On Friday the 13th (an ominous start) the Australia Council announced the recipients of its four-year funding program for small-to-medium sized arts organisations. For 128 applicants it was good news, but for 62 previously funded organisations they got nothing. Not a reduction, not a significant loss, but nothing.
And these weren’t insignificant institutions. While encouragingly 43 new and 17 indigenous organisations did receive funding, those that missed out were a number of long-standing, significant institutions across the visual arts, theatre, dance, and literary communities. The Australian Experimental Art Foundation, which has received funding since 1974? Nothing. The National Association for the Visual Arts, which offers support and advocacy? Nothing. And while the Wheeler Centre, which houses a number of literary organisations, actually received funding; the organisations it houses? Ironically, and again, nothing. For some organisations these cuts mean a stark reassessment of budgets, reductions to programming and increased reliance other funding sources. For others, they will simply have to close their doors.
The announcement followed the controversial redistribution of $105 million from the Australia Council to a new fund, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, by the former Arts Minister in 2015. While this restructure was mollified by their successor, who renamed the fund Catalyst and returned $32 million to the Australia Council, these changes still left a $73 million shortfall. Across all of the budget cuts, newly structured funding programs, re-written policies and political decisions, it is said $300 million has been lost to the arts sector since Tony Abbott was elected in 2013, including a 70% decrease in the number of grants the Australia Council has given to individual artists and projects.
In a statement regarding the decision Tony Grybowski, the chief executive officer of the Australia Council, said: “we acknowledge that the change will be challenging. I agree it is a time of change, but it’s not a dark time… I’d actually like to shift the conversation to the art, not just the funding.” Unfortunately Mr. Grybowski, art cannot happen without funding, and like many I struggle to see how cutting the arts off at its knees is anything other than an incredibly dark and damaging decision. These organisations are the roots of the industry, an industry that creates a dynamic cultural landscape and is worth an estimated $50 billion a year to Australia’s economy. It leaves the future of the Australian arts in a terrifyingly uncertain position.
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In New Zealand funding to the arts is taking a similar, though hopefully not as devastating turn. Creative New Zealand (CNZ), our arts council, is reviewing its budgets for 2016/17 and beyond as they stand to receive $11 million less this financial year. Why? Because lotto ticket sales are down and CNZ receives approximately two-thirds of its revenue from the Lottery Grants Board. In a press release detailing the losses, CNZ Chief Executive Stephen Wainwright said the “three ways New Zealanders can help mitigate the negative effect of the decline in revenue is by going to the arts, giving to the arts, or buying a Lotto ticket.” It’s an uncomfortable reality that the arts in New Zealand are funded by gambling profits.
The arts are better than this relationship. While some may argue the upcoming funding cuts should encourage CNZ to be more selective with who they fund, Australia’s recent news shows how vital smaller organisations, as well as emerging and individual projects are to the sector as a whole. And while the argument of “the arts are luxury for the rich, we should spend the money on something important” will always be raised, the organisations and individuals that are most affected by these changes most often sit outside of this stereotype, working with their communities in a sector that is already notoriously underfunded, overworked, and undervalued. The cuts not only raise arguments for how valuable the arts are, but of what governments value within the arts. Case in point: in 2014 the Australian Opera received $25 million in government funding, $3 million more than 175 smaller organisations put together. At their best, the arts offer an experience that educates, entertains, and challenges. The arts shape our culture and give voice to the things that need to be said, offering alternative perspectives and create spaces of critical inquiry. The arts need diversity, investment, and support—from the roots up.