On 6 May 2015, Senator George Brandis QC, Attorney-General for Australia and Federal Minister for the Arts, stood outside the Australian Pavilion, the new $7.5 million AUD venue for Australian art at the Venice Biennale, to announce the stark structure officially open. Designed by Australian architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall, the bunker-like building is clad in large, flawless sheets of black granite. Though present in Australia, this particular granite was sourced direct from a mine in Zimbabwe – the Australian mine had been recently sold to China and was unable to provide the necessary stone. Inside, the work of artist Fiona Hall filled the international gallery-standard space. In one corner were exhibited intricate sculptures of endangered native animals, fashioned from local grasses by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers of Central Australia in collaboration with Hall – although the Indigenous artists’ contributions went largely unacknowledged on the day. Australian artist Richard Bell pithily suggested at the time that the building felt like ‘a black box for white art.’
Despite standing shoulder to shoulder with Australian actor Cate Blanchett, architect John Denton and philanthropist Simon Mordant, to the delight of attending press, Senator Brandis appeared preoccupied at the opening ceremony – with good reason. Within the week, he had announced a startling series of cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts – the country’s arts funding body – siphoning off $104.8 million to create a new National Program for Excellence in the Arts, with grant approval signed off by Brandis’ department.
In defence of this year’s cuts, Brandis has variously declared that he intends to stop the ‘monopoly’ of the Australia Council, an independent and peer-guided body that has been widely respected since its inception in 1975. That there is a sense of entitlement and complacency among the nation’s artists. That ‘proper’ cultural bodies like the regional Townsville Chamber Music Festival have been maliciously overlooked. The latter is a festival that Brandis personally championed in a federal government senate committee meeting as ‘plainly the principal chamber musical festival in Australia…it will be completely untenable for it to not continue to be supported by the Australia Council’. Brandis remains an enthusiastic supporter of other classical, European-centric art organisations including ballets and orchestras, endowing the Australian World Orchestra with an independent grant of $600,000 in November 2014. This from the same minister who in March 2014, during the Biennale of Sydney funding fiasco, threatened that any Australian artists who refuse private sector funding would be unable to seek public funding from the government.
The immediate consequences of these cuts for the arts in Australia were clear – the Australia Council for the Arts cancelled two of its quarterly project and development funding rounds for individual artists and institutions. The Council’s new, flagship six year funding programme, which offered financial security to small to medium arts bodies, was suspended after a number of years of involved and no doubt costly industry development consultations. Separate funds that supported smaller programmes for young emerging artists, community arts and artists in residence no longer exist. All this against last year’s confirmation that no large state or national artistic/cultural bodies would feel the cuts. Individual artists and already struggling smaller arts bodies are carrying them alone.
The response from the Australian art community to this news, however, was swift and heartening, with nationwide protests and strong coverage in popular and specialist media. The Australian Labor Party, the Australian Greens and Independents have described the cuts and the development of the NPEA as a ‘slush fund’. With this support, a federal senate inquiry into the NPEA was launched in mid June 2015. The findings were originally due to be announced next week, but have recently been pushed back to November. It is an important time to bring these events to wider public attention. Without a fully-funded independent arts body like the Australia Council for the Arts, our country may struggle in the future to fill its state, national and international galleries and arts venues, like its gleaming new Venetian pavilion.