Richard Watts| ArtsHub |  Thursday 21st May 2015

The impact of last week’s shock cuts to the Australia Council is already being felt across the nation.

Arts organisations across the country are in shock following the news that the Australian Council’s new six-year funding program has been suspended.

The six-year funding model had only been recently introduced following a review of existing funding structures and expansive consultation with the sector, and was designed to streamline and simplify previous funding programs.

The June funding round, for which many artists were already writing applications for current and future projects, has also been cancelled.

Tony Grybowski, Chief Executive Officer, Australia Council for the Arts announced the cancellation of the programs via email on Thursday evening.

‘The measures in the Australian Government’s 2015-16 Budget will have a significant impact and the Australia Council has had to make a number of difficult decisions to manage the transition to the new funding framework,’ said Grybowski.

‘One of the most difficult decisions was to suspend the six year funding program and not proceed from the EOI stage to the full application at this point.

‘In addition, the June grant round will no longer be offered. Existing applications can be assessed within the September round, which will include multi-year project support for individual artists and arts organisations,’ he said.

A stunned sector

‘It’s just over a week since the Federal Budget and obviously the new framework and budget levels wouldn’t enable us to deliver the program that we’d previously advertised. So we needed a bit of time to reassess what we needed to postpone, to determine the future framework, but also knowing that a major new program had been announced and they needed time to establish that framework,’ Grybowski told ArtsHub on Friday.

‘We were committed, obviously, to letting the sector know as soon as possible.The Australia Council has a very strong relationship with the arts community of Australia, through our potential applicants, successful grantees and arts organisations of all size. So obviously maintaining really strong dialogue through change is of really high importance.

‘We were conscious that many hundreds of artists were currently working on grant applications, so we felt it very responsible and very necessary to work quickly to do a few things – and one of them was not to proceed with the June round [and] obviously commit to the September round. But when you’re working with a new framework and a major new funding program delivered through the Ministry … we just paused for a moment to make sure we could move forward to clarity,’ he said.

News of the program cuts has shocked the Australian arts community, with all sectors expressing dismay.

Chris Drummond, Artistic Director of Adelaide’s Brink Productions, and General Manager Karen Wilson, told ArtsHub: ‘At this moment in time, we simply don’t know what the future holds. The small to medium arts companies, as an entire small business community, are feeling exposed and vulnerable and incapable of moving forward on a host of projects and programs that reach from regional Australia right through to major international platforms. We completely embrace the idea of the pursuit of excellence but without the surety of our organisations’ fundamental existence we simply can’t build the work.

‘This sector is not only a pathway but an ecosystem that is home to the lifelong work of so many independent artists. As major contributors to festival programs and international touring, our small to medium organisations and our independents are, in a very real sense, the principal cultural identifiers of Australia,’ the two said in a joint statement.

Tamara Winikoff, Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) said: ‘Two of the really painful consequences of the cuts to the Australia Council funding are the abolition of both the ArtStart and international residency programs.

‘Both are critical elements in building artists’ careers. For an emerging artist, ArtStart has been an invaluable way for them to learn how to establish themselves as a business. Further along their career path, a residency is one of the most nourishing experiences an artist can have. It buys them time to explore new directions in their practice. It also expands their horizons and brings them into contact with new ideas, potential collaborators, curators, buyers and key movers and shakers both nationally and overseas. The loss of these two programs will be really crushing to artists aspirations,’ she told ArtsHub.

Henry Boston, Executive Director of the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA said: ‘The uncertainty around future Australia Council funding and the lack of clarity around Minister Brandis’ National Programme for Excellence in the Arts have contributed to a great deal of angst in the sector.

‘Whilst the detail around the Minister’s new programme remains sketchy, the repercussions to a funding system that has tried to be joined up will be felt most keenly by the organisations whose federal funding has not been guaranteed. The money in the system might remain the same but the unexpected nature of the redistribution has the potential to cause untold damage in a connected system.

‘We urge the Minister to reveal these plans as soon as possible so that the sector has certainty and opportunities can be explored to increase the federal investment in Western Australian artists,’ Boston said.​

Daniel Clarke, Creative Producer/CEO of Theatre Works, told ArtsHub: ‘Our funding from the Australia Council finishes this year – this was money that we paid directly to independent companies and artists through commissioning, development and presenting opportunities. We were working on an application for our first six months of programming for next year to be submitted on June 2nd as well as supporting no less than six other independent companies prepare their own applications for projects for the first half of next year. A number of these projects are already in development and were scheduled for presentation early 2016.

‘On top of this, as part of the Festival of Live Art (FOLA) consortium, we were also developing a funding application to support the delivery of the Festival in March 2016. Of course, like most other organisations we were awaiting the outcome of our EOI for six year funding –  so this announcement has a real impact on what we can deliver and how we can deliver work in the first half of next year.

‘Although I’m sure that it will mean that great work will be postponed and that locking down my program for the first half of next year will be challenging I refuse to be defeated.  I’m determined to find a way through this and will continue to work hard for the independent artists that we support and the communities that we engage with,’ Clarke said.

A national impact

Last Friday, Grybowski warned that the sector that the roll-out of the new funding program would be ‘impacted‘ by the cuts to the Australia Council’s budget.

As previously detailed on ArtsHub, the 141 Key Organisations – leading small-to-medium arts organisations across the countries – are the organisations expected to be hardest hit by Arts Minister George Brandis’ decision last week to cut $104.8 million from the Australia Council budget in order to establish the new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts.

Grybowski’s email, sent on Thursday night, continued: ‘Applications to June 2 Government Programs will also not be offered and future arrangements for Festivals Australia and Visions are still being clarified with the Ministry for the Arts.’

The Australia Council will honour the current contracts of multi-year funded organisations until their conclusion at the end of 2016; however the ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative, and Artists in Residence programs will not be offered in the future, due to the Australia Council’s new, reduced budget.

‘The Australia Council’s new appropriation for 2015-16 is $184.5M. As part of this appropriation the Australia Council will deliver the Major Performing Arts framework, Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy, Playing Australia, Contemporary Touring Initiative and Contemporary Music Touring Program on behalf of the Australian Government. These government directed programs make up 66% of the Council’s 2015 -16 appropriations,’ said Grybowski.

‘The Council’s remaining funds are $62M, which is $23M less than expected. These funds support the Australia Council’s grants model, current Key Organisations, national and international development activities, capacity building, research and operations.’

The Australia Council remains dedicated to support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, and also to capacity building across the sector, though whether that support will continue to include events such as the Australian Theatre Forum and the National Dance Forum is not currently known.

As Grybowski told ArtsHub on Friday: ‘We play a unique role with engagement in the sector; understanding its operating environments, understanding how a particular sector is supported and the issues within it is a commitment. How we do that – through forums, gatherings, meetings – has changed and evolved and changed over time. I remain committed to supporting an engagement and dialogue with the sector, and indeed committing [to] knowledge and information about the sector.

‘Particular programs and things, we’re looking at reviewing all those things at the moment and we’re absolutely committed to some forums in their previous guise; it’s too early to say. We’re having a look and obviously need a little bit of time to do some more planning.

The Australia Council will review its strategic plan and revise activities within the new budget over the coming months, he said.

‘We remain committed to keeping you updated on further details relating to the impact of the 2015-16 budget announcement,’ Grybowski stated.

Further details about the impact of the 2015-16 Budget ​are available in a statement on the Australia Council website.

national protest opposing the cuts to the Australia Council will be held Friday 22 May.