George Brandis’s most remarkable achievement as Arts Minister was to unite virtually the entire arts sector in support of the Australia Council – and in condemnation of his diversion of a large portion of its funding to his own direct control. He did this with maximum possible ineptitude. PM Malcolm Turnbull sacked Brandis from the Arts portfolio as one of his first and most forthright if unexplained actions to date. Arts sector advocacy grew even stronger and eventually, successor Minister Mitch Fifield has made decisions that returned 80% of the purloined funds to the Australia Council. Good on Mitch.

On April 13, Daily Review published an article by David Pledger, analysing some of these events and proposing actions to ‘progress the revolution’. The following thoughts are prompted by David’s article.

David’s fuse was lit by Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski’s challenge to ‘anybody to say that our advocacy has not worked’. There was a lot of criticism through these times that the Australia Council offered almost no comment, let alone argument, on Brandis’s action. The arts sector, on the other hand, was energetic, focused, noisy and apparently effective.
Pledger cites a number of people who questioned the Australia Council’s passivity. There is little doubt that he finds the Council seriously at fault in leaving the advocacy to others and then claiming credit.

Arts advocates routinely call on the Australia Council to lead the charge in public criticism of government action or inaction.

My first big point is that this is a thoroughly bad idea.

The Australia Council is a government agency, reporting to the Arts Minister. But its Act gives it some limited independence from government. It cannot be instructed to fund any particular recipient. Many ministers do not like this autonomy – see the testimony of Brandis and some of his colleagues in Senate Estimates, where the latter pretend disbelief that he as the democratically elected minister cannot decide who receives government funds.

Let’s say the Australia Council criticises ministerial actions in the media, what are the likely consequences? One is that the Minister is so irritated by this further public ‘insubordination’ that at budget time, s/he reduces Australia Council funding. It’s that simple. So the result of the Australia Council’s public courage is that there is LESS money for artists. It is an Australia Council responsibility to advise the Minister, but not through the media.

The Australia Council’s public silence is legitimate. It must resist brave calls from all and sundry: ‘Why don’t you and him go fight!’ The arts sector has to decide its own position, do its own advocacy. Don’t look to a government agency to do the sector’s job, for goodness sake. The recent ArtsFront campaign is proof of concept.

Back to David Pledger, who finds a ‘wholly incestuous alliance founded on privilege and entitlement…between the Australia Council and the MPAs’- the major performing arts organisations in music, theatre and dance whom he calls ‘the dinosaurs in Australia’s Jurassic Arts Park. A protected species. Brandis’ buddies. Trump’s elite’. (How did Trump get into this?) MPA funding was not affected by Brandis’s raid and for the most part, they did not criticise it.

There is indeed room for dissatisfaction in the preferential treatment of the MPAs. It is not so much that they take a very large percentage of Australia Council funds as that they are quarantined from the vagaries of funding that apply to the little guys. Worse, this government has just now taken funds from the small to medium arts organisations and individual artists to prop up the Majors – you might say true to its form elsewhere. So far as I know, this has not happened previously.

However, at base, long resentment about the MPAs begins with the fact that they are given so much of the budget. But consider their circumstances. In the music area with which I am familiar, the grants to orchestras and opera companies are modest by European standards. For instance, grant funds in Europe might provide 80% of company budgets. Here, it is more likely to be 40%. There are consequences. They are dependent on high box office which requires large audiences which are attracted by popular programming and make innovative programming not merely risky but almost certainly loss-producing. So the companies are pushed to be conservative, ‘Jurassic’. What is the solution? Require the risk anyway? Give them risk money? Accept that they serve a large and informed arts audience that likes ‘heritage art’? Close them down?

The MPAs get a lot of this sort of attention because the Australia Council budget is known and their large share in it is easily observable. Isn’t it curious that there is no comparable criticism of the counterparts in visual arts and literature – the state and national galleries and libraries, not funded through the Council? What is their share of the relevant budget? What are they doing for living artists as opposed to the heritage, much of it from elsewhere? Who knows? Who even asks?

As a slight digression, isn’t it interesting also that there has been continuing assessment and criticism of the Australia Council by artists – but not of the state arts ministries. What could be the reasons? Would it be better for the Australia Council if it were not a vessel for hope, seen to involve and include artists and to be at least somewhat distanced from politicians?

