Arts funding is inconsistent and questionable

It’s time to speak out, because the industry’s fears are being realised.

When more than $100 million was taken from the arts to establish a new fund with federal ministerial discretion, the industry feared the result would be politicised and ultimately damaging to the arts.

Those fears may have now been realised with the latest funding announcement: $1 million towards the heritage of Sir Hans Heysen (1877-1968) for a property in the South Australian electorate of Mayo, held by controversial Liberal MP Jamie Briggs, achieved as the result of lobbying by SA Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi – lobbying that is explicitly acknowledged in the government’s own media release for this project.

This decision doesn’t just have the subtle nose of the questionable. It flies in the face of the fund’s own published criteria.

The purpose of the so-called Catalyst fund is to support the work of living Australian artists in developing new partnerships, building new audiences, and championing Australia’s arts across the world. The annual pool is $12 million and the guidelines state that individual projects are unlikely to receive more than $500,000. Heritage is not a funding criterion of the fund. The guidelines explicitly exclude “built or natural heritage projects” and “operational” costs.

Catalyst’s funding record so far has been inconsistent. Some great projects have been supported that will mean a good deal to regional communities. Other projects have raised questions about double-dipping on other government arts funding sources – something else that’s excluded by Catalyst’s criteria.

The quality of Heysen’s lovely landscapes is not in dispute, and nor is the value of preserving an artist’s home for the public. So why were the specific government programs that support heritage projects not accessed for this project?

It is difficult to have confidence in one of the nation’s key arts investments when such decisions are made. It is even more difficult not to reflect with reluctant cynicism on the fact that our next federal election is just around the corner.

For a multibillion-dollar industry that touches the lives of all Australians, public investment in the arts is small at the federal level. Under the stewardship of the Australia Council across the past 40 years, these scarce public funds have been invested strategically, looking to support the creation of new work, the audience experience, the presentation of work both here and around the world, the various stages of the artist’s professional life, and the conditions that promote creative innovation.

Such funding decisions are rigorous and clear. Every dollar is scrupulously accounted for. Every grant contributes as much to the ecology of the arts as a whole as it does to the success of individual artists and the enjoyment of diverse audiences. Every decision is made by expert peers, transparently and according to well-publicised criteria and processes – just as every taxpayer would expect.

Arts organisations work with admirable agility when it comes to securing the long-term partnerships that support them to inspire the nation. Government is a natural partner in this public good, investing in and nurturing the uniquely Australian culture that makes us proud to be who we are. Organisations across the country, including mine, have made applications to Catalyst to compete for the public funds that remain after the funding cuts.

At the same time, private funds offered by Australia’s generous philanthropists are under the greatest pressure they have ever experienced. With the Australia Council’s capacities cut in favour of Catalyst, and Catalyst excluding both individual artists and organisational costs, the demand on private funding is massive – and sadly, this is a demand that cannot be met.

What’s at stake? The stories that capture our hearts. The music that rocks our world. The performances that stir our emotions. The creative experiences that give us confidence, keep our bodies and minds healthy, and inspire our hopes and dreams.

From now until the election on July 2, let us start some conversations with our local MPs about what drives our passions. Australia’s arts and culture industry contributes more than $50 billion to our gross domestic product, employs more people than agriculture or mining, and attracts more than two million international tourists a year.

With such extraordinary impact, it’s no surprise that politicians are keen to participate in its success. However, the best way for government to support the arts is to nurture the processes where artists can lead the way.

This piece was first published in The Age on 24.04.2016

IMAGES: Portrait of Hans Heysen by Harold Cazneaux, 1935 (left) and Droving into the Light, 1914-21, Art Gallery of South Australia (right), both accessed via Wikimedia Commons.