There’s money for the arts in the budget – but with strings attached

There were no nasty surprises for the arts in the 2015 Budget – but plenty of worrisome rhetoric. Mick Tsikas/AAP

As appears to have been the political aim of this budget as a whole, there are, with a few exceptions – such as a cut in funding for Screen Australia – no nasty surprises lying in wait for the arts. Indeed the media release that appeared on the Attorney-General’s Department website confidently states that “once again, the interests of Australia’s cultural sector have been protected and advanced”.

Well, yes, if you look just at the broad allocations. But how are those interests being defined and expressed? And by whom?

The most significant new measure is the allocation of A$104.8 million over four years to establish a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.

We will have to wait for the details, but the media release speaks of “investment to support endowments, international touring and strategic projects, with an emphasis on attracting private sector support” that will “allow for a truly national approach to arts funding and will deliver on a number of Government priorities including national access to high quality arts and cultural experiences”.

If that suggests a degree of ministerial discomfort – if not criticism – of our traditional “arms-length” approach to arts funding, this is made clear by a further announcement that it, alongside the already existing Visions of Australia and Festivals Australia programmes, will now be run directly from the Arts Ministry. This is to ensure “that government support is available for a broader range of arts and cultural activities” and a “wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners”.

Ouch.

Isn’t this a key mission of the Australia Council? Certainly its Strategic Plan 2014-2019 promotes a view of Australian arts practice “without borders”, that “enrich daily life for all”, and which particularly “cherishes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture”.

Sure, the Australia Council will “continue to be the principal arts funding body”, managing approximately A$185 million a year of funding, including to 28 major performing arts companies. But it will also swallow A$7.2 million in efficiency savings over four years to 2018-19. These combined cuts represent an annual funding reduction of around 13 per cent compared to its current budget of A$230 million.

This is a significant shift of policy as well as finance. As Giles Fraser has argued in the UK context, arms-length funding recognises that:

The arts should be one of the places to challenge the idea that our political and financial masters have a monopoly on what counts as established reality. [The arts can provide] something we used to call vision, a sense that the world could be otherwise, that our political assumptions can always be turned upside down.

If he is right, is our government at risk of losing its cultural nerve?