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The launch of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Five-Year Strategic Plan in the northern foyer of the Sydney Opera House on a damp, grey 18 August was a baleful affair, overly catered and awash with anxious speculation about the shape and extent of the future of arts funding.

Little was revealed except in the broadest of terms, reducing strategic planning goals to four and grant funding to a mere five categories—a signal, it was quickly feared, for red tape cutting, big savings and the elimination of subtle responses to a complex art ecosystem. “For the Arts” had been pumped up on the Council’s logo and the Strategic Plan was headlined “A Culturally Ambitious Nation” (in the tradition of Creative Nation and the short-lived Creative Australia, if this time more explicitly aspirational).

A later, much happier gathering—one of a number held around the country for artists, groups and organisations—at the Australia Council offices in Sydney on 9 September, finally revealed a radically simplified, less prescriptive grant funding structure than in the past, some of it a work-in-progress open to comment. It included many significant innovations and a great deal of reassurance and hope for artists.

At the launch, Attorney General and Arts Minister George Brandis stressed the Coalition Government’s commitment to the Australia Council. In the context of aggressive cuts to ABC, SBS and Screen Australia budgets this was reassuring if hardly comforting in terms of the country’s overall cultural ecology.

Historically, Australia Council restructurings have been perceived as regressive: steadily diminishing artists’ contribution to policy-making, whittling away at peer assessment, responding poorly to new developments in the arts and reducing the size of grants at the same time as unwise multi-million dollar Arts Minister initiatives took centre-stage. Yet, the good the Australia Council was simultaneously doing could never be underestimated. The prospect, however, of another re-structure has been daunting. Where would it sit in terms of the Coalition Government’s attitude to the National Cultural Policy championed by Labor Arts Minister Simon Crean and the boldly increased funding of the Australia Council by Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government as part of Creative Australia?

The 9 September meeting at the Australia Council offices was lucidly hosted by CEO Tony Grybowski and the details of the new funding model confidently explained by Executive Director of Arts Funding Frank Panucci. The mood of the meeting appeared uniformly positive, indeed congratulatory (save for one well-known gallery director doggedly disgruntled with democratic peer assessment). Australia Council staff I spoke with felt proud of and fully engaged with the new plan.

Strategic Goals

The first goal of the strategy, Art without Borders—“enabling artists to discover and develop across borders”—is about international development with Sophie Travers (Australia Council-IETM Project Officer) continuing to foster European-Australian art partnerships. The mention of further appointments to be made with regard to North and South Asia and North America excited interest. The overall focus of Art without Borders is on expansion and reciprocity with a role for Foreign Affairs and some $11m invested in touring.

The second goal is Great Artists: “Australia is known for its great art and artists,” with emphases on capacity, adventure (“foster[ing] experimentation and risk-taking in all art forms”), excellence and diversity. In fact, “experimentation and risk-taking” were frequently invoked at both gatherings—alongside excellence, with one speaker from the audience reminding us that experimentation and excellence are not always complementary when the former outstrips the latter’s status quo expectations. However the Australia Council does have a good record of supporting risk-taking through its modestly funded Inter-Arts Office (now Emerging and Experimental) and some of the former artform Boards.

The third goal, Enrich Daily Life for All, is about “abundance” (ample art for wide access), “infusion” (art as part of daily life) and inclusion (the public makes art). This goal includes the aim of reaching new generations with an expanded Artists in Residence program with artist and student collaborations, and “leverage”—“increas[ing] public and private investment in the arts.” Realising such a large-scale vision will not come cheap

Goal Four is “Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture.” It comprises “Enrichment: embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures into Australian arts; Brilliance: boost investment in artistic excellence; Belonging: increase Australians’ experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait art; Journey: support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to practise and experience their culture.” While “embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultures into Australian arts” is unfortunately worded, “increase Australians’ experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait art” is a significant aim.

Peer Assessment

The ongoing importance of Peer Assessment was emphasised, as was its centrality in the Australia Council Act of 2013. Grybowksi reported that there are now 500 peers registered to assess applications. He said that the number and diversity of peers is a vast improvement on the previous 80-90. He made it clear that assessments by panels of peers would be artform specific, despite a growing fear that it would not be, not least in the context of the contested assessment procedures of some State Governments.

Later in the meeting Panucci explained that artists, groups or organisations would select “which peer panel you want to assess your application.” In each case, a panel of eight peers, without a chair person and in the presence of non-voting Australia Council staff members, will make the assessments. The peer panels available are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts, Community Arts and Cultural Development, Dance, Emerging and Experimental Arts, Literature, Multi-art form, Music, Theatre and Visual Arts.” If artists are uncertain about their category they can consult with staff or allow staff to make the decision. It was also mentioned that the panels (selected by a committee led by Robyn Archer, Deputy Chair of Council) would have degrees of continuity, if unspecified. This reflects a key concern to artists, that one-off assessment panels potentially lack historical knowledge and policy understanding.

A speaker from the floor raised the matter of expert assessment of ‘disability arts’ applications. Grybowski said that appropriate advice would be provided and that— in moderated trials of the assessment panel model—artists with disabilities were not disadvantaged.

