A Death Knell for Australian Arts and Culture?

Claire Edwardes, Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring, weighs in on funding cuts, ‘unfunded excellence’, and the planned fee hike for arts and humanities degrees.

When the Australia Council’s four-year funding announcements were made earlier this year my contemporary music group, Ensemble Offspring, missed out.

The list of others who missed out (both published and unpublished) is long. It includes Gondwana Voices (Australia’s most active youth choirs) and Sydney Chamber Opera (who recently presented a stunning digital all female opera production, Breaking Glass).

The losers were given no reason why because the simple answer was that there was not enough money. It’s called ‘unfunded excellence’, a term that should be erased from the lexicon.

As a result of this unfunded excellence, many small to medium sector arts organisations like mine run the risk of being extinguished. For Ensemble Offspring that comes after 25 years of activity, government investment and growth.

The Federal Government has been whittling down its support for the arts in Australia for more than 10 years. The term ‘unfunded excellence’ came to the fore during the Brandis era, when the minister wanted the funding of the arts in his gift, and formed the Catalyst fund, giving the Arts Ministry direct control over public funding of arts projects. Artists fought for the money to be returned to the Australia Council so that peers could once again review applications in a democratic process. The artists won. But the money had been messed around with so deeply that there was a lot less left than before – around $24 million less.

So now with humanities course fees being hiked in an effort to steer young people away from ‘unessential’ jobs we see another deeply concerning move by the government away from valuing the arts and their contribution to society. Are politicians suggesting then that their lives would be full when all the art, music, books, movies and dance classes for their children and grandchildren disappeared? Critical thinking and cultural expression gone for good! I would argue that the short-sighted vision of Dan Tehan and his colleagues has not considered this dystopian vision for our country and the next generation.

Late last year, the word ‘arts’ was dropped when the Department of Communications and the Arts was merged into the new Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications as part of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s restructure of the public service. On a recent music industry lobbying trip to Canberra, Paul Fletcher, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, told us it made no difference as it was just a title, but we, the arts sector, wholeheartedly disagree. That title makes all the difference. Where is the visibility without the word? And why does the Australian Government think it is OK to put zero outfacing value on the arts when they even directly claim that the arts buoy us up in times of crisis such as bushfires and pandemics?

And now it has become painfully obvious that the arts, from the orchestras to the small to medium sector, could be completely crushed by COVID-19, and on top of this we hear the death knell tolling for the long-term future of the arts and humanities in this country.

Musicals and Disney on Ice shows do not rely on government subsidy but do we want a future where American culture dominates and we have nothing to show for our own Australian stories?

In the end, this is about the future of our culture and holding onto a distinctive and independent Australian voice. We need living and breathing art. We need the unusual and the marvellous. Without this art and critical thinking, which hold up a mirror to ourselves, we are no longer able to ask questions, reflect, wonder or be curious and our culture ends up as an exhibit in a museum alongside the extinct koalas and potoroos.