Where Are The Arts In Turnbull's Agility Spin?

Those in the arts community would have had mixed feelings about Tuesday night’s budget. Disappointed that there were absolutely zero new initiatives, but also perhaps relieved there was no new pain.







Those in the arts community would have had mixed feelings about Tuesday night’s budget. Disappointed that there were absolutely zero new initiatives, but also perhaps relieved there was no new pain.

This captures an essential truth about the Abbott-Turnbull government – when it is not actively going after the arts in the form of cuts, it doesn’t care about them at all.

Among all the talk of innovation, agility, and creativity, the arts have been totally lost.

Malcolm Turnbull’s budget was silent on the arts, at a time when the arts, from our large national institutions to our small organisations, are in crisis.

But if given the support they deserve, the arts could be one of those new powerhouses of our economy that the Prime Minister goes on about.

The arts are not just about giving people fuzzy warm feelings. Cultural activity contributes $10 billion annually to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product, including over $4.2 billion from the arts.

To not include the arts at all in what the government is trumpeting as a so-called “long-term economic plan” is truly misguided.

This budget not only does not boost the arts, but also entrenches the government’s mistreatment of the arts.

Many people had high hopes of Malcolm Turnbull as a Prime Minister who appreciates the arts. It is true he collects fine art and goes to the opera. But as in many other areas, what he says does not necessarily have a link to what he does.

Mr Turnbull likes to buy art, but he is no friend of the arts. This third Coalition budget continues the savage cuts of the other disastrous budgets.

The impact of the $105 million cut to the Australia Council in the 2015 budget has not been addressed, despite the $8 million which was belatedly returned to it.

This has hit small and medium organisations particularly hard, many of whom are struggling to keep their doors open.

The big end of town is hurting too – our national institutions, including the National Library, National Gallery, and National Portrait Gallery among them, have been handed a $36 million cut and are being forced to trim services to compensate.

The National Gallery has already closed its contemporary art space, and the nation is losing Trove – a vital national information resource – because the National Library can no longer afford to add new content.

The national institutions are having to cut staff – 28 at the Library, 20 at the Gallery, 12 at the Film and Sound Archive, 4 at the Portrait Gallery. And these are skilled professional staff – curators, librarians, conservators. These are the custodians of our cultural heritage. Once these skills are lost, they cannot easily be replaced.

Funding cuts can be reversed. But what is more concerning is the lasting damage done by this government’s attempt to remake arts funding in its own image.

The creation of a ministerial slush fund – first named the National Program for Excellence in the Arts under George Brandis, then “Catalyst” under Mitch Fifield – has destroyed the established principle of independent, arms-length arts funding in this country.

Catalyst has randomly sprayed $10 million at the sector, delivering a seemingly unrelated set of project grants that have varied wildly in scale.

It is particularly concerning that the first set of announcements seemed to be directed at target seats for the Liberal Party. There was $1 million – the biggest single grant of the Catalyst fund – to help purchase the home of Hans Heysen in the Adelaide Hills. That was in the electorate of Mayo, held by embattled former minister Jamie Briggs, who is in danger of a twin attack from the Nick Xenophon Party and Labor at the upcoming election. That got its own press release with Mr Briggs’ name on it.

Then there was a $45,000 grant to the West Australian Music Industry Association, which got a joint press release with the Liberal candidate for Perth.

I make no judgement of the artistic merit of the 79 projects which have received Catalyst funding. This is our point. Such funding processes should be at arms-length from government and from the minister. One can only assume, from the evidence of the past three years, that the Abbott-Turnbull Government aims to compromise the independence of the Australia Council, and bring arts funding decisions under the Minister’s direct and personal control.

The Catalyst grants process does not inspire confidence. $1 million to a heritage project in the electorate of a Liberal member, when heritage projects and projects above $500,000 are expressly excluded under the Catalyst guidelines, is hard to justify.

And many of the other projects, worthy as they appear to be, could well have been funded by the Australia Council. In fact some of the successful projects have also been funded by the Council.

This leads to questions as to what useful function the Catalyst program serves, as it appears to duplicate the functions of the Australia Council, with consequent waste and duplication of staffing and administration costs, and duplication of effort by arts organisations in having to apply to two different funding bodies.

We are now going into an election campaign where there is a clear choice between the major parties, in the arts as in other areas.

Labor is the party of the arts.

From the establishment of the Australia Council, to Creative Nation and most recently Creative Australia, Labor has prided itself on clearly articulated arts and cultural policies and programs.

The Coalition’s past three years have caused confusion and chaos throughout the arts sector. The Coalition’s arts policy has been to cut arts funding and compromise the independence of the Australia Council.

Labor in government will rebuild trust and confidence in the arts – trust and confidence which has been trashed by the Abbott-Turnbull Government.

This piece appeared in Artshub on Friday, May 6 2016