Response: Daily Telegraph/George Brandis

Update: Brandis talks about his changes.  I don’t really have an opinion on it, it’s still a bit wishy-washy, but we’ll see how it pans out.

Disclaimer: I have never directly received funding from the Australia Council, and I am happy for people to correct my information if I get it completely wrong. This is very much an opinion piece, but I am attempting to ground it in easy-to-obtain evidence, or common-sense.

This morning, I read this article by Tim Blair in the Daily Telegraph (one of those silly Murdoch publications) with mild bemusement, and thought that it would be worth breaking the article down into sections and addressing some of the author’s points off the top of my head and with minimal research, especially as they seem to echo sentiments by some of my similarly-idealed friends and colleagues. I want to expend a similar amount of effort in responding to the article as it seems Tim spent writing it.

Original article: Creatives squeal as Arts Minister George Brandis turns off the artful dodgy tap (it makes me cringe slightly linking to Murdoch from my own website, but hey).

Also, quite obviously, this article is click-bait, and is – at least partly – a response in its own right to articles published via The Guardian and ArtsHub.

The article starts with this:

WE conservatives are meant to be the boring ones. After all, we’re obsessed with dull notions like financial security, predictable career paths and reliable investments. Yawn.

It’s quite worth keeping this opening in mind for the rest of the article, and here is the counterbalance:

And then there are our exciting friends from the artistic left, who care little for conservatives’ buttoned-down ways. They go wherever their creative impulses may lead, boldly exploring new visions and ideas, fearlessly challenging society’s assumptions and smashing complacency.

That’s the way things are meant to be, at least.

Does it seem as though the author is conflating art with politics just a little bit here? It does to me. The opening statement describes a political and social ideology as the ‘right’, and a kind of vague, new-age pseudo-religious view of… well, I’m not entirely sure what, but it seems somewhere between a political and social ideal and an observation of artists? It’s a bit hard to tell. In any case, whatever it is, it is the description of the ‘left’ with which we move forward.

But arts minister George Brandis has discovered a brilliant way to convert unconventional creative types into timid, pleading defenders of the status quo.

Brandis accomplished this by the simple means of putting himself between artists and their supply of tax-funded Australia Council grants.

In last week’s Budget, the minister revealed he would subtract $100 million from the council to establish a separate grants pool, to be dispersed by the ministry rather than the usual stupid luvvies.

So much modern art aims to stun and appal for the sake of it. Considered as a piece of performance art, Brandis’s move wittily inverts this approach. Now the artists are stunned.

Here, I think, is a kind of contention to this whole thing. That, in the view of the author and like-minded folks, art-for-art’s-sake is no good, and that Brandis, in a political (or social?) move of genius, has subverted the established roles of peer-review in the arts in favour of something that we don’t really know yet, but it will certainly not ‘favour’ art-for-art’s-sake like the Australia Council does. Or something. Still a bit unclear.

“Australia’s arts industry is in shock after a dramatic intervention by minister George Brandis,” read one review at ArtsHub, “Australia’s leading portal for professionals working within the arts”.

The review continued, deliciously: “As news of the radical shake-up filtered out, dismay and confusion spread throughout Australia’s tight-knit arts community.”

Just how tight-knit is that community may be judged by the grants doled out through the Australia Council, which is basically a multimillion-dollar tax playpen for various closely interwoven artists and arts groups. If the Australia Council and recipients were connected genetically rather than financially, recent generations would just be big bunches of hands.

Which might be an evolutionary advantage, given the primary activity of our art-for-the-dole participants.

This is roughly where the cherry-picking and attempted research begins. Brandis’ ‘reversal’ of expectations are ‘pointed out’ in an article from ArtsHub; that artists and creative-folk are in shock instead of being the shockers. There is a lot in these statements, none of which makes much sense. The first is that somehow, the small-to-medium-sized arts organisations, and individuals, from which the funding was pulled are ‘in with’ the Australia Council, effectively tying up all the available funding so that all the other independent artists can’t get any. Ignoring the fact (made later) that the large organisations such as Opera Australia, the Symphony Orchestras, and so on, have been left unaffected by the funding rearrangement and are, in fact, far more ‘in with’ the Australia Council than the small-to-mediums and independents. It also completely (and conveniently) ignores everything to do with peer-review, implying that there are a bunch of people – always the same people – who dish out grants to their friends. This particular attitude is one that quite a few people seem to harbour, and one that is completely false. Peer-review is not a perfect system, but it’s as close as we have.

