With the money yet to start flowing from the federal government’s $250m Covid-19 rescue package for the arts, sectors of the Australian industry continue to raise concerns over the transparency of the process amid fears that smaller states and organisations may miss out.
$75m of the package will be allocated directly from the arts minister’s office under the Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (Rise) fund. In contrast, the Australia Council for the Arts – the statutory body founded on the principles of peer assessment and arm’s-length funding – will receive just $35m, with the government earmarking those funds away from smaller organisations and to be awarded to “significant commonwealth-funded arts and culture organisations”.
To date the minister, Paul Fletcher, had received “about 280 eligible applications” to the Rise fund, a spokesman said in a statement on Wednesday. Senate estimates heard on 21 October that the department expected to get the money flowing by November, but that deadline has now changed to “before the end of the year”.
On 13 November, the first hearing for a federal government inquiry into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions will take place in Canberra.
Two recurrent themes among the 252 submissions lodged with the inquiry so far are the need to separate politics from funding decisions, and concerns that small- to medium-tier organisations will be overlooked.
An arts and cultural management academic from the University of Melbourne, Associate Prof Dr Jo Caust, told Guardian Australia those fears might not be unfounded.
“When there’s political involvement in grants decision-making, it can end up being a rort of some sort,” she said, referring to the so-called “sports rorts” controversy earlier this year, and an ABC investigation in May alleging that $44 million in New South Wales arts funding had been funnelled into Coalition electorates in the lead-up to the 2018 state election.
“It’s really important that there is some distance between the [grant] decision-making and the political structure,” Caust said.
Another concern, she said, was that conservative government funding decisions tended to favour large, flagship companies and high art. “When there is an ambivalence towards the arts sector, as we are experiencing now under the current federal government, the smaller organisations will suffer the most as they are less visible to the politicians.”
Fletcher’s spokesman said there was nothing unusual about the Rise allocation decisions coming directly out of the minister’s office, and that the electorate of an application “does not have any bearing” on the score it receives in the process.
“In addition to balancing funding across organisation size, we are also committed to ensuring representation across other measures, such as different art forms, diverse groups and geographic locations,” he said.
“When we announce the successful applicants, we will provide information on this spread to look to alleviate any concerns.”
‘The small to medium sector is the bedrock here’
With more than two-thirds of Australia’s 30 major performing arts companies based in NSW, Victoria or Queensland, there have been concerns raised that smaller states may not receive equitable treatment.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Arts Industry Council of South Australia said it was concerned that “the small to medium sector in South Australia will not receive the full benefit of the [$250m] creative economy support package, especially as the fund is not being administered via the Australia Council”.
Speaking to the Guardian, the council’s executive director, Julianne Pierce, said: “Our concern in South Australia [which has no national arts organisations] is that the small to medium sector is the bedrock here.
“Obviously the [federal rescue package] is welcome, but we believe the money must flow down to artists and art workers, rather than just propping up large organisations.”
Country Arts SA urged the inquiry to “maintain clear distinctions between the role and purpose of the Office for the Arts [Fletcher’s office] and the Australia Council”.
Shelagh Magadza, the executive director of the Chamber for Arts and Culture in Western Australia, said funding at the federal level tended to take a “one size fits all” approach that disadvantaged less-populated states, where small to medium arts organisations required more nuanced and locally focused support.
The potential for political interference in the grant deciding process was a perennial issue, she said.
“I think this reflects years of discussion … It possibly came to a head in 2016, with the [George] Brandis situation, and things have never really settled since then.”
The “Brandis situation” occurred in 2015, when the then-arts minister redirected $104.8m away from the Australia Council to create an “arts excellence” fund directly dispersed from the minister’s office.
Labor and arts organisations across Australia campaigned heavily against the removal of the “arm’s length” principle of arts funding under the Brandis scheme. His successor, Mitch Fifield, reversed the scheme and returned most of the funding back to the Australia Council the following year.
Caust said the $75m Rise funding appeared to be a return to the Brandis model. “The minister [is having] the final decision, and that’s really problematic.”
When announcing the federal government arts rescue package, Fletcher said “experienced assessors will assess each application on its merit and compare it to other eligible applications”.
The assessors would be “officials from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications”, he said.
A creative economy taskforce was appointed to advise the assessors but it has no say on where the money goes, its chair, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, said in October.