If Joe Hockey’s budget can be characterised as hitting those who can least afford it, then that strategy is perfectly mirrored in its arts funding. The biggest loser in arts last night was the country’s peak arts organisation, the Australia Council which makes grants of $200 million to arts companies and artists per year. Now the council will have to trim about $7 million a year as Hockey cut $28.2 million in uncommitted funding over four years from its overall budget. (Screen Australia took its own $25.1 million cut).
Where the Australia Council makes its cuts is yet to be determined (the Australia Council did not return calls by deadline), but the arts companies most able to absorb cost cutting are spared. Our 28 major arts companies that include Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and the major state theatre companies and orchestras don’t take the cuts. They account for about 65 per cent of the Australia Council annual grants and they are locked into untouchable three-year contracts.
The choices left for the Australia Council are to make cuts within its own organisation; to cut individual and project grants which will affect small to medium arts; or do both.
“This shields the rich (arts companies) and impacts most adversely on those who can least afford it,” said Tamara Winikoff, the executive director the National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA) who thinks the cuts will fall on individual artists.
“It’s short-termism at its clearest because all the up and coming talent is going to be severely curtailed. The Australian community is the loser because new talent will be squashed. Artists – who are taxpayers too, let’s not forget – will either go overseas or stop,” she said.
The so- called rich companies also rely on new talent to create new work, and fear the cuts could directly affect them.
Virginia Lovett the executive director of the Melbourne Theatre Company can rely on the $2.1 million her company gets from the Australia Council each year, but she said the company also applies for small grants to develop projects with small companies such as Arena Theatre for work in its “In the Mix” and “Neon” programs by emerging artists.
“It would be disappointing if these initiatives were affected,” Lovett said.
Another major performing arts company head who did not want to be named, said it was concerning that it looked like small to medium organisations and individual artists will bear the brunt of the cuts.
“It potentially means that the landscape in general is going to be very thinned out,” she said. “That will have a knock-on effect to the larger organisations who will have to do some more heavy lifting in terms of artist development. It’s a concern for the industry ten years from now, where the artists who should have been busily developing their craft won’t have had as much of an opportunity to. It will have an impact on the larger sector where we won’t necessarily have artists at the skill level you want them to be at.”
“It’s the individual artists and new projects that will bear the brunt – all those applying for funds coming up,” agreed David Berthold the current artistic director of La Boite in Brisbane and the artistic director of Brisbane Festival from June this year. “That’s the thing that troubles me most. The danger is that the most affected will be the grassroots: a major source of innovation and adventure,” he said.
The Australia Council will also be expected to trim its costs although it is already subject to an efficiency dividend regime. Those who work with the Australia Council generally agree that it already operates leanly, although on-going structural change under its new chairman Rupert Myer might see some cost benefits.
“There’s some duplication there between the states and the Australia Council,’’ one arts company manager said.
The Council is particularly admired for the research its does, but if there is much fat in its operation it might be in the travel expenses involved in getting its many committee members from around the country into the same rooms for meetings.
Hockey’s budget also made good on the government’s wish for artists look to the private sector and philanthropy for more support.
Creative Partnerships Australia (an agency merged from an Australia Council division and the Australian Business Arts Foundation) last night learnt its funding of $5.4 million was assured over four years until 2017.