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Experimental arts ‘outside our cities’ gain ground: Non-permanent funding may give the arts a more secure and creative future after all

1 Feb 2018

 

Being somewhat older than I care to admit, I am prone to the odd bout of unrealistic optimism.  There’s nothing wrong with a good measure of optimism.  It is necessary in order to move ahead.  The only stipulation is that it is tempered with a good dose of reality, or to use another term, pragmatism. 

 

However, to say these days that someone is pragmatic is widely seen as an insult.  It suggests that one will settle for less than the ideal in order to move forward.  Well, that all seems fine to me if it means we can take at least some steps forward.  Standing still in the name of idealism has little going for it.

 

Nowhere is this dichotomy between the intransigent idealist and the opportunistic pragmatist more evident than in the arts, particularly when it comes to a discussion on where government money should be spent - supporting the established arts or funding new, innovative projects.  It is a somewhat strange debate.  

 

Embracing change is ordinarily part of the arts' raison d’être. Yet there are those who will defend to their last breath the status quo, traditional arts programs and their own self-interest in the name of their high-minded idealism.  A somewhat more pragmatic approach in dealing with modern-day forces beyond one’s control is likely to be of more benefit I suggest.

 

"He will prosper most whose mode of acting best adapts itself to the character of the times", Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

 

Federal Government trims Australia Council budget to direct funds to regions

 

When the Federal Coalition Government changed its arts funding distribution model in its 2015-6 budget many prominent arts luminaries bemoaned it as an backward-looking $104.7 million cut and warned of the loss in innovative arts and many well-settled programs.  With Malcolm Turnbull's elevation to Prime Minister soon after, $32 million was returned.  Certainly a number of arts bodies still faced difficult decisions - cutting programs, staff and other initiatives.  But it was wrong to portray this as a cut to arts funding overall.

 

In 2016, the new Arts Minister Mitch Fifield responding to some sectoral interests announced that the newly minted National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) was to be replaced by Catalyst - Australian Arts and Cultural Fund, which would distribute $12 million annually, as opposed to the NPEA’s planned $20 million.  The Australia Council was re-allocated the difference – an additional $8 million a year. 

 

However, a new door it seems had finally been opened.  

 

 Attorney General and Arts Minister George Brandis in 2016 with Rupert Myer, Chair of the Australia Council

 

Australia’s regions seized on this opportunity, with many communities now embarking on innovative new arts projects, festivals and events.  Some involving daring and risk, both from an artistic and financial perspective.  These programs had been overlooked for funding at both state and federal levels in the past, where their organising bodies found it difficult to evidence that they have met criteria, and were deserving of ongoing funding - seen as necessary to garner wider support, particularly from a private sector reluctant to initially shoulder the financial load on their own.  But the ground is beginning to shift.

 

Single and multi-year projects are now benefiting from state and federal funding and regional communities are beginning to see the results.  In 2018, Hobart’s festival of experimental art and music, MOFO and Dark MOFO, received a funding boost ahead of organisers' plans to expand across Tasmania.  In Victoria, Bendigo’s year-long celebration of arts and culture has kicked off, and Ballarat’s much anticipated Bienniale of Australian Art featuring 150 innovative visual, performance, and lighting artists from across the nation is scheduled for 6 weeks from 21 September.

 

Bendigo’s White Night 2017

 

Yet as we near the third anniversary of the Australia Council’s 2015-19 strategic plan, its critics are blaming the Federal Government for the closure of long-running events and perceived gaps in arts programming. 

 

The city-centric opponents of the plan appear as misguided today as they were in 2016, when George Brandis, the Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, told a cynical arts crowd gathered at the Sydney Opera House that he wanted in addition to sponsoring the mainstream arts to support more “creative genius” outside our cities, in regional centres. 

 

 Ballarat's much-anticipated Biennale of Australian Art launches in September 2018

 

When the Federal Government further increased funding to $112 million over four years to focus on small and medium sized arts companies, many still complained of the potential adverse consequences of political or ideological bias seemingly evident in this model of distributing arts funding and railed against the limit on funding to just a few years.

 

RMIT University's Professor Jason Potts argues (The Conversation, May 2016) that it is not the risk of 'doing favours' via the changed funding model that was considered the real problem.  Rather, it was is the unquestioned expectation of perpetual funding, whether from the left or the right and irrespective of worthiness.

 

 Professor Jason Potts

 

Is temporary funding a better stimulus?

 

Brandis' successor as Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, emphasised the desire for a temporary nature to some Australia Council funding,

 

“It was always intended that slightly fewer companies would be funded at a higher level … The Australia Council’s funding contracts are for fixed terms, and are not in perpetuity.  Four year funding rounds provide new organisations the opportunity to apply for funding in a competitive environment, based on the Council’s independent assessment.  A third of those receiving funding are new organisations.”

 

Economics suggests argues Potts that this is indeed the right way to frame this issue.  Government funding for arts organisations should always be viewed as temporary because there are significant costs and dangers that arise from the promise of permanent funding.

 

 Communications and Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield

 

Potts explains,

 

Some government activities of course certainly should be permanently funded, but the idea that certain organisations should have perpetual access to funding is anathema to good fiscal policy.  Any organisation that is permanently publicly funded can be seen as much better integrated into government so that it can be effectively governed, brought under control, and subjected to voter scrutiny.  The arts is no exception.

 

The offer of a permanent arms-length funding commitment veritably invites corruption, creating fiefdoms that entirely benefit the insiders who run them.  Temporary funding acts to minimises this.

 

This is not to say that temporary funding is inherently better than ongoing funding, but rather that governments are not the best source of ongoing funding.  Governments are much better suited to a temporary seed funding approach in order to get something started.  This can generate a public benefit without the expectation of a quid pro quo relation with the government of the day.

 

Another reason is that turnover of funding Potts says creates competition that incentivises all parties to bring their best work forward.  Those in favour of permanent funding say it brings certainty to enable long term planning.  But in reality it has the opposite effect by removing all consequences for institutions that fail to engage in effective long term strategic planning for growth.

 

 Bendigo Art Gallery

 

Permanent funding removes the hard incentive to develop new business models to grow the operation or organisation beyond the initial period.  It militates against long term thinking.  So how long is temporary?  

 

This is the question we should be asking according to Potts.  One or two years is too short to get anything started, and to get beyond initial experimentation.  Eight to ten years is probably too long, as it invites complacency.  Four years is probably about right, because it’s long enough for things to be tried and for learning to take place, but short enough to concentrate the mind on ongoing viability from day one.

 

A better principle then for government funding of arts and culture in my mind is that it should be predominately temporary.  Perhaps more funding should indeed be shifted to the temporary basket and made available to the more optimistic and creative individuals and arts bodies.

 

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Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

 

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