FEATURE: Funding cuts put Australia's arts in spotlight

May 13, 2016, 1:15 PM EDT
Australian dancers.
(Source: Peter Voerman/flickr)

It’s been called “the worst week ever for Australian arts.” As part of larger budget cuts, the Australia Council (the main federal grant-funding body for the arts) has some $16.7 million less to give out in 2015-16. And this lower level is being factored in to the Council’s multi-year funding plans as well.  Having discontinued 6-year grants, on Friday the Council officially announced the results of its “Four Year Funding” program, awarding a total of approximately $20 million per year to 128 arts organizations. But that was less than half of total applicants, and the arts community is furious.

The government is trying to put the most positive spin on the news. It boasted that the average Four Year Funding level is $219,000, compared with $157,000 under the previous programs, and that Aboriginal organizations were heavily represented. It also stated “No organisations have been cut or defunded. The current cohort of small to medium organisations have contracts until December 2016 and would always have had to apply in a competitive environment for the next round of multi-year organisational funding.”

Still, for the groups whose funding will not be renewed as of January 1, 2017, this is no consolation at all. Many cannot continue current performances and operations, and layoffs or reduced pay are inevitable. And the Council has imposed a first-ever cap on funding, at about $218,000, which arts organizations are deriding as arbitrary.

The funding cuts have brought the arts and their rightful place in the nation into the spotlight. Should the arts exist to serve higher national ambitions, like creating jobs and increasing innovation? Or is art by its very nature intrinsically valuable, without regard to external metrics? With taxpayer dollars on the table, it is understandable that the government has a strong preference for “useful” art – the Australia Council stated that “More than 80% of the successful applicants have a focus on creating new work over the next four years,” and “80% of the successful organisations will deliver capacity building as part of their activities.”

However, the art community believes that discontinuing any funding is hypocritical in light of the government’s stated desire to promote innovation. The Australian wrote a feature asking top arts luminaries for their reaction to the cuts, and Museum of Contemporary Art director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor’s response hits the nail on the head:

What the arts sector needs is recognition by all political parties of its value in economic and social terms. Being ignored or dismissed as non-critical is shortsighted. Creativity should be at the heart of the future economy. What is needed is longer-term strategic ­investment in arts organisations who work closely with artists and educators. 

“By fostering creative education now, the next generation will have the critical thinking and analytical skills required to ­address issues as they arise in the decades to come. Artists have the ability to change the way we see the world — but they cannot do that without support. Not handouts but investment. Investment in exploring new ideas, in different ways of ­approaching issues, in working with other sectors to bring new creative and collaborative ideas to the table. Now more than ever, we need to support the arts as a key generator of jobs and a major contributor to the innovation agenda. Our STEM curriculum — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — needs to embrace the arts and become STEAM.”

One bright spot so far in this gloomy picture is that the South Australian government will step in to fill the arts funding gap caused by federal cuts, according to the state's arts minister, Jack Snelling. He said he'll make it easier for small and medium organizations that miss out to get funding, and will increase the money allocated in the state budget in July.

Given the lack of federal action, hopefully the other Australian states, as well as municipalities, philanthropies, and even crowdfunding campaigns, can pick up the slack and ensure that arts organizations don’t go under. Otherwise, the nation will be shooting itself in the foot by losing out on its own homegrown arts scene.