Culture War: The Dire Condition of Australia’s Arts Funding

Sydney Opera House

by Olivia Smith

Australia is a source of incredible filmmakers and visual artists, but funding for our most independent creators is beset by a coalition led by Senator George Brandis, who heads our Ministry for the Arts.

Our artists face a dire reality: grants are harder to find, and overwhelmingly favour companies secure in their establishment. The Ministry selects for orchestras, operas, and ballets with tourist appeal, while starving out distinctly Australian artists.

Multiplexes are held captive by American companies that stuff their own products onto every screen. Australian-made means you compete with other Australian-made films to get the dingiest, filthiest corner screen. In 2013, Australian films were disregarded to the tune of a dismal 3.5% of box office.

And now, Screen Australia’s funding has been cut by $38 million.

In theatre, five playwrights account for a whopping 24% of Australian drama put on between 1987 and 2013. This is while only 45% of plays – less than half – can be described as Australian in origin. Again, this leads back to the Ministry’s preference in funding only what they interpret as safe, classical work.

We are also beholden to reviews in English papers. A bad review abroad is often worse than a bad review at home. Heaven forbid we offend the delicate tastes of the mother country. These critics would often rather see more Shakespeare and other English playwrights, but this strangles support for new Australian theatre. Of plays performed that originate overseas, nine authors account for 69% of the work. There is meager market and support for up-and-coming Australian playwrights.

Visual artists are forced to find corporate sponsorship. This can easily go wrong, as when nine artists boycotted the Sydney Biennale because of a single sponsor. Transfield Holdings owns stake in Transfield Services, which operates two immigrant detention gulags so far off shore that they are closer to Indonesia and Solomon Islands than they are to the continent.

Their gambit worked, forcing Transfield to conclude their sponsorship, to which Brandis responded with threats to cut off government funding of the arts portion. I link a Guardian piece above because our own media frowned upon the upright actions of artists and wagged fingers: it might frighten other corporate sponsors, they warned. Is corporate sponsorship so skittish? Is it so crucial to artists that they cannot survive without it? Unfortunately, the state of our arts funding appears to make the answer to both questions, “Yes.”

Australia has become stifled and stagnant. The art our government chooses to fund is the kind that pleases England and America the best. We are like the child proffering a mangled project of construction-paper and glue to our mother and step-father, hoping that they like it. We refuse to believe that in their eyes we will never be their equal, and so we don’t grow up and invest in our own art infrastructure.

Enough of this and our identity will cease to be Australian. Like our art, we will become poor imitations of other countries.

To find an example of growing up and striking out on our own path, we need look no further than our little brother New Zealand, a country that has created art the way they see fit and has captured the world’s imagination in doing so. Their government has valued community and local arts, has overcome the xenophobia we still suffer and offered opportunities (i.e. poached) artists from Indonesia and Australia, and mobilised crowdfunding, resource sharing, and cooperative creation as ways to bolster local art. Meanwhile, we keep what the tourists like alive while we let our own artistic community stagnate.

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