Slow strangulation for the Australia Council?

Post by , November 28th, 2015

Mitch Fifield, the new Arts Minister, visited a very political meeting of arts industry leaders. It was called by #Freethearts to continue opposition to recently fired Arts Minister Senator George Brandis’s transfer of Australia Council funds to the Ministry.Fifield was warm, conciliatory, even for a few moments, frank in his criticism of Brandis’s management.

By way of introducing himself, he said that he was often asked whether he attends arts performances. (In my experience, the questioner is asking Do you attend (for instance) symphony concerts?)

Yes, he does. He reeled off a list of events in which the artists were disabled people.

At a guess, this was meant to surprise. But I recall meeting him years ago when he was supporting music education programs in disadvantaged schools because, among other things, they were so broadly beneficial to the kids. There was no apparent political advantage in this. His interest in the disadvantaged and disabled seems quite genuine.

The music education program is an example of the “instrumental use” of the arts. Senator Brandis proclaimed that he is an art-for-art’s-sake man and was critical of Labor’s Simon Crean who as Arts Minister caused the creation of an arts policy that “joined the dots”, the dots being all the places in which the arts could live and bring public benefit. This could include using the arts to rehabilitate prisoners or give stroke victims back their voice or children the desire to be at school and the ability to do well.

I would assert that the arts do all of these things best when the arts are at their best. Arts for art’s sake and arts for people’s sake.

Brandis’s interpretation of art for art’s sake can manifest as support for high heritage arts and that tends to be the world view of conservative parliamentarians. But not, apparently, of Mitch Fifield.

The very strong opinion of the #Freethearts meeting was that Minister Fifield should return all of the funds Senator Brandis hijacked from the Australia Council.

When asked what was the benefit of putting the Australia Council funds under the control of the Ministry, he had no answer. Add him to a very long list of people who have been unable to describe a benefit. Would he then return the funds to the Australia Council? Answer, he would decide within the next two weeks, because “people needed certainty”.

Minister Fifield has made his decision. About a third of the purloined funds will be returned to the Australia Council ($8m). He is retaining the rest and putting it into a fund, no longer named the ‘National Program for Excellence in the Arts’ (Brandis) but ‘Catalyst’.

Catalyst will support, in particular, innovation (and therefore uncertainty!). The guidelines do not mention ‘excellence’ though it surely will be a criterion.

In my last article for Daily Review two months ago, I suggested that the new Minister could bring something positive out of this debacle by taking a policy decision to support innovation in the arts, following upon the new PM’s declaration that Australia is to be an innovative nation. And so he has.

But my suggestion was that he return the funds to the Australia Council with a policy directive, not keep them in the Ministry.

Is there advantage in the Ministry running a program of support for innovation in the arts (or indeed, any other arts grants program)?

Perhaps one. Arts assessments are inevitably partly subjective. Different panels may make different choices among applicants. The Ministry and the Australia Council will use different panels.

But then there is a question about the expertise of assessors. Will the best projects be funded? At the Australia Council, applications are assessed by panels of expert artist peers whose expertise is so far as possible matched to the art of the applicants. At the Ministry, it seems that there will be panels of three assessors of which one may be an artist peer and the others are arts bureaucrats.

In which setup is assessment of innovative projects more likely to be expert?

To know what is innovative, you have to be very much on top of art as it now exists, in its thousand manifestations. To assess the value of proposed innovations, you have to make judgements about their significance; that requires not only a knowledge of arts as they are but also of arts as they might be.

To say that Arts Ministry officers will be less competent on both scores than Australia Council arts peers is not to be uncomplimentary. Too much is being asked. The Australia Council spreads a complex task across many expert assessors, the Ministry across a few, less expert.

One also would think that the Commonwealth would wish to have a coherent national arts policy. How will all of these innovative projects fit together? No-one will know.

The Australia Council has spent enormous and prolonged effort in formulating a new policy and was just beginning to implement it. It is extraordinary that Senator Brandis apparently did not wait to see the outcomes before in effect cutting the ground from under the new regime and that Minister Fifield seems set on the same course.

Given the fierce unanimity in the arts sector in opposing Brandis’s actions and policies, why does an apparently sympathetic new Minister persist with them albeit with modifications? It has been suggested that the reason is only that Senator Brandis is still powerful in the party and must be appeased.

Minister Fifield is bound to argue the merits of his decision to keep most of the funds in the Ministry. That is a very difficult assignment.

Catalyst, he says, will not compete with the Australia Council, but will complement it. That seems to mean that Catalyst will support activities not supported by the Australia Council. It is an addition, or alternative. Following are a few of his examples.

• Fund innovation but not compete with the Australia Council. But funding innovation has always been one of the principal objectives of the Australia Council.
• “Cultural diplomacy’, i.e. the presentation of performances or exhibitions by Australian artists as part of the government’s international promotion of Australia in diplomatic and/or trade circles. Yes, says the Minister, the Australia Council supports cultural diplomacy but Catalyst will ‘open this up’ to other organisations.But the Australia Council guidelines exclude no legally constituted organisations. Limitations appear only to be budgetary. If the Ministry is simply diverting funds, that begs the question.
• It is implied that Catalyst will differ from the Australia Council in that it accepts applications from libraries, museums, galleries and archives. But this conflicts with Catalyst’s own guidelines, which say applicants must have as their principal purpose the arts or cultural heritage. On the other hand, the Australia Council requires only that applicant organisations are legally constituted so would accept applications from any of those institutions.
• Catalyst will do ‘even more’ in the regions, do more to support involvement of the disabled. Supporting activities in the regions and by the disabled are already part of the Australia Council agenda but it will do less because it has lost funds and the Ministry will do more because it has gained funds. The question is one of balance. The Australia Council decides issues of balance somewhat painfully in a zero sum game. At the Ministry, the Minister can decide swiftly based upon his or her own predilections. Different ministers, different predilections, policy considerations optional. What actually has been added except, possibly, imbalance?
• There’s more, for those who like forensics.

The Australia Council used to be called the Commonwealth Government’s principal arts advisory and funding organisation. It is interesting to find on its website that the Ministry has now claimed supremacy. Historically, there has been competition between the two.

This is the worst of it. The situation has now been created where at budget time, the Minister will have to decide on the division of funds between the Australia Council, legally protected from some direct Ministerial instruction, and the Ministry, totally subject to his wishes.

This could mean slow strangulation for the Australia Council. And the Australia Council, while certainly not beyond its criticism, is very strongly supported by the arts sector as the most insightful, ethical and effective steward of arts funding. So it could be a creeping disaster also for the arts.

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This blog will also be published online in the Daily Review

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