There has been a massive destabilisation of the Australian arts sector, no thanks to the current government. For 12 months, Australian arts organisations have faced numerous setbacks beginning with the announcement of the 2015/16 Federal Budget last May. The reallocation of federal funds saw major cuts to the operations and administration of cultural institutions such as The National Gallery, National Library, National Museum and others – forced to cut staff and programs. The Australia Council for the Arts, the official Australian government body for arts funding, has also suffered – stripped of over $100 million. In 2015, newly appointed Federal Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield reinstated almost one-third of what was defunded. But it wasn’t enough. At least not to sustain the future of the arts industry that contributes so significantly to the nation’s economy and way of life.
More devastating news was received on Friday 13 May 2016 – a Black Friday in the arts world. Australia Council announced the 128 recipients of its four-year funding program for 2017, a $112 million investment in small to medium arts organisations (S2M). Although the selected included both emerging and established companies across the country with 25% hailing from regional and remote areas, many missed out. From 262 applicants, over half were unsuccessful, including sixty-plus previously funded organisations, each now facing uncertain futures.
Grants awarded by Australia Council are important to all art forms across the sector – literature, dance, screen, games, theatre, design, music, the visual arts and more. Serving as incubators and developers to the next generation of artists, the funding of these organisations is crucial in the vibrancy and survival of arts and culture in Australia and globally. ArtsPeak, the national confederation of top arts and cultural organisations, warns that the Australian arts ecology is ‘under threat’, foreseeing a scaling down of activities, consequent job losses and possible closures.
Some of the organisations who have felt the sting of the cuts: Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Contemporary Art Centre South Australia, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, and The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) who are the front line of securing artists’ rights and provide direct support to artists and arts professionals have suffered significantly. Other losses include: Ausdance, Asialink Arts, Legs On the Wall, Meanjin magazine, Next Wave Festival amongst many others.
Responding to the overwhelming community opposition and outcry, the loss of arts funding turned into a major federal election issue. On Wednesday 8 June 2016, the ArtsPeak National Arts Election Debate was held in Melbourne. The three-cornered conversation was between Arts Minister Senator Mitch Fifield, Shadow Arts Minister Mark Dreyfus and Greens Arts Spokesperson, Adam Bandt. The Greens Party reaffirmed their promise to support organisations like Australia Council, ArtStart and Playing Australia with an investment of $270.2 million in additional funding over the next four years and will implement a living wage for artists. The Australian Labor Party also promised, if elected, to restore funding to the arts allocating $80 million over four years for the Australia Council and $60 million for local drama on the ABC. The Coalition, as of this date* have yet to release details of its arts policy.
At an event held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney on Wednesday 15 June 2016, Tamara Winikoff, the executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), called for solidarity within the arts, “We’re now seeing the political profile of the arts being raised. The intention of the next two weeks, starting on Friday, is to say to the community, ‘If you care about the arts, show that you care.’” And that’s exactly what happened.
A National Day of Action for the arts was scheduled for Friday 17 June 2016 – a demonstration of support from artists, institutions and organisations across Australia, arousing public support for the arts ahead of the Australian election on Saturday 2 July 2016. The day was organised by The Protagonists, a collective of artists and arts workers operating across and between disciplines, and had the support of a range of industry representatives. Some of the actions put into place were: banner drops at high-profile arts venues, a ‘do read the comments’ campaign encouraging artists and arts lovers to interact with anti-arts comments posted on mainstream media websites, and a demonstration outside Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s electoral office in Edgecliff (NSW). Clearly the arts are important to us all, how will you vote on Saturday 2 July?
Photograph: Tanja Bruckner