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Arts Sector Cautiously Optimistic About New Funding Arrangement

20 March 2017 at 4:39 pm
Ellie Cooper
The arts sector has welcomed the government’s return of $61 million from the heavily criticised Catalyst fund back to the Australia Council.

Ellie Cooper | 20 March 2017 at 4:39 pm


Arts Sector Cautiously Optimistic About New Funding Arrangement
20 March 2017 at 4:39 pm

The arts sector has welcomed the government’s return of $61 million from the heavily criticised Catalyst fund back to the Australia Council.

Over the weekend the Turnbull government announced changes to the arts portfolio funding arrangement, effectively reversing the controversial decision in 2015 of then arts minister George Brandis to cut more than $104 million from the council to establish the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (now Catalyst).

The move was widely condemned by arts organisations, with protests and campaigns leading to a Senate inquiry into the appropriateness of Catalyst later that year.

Arts Minister Mitch Fifield said the decision was made following feedback from the sector.

“While Catalyst has been successful in supporting a broad range of arts projects, especially those by small to medium arts organisations, the government has listened and responded to feedback from the department, the Australia Council and the arts sector regarding the ongoing arrangements for the Australian government’s funding for the arts portfolio,” Fifield said.

The $61 million in uncommitted funding includes the $32 million Fifield returned to the Australia Council when he took over the portfolio in late 2015.

“These new funding arrangements will see a total of $80.2 million over four years in committed and uncommitted funds transferred to the Australia Council from 2017/18,” he said.

“This will also include the transfer of administration of $12 million in Catalyst funding agreements and $7.2 million in funding for the Major Festivals Initiative and the Australian World Orchestra.

“This will allow the Australia Council to continue to focus on supporting small to medium arts organisations.”

The Australia Council, which funds artists and individuals through an independent, peer-review process, welcomed the decision.

Chief executive Tony Grybowski said he was “delighted” by the arrangement.

“I see [it] as a positive indication of the minister’s confidence in the Australia Council and our programs and activities,” Grybowski said.

“The council remains committed to our long-term strategy which supports a dynamic and growing arts sector in Australia.”  

In a further statement, the council said the government’s decision would help it to continue delivering its strategic plan to support a broader range of artists and organisations.

“This announcement represents a positive long-term change for the Australian arts sector, by providing increased support for the Australia Council’s sector driven funding model, and greater clarity around the architecture of arts investment at the Commonwealth level,” the council said.

ArtsPeak, a coalition of the sector’s peak bodies, also applauded Fifield’s decision.

“After nearly two years of instability good sense has finally prevailed,” ArtsPeak co-convenor Nicole Beyer said.

“It’s reassuring to see that Minister Fifield has acknowledged the advice of the sector and has recognised the vital importance of arm’s length funding and robust peer assessment.

“It’s a resounding endorsement of recommendations from the 2015 Senate inquiry and the #freethearts campaign more broadly”.

However ArtsPeak’s other co-convenor, Tamara Winikoff, was cautious in her assessment.

“The Australia Council now has an increased set of responsibilities at a time when the latest round of efficiency dividend cuts will mean reduced staffing levels,” Winikoff said.  

“ArtsPeak hopes that this does not impact adversely on the ability of the council to carry out its core purpose of supporting a vibrant and highly productive arts and cultural sector.

“We hope that this decision signals a more consultative and strategic ongoing approach to arts funding.

“This will assist the sector to increase its already substantial contribution to the creative and economic development of this country.”

Feral Arts is a national community arts and cultural development organisation, focusing on advocacy and capacity building across the arts and cultural sector.

Executive director Norm Horton told Pro Bono News while the decision was “great news” more details were needed.

“We don’t know enough detail about the arrangement to work out what it means,” Horton said.

“It’s great news to see that the the Catalyst fund is being killed off finally and that the request of thousands of people who put submissions to the Senate inquiry has been listened to, to return those funds to the Australia Council.

“It’s tricky to know what that means in financial terms at this stage, so it’s like still trying to piece that together.”

According to the Australia Council, details around the transition and impact on its programs will be determined in the coming weeks.

Horton said one of the most common gripes with Catalyst was the duplication of existing services.

“One of the main justifications when it was set up was that it would be providing support for those people who couldn’t get money through the ordinary channels of Australia Council,” he said.

“But it turned out that 90 per cent of those who received funding were already funding recipients from council so it was just duplicating what council already did.

“And the problem was it also took money away from the Australia Council and its capacity to implement its strategic plan and national vision so the decisions that were happening through Catalyst didn’t necessarily tally with the vision and the planning that had been [done] in consultation with the sector for a long time.

“It made it difficult to plan in a coordinated way, so it led inevitably to decisions that probably didn’t make any sense.”

He said the new arrangement should have a positive impact on the organisations Feral Arts supports.

“Once things settle it will make a big difference because it underpins the longer-term security of the Australia Council and it’s a strong endorsement of council’s role as the principal funding advisory agency for the Australian government,” he said.

“That independence of council’s role is a critical thing because it means that everyone knows that there’s a level playing field when it comes to applying for and receiving funding.

“It’s very competitive and there’s limited funds available and the success rate’s incredibly low so we have to do work to increase… government investment, but at least when it all channels through the Australia Council there’s a way of managing expectations and also building momentum over time.”

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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