Deborah Stone | ArtsHub | Thursday 29th October 2015

The loss of Australia Council funding to the NPEA will affect employment opportunities and cultural vitality most in the Northern Territory, where there are no major arts organisations.

Photo: Ngukurr Dancers by Benhamin Baylis at Dancesite 2015. Image via Artback NT

With speculation that the new Minister for the Arts Senator Fifield could wind back the controversial National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), the Senate Hearings continue cataloguing the frustration felt across the country.Today the Senate Committee examining the effect of the Budget changes which will remove $105 million from the Australia Council over four years sat in Darwin.

General Manager of the Darwin Festival Mark Crees told the hearing that the Territory stands to be worse affected than other parts of Australia because of the promise made by former Arts Minister, and initiator of the NPEA, Senator Brandis that no major arts organisation will lose funding.

‘The Territory is unlike most jurisdictions that you have travelled to thus far in relation to the arts. There are no major performing arts organisations in the Territory and to put it bluntly the cost of creation and delivery is far more due to our remote location. And because by and large almost all the organisations fall within the small-to-medium category, this decision has an even greater impact on the Territory than other jurisdictions,’ he said.

Crees said the Territory’s small-to-medium organisations, which supply much of the Festival’s content, had welcomed the Australia Council’s strategic plan last year which offered the opportunity for six-year funding. That plan was destroyed under this year’s budget announcement with funding opportunities cut to four years and submissions already made rendered void.

‘When a program that has already been rolled-out and submissions made in good faith is suddenly ripped away it creates a sector-wide crisis,’ said Crees.

He said the lack of consultation and the removal of funds from an independent Australia Council to the Ministry was alarming.

‘The issue is not whether or not this particular new program will enable excellence in the arts, or to what extent that excellence might extend. The primary issue concerns how this program is being funded, namely by removing funds from an independent statutory authority mid-way through the delivery of its strategic plan, directly impacting the arts ecology and creating panic, confusion and dismay in the sector and causing the suspension of that strategic plan and elements of funding that were in train and the impact to programs that directly fund organisations and artists, especially in the small to medium part of the arts sector that damages the entire ecology of which we are part.

‘I would ask the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee to consider a course of action that reinstates the Australia Council with the monies that have been taken from it so that programs can resume while a more robust, equitable and transparent process takes place in relation to considering future changes to the way that the arts are funded by the Federal Government.’

Other submissions from the Territory emphasised the loss of community development and  employment opportunities and the inability of the Territory organisations to find replacement funds from the private sector.

Christian Ramilo, Executive Officer, of Darwin Community Arts, submitted: ‘The NPEA does not appear to be designed to support grassroots arts development; we doubt if we and other community arts and cultural development organisations and practitioners can benefit from that programme as it obviously favours the [former] Minister’s taste for arts forms and practices that are not community-based, experimental, emerging, or anything that challenges the mainstream and status quo.’

Denise Salvestro, Chair, Artback NT said in 2015 her organisation was on track to employ 253 Indigenous artists and arts workers and deliver an estimated 150 arts activities to an audience of over 100,000 through travelling an estimated 150,000 kilometres.

But with the loss of Australia Council funding, it will be able to provide less than half of those opportunities next year. ‘As a result of the budget decision, in 2016 Artback NT may only employ 68 Indigenous artists and arts workers [and] deliver less than 70 arts activities.

‘These cuts will also have an immediate and dramatic impact on employment for the Territory’s artists and arts workers who contribute to such a significant part of Australian life and workforce. Employment generating projects will cease because of our inability to commit to future initiatives.

‘Artback NT will be severely impacted as the NT does not have access to the same level of funds at the Territory level, or access to the same level of philanthropic or sponsorship opportunities, as do other states. Yet, at the same time, our living, access and travel costs are also much higher and the distances we travel are much greater.’

IMAGE CREDIT: Image via Artback NT