Protest outside of Malcolm Turnbull's Wentworth electoral office organised by The Art Protagonists, National Day of Action, 17 June 2016. Photo: Tanja Bruckner. Courtesy NAVA

Losing the big picture: Surviving the Art Hunger Games

Joanna Mendelssohn on the changing landscape for arts funding in Australia

In 2016 the arts in Australia inhabit a dystopian world. It could be described as a place of absurdist contradictions, where only those who have mastered the arcane rules of the Hunger Games have any chance of surviving. Possibly the greatest change is that arts funding is now a partisan political issue in a way that it has not been for some generations. In the past there were concerns about the internal politics of art bureaucracies, but now the allocation of funds to support the arts (or not) has become a party‑political issue. The Commonwealth Government recently presided over the greatest reduction in arts funding in Australian history, but when questioned on this in a public forum, the art‑loving/art-collecting Prime Minister was unaware of the impact of his party’s budgets on the arts.[1] It is probably unfair to blame the current Prime Minister for the devastation that was wrought in the time of his predecessor.

Many of the policies from 2013 to 2015 in other areas—health, education, social security—continue to have unfortunate consequences and damage is not so easily undone. In relative terms, the arts budget is a small proportion of overall expenditure. In 2016–17 the total allocation for Arts and Cultural Heritage (excluding broadcasting) was $1,252 million. Compared with a Defence budget of $27,155 million, this seems miniscule, easily overlooked when devising the grand narrative of government.[2] Restoring funds to the arts would have the fringe benefit of once again making the arts politically neutral, which surely must have its attractions. 

For some decades, arts policy in Australia appeared to enjoy bipartisan consensus so there was little need to influence individual members of parliament, or present a case to fund the arts. In 2013, only months before the election of the Abbott‑led Liberal Party, Parliament passed the Australia Council bill thus unanimously endorsing the national cultural policy of Creative Australia. This policy, developed over a number of years with input from both artists and the wider community, argued for adequate funding to support a “strong, diverse and inclusive culture”.[3] In his second reading speech the then opposition spokesman for the arts, Senator George Brandis, made a passionate plea for the Australia Council to uphold the freedom of artistic expression, saying: “The opposition has always accepted that an important principle of arts funding is that arts funding should be at arm’s length and that individual decisions in relation to arts funding should not be dictated by government”.[4]

After the September 2013 election Senator Brandis was appointed Minister for the Arts. The first Abbott budget of 2014 was predictably as harsh on the arts as on other aspects of public expenditure (including the ABC and universities) but the socially well‑connected Australia Council board were adept at working with a reduced budget. On 18 August 2014 the Australia Council launched its new strategic plan headed A Culturally Ambitious Nation.[5] This was designed to implement the Creative Australia policy in light of the policies and priorities of the new government. Senator Brandis spoke at the launch of this policy and stressed the need for the arts to be accessible as “Creative genius, artistic ambition, cultural endeavour does not just live in the capital cities of our land. It lives in smaller cities, in the towns, among people from metropolitan areas of Australia and from country areas of Australia as well”. The Minister gave “an emphatic endorsement by the Australian Government, both of this plan, of our support for this sector, and our shared ambition with you to give effect to the goal, to make Australia not just a culturally ambitious nation, but a nation that is recognised as being one of the great arts nations of the world”. But Senator Brandis had already indicated that government support for the arts would not be unconditional under his regime.

In early 2014 artists and others contracted to the Biennale of Sydney had demonstrated in protest at the sponsorship of the Biennale by its founding sponsor, Transfield Holdings, because of its share‑holding in another company, Transfield Services (since renamed Broad Spectrum) which had contracted with the government to run Australia’s off‑shore concentration camps.[6] Senator Brandis was apparently offended that the creative community recognised the arms’ length nature of Australia Council funding and as a result did not blame it for the government’s actions. In a letter to the chairman of the Australia Council, Rupert Myer, he wrote, “At a time when government funding for the arts is, like all demands upon the budget, under pressure, it is difficult to justify funding for an arts festival which has announced to its principal private partner that it would prefer not to receive its financial support”.[7]

It is reasonable to assume that the protests against the Biennale influenced subsequent ministerial actions. There was a further ominous sign. The May 2014 Federal Budget saw $1 million quietly diverted from funds originally allocated to the Australia Council and sent to the Australian Ballet School. Some months later, Melba Recordings was given a large grant without due process and outside the budget line.[8]

The 2014 restructure of the Australia Council eliminated barriers between individual art forms. This was in tune with the new strategic plan with its emphasis on collaboration, cross‑fertilisation and audiences. For an administration looking for ways and means of cutting operating costs it also had the advantage of reducing staff numbers. In early 2015, members of the Australia Council Board had reason to believe they had the new government’s measure. They had been forewarned that, in line with all other government operations, they would face a further “efficiency dividend” of $7.3 million in the upcoming budget and had adjusted their overheads accordingly. They also did what those active in arts philanthropy do so well, they duchessed the person who controlled the budget. Just before the 2015 budget Senator Brandis was in Venice with the Australia Council Board and Cate Blanchett to open the new Australian Pavilion and Fiona Hall’s aptly titled exhibition Wrong Way Time.

