There’s a sound of slamming doors and clicking padlocks among arts groups in Queensland. As arts groups across the state struggle to fill the gaps left by public funding cuts meted out late last year, many are shutting down, and the small to medium sector is livid about the cuts imposed by the Newman government. Youth groups have been hit particularly hard, while the mainstream arts groups have been quarantined. What’s happening to Queensland’s arts culture?
In 2012, incoming Premier Campbell Newman was hardly through the door in George Street before he got rid of the Premier’s Literary Awards. Soon after youth music was left in the cold as government funding for youth music programs Fanfare (a school band competition) and MOST (Musically Outstanding Students, a master class program for gifted music students in high school) was withdrawn.
This shocked many as prior to the election, promises had been made publicly that arts funding would be maintained in real terms.
For one group that lost its grant, Youth Arts Queensland (YAQ), a membership-based arts networking hub, closure is imminent. The organisation’s central space in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley is clearing out, staff are moving on, and the group’s board is looking at how it can give its assets to other arts groups. The organisation had received a three-year funding package worth $330,000 until December 31, 2013, when the money stopped. It has already shut down its shopfront office and is in the process of legally winding up the group, a process that should be complete within a few weeks.
YAQ creative director Andrew Cory is scanning the jobs lists and lamenting the drain on the vibrant Queensland arts scene. “If small, medium and youth arts tiers are diminished, then Queensland arts loses its power and its cultural capital. Young artists either won’t get heard and will give up or will simply move interstate,” Corey told Daily Review.
He said it is not just young artists who will be affected and that running small to medium arts groups also provides valuable training for up-and-coming events managers, creative directors and industry professionals on national and international stages.
“Youth arts is about developing cultural leaders and entrepreneurs,” he said. “Where’s the breeding ground for these new cultural leaders?”
Andrew Cory points to various leading figures, both artistic and administrative, in the local and national arts sector who have cut their teeth in youth arts organisations like YAQ.
Campbell Newman has been the butt of criticism from the local arts community before. As Brisbane’s lord mayor he took money out of the Brisbane Festival and the Brisbane Powerhouse and was blocked by the state government when he sought to cut funding to a joint state-municipal arts program. Then came his vigorous razor work as Premier.
It raises questions in the arts community about the possible politicisation of the arts in the sunshine state. In an investigation into arts sector cuts last year, the online arts industry newsletter ArtsHub said:
“A flawed process has resulted in the widespread defunding of the youth arts sector in Brisbane, with no real policy justification. Meanwhile, a powerful network of senior executives at large performing arts institutions, conservative politicians and corporate donors to the Liberal-National Party appears to have secured protection for major institutions …”
The Queensland government backs its funding strategies. Queensland Arts Minister Ian Walker confirmed to Daily Review in a written statement that large, traditional arts organisations were quarantined from last year’s funding round as they were included in an earlier round.
Walker dismisses concerns the state government is undermining youth arts at the expense of traditional arts. “Specific sectors have not been targeted. This was a highly competitive funding round, with an independent peer review,” he said.
He also went on to note that 17 of the 35 organisations that were successful in receiving funding in this latest round were youth-oriented and that a range of youth programs were built into a number of existing initiatives that are funded by state taxpayers.
The Minister outlined a criteria of four basic factors that informed the government’s decisions on arts funding: artistic and cultural quality, balanced portfolio, return-driven, and vitality and innovation.
Of these, an emphasis on commercial returns — which Walker characterised as funding “that delivers a return on the Queensland government’s investment” — is considered by Andrew Cory as inappropriate for the youth arts sector.
“The idea of us [YAQ] earning money to pay for young and emerging artists is unlikely,” he said.
Like many other youth arts groups, he argued, “we are not for profit, and to change that was outside the scope and time available”.
In a climate of austerity, arts funding is often first to go. Youth arts which often operates outside the mainstream political demographic (and voting ages), are often on the front lines.
It leaves those like Andrew Cory wondering. “The small and medium sector is where all artists live.”
“Where are they going to go now?”