For decades, the Australia Council has largely been responsible for overseeing arts funding in Australia. That means they've managed to keep the relevant government of the day at an arm's length by assessing new funding via a peer-review process.
But now, the draft guidelines for the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) signals that this 40-year-old principle will be reversed. While the Australia Council and the NPEA will coexist, this new body provides the arts ministry—along with independent assessors—the final say in funding.
Film, television, and interactive games won't be funded, and anybody with an individual project will be denied, too. Applicants will be only be able to apply for three streams of funding: one where you've have to get funding from other sources first, one designed for international tours, exhibitions or partnerships, and one designed to respond to "strategic initiatives"—like getting more arts into regional Australia for example.
"It looks like something the Australia Council would've produced 20 years ago. There doesn't seem to be any understanding of the fluidity between practice because of their very siloed ideas about what cultural production is," said Bec Dean, independent curator and Chair of Powerhouse Youth theatre.
The guidelines want the NPEA to "strengthen Australia's reputation as a sophisticated and artistic nation with a confident, outward-focused arts sector". This implies that the current ministry believes Australia Council hasn't done that yet.
"We're a multicultural society and we shouldn't be privileging a Euro-centric position. I would suggest it's a bit of the cultural cringe creeping back," Bec said.
Bec's position is one that isn't foreign to a number of arts leaders around the country. For many, the decision to launch the NPEA represents another bid to ensure that Australian art revolves around traditional definitions—especially when you consider that the Minister Brandis awarded a one-off $250,000 grant to classical music label, Melba Recordings that wasn't subject to competitors or an Australia Council review in 2014.
But this new direction should come as no surprise, given that he's gone on record criticising the fact that, "Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council". Logically, you'd assume that the specific body assigned to nurture and sustain Australian art would do exactly that.
As it stands, the council has cut its $10,000 Art Start Grants, while its six-year grants to organisations for operational funding have been suspended. This already comes off the back of it being asked to find $7.2 million in savings over three years.
For practising Australian artists, the end of these initiatives means that there's going to be a number of artists who'll be denied their chance to develop in an incredibly small industry.
Melbourne-based artist, Minna Gilligan was awarded an Art Start grant in 2014, allowing her to make the necessary transitions that have pushed her work to an unprecedented audience via Rookie, representation with Daine Singer Gallery, and a slew of freelance projects, including one with the National Gallery of Victoria.
"When you graduate art school you're suddenly standing out there alone, metaphorically and also literally in a sense that you don't have access to any of the tools or expertise in the university environment. Art Start gave me the means to replicate some of that environment for myself and stand on my own two feet. Losing Art Start is a real shame and I know there will be many artists who graduate really missing that injection of faith into their fledgling practice," she told VICE.
The fact that individual artists won't have access to funding could potentially put an unprecedented amount of pressure on the Australia Council to fill the gap—something that'll be much harder seeing as it will lose $104.7 million to the NPEA over four years. Going forward, the council will only have an annual budget of about $185 million—a far cry from the $230 million it once had before.
For the moment, the NPEA will receive $20 million each financial year until 2019. But as The Guardian noted, that's $24.7 million left unallocated. And if the Minister decides to make a grant secret, a provision under the Commonwealth Grant Rules and Guidelines allows them to do so.
Amidst all of this chatter, it's important to keep in mind that the guidelines are in their draft form, and the NPEA's currently seeking feedback on them until 5pm on July 31.
But for people like Bec, and a slew of artists who've thrived from the current funding landscape, the existential treat that this new drive for "excellence" is going to cast a long shadow.
"I'm working with an artist with a disability who is chronically ill, and he's the recipient of a kidney transplant. He's making work about this psychological and physical experience of living with someone else's organs. He's always had support from the Australia Council, but I can't see how that would fit in an NPEA structure," Bec said.
Follow Alan on Twitter: @alnwdn
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