Fiona Halle, Wrong Way Time (detail)
Fiona Hall, Wrong Way Time (detail), 2012–15, enamel on longcase clock. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Clayton Glen © The artist
Cate Blanchett viewing Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time
Cate Blanchett viewing Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time, Australian Pavilion, 2015 Venice Biennale. Photo: Angus Mordant

The Federal Budget was announced just after the official party left the festivities of Venice. The Chairman and the Director of the Australia Council were only given a few hours warning that the 2015 budget stripped $110 million from the Australia Council over a four‑year period, transferring the commitment to a new fund to be administered by the Minister’s office at his discretion, the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, and an additional $6 million over three years taken from grants intended for writers to establish a Book Council of Australia, to be chaired by Louise Adler of Melbourne University Press, the then prime minister’s publisher. The responsibilities transferred for direct ministerial approval included Visions Australia, Festivals Australia and the Major Festivals Initiative, including the Biennale of Sydney.

That was the “Looking Glass” moment—a time redolent of Lewis Carroll’s absurdist logic when perceptions of the nature of reality reversed. In became out, black became white, up was down—and all around the country those running arts organisations found themselves running very fast in order to stay in the same place.

Tony Grybowski, CEO Australia Council, opening Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time
Tony Grybowski, CEO Australia Council, opening Fiona Hall: Wrong Way Time, Australian Pavilion, 2015 Venice Biennale. Photo: Angus Mordant
Fiona Hall, All The King's Men (detail)
Fiona Hall, All The King’s Men (detail), 2014–15, knitted material uniform (East Germany), wire, dice. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. Photo: Clayton Glen © The artist

For many years, it was the conservative side of politics that was the most consistent advocate of dispassionate arms length arts funding. Australia’s sustainable structure for government support of the arts was planned over half a century ago, well before it was announced in November 1967. The then Prime Minister, Harold Holt, named the Australian Council for the Arts as “its financial agent and advisor on the performing arts and other activities connected with the Arts in general”.[9] At the time, those on the left were openly cynical about the chance of a sleepy cultural backwater like Australia supporting a lively arts culture. This was, after all, the country that could not be bothered to send an artist to the Venice Biennale, had no art museum in its national capital, housed most of its state collections in less than salubrious surroundings, and had recently sacked the architect of the Sydney Opera House (prior to its completion). Outside of capital cities, the arts were largely in the hands of amateur community groups.

Less than two months after his announcement Holt was missing, presumed drowned in the waves at Portsea, but his successor, John Gorton, enthusiastically continued the creation of the body we now call the Australia Council. It was the Gorton government that also ensured the establishment of a National Film and Television School, which has been crucial in developing the Australian film industry. And it was under Gorton that the young James Mollison, formerly the Director of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, was appointed executive officer for the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board and exhibitions officer in the Prime Minister’s Department.

In early 1971 there was a further change of leadership and Gorton’s successor, William McMahon, a prime minister not known for his policy strengths, stared down the media in October when Mollison was appointed interim Director of the National Gallery. These Liberal prime ministers were advised and supported by the first Chairman of the Australian Council for the Arts, Dr H.C. Coombs, probably the most influential public servant in Australia’s history. Coombs had heard John Maynard Keynes demonstrate the interconnections between creativity, culture, a sense of self‑worth and economic prosperity and it was with this economist’s perspective that he approached the arts.

During the latter stages of World War II Coombs was Director of Post War Reconstruction, framing a government policy to ensure full employment. After the war, he was Governor of the Commonwealth Bank before being appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank by Prime Minister Menzies. He was also the first chairman of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, the predecessor for the Australian Council for the Arts. In early 1973 he was named by Gough Whitlam as the chair of the newly reconstituted and expanded Council which took responsibility for funding all art forms, including visual arts, craft and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

