Australia’s Arts Funding Crisis

Words by: Natasha Bloomfield

George Brandis has been the Federal Arts Minister since late September 2013. Recently he attracted attention when he announced that the Government will redirect $104.8 million from the Australia Council for the Arts (Australia Council) into the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) over the next four years.

Here are our key players:

Australia Council 

The Australia Council, formed in 1967, is the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body. Under the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997 the Australia Council is considered a separate legal entity from the Commonwealth. This means that several of its features, including grant-making, cannot be controlled by ministers. According to the Australia Council Bill 2013 its functions are:

  • to act on funding decisions guided by the overall principle of excellence and artistic merit
  • to have a strong and robust arms-length peer assessment process for all funding decisions, and a decision-making process that meets the community’s expectations of fairness and transparency
  • to be guided by enabling legislation that reflects the diversity of the Australian arts and cultural sector today and, with consideration of emerging creative areas, into the future.

The introduction of the NPEA has resulted in the largest funding overhaul directed at the Australia Council since its establishment. Of the $184.5 million directed to the Council, $62 million is reserved for, among other things, Key Organisations (all small-medium organisations). This is $23 million less than expected which has resulted in a number of funding programs being cut.

Department of Culture and the Arts (DCA)

The Department of Culture and the Arts is the government agency responsible for arts funding in WA, which is also conducted by arms-length funding and peer assessment. This form of funding operates on the basis that the sector is best placed to make funding recommendations. Panels are composed of practising artists, arts workers, arts managers and individuals with specialist expertise.

Director General of the DCA Duncan Ord is confident that the NPEA’s emphasis on remote and regional communities “will go some way towards rectifying the historic inequality of Australia Council funding provided to Western Australia.”

Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG)

AMPAG consists of twenty-eight organisations in Australia. These organisations are classified as large arts organisations that cover the fields of dance, theatre, circus, opera, and orchestral and chamber music. The WA companies are WASO, the Black Swan State Theatre Company, WA Ballet, and WA Opera. Large organisations make up 60% of employment in the arts industry and in 2013 had an estimated income of $481 million. AMPAG has been spared from funding cuts.

Small-Medium Arts Organisations

Small- Medium arts organisations are those with an annual turnover of less than $3 million and/or less than ten full-time staff. There are approximately 140 such organisations around Australia. The 45 organisations in WA had an estimated income in 2013 of $61 million.


NPEA is the government funding body run by the Ministry for the Arts with George Brandis as the head. NPEA’s most notable features are:

  • It supports projects “that deliver national outcomes” – which goes hand in hand with not funding projects by individual artists. Brandis is sceptical of individuals as they may not represent the interests of the government or the wider community. This proposal reduces the access individuals have to funding, puts increased pressure on state government funding schemes, and reduces the amount of new and fresh talent that is able to be showcased to audiences.
  • It encourages “greater private sector support and partnership funding for the arts” – which means preferential treatment to organisations that are established and able to secure private funding. Creative Partnerships Australia will receive $5.4 million of these redirected funds over three years to build this private sector support through sponsorship, philanthropy, and corporate volunteering.

These changes have not come out of nowhere.

As Shadow Minister for the Arts in early 2013, Brandis stated there “will always be debate about what the arts do, that’s why we have an arms-length and peer-reviewed structure for the allocation of funding.” Later in 2013, and now in the position of Arts Minister, Brandis contradicted this view by attempting to insert a clause into the Australia Council’s governing legislation that will give him part control over individual funding decisions. The clause was voted down.

It came to light in November 2014 that the Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville was unable to secure funding from the Australia Council in 2013, even though it successfully received funding for the previous five years. Brandis was devastated; as grants do not require his consent he had little influence over this decision. Following this debacle his hostility to arms-length funding and peer assessment, and most likely his hostility to the Australia Council itself, increased.

In 2015 the issue became more public. On 13 May 2015 NPEA was announced and on 22 May 2015 #FreeTheArts rallies where held nationally with approximately 1800 artists protesting the cuts. On 16 June 2015 Labor, Greens and Independents joined forces to pass a motion to hold a senate inquiry into NPEA. On 1 July 2015 the guidelines for NPEA were announced and public comments were opened. On 23 July 2015 the Australia Council announced their new funding guidelines, and on the 31 July 2015 public comments on the NPEA closed.

Producer at The Blue Room Theatre Susannah Day stated that small to medium and large organisations are not mutually exclusive entities, preferring to work in a symbiotic relationship. Small and medium organisations are an arena for young artists to take risks and make mistakes before being offered a position in a large organisation. An example Day gave was Chris Isaacs, who having performed at The Blue Room since he was seventeen has now transitioned to performances at the Black Swan State Theatre Centre.

Further, as many of you will know, this year’s Fringe World was an extremely successful festival with an estimated $71 million being directed into WA’s economy. And for now it’s good news for The Blue Room because their funding was secured for next year’s Summer Nights program. Day stated that 2016’s program will see the return of the popular Housewarming launch party along with performances by new local artists, some returning favourites and artists from interstate. As a fantastic entity that supports new works, Day maintains that The Blue Room will continue to provide some level of support for amateur artists, regardless of funding. 

Whilst it appears that the Coalition Government has taken a hostile approach to the arts it is entirely within our own grasp to support this valuable sector. Day suggested that seeing as many works as possible, donating, and taking risks on works are all important ways of supporting the arts, and with the new season at The Blue Room freshly launched, it is not too late to jump on board. Because as they say, the show must go on.