The Australia Council website has some details on how their peer-review system works, and though it does not say that the reviews are blind, it is very clearly stated that applications are made against assessment criteria (which are available for viewing in every grant category), and they (AusCo) have the following principles of peer-review:

  • Only information about applications relevant to the selection criteria should be discussed in the deliberation.
  • The convenor should be firm but fair in managing the discussion, and ensure that all voices are heard.
  • Peers should not assess on a panel where there is identified conflict of interest.
  • If an unforeseen conflict arises in deliberation, the peer must identify the conflict and not assess that application.
  • Australia Council officers have roles in supporting the peer assessment process and providing relevant advice and information to peers, but do not give opinion on the merit of individual applications.

I have taken the liberty of bolding the two parts that are important for people to understand, and I would like to point out that even if someone is seen as favouring, the role of statistics and common agreement by the panel means that no individual reviewer voice is more prominent or potent than any other, which means that unless the entire panel agree – against the assessment criteria – that the favoured proposal is worthy of funding, then it won’t really count for much.

This entirely does away with the argument that Australia Council favours their friends, and I’ve not even talked about the fact that anybody can apply to be on the peer-review list.

Tim goes on to try and reinforce his vaguely outlined initial point (of right vs left wing-political persuasions):

In the Guardian, Marxist “arts practitioner” Vanessa Badham denounced Brandis’s change. “In a free and fair society,” she wrote, “there exists the necessity for a culture to express itself — and experiment with that expression — without interference of the state.”

This sounds like a fine argument against tax-funded art, but what Badham means is that the government should just hand millions of dollars of your money to artists and then step aside. That’s the way it’s always been. Change is scary and bad.

First up, the obvious pot-shot at Badham by using scare-quotes around arts practitioner to imply that, at least to the author, Badham is anything but an arts practitioner. Then, to go on and say that it’s an argument against tax-funded art? I don’t follow the logic, and I certainly don’t follow the logic of the subsequent statements about the government stepping aside. He goes on:

“I spoke directly to arts practitioners located within companies across the sector for background for this article,” Badham went on. “Although reaction was one of ‘nervousness, apprehension, concern and actual fear’, not one agreed to speak on the record.”

When you breed a spineless movement of grant-dependent tax sucklings, that is not an unexpected outcome. Former Australia Council chair Rodney Hall was devastated by the change. “The Australia Council was set up with great care by Nugget Coombs in 1968,” he told the ABC. “Central to his concern was to bypass the possibility that the public money could get into the hands of a very few people dishing it out to their friends.”

As a definition of the current Australia Council, Hall’s line is difficult to beat.

Spineless, grant-dependent tax sucklings eh? Obviously the author does not actually understand what and how the Australia Council (and other funding organisations) attempt to work, particularly at an independent level: that is, they attempt to fund projects and outcomes that lead the artist into a self-sustaining career, which is just like small business startup grants and the like. This particular attitude (and ignorance) is pervasive, and shows a great misunderstanding of the ambition of the Australia Council. In fact, this idea basically conflates independent practitioners and small-to-medium companies with the large companies. It also conveniently ignores all statistics about the economic benefits of the arts industry, which I will talk about a little later.

There is also the ‘definition of the current Australia Council’, as ‘… to bypass the possibility that the public money could get into the hands of a very few people dishing it out to their friends.’ Again, this misdirected notion on how peer-review works (which I suspect is equally misunderstood for scientific and other fields), and particularly how the Australia Council review process works, which I already talked about.

The next section is great, and I will – off the top of my head – discuss a couple of the projects directly. I’d also like to point out that the author has cherry-picked funding from the projects category, ignoring pretty much every other funding category that the Australia Council offer. Let’s also ignore the fact that these funding quantities in comparison to the overall budget/tax payer contributions are insignificant and, let’s also ignore the fact that the budget is not purely from tax. People who argue this seem to ignore that entirely. Also artists pay tax on the grants they receive in line with the rest of the taxation laws.

Also, according to Hall, the Australia Council’s “proudest achievement” has been to “make it possible for artists of all kinds to pursue their profession at home”.

Some achievement. Let’s check some recent Australia Council grant approvals and the amounts they cost:

• “The story of a girl, a bird and a teapot.” ($34,672)

Hm, no context here.

• “Enriching my sensory theatre practice with master classes and mentoring in Body Mind Centering praxis.” ($12,000)

This looks like the exact kind of grant that works toward a self-sustaining career as an art practitioner, which is, according to the definition of the ‘right’ given at the start of the article, a good thing? It means that less and less grants would be awarded as the practice became self-sustaining.

