Do you think it’s conscionable that 62% of the Australia Council’s grants budget goes to 28 performing arts companies in uncontested recurrent funding?

What would make that kind of investment conscionable? What could justify it on strategic or on ethical terms? And what should long-term investment look like if we’re to develop the Australian arts sector across all artforms?

The Australia Council is asking important questions about ambition and fairness in its review of the Major Performing Arts Framework. They’re holding a series of discussion forums all over Australia, and there’s also an invitation to provide a submission by 26 November with a consultation paper for context.

The paper’s overview offers makes some critical observations – sobering ones. While international comparisons show that comparable funding arrangements also tend to remain in place as ‘a result of historical legacy rather than structured readjustments to funding,’ the Australia Council ‘is on the least interventionist end of the spectrum and unique in providing funding in rolling contracts (in effect in perpetuity)… without periodic, publicly transparent assessment mechanisms… in response to performance or broader shifts in the arts sector and government expectations.’

In other words, in Australia we’ve tended to lock up these funds forever and then not ask for a whole lot in return. 

I’m heartened to see these assumptions exposed at last – particularly given the outcome of the National Opera Review was undermined by an array of unchallenged assumptions. 

It’s impossible to develop responsible arts policy under these circumstances; any initiatives for the optimal allocation of the Australia Council’s remaining grants budget are dwarfed by the MPA Framework. And then, just a few years ago, when the Australia Council had just launched its most ambitious ever strategic plan, it was immediately undermined by the Brandis Raid – the most disruptive event the sector has experienced, with repercussions still being felt in public and private funding as well as sector confidence, sector development collaboration and artistic risk-taking. 

What was particularly ambitious about Strategic Plan 2014-2019 was its commitment to six-year funding for arts organisations of significant regional, national or international standing. This was an important first step to creating a framework of genuine partnership with the Australia Council, working together to develop a thriving arts ecology. 

Unless public investment in the arts is prepared to make long-term commitments across all artforms, it’s both unconscionable and counter-productive to sustain a framework for the few.

Like the MPA Framework, the Visual Arts & Crafts Strategy (VACS) is a cooperation of state and federal governments. While the MPA Framework invested $157.3m in 28 companies in 2017 according to the consultation paper, only $27.3m went to the nation’s 28 leading contemporary arts organisations in 2015/16 from both state and federal governments. Meanwhile, the scaled-down organisational programs at the Australia Council invested $53.4m in 590 organisations last year, of which $6.4m went to VACS. 

The consultation asks us to consider what would “strengthen” the MPA Framework – and the discussion paper offers many starting points for responding to that question, such as industry expectations, accountability, performance assessment, notice periods and consequences for poor performance, and how MPAs are defined. 

The real question, however, is much bigger, and it extends well beyond the MPA Framework: it’s about the future of the arts in Australia.

Should an MPA-style framework – one that was grounded in ethics and rigour, and with longer-term commitments – be extended to VACS as well as across the entire small-to-medium sector? What role should the Australian Government take – through both the Ministry for the Arts and the Australia Council – in fostering sector development? How much more would we need to invest in the arts to make the MPA Framework justifiable as part of a comprehensive strategy? And what would a conscionable arts policy look like – one that its responsible agencies had the capacity as well as the responsibility to manage, rather than being burdened by “historical legacy” over ambitious strategy? 

These questions begin to address what will strengthen future of the arts. So let’s all contribute – in writing and in person. 

Note the locations of the consultation forums, which we’re all invited to attend:

It says a lot about the Australia Council’s commitment to hearing from a strong diversity of non-performing-arts artists and artsworkers that these sessions are being held in contemporary arts spaces. So let’s accept that hospitality and participate in numbers. After all, the future of the arts in Australia is in our hands.

Submissions to the MPA Framework Review close at 5:00pm AEDT Monday 26 November 2018.

>>> This piece was first published on Arts Hub


IMAGE: My mindmap of the Unexpected Partnerships longtable facilitated by Magdalena Moreno at the IFACCA World Summit.

>>> All pieces addressing the MPA Framework