In 2012 Vulcana Women’s Circus lost all core state and federal funding. Vulcana is a Small Arts Sector (sas) organisation. For funding purposes SAS means ‘a small/medium organisation or individual arts practitioner’. To keep the doors open, it changed its income model. Vulcana no longer relies on core government funding.
Since 1995 Vulcana has worked with women to build and strengthen community networks across Brisbane. At its centre is a conscious practice of cultural community-building. It values women as leaders; holds that empowered women ensure individual well-being and connectedness, which are essential in shaping strong communities; focuses on place-based projects; draws on traditions of inclusiveness and empowerment; and it uses contemporary circus techniques as a transformational tool. It’s proudly feminist.
In 2012, no one knew what was to come. Federally, over $300 million have been taken from the Arts Sector since 2013. In hindsight, the 2012 cuts foreshadowed the scope and nature of the cuts under Abbott and Brandis, Turnbull and Fifield. The 2012–’16 cuts; the 2015 raid on the Australia Council’s SAS funding pool; and the formation of Catalyst, using the plundered money, are all acts of political influence designed to erode artistic independence and erase freedom of expression protections. Each individual and dogmatic act increases the future likelihood of further and unprecedented political influence in Australia’s Arts Sector.
Under the Australia Council framework all SAS organisations compete for funds across all Australia Council literature, music, theatre, dance, visual arts, and inter-arts boards; whereas Australia’s Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) companies — think chamber and symphony orchestras; opera, ballet and dance companies — have ring-fenced funding allocations. This was the case before any of the recent changes.
In 2015 the 28 AMPAG companies received roughly $165 million for an audience reach of 4 million; that’s 60% of Australia Council funding to generate 16% of total audience ticket sales. That’s a $41 per person subsidy. The other 781 funded SAS organisations received $110 million for an audience reach of 14 million; that’s 40% of Australia Council funding to reach 84% of the total audience. That’s a $2.50 per person subsidy. Nearly 18 million Australians pay to attend a ‘live performance industry’ show each year; it’s just that government money isn’t going where the audiences are. According to Marcus Westbury in his article ‘#fundedlikeamajor: Who is really subsidising the arts Australians love?’:
“That whole diverse ecology of creativity and participation is heavily subsidised. Not by the government. They support it barely enough to leverage the massive resources the rest of the community puts in. It is mostly subsidised by the passion, the sweat, the volunteers, the discount labour, the effort and the imagination of artists, participants, arts workers and the communities that love their work and support them.”
For over thirty years contemporary SAS circuses, like Legs on the Wall (1984); Circa (initially Rock’n’Roll Circus, ‘87); Stalker (‘89); Melbourne’s Women’s Circus (‘91); Strange Fruit (’94); Vulcana (‘95); and Flipside Circus (’98) have been significant contributors to, and builders of, Australia’s Performing Arts Sector. If innovative cultural productions are to continue as part of our national identity, we need artistic diversity; professional outreach that develops community exchange and fosters creativity; we need art that is for everyone, not just for those who can afford it; and we need art that reflects the world we’re living in. The short-sighted funding decisions made by state and federal governments are corroding the quality of Australian arts and individual artists.
Governments attack the things they don’t think we care enough about to preserve, or the things they don’t think we’re organised enough to defend. As we move into more and more rounds of austerity cuts to health, education, scientific research, public and community broadcasting, CSIRO, rural and regional services, social security… well, austerity cuts to pretty much everything except defence spending, coal mines and politicians’ benefits, we will lose our storytellers to other narratives, experiences, audiences and regions.
Conservative governments demand the Arts Sector demonstrate ‘economic benefits’ and ‘job creation’ rather than the ‘inherent value’ of culture — as if that’s not important. Even then, they ignore the numbers. The Australia Council’s competitively-funded SAS pool embodies everything the current Federal Government claims to stand for: it’s processes are open, efficient and transparent; it stimulates small business, economic growth, innovation and tourism; individual artists make weighty taxable returns on public investment; it employs more people than the Mining Sector; it’s a responsive, national approach that supports participation in and access to Australia’s Arts and Cultural sectors; and, by the by, it just happens to celebrate the inherent value of culture: that is, art’s capacity to engage, inspire and make meaning. Catalyst, on the other hand, is a closed and obscure body, with a Ministerial veto provision, that duplicates Australia Council processes while syphoning huge amounts of public money from the efficient SAS funding pool to prop up a tiny number of inefficient AMPAG companies. This is all part of a long-term trend that has seen more and more money taken from SAS organisations and handed to AMPAG companies — even before Catalyst allowed them to do it behind an even heavier set of closed doors. In anyone’s language, the short-term decisions being made by those controlling the coffers since 2013 illustrate vehement and rabid ideology and third-rate economic management.
On March 17, 2017 there is a significant win for the Arts Sector. The Turnbull Government announces it is dissolving Catalyst and returning approximately $63 million of the outstanding $70 million pillaged in the 2015 Excellence Raid. A win for community pressure; the Arts Sector; and the #FreetheArts campaign.*
*This announcement occurred after ‘No trickery, no re-takes, no stand-ins’ was recorded & edited.
- March 13, 2013: Federal Arts Minister Simon Crean announces Creative Australia, a $235 million vision — this is our first cultural policy since 1994.
- March 20, 2013: Labor introduces the Australia Council Reform Bill. Opposition Arts Minister Senator George Brandis attempts sabotage by inserting an amendment allowing the Arts Minister of the day to veto Australia Council funding decisions.
- March 21, 2013: an ill-fated leadership challenge sees Crean sacked from Cabinet.
- September 18, 2013: the lnp Coalition wins the federal election; Tony Abbott becomes Prime Minister (PM); & George Brandis becomes Arts Minister.
- March 2014: Artists boycott the Sydney Biennale because major backer Transfield operates offshore detention centres on Manus Island & Nauru.
- May 2015: Brandis moves $105 million from the Australia Council into a newly-formed National Program for Excellence in the Arts: npea. The Sector dubs this ‘The Excellence Raid’. The Minister has final say on all npea funding.
- May 2015–ongoing: #FreetheArts evolves as grassroots protest across the country, including a Facebook page, the ‘George Brandis Live Art Experience’ meme series, & on-the-ground protests in capital cities & regional towns.
- June 16, 2015: Senate Inquiry into Arts Sector Budget Cuts opens. Eventually 2,719 submissions are tendered (500 submissions is considered huge). Mine is ‘Submission 74’.
- Sept 14, 2015: Malcolm Turnbull ousts Abbott as PM.
- Sept 21, 2015: Brandis is dumped as Arts Minister & Mitch Fifield replaces him.
- Nov 20, 2015: Fifield re-brands the npea as Catalyst & returns some of the money looted in The Excellence Raid (around $32 million), still leaving a shortfall of some $70 million.
- May 13, 2016: The Australia Council announces huge cuts. The Australian Arts Sector loses some 65 organisations. The Sector dubs this ‘Black Friday’.
- March 17, 2017: The Turnbull Government scraps Catalyst & states it will return approximately $63 million of the outstanding $70 million pillaged in the 2015 Excellence Raid. This is a significant win for the Arts Sector. The Government says the changes are based on recommendations from the Senate Inquiry. A win for community pressure; individual arts practitioners who protested; the #FreetheArts movement; and those in the Arts Sector who organised & coordinated people & campaigns.