Ben Eltham | ArtsHub | Tuesday 1st December 2015

The Australia Council is restructuring for life to manage Fifield’s Catalyst regime with current staff made redundant and new positions announced.

On the Australia Council’s website right now, you can see a rather interesting job advertised. It’s for the role of ‘Arts Practice Director – Orchestra and Opera.’

The job looks like a good one – a three-year contract, a ‘convenient Surry Hills location’, and the chance to ‘Lead Council’s engagement with the area of arts practice.’

But arts industry insiders are also asking what the new gig tells us about the Australia Council in the wake of this year’s convulsions in federal cultural policy.

The new role is the first public inkling of an Australia Council restructure that has been underway for at least the past month. Senior roles are being reshaped, with at least two senior artform leaders rumoured to be leaving the Australia Council in coming days. Staff are also being laid off, as funding cuts bite.

The roles of Arts Practice Directors are the de facto ‘artform czars’ of the emerging Australia Council model. They replace the old ‘artform directors’, and the decision to create a new role specifically for opera and orchestra has piqued considerable interest in a cultural sector now highly suspicious of the federal cultural policy arena. The Australia Council has told ArtsHub there will also be a Director of Dance – but not a separate Director of Ballet as previously believed.

The model is the latest evolution of the Council’s Strategic Plan, announced with much fanfare in 2014 but quickly superseded by the extraordinary disruption that ensued from George Brandis’ Excellence adventure.

According to one intriguing snippet from the position description for the opera and orchestras role, the art practice director will ‘inform decision making in relation to Council’s grants program, corporate projects and government frameworks (such as MPA and VACS)’ – the MPA program being the guaranteed funding stream delivered to Australia’s 28 major performing arts organisations by the Australia Council.

Industry sources question why the Australia Council would separate operas and orchestras from the broader music sector, thus effectively setting up a distinction between heritage artforms and more contemporary musical expressions.

The Australia Council has confirmed to Arts Hub that it is laying off staff to meet $1 million staff cost savings required in the 2015-16 Portfolio Budget Statement. The $8 million returned to the Council under Fifield’s new deaprovides some relief but hopes that the full $26.2 million would be returned, alleviating the need for cuts have now been dashed.

There has been no formal announcement of a new structure. This failure is particularly striking given the new structure may affect the outcome of the all-or-nothing four year grant round due today.

The intention and the shape of the restructure is also unclear. The Council says it cannot yet say how many jobs will be lost.

A spokesperson for the Australia Council confirmed to Arts Hub that a restructure is happening, and that jobs will be shed. ‘The Australia Council is undertaking an organisational change process to achieve the $1 million staff cost savings required in the 2015-16 Portfolio Budget Statement,’the spokesperson wrote in an email.

‘The Council is still undertaking the change process and is not able to confirm the number of positions affected at this time.’

‘To meet both the staff cost savings required by the Budget and our revised business needs some positions are no longer required and some roles are being replaced by newly designed positions. A number of the revised roles can be filled internally, and we have advertised externally for a small number of roles which required skills and experience not currently available internally.’

In advertising for Arts Practice Director – Orchestra and Opera, then, the Council is choosing to enhance the skills and experience in heritage art forms. Perhaps there will be a focus on small-to-medium operas, orchestras and ballets, some of whom are funded currently via program grants.

The internal machinations within the Australia Council would be mere industry gossip if the fate of the entire small-to-medium was not about to be decided.

Today is the fateful due date for the notorious four-year grants for organisations. There is widespread industry concern, mounting to panic, about the grant round.

The four-year round is the last operational funding that the Australia Council will offer in the foreseeable future. It runs from 2017-20, and there is no plan (and no budget) for operational funding outside this program.  Organisations that miss out will have to rely on project funding  either through the Australia Council or  through Catalyst, Fifield’s re-badged ministerial funding program which specifically excludes operational funding from its guidelines.Industry members who attended Australia Council briefings said they had been informed just ‘50-90’ organisations would be funded under the new scheme, down from 147 companies under the current arrangements. That implies that 60 to 100 organisations could be defunded.

But a spokesman for the Australia Council​ said these numbers were incorrect. Prior to the return of the $8 million the Australia Council was expecting to defund 20 to 40%, meaning no more than 60 of the 147 organisations would be defunded.

‘​Following the partial return of funding we have indicated that the success rates will be higher than that, but we will not know until the outcomes until the applications are assessed, and announced in April/May,’ the spokesman said.

Whether the Council chooses to defund organisations completely or to spread the grants more thinly, it is clear many organisations that do get funding will get less.The $300,000 ceiling for the new round is also much lower than the current system, meaning that companies such as La Boite and Griffin are facing locked-in funding cuts, even if their four-year applications are successful.

In a particularly dark irony, organisations must submit a ‘five-year strategic plan’ as part of their applications, despite the recent chaos and uncertainty in federal cultural policy and inside the Australia Council itself.

The Australia Council restructure appears to be badly impacting on the agency’s morale. Arts Hub understands there is widespread disillusionment inside the Surry Hills mother ship with the direction of the agency and of federal cultural policy in general. Some art practice directors are reported to have applied for jobs quite widely throughout the industry because of the fear of coming redundancies.  One source described the situation as ‘an Australia Council in free fall’.

For arts organisations – especially the smaller companies – it all adds to the uncertainty for smaller companies, already facing crippling instability in the wake of this year’s disruptions.

This article has been updated following comments from the Australia Council.

IMAGE CREDIT: via Arts Hub