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Artists must take action in ‘culture war’


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As momentum builds behind the Australian arts community’s response to the cultural surgery of the Arts Minister, Senator George Brandis, it is interesting to watch the ducks line up.

The recent budget announcement that $A104.7 million would be used to create a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) has been met with protests and anger.

Those millions are to be taken directly from the budget of the Australia Council, even though – as yet – Brandis has failed to explain how this new version of “excellence in the arts” will be calculated.

Over the last week, there have been public protests in Adelaide and Perth, a grassroots-inspired nationwide dance-off, and numerous consultations with industry and political operators elsewhere.

An online petition from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) calling for a reversal of the funding cuts has, to date, gathered more than 10,000 signatures, including from prominent members of the artistic community such as Julian Burnside, Lisa Dempster and former chairman of the Australia Council, Rodney Hall.

As reported in The Guardian yesterday, a group of arts organisations – including the Australian Society of Authors and PEN Sydney – has called on parliament to examine the budget cuts to the Australia Council.

And, last weekend, Melbourne independent theatre-makers called out the State Theatre companies on their failure to publicly oppose Brandis’ cultural insurgency.

The Artistic Directors of the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company spoke at protests in the their respective cities in the last week, calling for support for the “courageous forward thinkers”, and arguing that the arts sector must stand united.

Circus Oz released a strong statement two weeks ago, arguing for funding for all parts of the arts sector:

Circus Oz has significant concerns about the broad potential impact of this decision on the fragile and symbiotic ecosystem of arts in Australia […] the success of Circus Oz is built on the incredibly vibrant work of all the individual artists, independent, small and medium companies that are eligible for the funding that has been moved.

Under the new funding arrangements the real winners will be the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG), the 28 largest performing arts companies funded by the states and Commonwealth. Those companies are quarantined from funding cuts.

Last week, Opera Australia CEO Craig Hassall told the Sydney Morning Herald:

Speaking [for] Opera Australia, my first thought is that I am relieved and delighted that major performing arts companies’ funding hasn’t been cut […] I don’t really have a view on where the money comes from, as long as the government is spending money on the arts.

As argued previously by this author, the failure of the AMPAG to actively defend the space that is now manifestly occupied by Senator Brandis’ NPEA could be perceived as collusion with the neo-liberal values that are driving this new body. This is no longer a potential condition – it’s a fact.

The Australian Ballet and the Bell Shakespeare Company are among those to have already benefited from the changes. Last week Senator Brandis announced Bell Shakespeare would receive an additional $1.28 million over four years, and The Australian Ballet was awarded $150,000 to support a tour of China.

Meanwhile protests to the cuts by other major organisations may have been thwarted. Sydney Theatre Company reportedly backed away from making a statement critical of the cuts when Chair David Gonski was met by one or more advisors from Brandis’office. Not a good look.


Momentum is an important issue for the Australia Council.

Reportedly blindsided by Senator Brandis’ grab, the Council’s response was to rationalise its remaining budget by cutting programs that directly support independent artists.

Instead of putting on notice the funding of those companies who fall under Brandis’ largesse – the major organisations – the Australia Council took the soft option of appeasement. That is a strategic error.

If push comes to shove, Brandis will save his favoured bunnies by directing the NPEA funding to those organisations – it seems he’s done it anyway. By failing to show nerve in the face of ministerial hijacking, the Australia Council has opened up a scenario of double-dipping that could shame even Joe Hockey.

Note to Australia Council: the politesse that created the conditions for a politician to write the terms of engagement in the culture war need to be put aside.

In the wake of of Brandis’ budget announcement, it was reported – albeit based on rumours – that the Board of the Australia Council had considered resignation en masse. They should do so.

The argument against is that the Minister would fill those positions with his own political appointments – I’d argue that he will anyway when the terms are up – and that this will worsen the situation for the Australia Council. But a line in the sand needs to be drawn.

Better for the Board to bring its expertise into the sector rather than waste it in muted resistance. Make history rather than be made history.

And finally the artists need to continue the agitation.

On Friday, Dancehouse, a veritable force of nature in Australia’s contemporary dance community, released an articulate and passionate argument against Brandis’ measures and a request for the Minister to repeal his actions. It’s worth a read for its valorisation of independent art practice in the building of a healthy culture and society.

Artists need to seriously consider direct action. If it takes a withdrawal of artists’ labour from the major organisations to persuade them of the importance of their workforce, so be it. I’m pretty sure you can’t present an opera, a ballet or a play without singers, musicians, designers, actors, directors, dancers, composers.

Unless it’s a silent opera called the Dark Ages – a workable metaphor but an unlikely contender for NPEA funding.

The ambivalence which with artists and cultural operators have viewed the Australia Council in the past needs to be put aside, to see the matter as one of principle. Action is not based on support for this Australia Council which has served artists’ poorly for much of the last decade but for the idea of the Australia Council, a national arts agency that operates at arms length of the government. The principle is unassailable here.

Make no mistake: Brandis has made an ambit claim. His neutering of the national arts agency and his philosophical justifications are the first tangible moves in an ideologically-driven culture war.

Invoking Andrew Bolt as a credible arts commentator in his Senate Estimates Hearing is as plain as it gets. Without protest and resistance Brandis will increase his slice of the funding pie in future budgets.

Who knows? Maybe that which Brandis fears most will actually be of his own making – a cultural revolution. Then he will be remembered as one of the great political artists of his time. Quack Quack.

David Pledger is an artist, a member of the Research Unit in Public Cultures at Melbourne University and a PhD student at the School of Architecture, RMIT University. This article was first published on The Conversation.

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