The Australia Council Budget for Grants

The budget allocation (aside from that for other of the Council’s programs), said Grybowski, would be for five grant categories designed to increase flexibility of funding new kinds of work while sustaining traditional practices. Overall there would be $9m more in the arts budget than two years ago despite overall cuts of $28 million over the next four years. The new grants model would provide more continuity (for example development and production can be applied for at the same time and over a number of years as desired). Organisations currently in receipt of triennial funding would be funded until the end of 2016 (allowing many to have their current three-year term extended to four), applying in 2015 for further six-year funding.

Grant Programs

Frank Panucci then detailed the implementation of the new grants scheme: in summary
• Development Grants for Individuals and Groups | $5,000 to $25,000
• Arts Projects for Individuals and Groups | $10,000 to $50,000
• Arts Projects for Organisations | $10,000 to $150,000
• Six-Year Funding for Organisations
• Fellowships $100,000

Development Grants

Development Grants can be applied for by individuals or groups at any of four times across the year (March, June, September, December) for $5,000-$25,000, for projects ranging from six weeks to (staggered over) two years. The criteria for these grants include “potential, viability and career impact” with regard to “professional skills development, showcase opportunities, forum/workshop attendance, residencies, mentorships, arts market attendance and exploration.” Grant results will be known approximately 12 weeks after the application closing date. Development Grants are a more flexible form of Artstart Grants, both financially and timewise.

Arts Projects Grants

Arts Projects Grants for Individuals and Groups for amounts $10,000-$50,000 have the same timetable. Grants are for “the creation of new work, creative development, touring, festivals, productions, exhibitions, publishing, recording and market development activity.” Projects can be funded for up to three years.

Arts Projects for Organisations offers grants of $10,000-$150,000, again four times a year, for “creation of new work, creative development, touring, festivals, productions, exhibitions, publishing, recording and market development activity.”

Concerning Arts Projects grants assessment, Frank Panucci said that applicants would be required to prioritise one goal (eg Creation, Audience, Access, Regional, International etc) against which their application would be judged. Presumably the aim here is to significantly reduce the need for applicants to attempt to cover all bases. Panucci said, “You tell us what you want to do…the artist is central.” Doubtless for many projects, interconnected goals are fundamental, so two or possibly three related goals might make more sense. Panucci said Council is open to discussion about this.

Six-Year Funding for Organisations

Organisations can apply for Six-Year Funding by submitting a brief expression of interest by 1 March, 2015 and, if short-listed, make an application with a Strategic Plan (instead of the former overly labour-intensive Business Plan) by 3 September. Results will be announced in November. Applicants can also apply for Arts Projects Grants, up to six across their six-year grant period. Unsuccessful applicants for six-year funding can apply for Arts Projects for Organisations grants.

The Council’s website says, “We are currently developing the assessment criteria for six-year funding. These will be published before the grant round opens in January.” As listed on the Council’s website they will at least include artistic merit, organisational capacity and “contribution to strategic goals of the Australia Council.” Tony Grybowski made particular mention of the importance of “realistic programs.”

The big picture

Grybowski spoke with enthusiasm about how the new six-year funding model would allow for a much stronger overview of the Australian arts ecosystem. Mention of “an enhanced research program” and the production of an annual State of the Arts Report also boosted confidence that Council might tell us more than can be found in annual reports and audience numbers surveys. A frank State of the Art Report citing media and specialist commentary as well as informatively extolling the successes of Australian artists would be very welcome. Also mentioned were several functioning artform Strategy Panels, with more to come, each led by chairperson “eminences,” who will provide overview and guidance.

Challenges

Tony Grybowksi emphasised that the new 5-Year Strategic Plan had evolved from the enormous amount of work and consultation in recent years as cultural policy was established and the Council’s role was thoroughly interrogated. Council responded to critiques that its grant application processes were complicated, prescriptive and insufficiently responsive to new forms and practices and a greater range of artists—those who felt left out of the Council’s notion of what constitutes art.

One speaker from the floor suggested that given this new openness there would likely be a flood of grant applications and greater overall competitiveness in an already challenging climate. Grybowski said that the current average grant application success rate is 20%, adding “our model is driven by excellence not by demand…over which Council has no control.”

Where will the increased demand come from? Doubtless from the annual flow of graduating student artists from the tertiary education sector and the burgeoning commercial theatre and media schools and, more broadly, from ‘creative industries’ artists at the intersection of art and commerce who, I recall, were significant complainants about the Council funding structure in online surveys.

The Five-Year Strategic Plan for a Culturally Ambitious Nation is a grand work-in-progress with a great clarity of purpose: artists will be able to apply for the funding they need, when they need it and in what stages and without having to fit into standard artform categories. Substantial organisations will have ‘certainty’ with six-year funding (as a recipient of triennial funding RealTime’s staff and board know only too well the horror of being barely half-way into the triennium and suddenly having to invent the next).

Above all, the Australia Council promises to “embrace its role as the national advocate for the arts.” Under the leadership of Chair Rupert Myer, Deputy Chair Robyn Archer and CEO Tony Grybowski that undertaking seems glowingly evident: the confidence of the declaration quite unlike anything heard from the Australia Council for many a year.


For more details about grant applications go to http://2015.australiacouncil.gov.au/funding/

This article first appeared as part of RT PROFILER 6, 17 SEPTEMBER, 2014

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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