Editor | ArtsHub | Thursday 3rd September 2015

The Senate hearing on arts funding in Hobart was told the arts sector in Tasmania is close to collapse.

It was standing room only at the Senate hearing on arts funding in Hobart but no Coalition MPs attended to hear the dismal picture – despite wry comments that Senator Eric Abetz’s office was less than five minutes away.

Following hearings in Perth earlier this week and Melbourne last month, Senators headed to Tasmania where even the State’s Liberal Government is protesting the Budget cuts to the Australia Council that have prompted the Senate Inquiry into arts funding.

Actors living on less than $10 an hour

Charles Parkinson, Artistic Director, Tasmanian Theatre Company told the hearing that arts workers in the state were already earning well below the poverty line, struggling to survive working in their profession.

‘By way of example, last year the Tasmanian Theatre Company produced a very successful production in an unusual venue.  It was widely praised; it was nominated for a number of awards and was sold out before the season even opened.

‘The four actors in that production all have at least one tertiary qualification and an average of twenty years professional experience in Australia and internationally. Three of the four of them have dependent children and three of the four of them have mortgages. That production had no funding and so the only wages available to the actors was the surplus from ticket sales after the costs of the production. For the equivalent of six week work they each earned $2,100, or $9.21 an hour.’

He pointed out that the grant from the Tasmanian government to run the entire Tasmanian Theatre Company was about 60% of a backbencher’s base salary. ‘If we are to commission and produce new Australian work, for example, we are reliant on project grants from the Australia Council. We cannot do this kind of work without those grants.’

Parkinson said the success rate of grant applications to the Australia Council was already only about 21%. ‘The current proposals by Minister Brandis will mean a reduction of 30% in the money available for those project grants.  I am not a mathematician, but I think that means the success rate could drop to about 14%. Some at the Australia Council are estimating a success rate of 10% at the next funding round.

‘At what point do we just give up? At what point do the artists of this country just say it’s not worth it – I need to turn my back on all my training and experience and stop creating art, stop trying to produce work that makes my country unique, stop trying to create work which reflects the soul of where I live? How hard can you squeeze an industry and its workers before it just collapses.

‘Senators – in government terms, the amount of money we are talking about is a handful of sand on a beach of government expenditure but that handful of sand will give us the next Patrick White, the next Cate Blanchett, the next Geoffrey Rush, Christos Tsiolkas or Galarrwuy Yunupingu. Throw away that handful of sand and we will feel the effect for generations.’

Tasmania will suffer more

Terrapin Puppet Theatre Chief Executive Kevin O’Loghlin said the changes would have the greatest effect in Tasmania because of its reliance on small-to-medium organisations.

‘In simple terms, the changes to the budget and the creation of the new program has taken a significant pot of money from the small to medium organisations sector, and individual artists, and made it open to all organisations, including the majors.

‘These changes will have the greatest effect in Tasmania, where just one major organisation exists.’

Terapin relies heavily on federal funding for operational funding and fears it will not be able to continue because of the reduced Australia Council funds for small-to-medium organisations.

‘Terrapin performs statewide, nationally and internationally. It is the only company regularly taking fully produced shows into every corner of Tasmania, where it performs to over 10,000 Tasmanian children every year. The effects of the budget changes will mean children in remote areas such as Rosebery, Edith Creek and Ringarooma not having access to fully produced live theatre.

‘It would be a tragedy not to see locally produced theatre and dance. Its great to see work from the mainland but we need to see both, and we need to maintain healthy employment opportunities for our artists.’

Wasting the volunteer resource

Volunteering Tasmania Chief Executive Officer​ Adrienne Picone said another outcome of the changes could be the loss of the resource of volunteers, which many arts organisations depend upon.

‘Reduced funding will leave volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) in the arts sector unable to manage and support their volunteers.

‘Volunteers are not a free and unlimited resource. In Tasmania the cost to manage volunteers is $138.8 million. To deliver services, VIOs need to invest in volunteering to recruit and retain volunteers. It is crucial that VIOs are resourced appropriately to achieve this.We are concerned that small and medium sized organisations in the arts will now face challenges to do this.’

Picone said every dollar invested in volunteering returns $4 to the community.

‘Volunteering is not just about generating warm and fuzzy feelings – although these are indeed valuable. It generates opportunities, delivers key services, and contributes to prosperity.

‘We are concerned that reducing funding will limit VIOs ability to continue to support and retain volunteering at its present rate. This will not only have an immediate impact on the community benefits the arts brings to Tasmania. It will also have a keenly felt economic impact.’

Missing the next ​Tom Holloway

Tasmania Performs Senior Producer Annette Downs told the hearing the development of culture ​was a structured hit and miss exercise.

‘Just as you need mining engineers to survey mining prospects, and scientists to research drug development, you need a community of artists to nurture artistic development. From my experience, the Australia Council is the best structure to minimise the misses and maximise the hits.’

She gave the example of playwright Tom Holloway, who was a 17 year old boy living in Hobart at the time of the Port Arthur massacre. The Australia Council funded his play about the event Beyond the Neck, which went on to win the AWGIE for Best Australian Play. His work is now translated into many languages, performed all over the world and commissioned by the majors. He has recently written an opera libretto for The National Theatre in Munich, one of the biggest opera stages in the world.

‘By anyone’s measure Tom’s work is “excellent”, and I suspect the NPEA may well fund him for being “excellent”, now that his career is fully established. But how do we find the next Tom Holloway?

‘If the NPEA does not grant funds to independent artists, if it’s been established by stripping resources and viability from the small to medium sector, and it has no appetite for risk … then I don’t have the answer.’

Downs said she was still staggered that the Minister launched the Australia Council’s new strategic plan ‘with some fanfare’ while in the background he was planning his own special fund. ‘This staggering lack of good governance caused a monumental waste of resources with the sector preparing six-year applications that could no longer be submitted and losing tour bookings due to sector uncertainty.’

‘The Australia Council is a transparent and fully accountable organisation which makes decisions based on the advice of hundreds of arts experts drawn nationwide and is free of political influence.

‘Given the public outcry, I suspect the Ministers fund, the NPEA may evolve to include the trappings of peer assessment and the language of accountability, but it will always be structurally flawed, as it ultimately ensures the Minister retains the power to be the gate-keeper of culture on behalf of the nation based on his personal artistic preferences.

‘More dangerously, it provides the opportunity for culture to be used as a political tool which is precisely the reason the Australia Council was originally developed 38 years ago to deliver arms-length from government.

‘We are not frightened of change. Good lord, we eat it for breakfast! We just want to stay in the business of creating art, not propaganda.’

IMAGE CREDITBorn From Animals, Tasmanian Theatre Company, Image via Liminal Studios

ORIGINAL SOURCE: http://performing.artshub.com.au/news-article/news/performing-arts/editor/10-an-hour-harsh-realities-before-senate-inquiry-249169