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Artists join national protest against Australia Council cuts

Artists join national protest against Australia Council cuts
May 23, 2015

Arts leaders have stepped up their campaign against the Federal Government's cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts in a national day of protest that included a 'mass dance action' to draw attention to their campaign.

More than one week after the Federal Budget was handed down, protesters in locations across Australia stamped and danced on sidewalks, stages and work places.

In changes announced in last week’s Budget, $105 million will be stripped from the Australia Council over the next four years for Federal Arts Minister George Brandis to set up his own arts program in his ministry.

Critics said this would cause needless bureaucratic duplication, threaten the viability of smaller community arts organisations and undermine the long-standing bipartisan principal of arms-length funding to avoid political censorship.

Senator Brandis’ intervention surprised State funding agencies that support art projects jointly with the Australia Council, which has suspended a major round of grants as it scrambles to absorb the changes.

Former Australia Council Chair Margaret Seares yesterday (22nd May) told a protest rally at the Perth Cultural Centre on that the move had left many arts organisations in limbo.

Professor Seares stated “I would encourage the Government to have another look at this and see whether there is value in having these two programs.

“The last thing we want to see is this divide and rule between different parts of the arts.”

About 300 people turned out in wet conditions in Sydney's Hyde Park to express their protest through dance - performing the 'hoofer' dance by dance act The Fondue Set.

Arts veteran Fiona Winning, currently head of programming for the Sydney Festival, labelled the changes "a deplorable kneecapping of the Australia Council's mandate".

She praised recent reforms of the Council's guidelines, including a redesign of the peer-review process and the introduction of a six-year funding program to give organisations greater security.

That program, which would grant successful applicants a minimum of $75,000 a year for six years, has now been suspended. The Australia Council also suspended its June funding round and cancelled its ArtsStart program and Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative.

Winning warned that local youth theatres were particularly under threat from the cuts, and that audiences with an interest in artist-run spaces or experimental musical theatre may find smaller venues in their suburb replaced by larger commercial galleries, comedy clubs or bars.

Winning stated "this is not an arts world I want to live in … this is not an arts world that our audiences want to experience."

The nationwide protests come as Australia Council Chief Executive Tony Grybowski insisted his organisation would not be defeated by the hit to its budget. In an interview with Fairfax Media, he indicated further cost-cutting measures would be taken, such as scrapping the artists-in-residence program and possibly divesting some of its four overseas properties.

Grybowski stated "we're here for the long term, we've been here for 45 years and we're here to stay."

On Thursday (21st May), the Australia Council announced its June round of grants would not proceed and the Council would suspend its "six-year funding for organisations program".

Defending his action, Senator Brandis said in an interview with ABC radio that said the Australia Council should not be a monopoly and his new program would open funding to a broader range of applicants.

Senator Brandis stated “I can’t see for the life of me, in circumstances where there has been no reduction in funding available, what is wrong with there being contestability, so that there are two funding streams.

“The idea of a funding mix with some programs administered through the Ministry and most programs administered through the Australia Council is a healthier and more contestable way to do arts funding."

Senator Brandis said details of his National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) would be published in the coming weeks, with applications from arts bodies and artists sought for next financial year.

He said the guidelines would be transparent, independent and “extend access to funding to wider variety of potential applicants than is the case at the moment."

#freethearts has been trending on social media in recent days.

Images: Australia Council's Dreaming Aloud from 2014 (middle) and Senator George Brandis (below).




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