In the past week or so, as often happens on Facebook, a famous quote has been doing the rounds:
It was once suggested to Winston Churchill that he cut funding to the arts to pay for Britain’s war, to which he responded, “Then what would we be fighting for?”
This affecting anecdote is being circulated by artist and critic friends of mine in response to the announcement by the Australia Council for the Arts, on the portentous Friday 13 May, regarding which arts organisations would receive federal funding (in the form of Australia Council’s next round of four-year grants). The news was not all bad; Indigenous arts organisations, for example, which are essential in facilitating the creation of art that Australia vitally needs to engage with, were reasonably well supported by the funding allocations.
But 65 arts organisations have missed out – a loss of operational costs that means those groups will struggle to keep doors open and cogs turning. And there are some important losses among those auspicious ranks. The brilliant children’s theatre company, Arena, has lost its funding; so have both our major centres for photography, The Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney and the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne (What does AusCo have against photographers?).
In a huge blow, Express Media, our strongest learning and support network for young writers and artists (and the home of Voiceworks magazine), has also missed out. This cut in particular feels stunningly short-sighted when you consider how many of our most prominent artistic voices started out as Voiceworks volunteers.
The news was devastating for these organisations, for the artists and administrators who work with them, and for those members of the public who recognise their intrinsic benefits. Among the broader discourse about federal budgets – especially in light of our burgeoning electoral circus – it certainly felt like the right time to share that famous Churchill quote.
To add insult to injury, our more progressive Commonwealth cousins across the pond in Canada have just doubled the budget of the Canada Council (the equivalent of our gutted AusCo) as part of a C$1.9 billion boost to the arts over the next five years.
But the cuts we’re lamenting in Australia are not just these latest funding losses, nor the last round of federal budget cuts that led to this year’s grim AusCo offering. They are simply a fresh, painful stab in the wound that is the systematic and long-term devaluing of the arts in this country.
Just this year we’ve watched Fairfax, one of the latest (albeit shrivelled) homes for broadsheet arts coverage in Australia, being gutted. The last round of job losses, which targeted arts coverage, affected Fairfax film and arts critic Philippa Hawker, who has been writing for Fairfax since 1997, and for whom there is currently a Change.org petition calling for her reinstatement. Screen Australia, our national film body, has received three significant federal budget cuts in the past two years (while $47.4 million has been allocated to Hollywood blockbusters Thor: Ragnarok and Alien: Covenant, which are shooting in Australia). And last year, the Book Council of Australia, our proposed peak advocacy body for writers and publishers, was scrapped during the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, without reinstating the money taken from the Australia Council to pay for it.
The cuts to the Australia Council are significant and wide-reaching, and they affect every facet of the arts in this country. This decimation of the value of Australian arts doesn’t just affect artists, or the critics who engage with them – it affects all of us.
First there’s the obvious: less funding means it’s harder for arts organisations to keep making art for us to enjoy. Less funding equals less art.
Less funding also means that there is a less diverse body of artists creating work. AusCo has never been infallible, and there have always been questions about how much funding is directed towards larger and more prominent organisations, as opposed to smaller independent bodies. But last year, when Senator George Brandis announced that he would redirect a huge portion of Australia Council funding ($105 million over four years) to his new ministry-run pet project, the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), it was hard to imagine that Canberra would manage doling out funding with any more fairness and awareness than AusCo. Even the NPEA’s latest incarnation, Catalyst, while marginally more promising, has been written off by many as the same program under a different name; new Minister for Arts Mitch Fifield has returned just one third of AusCo funding through the Catalyst program.
These cuts, for the most part, are not economical, are not about saving – it’s about ideology, and preference. A government can hardly cry ‘savings’ when it pours money into divisive Marriage Equality plebiscites, or spends billions of dollars on the needless cruelty of offshore processing when it would be far less expensive and more economically stimulating to process refugees in the community.
These decisions, like the cuts to the arts, are motivated by ideology over savings (odd moves for a government that claims a strong economic outlook). This government would rather fund expensive Hollywood blockbusters being filmed on our shores, for example, than fund a broader spectrum of local projects (in a film industry that is already a shell of its former self). As funding decisions become less independent and more opaque, it’s now a perilous guessing game for arts organisations as to whether they can continue functioning once the diminished funding is doled out.
Of course, we’re not going to lose our STCs and our MTCs and our NGVs and so on, but some of the important smaller, independent artists and organisations will inevitably go under in a sea of devastating and largely unnecessary funding cuts. These are the organisations that are often more accessible and more affordable to a greater portion of the community. It’s regional organisations, youth organisations, and artists with a more radical and provocative point of view. This is the art we need – the stuff it would be most devastating to lose.
The more insidious cuts, like those to Express Media, also spell potential doom for the critical community. Not only is there less art for critics to engage with, and fewer platforms for their criticism to reach the community (as evidenced by the cruel cuts to Fairfax’s arts coverage) – but emerging critics are being cut down before they even get out of the gate. Youth writing networks like Express Media foster critical voices, so with no avenues for young critics to enter the artistic community, and no secure jobs to keep them there, we risk losing our essential conduit between the public and the art that is made for them.
As a young critic, this final point hits me on a very personal level. It’s not just that I can see job opportunities disappearing; my purpose, what I feel I was made to do, is also being diminished. It’s getting harder and harder to be that critical link from engagement to understanding in art. I can’t hope to shape conversations about our country’s artistic contributions, large and small, if there’s no art to discuss and nowhere left to have the discussion.
And as portentous as it is for me, it’s dire for you, too. Not everyone can afford an $80 ticket to a mainstage theatre production, and as the arts budget is decimated those smaller, more affordable and more radical options are being knocked out. If there’s no one questioning, provoking, shocking, even simply entertaining the public at all levels of society – not just those deemed worthy by a corporate sponsor or a federal government on an ideological headhunt – then what, really, are we fighting for?