Funding for Australia’s arts sector needs a ‘public-led reboot’ to survive, report finds

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

Australia’s arts and cultural sector needs a reconstruction program of substantial, coordinated and sustained public investment if it is to survive let alone “snap back” after the Covid shutdown that has shredded the plans and budgets of arts organisations and artists.

A new report by Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work said it was time for nothing less than a “total public-led reboot” of the ways in which government thinks of and funds the arts.

“It was urgent last year,” said report co-author Ben Eltham of Monash University’s school of media, film and journalism. “Now it’s beyond urgent. One thing I hope the report can do is show the metrics of just how bad things are.”

We should brace for some “big casualties” among Australia’s arts companies, Eltham said.

Related: Change the conversation: why Australia’s arts advocates need a new approach

“We’ve already seen a wave of small company insolvencies across the sector over the past year,” he said. “One of the tragedies the sector faces now is that the government has dismantled so many of what were already late policy responses, jobkeeper, for example. Without it, a lot of major companies are in trouble.”

Worse still, he said, the loss of jobs and the exodus of skilled live performance workers into other areas would blight Australia’s culture sector for years.

The picture captured in the report, Creativity in Crisis: Rebooting Australia’s Arts & Entertainment Sector, which was commissioned by the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA), is sobering.

Eltham and co-author Alison Pennington, a senior economist at the centre for future work, estimate the arts and culture sector employs (at its broadest measure) more than 350,000 people – more than three times the number in aviation and mining. It contributed more than $17bn to the Australian economy in 2018-19.

In February 2021, about 45% of all employees in arts and recreation services were in casual roles without access to basic entitlements including holiday and sick leave and superannuation. Casual employment has also increased and job insecurity was “endemic”, the report said.

Even with jobkeeper, wages in the sector declined sharply last year, dropping from an average $1,525 a week in November 2019 to $1,464 in November 2020. Those working casually or part-time had their weekly wage fall by an average $50.

The report characterised the government’s $250m stimulus program for the sector as one that “fell far short of its glossy announcement” because of its slow rollout and patchy distribution.

The macro-view was no less problematic.

For years, federal government funding for the arts and culture had lagged that of state governments, which in turn was below the level of support offered by local government, which now contributes more than half all financial support to the sector.

The OECD average for government expenditure on the cultural sector is 1.2% of annual GDP. Australia contributes 0.9%, ahead of the United States (approximately 0.3%) and Great Britain (0.6%) but well behind Iceland and Hungary (more than 3%) and Estonia (2%).

Among the report’s most dramatic figures were those relating to government spending on the cultural sector per capita. Since 2007, federal spending had declined by 18.9%.

“These stark funding divergences reflect the ongoing failure of policy makers to create a more coherent and balanced arts and entertainment sector policy across all levels of government,” the report said.

Among key recommendations was expanding funding to community arts organisations and artists, Pennington said.

“It helps to think of investment in the arts as an investment in the public good, something like the healthcare system,” she said. “You make major investments in hospitals for mass treatment. You invest in face-to-face community health.

“But what we’ve found is that less funding for the whole arts and culture sector has coincided with funding that flows mostly to the largest organisations. Over decades that has led to an erosion of access, participation and lack of skill-building.”

The treadmill of short-term grant cycles and philanthropy hunting was not a place the arts should strive to “snap back” to, she said.

Other recommendations include introducing a commonwealth creative fellowships program and improving coordination of cultural policy between federal, state and local government.

The report also called for the creation of a whole-of-Australia public streaming platform, the introduction of Australian content quotas on all streaming services, and a digital platforms levy to fund it.

That suggestion runs counter to a recent Morrison government green paper on Australian content quotas, which would, for example, allow Foxtel to halve its local production budget while seeking to “harmonise” Australian content levels across all platforms at just 5%.

The report aimed to articulate just how sever the crisis is at the moment and catalyse discussion.

“It’s a call to arms,” Pennington said. “The only way to build a policy to reinstate the critical role of government in the arts is going to require not just the advocacy of the sector but of everyone. We all have to demand a better world on the other side of this pandemic.”

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