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The final nail in the coffin for Brandis’ arts ‘slush fund’?


Given that Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald, one of the clearest advocates for former Arts Minister George Brandis’ National Program for Excellence in the Arts, is now reconsidering its make up, the program is unlikely to look anything like Brandis initially imagined.

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Even those who stand to potentially benefit the most from the maligned NPEA came out to criticise the program at yesterday’s final public hearing for the Senate Inquiry into arts funding changes.

After nine days of witnesses ranging from individual artists through to peak industry bodies, a clear and consistent image emerged of the NPEA as a poorly conceived policy which will have potentially disastrous impacts upon Australia’s cultural sector.

The Australia Council received near-unanimous support from witnesses (a surprising result considering, as Australia Council chair Rupert Myer noted, the council is unable to make grants to 80 per cent to 90 per cent of applicants), and cuts to the funding body to pay for the NPEA were widely condemned.

The final witnesses (before the Australia Council wrapped up proceedings) were the Australian Major Performing Arts Group’s executive director, Bethwyn Serow, and board member Andrew Cameron.

AMPAG, which represents the 28 largest performing arts companies in the country, made a submission to the Senate Inquiry several months ago in support of the small-to-medium sector.

While the group broadly supported the introduction of the NPEA, it recognised the potential damage that would be caused by the cuts to the Australia Council, which amount to almost a third of the funding available to those smaller companies. The draft NPEA guidelines suggested that AMPAG companies would be very well placed to secure funding from the program but the organisation has now come out loudly against the cuts made to fund it.

Although the AMPAG companies are all quarantined from cuts to the Australia Council, the small-to-medium sector is a major source of innovation, new artists and development for the major companies. AMPAG’s representatives told the inquiry that the NPEA should not be established by cutting substantial funding from the Australia Council.

Cameron told the inquiry: “The majors exist as part of the whole ecology and the small-to-mediums are extremely important to the majors.”

He reflected on his experience as the chair of Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, noting that many of the theatre’s leading artists come from the small-to-medium sector and many projects are developed with that sector.

New Arts Minister Mitch Fifield has indicated that he’s committed to making the NPEA work and has paid heed to the more than 2000 submissions the Senate Inquiry has received.

The program is now running four months behind as the guidelines are reworked (many are hoping to ensure a more level playing field for the small-to-medium sector).

It seems Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald didn’t get the memo that the Government now recognises the strongly held concerns of the artistic community. On the penultimate day of the hearings, MacDonald’s forceful questioning of Eleanor Jackson, editor of literary magazine Peril, resulted in tense scenes as she became upset.

MacDonald asked if Jackson had directed readers to make negative submissions to the Senate Inquiry, accusing the entire inquiry of being rigged, given that almost no witnesses spoke in support of the Government’s move to cut $105 million from the Australia Council. He pressured her for a “yes or no” answer to his question, at which point a member of the public came forward with a tissue for Jackson.

MacDonald said: “The whole thing was just a political exercise. This is the most interesting inquiry I’ve been to because it’s made up of people in the arts and they display those particular talents.”

The Senator was similarly forceful with Serow of AMPAG, pressuring her to answer whether or not she believed the NPEA should be abandoned entirely and the money returned to the Australia Council.

Serow said that AMPAG broadly supported the principals of the NPEA, particularly its focus on cultural diplomacy and new initiatives, but that there was a need to provide stability to the small-to-medium sector.

MacDonald repeatedly told witnesses that there would be no new money allocated to the arts given the Government’s “big financial problems”, and that finding new funding for the NPEA and returning funding to the Australia Council was not an option.

Serow said: “I don’t think the arts budget is ever going to balance the federal budget. It’s relatively small in the scheme of things.

“If we just lock up the status quo, I think we’ll at least have a very strong content generating sector.

“But there are challenges ahead for the sector about growing the pie [in terms of non-Government funding] and this is about future-proofing … We know what the losses are and we still don’t know the promise of the NPEA – in the position that we’re in I’d say absolutely put the money back, but we have two significant areas of policy that need development and will be unfunded.”

Cameron then suggested that while the NPEA’s goals are important to AMPAG, the program should be a lot more “modest” to begin with, with the bulk of the funding returned to the Australia Council for the immediate future. MacDonald said that it was “perhaps not a bad suggestion” and something that he would think about.

This article was originally published on The Daily Review.


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