exist but these are likely to be limited on the ground if you are a small to medium organisation.

While major organisations receive the government imprimatur, they also attract wealthy philanthropists as well as corporate sponsors. Smaller organisations do not have the same selling power to either sponsors or philanthropists.

If arts organisations are ejected from Australia Council ongoing support after 2016, what do they do? Already several arts organisations in Queensland have had to close because of withdrawal of state funding support. Indeed it seems there is an unwritten accord between the Australia Council and the states arts funding agencies that they fund organisations in unison, so that if one partner withdraws, the other is likely to do so also. But if an organisation does lose its ongoing funding it is still able to apply for project funding.

A major plank of the Australia Council changes is the removal of artform boards and the establishment instead of peer groups for grant assessment. In addition the new grant process merges artforms into five funding categories which are no longer located around artforms. More than 500 artists and art workers have self-nominated to be part of the peer group process.

“A peer is anyone who has sufficient knowledge or experience of the arts sector to make a fair and informed assessment of applications for funding,” according to the Australia Council’s March 2014 Peer Fact Sheet.

The selection then of suitable peers or the “Pool of Peers” has been made by an internal committee of the Council chaired by the Deputy Chair of the Council, Robyn Archer.

This approach would seem to show a lack of transparency about who is deemed suitable and who is not, and on what criteria decisions are made about suitability. In addition it seems artists and arts organisations will not necessarily know who their assessing peers are.

Unlike the previous model whereby board members were known and invited to performances or exhibitions, having direct contact with the appropriate peers may be challenging. However applicants can choose which artform peer panel they wish to be considered under.

The Australia Council says that this new approach is a response to concerns in the arts field that wanted a more democratic method of grant selection. They believe it will ensure a broader pool of people to choose from. It will also allow people who are involved in grant recommendations to apply for grants themselves (previously this was not allowed while they were serving on an Australia Council committee).

There will be four rounds of grant applications a year with assurance that funding will be available for each round and not spent all at once in the first round.

This new approach raises further questions such as:

  • Who chooses the peers for each round?
  • How will conflict of interest be avoided when there is a lack of openness around who the peers might be at any given time?
  • Will this mean that decision making is further centralised, with staff taking on more responsibility to make the overall strategic artform decisions as well as select and manage the peers?
  • Who will be providing a continuity of knowledge about the artforms and the funding history?
  • How will state and regional differences be managed and what happens if the majority of funding is recommended for activity in Sydney and Melbourne for example?

Certainly there is no perfect approach for grant making and each model has its strengths and weaknesses. This new approach at the Australia Council reflects a desire to broaden what is understood by artforms, simplify the grant application process, cater more successfully for cross disciplinary applications and allow more engagement in decision-making from a larger and broader group of people.

But there are clear gaps in the thinking about process at this early stage that are of concern for the future. As with any change the impact of it will only be evident when it is put into place. So the arts community will have an interesting time ahead integrating, observing and experiencing new models of funding practice.

Let’s hope the changes will support good artistic practice and facilitate easier pathways for artists and art workers.