The past two years have not been happy ones for the arts sector in Australia. It all began in early 2014 with federal Ministers Brandis and Turnbull telling artists at the Sydney Biennale that they were ungrateful and selfish to protest about the role of Transfield in Nauru.
It then emerged that the Federal Minister for the Arts, George Brandis, believed he could do everything better in arts funding than the existing structures. He began his campaign by taking away a large portion of literature funding from the Australia Council in December 2014.
He then “trumped” this move by taking a third of the Council’s ongoing arts funding in May 2015 to set up his own ministerial fund for the arts naming it the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. Brandis’s concept of “excellence” though was tainted by a limited and élitist perspective of what constitutes the arts and by demonstrating overt favouritism and protectionism towards large arts organisations.
The arts sector protested and a Senate Inquiry was instituted. More than 3000 submissions were received by the Inquiry. The Coalition Government did not participate in the process and appeared to be ignoring the furore in the arts sector. However, with a new Prime Minister in place in late 2015, it was not long before a new Minster for the Arts emerged, Mitch Fifield.
In November 2015, Fifield announced he would give back a portion of the money taken from the Australia Council. However, he kept the rest and changed the name from Program of Excellence to Catalyst. Then there was an election in May 2016 and Minister Fifield’s Catalyst Fund played an interesting electoral role in allocating arts funding to some unusual recipients.
Further, with its reduced funding, the Australia Council cancelled project funding rounds for small groups and individuals in 2015 and then cut funding to over 60 arts organisations across the country in May 2016. There have been recent rumours that more of the Ministerial funds might be returned to the Australia Council but as yet there is no evidence of this.
But sadly this is not the only action that will harm and continue to damage the arts sector. The Federal Government is now considering cutting funding to students who wish to undertake creative arts training. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has said he believes training in the creative arts is a ‘lifestyle’ choice and cannot lead to a satisfactory career or any economic outcome. He says,
VET Student Loans will only support legitimate students to undertake worthwhile and value-for-money courses at quality training providers.
As the government’s priorities are related to demonstrating economic outcomes, they say that their preference is for technology programs and agricultural science courses related to the STEM educational model.
In this context creative arts training is perceived as irrelevant and Minister Birmingham intends to cut loan support for students to undertake this form of education and training. If this occurs, more than 50 arts training programs across the country will no longer be supported. These include programs in ceramics, photography, dance, acting, animation, all forms of design, circus, music, film, fashion and journalism.
To describe creative arts training as a “lifestyle” choice in my view demonstrates a lack of knowledge of what is involved and what is produced. There seems to be no understanding or recognition that artists/arts workers are trained professionals who are highly skilled, knowledgeable and adept. They are also highly employable in many industry sectors – not just the arts.
Australia talks constantly about supporting innovation and wanting to be seen as a “smart” country. Training people in the creative arts is a sure way of doing this. Confining education only to technology and the sciences does not create a nation that is necessarily clever or innovative.
Arts training provides the capacity to problem solve, think outside the square, be divergent and come up with new and untried solutions. These are skills that are essential for innovation and change. The arts are a basic foundation of the culture of this country.
Australia is presented internationally by its artists, by its films, by its literature - it is the soul of the country. If the arts training sectors are not funded by this Federal Government, there is a clear message that the government does not think that the arts matter in Australia and, ipso facto, Australian arts and culture does not matter to the world.
Authors: Jo Caust, Associate Professor and Principal Fellow (Hon), University of Melbourne