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Cuts run deep: Is Australia’s ‘coup culture’ killing its cultural heart?

20 January 2016

In the space of five years, Australia has seen five prime ministers attempt to take the reins of an increasingly erratic and jittery federal parliament. In tandem, Australia’s art world keenly felt each twist and turn; moments of optimism were eclipsed by fear and doubt with the election of the right wing conservative government led by Tony Abbott in September 2013. In May 2015, Australia’s federal arts budget experienced a significant blow, with close to AUD $105 million cut from the Australia Council for the Arts, the country’s national arts funding body.

Senator George Brandis, who wielded the knife, diverted the funds into the creation of a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), where grant decisions were to be made by the Minister’s office and Brandis himself, in an attempt to end what he labelled the ‘monopoly’ of the independent, peer-reviewed Australia Council. Brandis – an archconservative whose primary arts interests are classical forms, such as chamber music and ballet – seemed determined to satisfy a personal vendetta against the country’s diverse contemporary culture. The Australian arts community responded strongly. The Senate inquiry’s findings were effectively sidelined on 14 September 2015 when Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull rolled Prime Minister Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal National Party with the majority support of the party room.

The Australian art world was initially hopeful: Turnbull and his wife Lucy are well known as generous benefactors of the visual arts in particular, their names sit high on the foyer list of donors for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Lucy alone has sat on several arts organisation boards, including the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Australian Museum, Canberra; Sydney Festival; and as a commissioner for the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. In 2008, Malcolm Turnbull was the only prominent federal parliamentarian to throw their support behind high profile Australian artist Bill Henson, who had been embroiled in a censorship row over his works featuring naked minors. Turnbull, at the time, declared his pride in the ‘great artistic freedom in this country’ and noted his personal collection featured two works by Henson. Turnbull’s defence stood in complete opposition to the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who publicly described the work of Henson as ‘absolutely revolting’. At the height of the hysteria, the Australian Federal Police seized 20 Henson photographs from the artist’s representing gallery in Sydney, Roslyn Oxley9.

Hopes were high that Turnbull, an individual of clearly some conviction, would take on the Arts portfolio himself when he came to power and bring stability to the funding crisis. Turnbull appointed instead Senator Mitch Fifield to the Ministership, who in mid November announced that roughly a third of the funds siphoned from the Australia Council would be returned, amounting to AUD $32 million over the next four years. $12 million annually would be kept by Senator Fifield for the NPEA, rebranded as ‘Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund’, with a focus on arts innovation and international opportunities, with funding decisions made by independent assessors outside of the ministry. The response from the industry was mild positivity, with renewed calls for the full amount to be returned. The note of scepticism from arts organisations and workers was palpable.

Not long after the announcement of the partial funding return to the Australia Council, the Federal Government’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) announced on 15 December 2015 revealed an additional $52.5 million cut from broader arts sector funding, $36.8 million of which was taken from public museums and galleries. Though this money is not specifically Australia Council funding, it will put significant pressure upon the Council’s already diminished budget as organisations scramble to recoup cuts. In the context of these cuts, the Australia Council for the Arts announced a major restructure, pulling funding from 10 of the country’s 14 remaining youth performing arts companies, and saving $1 million through job cuts. At this point, the cuts became more immediately tangible for the industry – with the Director of the Visual Arts portfolio, Julie Lomax, alongside 13 other co-workers, retrenched dramatically from the Australia Council. Lomax was previously Director of Visual Arts, London Region at Arts Council of England. Sources in the sector described Lomax as a strong and vocal advocate for Australian art and artists, wielding considerable influence in the global art scene. The loss was keenly felt.

Turnbull’s continuing employment as our nation’s leader is now dependent on what Waleed Aly recently labelled Australia’s ‘break neck speed politics’. With increasing, sustained media and public attention on his aptitude, and the mixed blessings of his arts-related funding decisions so far, the Australian art ecosystem appears destined for further instability as it struggles to remain sustainable in a tumultuous political climate.