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This One Man Now Controls Art in Australia

The Australian Arts Council was designed to take discrimination out of arts funding. In this week's Federal Budget, George Brandis put it back in.
May 15, 2015, 9:00pm

Image by Ben Thomson.

You might not think that the government should be in the business of funding arts. And if you do, you might not agree that the current system is working. But regardless of your opinion on the arts, or your position on the political spectrum, there is one thing that should unite everyone on The Right, The Left, and The Center: the changes to Australian arts funding announced this week are disastrous.

Nestled in this week's Federal Budget was news that $104.8 million [$84 million USD] was to be removed from the Australia Council's budget—that's more than 50 percent of its funding—and put into a "National Centre for Excellence in the Arts" which would be controlled by the Arts Minister. The current Arts Minister, incidentally, is our Attorney-General George Brandis. More on him later.

The decision was made without any consultation with the arts sector. Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski and its chair Rupert Myer were both informed of the change at 5pm on the Tuesday, shortly before Treasurer Joe Hockey delivered the Budget.

"Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favored by the Arts Council," said Brandis in a press release. "The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia's audiences."

You should never let accuracy get in the way of a good press release.

The whole point of the Australia Council is that it distributes money equally to new works in music, literature, theater, and visual art. It is made of creative professionals with a wide and varied knowledge of all disciplines, and in 2013-2014, the Council gave over half that budget away to 29 major performing arts organizations for them to fund the art they wanted, further democratizing the process.

So when Brandis says that arts funding has been limited exclusively to the things the Australia Council likes, what he's really saying is that arts funding has been limited exclusively to all types of art. This is a special new definition of bias that I don't think we've been previously aware of. Maybe someone could write a play about it.

This isn't the first time Brandis has tried this. Last year when the Australia Council Act was being revised, he attempted to insert a clause into the act that would grant him veto powers over individual funding decisions. This was voted down by the board, and we're now seeing the fallout from that decision.

This is an ideological battle, and it's not an easy one to grasp given how difficult it is to get a handle on the Coalition's relationship with the arts. On one hand, they seem keen to preserve the types of art that connect us with the "good old days" conservative governments seem preoccupied with: opera, ballet, classical music. (They'll jump in to give $1 million to a student residence for the Australia Ballet School, for instance.) On the other, they recognize that new art is always at the forefront of progress, pushing against the establishment. If you're the establishment, funding those who wish to destroy you probably seems a little nuts.

Which is why this would make more sense if it were straight cuts. Last year, the Abbott government's first budget flagged "devastating" cuts of $110 million [$88.5 million USD] across the arts. Last year was the Year of the Budget Emergency, so nobody was too surprised.

But in 2015, talks of a Budget Emergency has been walked back. Abbott and Hockey are keen to show growth and improvement, and it's slightly more difficult for them to make sweeping cuts without the shield of last year's explosive rhetoric.

This is a more baffling move, because it's largely a reallocation of funding. The principle of arms-length funding that has governed Australia's arts sector—an arts sector that is, by virtue of competing with overwhelmingly slick and over-publicized foreign product makes it unlike any other in the world—is out the window in favor of something that seems completely opposite to the Abbott government's ideal of smaller government.

Conservatives always championed smaller government. It's not an edict that is as ingrained in the political subconscious as it is in the US, but it's a bat often used to criticize the left for overspending. The reallocation of arts funding to be directly allocated by the Arts Minister is in direct opposition to this, and it's the latest in a long list of inexplicably antithetical policies.

For instance, the new metadata retention laws are an extraordinary invasion of privacy for all citizens; the closure of Aboriginal communities is Big Government telling indigenous residents where they can and cannot live; Brandis's arts slush fund is the government deciding what type of art we can and cannot have. It's ideologically opposite to the Coalition's stated goals.

So what will arts funding in Australia now look like? We've had more than a couple of clues recently. There was the controversy over the 2014 Sydney Biennale funding, which Brandis waded gleefully into. Or there was the announcement one month ago from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection which said it would be spending $4.1 million [$3.3 USD] on a "stop the boats" telemovie. If nothing else, the government has successfully rendered all political satire redundant, so you have to give them that.

Those who are concerned about the government funding art at all should be doubly, triply concerned by this development. It's doubtful that every arts project the government funds will simply be an expensive pamphlet for their latest policy, but it's almost certain that anything with a whiff of message that isn't toeing the government line will be vetoed. Anything set in a remote Aboriginal community, or featuring a gay couple looking to get married, or a project about the treatment of children in mandatory detention is unlikely to make it through the George Brandis Funding Body. And even if these projects are rejected on perfectly reasonable grounds (ie: a poor script, a badly-constructed application), the government has just made it almost impossible for itself to make that case.

Everything is now ideological, whether it is or isn't.

Coming in 2016 from Opera Australia: Don Brandiovanni, the adventures of an amorous and beloved Arts Minister whose attempts to save Australian culture from lefty radicals go unappreciated. Watch as he screws his way across the arts sector, leaving broken hearts in his wake! Listen to George's rendition of the Catalogue Aria, as he lists all of the arts organizations he's defunded! Marvel as a statue of Gough Whitlam comes to life to offer George the chance to repent!

Actually, I would so go and see that. Someone get Mozart on the phone.

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