• “Dance theatre work devised by participants who identify as fat/large/bigger-bodied.” ($20,000)

I’d be interested to see how much this work turned over in profit, but I suspect given that it was selling out, that it was substantially more than the $20,000 grant awarded to put the thing on in the first place. I’m also fairly sure this work was put on by a larger company, not a single independent.

• “An interactive food-based performance event sharing migrant/refugee mothers’ migration experiences.” ($35,000)

Cool, sounds good. Sounds like exactly the kind of public art that needs to be talked about, especially in this political climate. Isn’t suppressing this kind of work pretty much what Brandis is attempting to do? To quell dissent against the poxy policies of the current government? It certainly appears so, but we will have to wait and see.

• “Traditional rainforest basketry training programs.” ($21,360)

Again, this seems like an up-skill towards a sustainable career. Good investment, kinda like Uni, but all the stuff you can’t learn at Uni.

• “Development of a new work exploring fictitious dance histories and conspiracies.” ($8796)

Sounds great. 

• “Establish an independent arts practice that can sustainably produce puppet-based visual theatre.” ($8064)

Excellent! It is all encapsulated in the title: ‘… establish an independent arts practice that can sustainably produce…’; good investment as well! Business startup, viva la capitalism.

The list goes on and on. Actor Jessica Clarke picked up $9960 to “develop my classical actor skillset, grow my networks and develop a sustainable arts practice”. What this means in practice was revealed in a subsequent Twitter message from Clarke: “Off to London today thanks to my Art Starts grant!”.

Frankly, it’s just getting a bit ridiculous now. This person gets an Art Start grant to become self-sustaining through additional training and network development, presumably through international channels and opportunities unavailable in Australia, and this is a bad thing? Clutching at straws and belittling the very notion of a capitalism-based entrepreneurialism that the author (and others of his kind) seem to be in favour of. Bizarre double-think.

The finest grant of them all occurred in 2011, when Sydney artist Denis Beaubois received $20,000 from the Australia Council. Beaubois simply piled the cash into two stacks, put a glass box around it and called the resultant piece “Currency”. The arts grant and the art were one and the same.

Then he put the money up for sale at an auction — where someone actually paid $21,350 to buy $20,000. ‘’The money I make will be used to finance part two of the project, which is a series of performance/video works on the division of labour, and capitalism,’’ Beaubois said at the time.

There is a much easier way for Beaubois and all Australian artists to study capitalism, and that is by participating in it.

The Australia Council should be shut down, along with just about all arts funding. This would save close to $700 million per year and — absolutely guaranteed — would result in better art.

No return to contention, no coherence, and not even much to say with any basis in reality. The art created in this last example seems like something I don’t think I would like, but so what? And arguing that artists should study capitalism by participating is utterly absurd, as all artists a) pay tax and b) are engaged in capitalism through their work. And finally, ‘better art’ according to the author? What is that, and how, exactly, would this happen without government funding? I have no idea, and I’d wager he wouldn’t either.

Two last points from me:

I think that public/private co-funding is a great idea, and should happen more here than it already does. The Impuls festival/academy that I have been to twice is an example – from Austria – of this working exceptionally well. It must cost a lot of money to put on, and the partner list is gigantic. But public funding is a necessity, culturally and economically. The economic and cultural value is fairly well-documented. For instance, this particular set of statistics shows that: ‘In 2009-10, Australian households spent $15 per week on arts-related products, equating to approximately $6.5 billion economy-wide.

Wow, and commentators are quibbling over a hundred million over four-years? Increase the funding, I say, via the Australia Council (and philanthropy), and I’d wager that this figure would increase substantially.

There are a number of interesting articles about the economic benefit of the arts (including publicly funded arts), so here are two:

Report of the Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts in … (PDF, Victoria only)

“As a result of its links in the economy, the arts and culture sector contributes $11.4 billion of annual Victorian GSP and around 110,000 Victoria full-time equivalent jobs in 2010-11 terms.”

“It is estimated that government funding of the arts and culture sector in 2010-11 stimulates around $340 million more GSP and 3,500 more Victorian full-time equivalent jobs, than if the funding had been used elsewhere.”

General creative sector economic contribution

Interesting overview of the sector

AFR opinion on increasing art funding

In any case, I think that the author and those who hold similar ideals are really just wilfully ignorant.

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