Funding for the arts and music is set to have a major shake up with a government appointed panel recommending sweeping changes to the way the Australia Council conducts business, just a few weeks after the Melba Recordings scandal deeply damaged the current model for arts funding here in Australia.
Set up by the Whitlam Government in the 70s, the Australia Council has played a significant role in the transformation of the Australian arts industry into a thriving cultural asset.
The Council operates as the Australian Government’s primary funding body for the arts, focusing on the highest levels of artistic endeavour.
Under the guidance of the Australia Council, the industry as a whole, which includes music, film, theatre, and traditional arts, now contributes over $30 billion annually towards Australia’s GDP – more than the contributions of the agriculture, forestry & fishing industries.
In fact, in 2010-11 along the council delivered grants and project funding of nearly $164 million in the form of almost 1,900 separate grants, enabled the creation of over 7,500 new
artistic works and provided direct funding to over 900 artists and 1000 organisations.
But it is now four decades since the council was put into action, and despite its continued success, the current government has decided to review the operations and purpose of the council so it is better suited to tackled a rapidly changing industry.
In 1973 there was no internet, there was no such thing as an MP3, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t even born yet.
This year the Australian Government and Arts Minister Simon Crean committed to developing a National Cultural Policy, a piece of work that will influence the next decade of government investment in the arts and help shape the industry as we move into an increasingly digital age.
The Review of the Australia Council, which now offers funding across 50 separate grant categories and 40 initiatives, forms a central part of the process to develop the Policy.
Handed today to Crean, the review committee have made eighteen recommendations across six areas that outline a broad mandate for change, including increased annual funding for the council, a new governance structure, and an update of the council’s purpose to focus primarily on funding and promoting artistic excellence.
The review points out that despite numerous successful artists receiving a leg up from the council, including musicians John Butler Trio, the Presets, Christine Anu, and Dan Sultan, the governments expenditure on the arts as a percentage of GDP is below that of similar developed nations.
According to the review, Australia spends $740 million a year, or .084% of GDP, as compared to Canada who spend $2.079 billion, or .156% of GDP, and New Zealand who spend $235 million, or .198% of GDP.
The review recommends the Australian Government increase annual funding of the Australia Council by $21.25 million per annual to enable the Council to fulfil its revised recommended purpose.
To safeguard the funding increases, the review also recommends that the Council’s funding be exempted from the efficiency dividend – a directive from the government that currently cuts 1.5% of operational funding of all Australian Government entities per annum.
The Review also recommendations that the Council focus on only four areas of activity to increase efficiency, including providing funding to promote and sustain excellence in the arts sector, promoting a sector that is distinctly Australian, ensuring there are audiences and markets for the work it funds and promotes, and working to maximise the social and economic contribution made by the arts sector to Australia.
Previous activities undertaken by the Council, including the primary work of policy development and programs supporting broad access to the arts, should be deferred to the department of state and the office of the arts, according to the review.
One of the final recommendations is for the Australian parliament to put into writing the new definition of the purpose of the Australia Council by introducing new legislation in a few years, that will also act to preserve the principles of operation at arm’s length from government, and peer-based review of funding decisions.
So how does this change the current grants process and will any of these changes make it easier for musicians to apply for and receive grants?
The review recommends that the process be streamlined – so that a number of advisory panels made of of industry members will make recommendations to the executive who will make funding decisions based on the recommendations and the overall strategy of the council.
The idea behind this restructure is so that the process is overall more transparent, and that the approach to each sector is consistent.
Previously the panels have operated as individual entities operating with little oversight, and with no process that allowed the Council to move funds between different sectors of the arts industry to respond to changing priorities.
The old structure also made it difficult to fund works which didn’t fall within the predefined artform definitions, which meant numerous artists were forced to skew their work so they would ‘fit’ within one of the definitions.
The proposed restructure would also loosen the strict eligibility requirements for peers who assess funding applications, based on the model of the Canada Council for the Arts, in the hope that more peers will become involved in assessment, thereby diversifying the mix of peers.
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