Back to the MPAs. If they are getting too much of the money, what then? The level of MPA funding is not set by the Australia Council, but by the government. That needs to be understood. So it is the government that would have to decide to give them less. It is a fantasy of those who would argue for less funding to the MPAs that the government would transfer the funds to individual artists or small arts organisations. There are more likely possibilities. 1) transfer the funds to the Navy or 2) to purchase new computers for the Department of Communications or indeed 3), to almost any non-arts purpose. In short, the most likely outcome for the arts is less money, fewer artists employed, diminished audiences and no gain whatever.

But there are reasons also that governments would not reduce funding to the MPAs. With less funding, the probability of financial emergencies or failure increases. In the past, when this happened, the organisation loudly bewailed its situation and called on the government to bail it out. Minister under pressure via the media and from the top end of town. Public hears: incompetent government, don’t vote for it.

The current funding structure is set up to avert all this and has been pretty effective in doing so. It’s why funding has been quarantined from cuts, and inflationary increases continue.
It’s a great pity that the same consideration, the same value, is not applied to independent artists and small arts organisations. They are at least as vulnerable and after all, art is made by artists, a phenomenon that Senator Brandis somehow did not quite grasp.

David Pledger names the MPAs as a key obstacle to realisation of his concept of the ‘job’ of the arts: ‘creating significant, progressive social change. If it is to keep up with the rest of society, if it is to develop the capacity to create broad-based changes in society, the cultural revolution now underway within the arts scene needs turbo-charging.’

I don’t think that is the job of the arts. They have many jobs of which that could be one. It might be valuable, depending upon your viewpoint.

So anyway, how will this revolution be ‘progressed’?

David writes: ‘Let’s dissolve the protection and privilege that the MPAs currently enjoy, and create a system based on equity and fairness employing fundamentals such as artistic merit, social influence and agency, international reputation, audience numbers and reach. If the evidence put on record at the 2015 Senate Inquiry into the Arts is anything to go by then according to these criteria a far greater share of funds will be distributed to the independent and small-medium sector.’

There are pragmatic reasons, described above, for the protection of funding to the MPAs. One telling and difficult change (which would be resisted by the government) would be to tie their wellbeing to the wellbeing of the entire arts sector. They can only get a 5% increase in funds if the entire sector gets it. If funding is reduced to the small end of town, MPAs get the same reduction. (But only after the small end gets a large re-balancing increase.) Efficiency dividends, CPI increases, apply uniformly. Imagine the change in attitudes.

As to other aspects of the revolution: why is social influence fundable? Influence to what end? International reputation – back to the cringe? Funding according to audience numbers sounds equitable but the largest audiences are for activities that make a lot of money and don’t need funding.

‘Re-make the Australia Council’, writes David. ‘The 2012 Australia Council Review failed to re-structure the agency with the resilience it needs to deal with a Government attack on the arts sector, which no longer has confidence in the Council’s capacity to navigate the terrain ahead.’

What is the evidence that the arts sector ‘no longer has confidence etc’? The testimony to the Senate Inquiry was overwhelmingly supportive. If the Australia Council lacks resilience, why is this a result of the 2012 restructure? One could posit that its resilience lies a great deal in the Board members and CEO. Dilemma: inescapably, Board members are appointed by the Minister.

We have to be careful about the conclusions we draw.

Pledger: ‘What is required is a new approach that acknowledges the forgoing of two Council key platforms – policy development and advocacy – and allows it to execute the more straightforward task of funding.’

Oh – now it’s preferable that the Australia Council is not an advocate. If the Australia Council foregoes policy development – which it had not done – Brandis without warning torpedoed a carefully developed policy he had just officially endorsed – who would take on the task? The Minister? And then the next Minister? And the next? According to the party platform and political assumptions? Why would this be an improvement?

Pledger: In summary: ‘Campaign to value the arts as a public good.’ Easy to support the concept though there is past evidence suggesting that such a campaign is not effective. Could it be made to work?

Pledger: ‘Think big.’ Yes, but who is doing the thinking? Who is talking, who is listening? Especially, who is listening and who is only talking?

David Pledger’s article:


Richard Letts
First published in Loudmouth, May 2017
Date published: 27th August 2018

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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