As any performer or comedian will tell you, timing is everything.
The cliché was never more painful than last Friday, when the Australia Council for the Arts handed down the results of its four year funding round for smaller cultural organisations.
The results were heartbreaking. Some of Australia’s most important and innovative arts organisations have lost their federal funding: the lifeline that they had counted on to try and ride out these extraordinary times. The list of organisations being “transitioned out” of Australia Council funding includes the Sydney Writers’ festival; many of the nation’s literary magazines, including Australian Book Review, Overland and the Sydney Review of Books, and a long string of theatre and dance companies, such as Sydney’s Australian Theatre for Young People, Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre, Perth’s Blue Room and Melbourne’s famous small theatre La Mama.
For perennially hard-pressed cultural organisations, funding cuts would be difficult in any climate. Unfortunately for Australia’s small cultural organisations, this is the very worst time of all.
The coronavirus outbreak has heralded wrenching changes to all sectors of our economy. But with the possible exception of aviation, no sector has fared worse than culture.
This is not a “recession” or a “downturn” by any normal definition. In response to coronavirus, whole sectors of the cultural industries have completely ceased operating.
By government fiat, every single performing arts company in the land has shut down in recent weeks. Every festival. Every theatre, opera house and music hall. Every public address or panel of speakers. The majority of art galleries and museums.
The arts minister, Paul Fletcher, argues that arts organisations affected by the restrictions can apply for the government’s jobkeeper package – indeed, he wrote in a media release that the stimulus could total billions of dollars across the cultural sector when finally totted up. “Most organisations in the arts sector are expected to meet the eligibility requirement of revenue having fallen by 30% or more, given that performances have been suspended and venues closed,” Fletcher’s statement notes.
This is scant consolation for the organisations that lost their funding late last week. The jobkeeper package is not even legislated yet, and there are many questions as to how it might apply.
We are now throwing nationally significant arts companies to the wolves
Why would the Australia Council slash arts funding during the worst crisis in Australian culture in a century?
The answers are depressingly familiar. The current funding round is the tortuous outcome of years of creeping austerity levelled on the Australia Council by successive Coalition governments. The pain began in Joe Hockey’s first budget of 2014, and was followed by the notorious “Excellence Fund” raid sortied by George Brandis, in which $105 million was ripped out of the Australia Council to pay for a parallel funding program dreamed up by the former arts minister in a flight of vainglory.
Some of the excellence funding was eventually returned, but in real terms Australia Council funding has declined by nearly 20% since Labor left office in 2013.
To compound matters, most of the Australia Council’s funding is quarantined for a group of larger performing arts companies co-funded with the states and territories, known as the Major Performing Arts organisations. These big companies, such as Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet, and the various state orchestras and theatre companies, soak up three-fifths of the Australia Council’s total budget. There simply isn’t much funding left to go round.
The dilemma is made even more painful by the fact the smaller companies (often known as the “small-to-medium” sector) have double the audiences of the majors, and produce around four times as much work each year. However, they get about a quarter of the funding.
There is enough money to fund Australian culture properly, of course. It’s simply a matter of political will
As a result, the Australia Council has been left in an invidious situation. As a matter of policy, it is not allowed to take money from the major companies. But it doesn’t have the money to fund the small-to-medium sector properly.
The inevitable result was Friday’s bloodbath.
For a lover of culture, going over the list of who missed out is shocking. Companies of the calibre of La Mama, Australian Theatre for Young People, Polyglot, Liquid Architecture, Australian Book Review, Overland, Information and Cultural Exchange, the Sydney Writers festival, St Martins, Restless Dance Theatre, The Blue Room Theatre, Barking Gekko, the Sydney Review of Books and Ensemble Offspring are some of the most significant cultural organisations in the country. There can be no pretence that they have failed to win funding because they lack merit. They aren’t getting funding because there isn’t enough money.
There is enough money to fund Australian culture properly, of course. It’s simply a matter of political will. While the Australia Council’s annual budget is less than $200 million, the government has announced economic stimulus measures worth nearly $200 billion in recent weeks. Yes, some cultural organisations will benefit from the stimulus measures. But we are now throwing nationally significant arts companies to the wolves.
Aren’t there bigger priorities than arts funding in a pandemic, you might ask? Yes, of course there are. Everyone in Australian culture agrees that social distancing is necessary and that the festivals and theatres must shut. No one argues that arts funding should take priority over hospitals. But surely we can now agree that culture matters too.
As Benjamin Law pointed out in a perceptive article last week, what are the locked-down citizens of Australia doing in their time of crisis? They are reading, watching Netflix, listening to podcasts, singing and dancing at home. They are making culture.
Covid-19 is an opportunity to ask ourselves as a nation why we take our artists and cultural organisations for granted. Why, even in an emergency, can’t we find the money to fund a couple of hundred of the most important arts organisations in the country properly?
The answers are both complex, and simple. Historical precedent, conservative antipathy to arts funding, and enduring beliefs that artists are not really deserving and that culture is not a real industry all play a part.
But the simpler explanation is a failure of imagination.
• Ben Eltham is an Australian writer