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Performers protesting the Brandis decision outside the Sydney Opera House in 2015. Paul Miller/AAP

After the Catalyst arts funding mess, many questions remain

The federal government quietly announced last Saturday that it would effectively axe the Catalyst fund set up by former arts minister, George Brandis, with money drawn from the Australia Council’s budget.

The fund had been widely condemned by the arts industry. Brandis established the fund, initially called the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, in May 2015 with A$104 million from the Australia Council. It was later renamed Catalyst, which the ALP branded a “ministerial slush fund”.

The arts sector lobbied long and hard against this decision. In many ways it was a remarkable campaign, as artists as a group are disenfranchised and poor. Standing up to the government is very hard when there is the threat of losing any remaining funding. Australian politicians from all parties are also not generally that interested in the arts, but the arts sector made them take notice.

Still, how much of a victory is this?

In a press release, Arts Minister Mitch Fifield said the decision meant that $61 million of “uncommitted” funding would be returned to the Australia Council over four years. However, this transfer includes the $32 million that was returned to the council in late 2015. By my calculation this means just another $29 million has been returned.

The government says $80.2 million in all will be returned to the Australia Council over four years from 2017-18. But the total taken from the council in May 2015 was $103.8 million, so the shortfall is at least $24 million.

Arts Minister Mitch Fifield attending cartoonist Bill Leak’s funeral last Friday. Dan Himbrechts

The press release notes, though, that Visions of Australia (a regional exhibition touring program) and Festivals Australia – also transferred from the Australia Council – will stay with the department. (These receive about $2.9 million per year in funding.)

Creative Partnerships Australia will keep the additional funding it gained in 2015 from the money taken from the Australia Council ($5.2 million). The department also intends to keep $2 million for funding projects that it (or the minister) will determine.

This does not all add up to $24 million – at most it is likely to total around $10 million. Does this mean the government has effectively cut arts funding from 2015 levels by at least $14 million?

The government notes that this return of funding:

“…will allow the Australia Council to continue to focus on supporting small to medium arts organisations. It also provides scope for the Australia Council to address specific recommendations from the Opera Review related to Victorian Opera and Opera Queensland, as well as address funding sustainability for Queensland Ballet and the Brandenburg Orchestra.”

Thus, while individual artists and the small to medium sector have felt the major impact of the original cuts, the minister is specifically directing the Australia Council that the money being returned to it should also assist the opera sector, as well as the Brandenburg Orchestra and Queensland Ballet.

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin poses with dancers in 2014. Dan Peled

Opera Queensland, Queensland Ballet and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra are all members of Australia’s major performing arts companies that sit under the major performing arts board at the Australia Council. Brandis specifically excluded these members from any cuts in May 2015. According to the Australia Council, this sector already receives at least 62% of the council’s funding.

The government’s Opera Review, released in October 2016, noted that Opera Queensland has been in breach of its funding obligations under the board’s criteria for a considerable time. The review further notes that overall,

… audience numbers for mainstage opera have declined and employment opportunities for artists have significantly decreased.

Nevertheless, the review recommends more funding overall for opera, and that Opera Queensland be given three years to sort out its finances or lose its membership of the board. But it recommended that any additional funding provided to the opera sector come from new funding and not current arts grants.

So while 65 other arts organisations around the country were defunded in May 2016 – as a result of the cuts to the Australia Council – the government is offering a lifeline to Opera Queensland, despite it being in breach of funding regulations.

Key questions to ask

In 2015-16, 13% of Australia Council funds went to opera and 32% to symphony orchestras nationally. Just 2% of funds went to literature and 9.7% to the visual arts and crafts – art forms that traditionally include more individual artists.

When Catalyst announced its first successful funding applicants in May 2016, several were major performing arts companies, including Musica Viva Sydney ($397,550) and the Australian Ballet ($200,000) - plus the Australian Ballet Centre ($1,000,000).

Groups not funded by the Australia Council in 2016 included national organisations such as the National Association for the Visual Arts, Asialink and Meanjin, an important Australian literary journal. Many contemporary art galleries were defunded as well as many excellent small to medium theatre companies, music groups and community cultural development organisations.

The important questions to ask then, are these: will the funds returned to the Australia Council be used to refund organisations that were defunded in 2016? And is the Australia Council able to admit that some of its own decision-making may need to be reviewed?

When it comes to arts funding, conservative governments tend to favour the interests of the major institutions. But the arts sector fought hard through 2015 and 2016 to communicate that the arts sector was not just the “high arts”.

In the face of the most historically significant political assault on its integrity and role, the Australia Council – despite its official advocacy role for the arts – sadly did not show public leadership in advocating for the needs of the sector to the federal government. Instead, it appears to have relied on the arts sector to take that role.

A lesson learnt from the messy events of the past two years is that the arts sector must rely on itself to lobby for the arts in difficult times.

Jo Caust will be talking about public funding of the arts on ABC Radio National tomorrow with Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly in The Minefield at 11.30am.

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