Whitlam did not need convincing about the significance of art to the wellbeing of society and the arts. In his first budget he doubled previous funding. It is also worth noting that many in Australian state politics in the 1960s and ‘70s were very supportive of arts infrastructure and these came from all sides of politics. Don Dunstan in South Australia, Rupert Hamer in Victoria and Neville Wran in New South Wales were all responsible for transforming the arts in their states. After the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975 the Fraser government continued significant arts funding until the recession of the early 1980s, which preceded its own dismissal at the hands of the electorate. Because it believed in efficiency and streamlining management, the Fraser government gave the Australia Council the “formal role of the government’s advisory agency on all matters falling within its area of responsibility”.[10]

The amount of funding allocated to the Australia Council has ebbed and flowed along with levels of national prosperity and the priorities of those in charge. When Bob Hawke was Prime Minister it was easier to get funding for events connected with the 1988 bicentennial of European colonisation. Keating, who was personally passionate about the arts, created a Commonwealth Cultural Policy across all artforms and established well‑funded fellowships for senior artists. The Keating years also saw expanded funding to regional arts, especially in the newly developed dormitory cities on the edges of Sydney’s urban sprawl. This complemented the funding and infrastructure commitments of the Carr state government in NSW and the political agenda of subsequent governments, both state and federal. 

After the Howard Liberal government was elected in 1996 the Arts Minister, Richard Alston, gave due warning to the Australia Council Board that there would be a 10% funding cut. Thus forewarned, the number of support staff was reduced, but most grants were maintained.[11] By the early 21st century, as the Howard government rode the mining boom, government spending was relaxed and the arts budget was quietly increased. The case to support the visual arts was made by The Report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry of 2002, better known as the Myer Report, after its chairman Rupert Myer, well‑known as an arts philanthropist. In the years following the Myer report a combination of Commonwealth and state funds began to see the visual arts properly funded.

It is fair to say that there was at least the appearance of bipartisan consensus in supporting the arts from 2007 to 2013, the duration of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments. The Mitchell Report, which reviewed the nature of private philanthropic support for the arts suggested strategies to enable this to happen.[12]

This contributed to the most significant event of those years, the creation and then implementation of a new arts policy, Creative Australia. In 2012 Rupert Myer was appointed Chair of the Australia Council, in a move designed to foster links between philanthropy and the arts. The change of government to the Abbott regime was well signalled and the arts were as ever adept at changing their tune to suit a new piper. George Brandis, the incoming minister, had been Arts Minister in the dying days of the Howard government and was known for his love of opening nights at opera and ballet and had also enjoyed opening exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia. He was expected to have a bias towards these events.

The assessment process for Australia Council grants is as fair and transparent as it is humanly possible to be. This is partly ideological, but also pragmatic. The arts are a passionate business. There is never quite enough money to go around. Every scrap is fought over and artists have never been backward in coming forward to accuse each other of bias. Coombs originally saw the idea of arms length funding as being similar to the way academic research grants are awarded. Over the years this has been refined into an even more elaborate and comprehensive policy of peer review, whereby applications are assessed by rotating panels of specialists in each designated art form. As the names of those on the assessment panels are readily available on the web, assessors are likely to be bailed up in the street or at exhibition openings and berated for their (lack of) choice. The policy of “arms length funding” means that neither the Australia Council Board nor politicians participate in this process. Its success however is dependent on the assessors having sufficient knowledge to see the big picture development. The problem with the current peer review system is that the peers are specialists in different art forms, but arts funding has now been put into one big cross‑platform pot.

Senator Brandis’s “Programme of Excellence” with its funds directed at ministerial discretion was the antithesis of the way the Australia Council operates. A subsequent Senate Inquiry into arts funding attracted more than 2,200 submissions, almost all condemning both the reduction in funding and the eccentricities of the new scheme and its administration, which is most kindly described as whimsical.[13]

Fortunately, Australian politics being what they are, by September 2015 there was a new Prime Minister and a new Arts Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, who promised to review the Program (which had also seen its spelling returned to standard practice). On 18 November 2015 Fifield rebadged Brandis’s Program as “Catalyst” with a budget of $12 million per annum to fund grants to “small, medium and large arts organisations”. He also returned some $32 million dollars over the forward estimates to the Australia Council. The money sequestered for the Book Council was absorbed into general revenue and lost to the arts altogether. Significantly, the announcement claimed that applications “will be assessed with the assistance of independent assessors”.[14] 

Catalyst also gave extra project grants to the Major Performing Arts Organisations, even though these were already directly funded by the Ministry for the Arts. Those independent assessors appear to be inordinately fond of classical ballet as the Catalyst web site reveals the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre received a further $1 million grant this year. Another $1 million went to the Hans Heysen Foundation to acquire the artist’s family home “as a public museum and gallery and its associated assets”.[15] Because there is always a sense of needing to balance grants awarded on a national basis, this effectively precluded other South Australian arts organisations from being funded. A more justified beneficiary and heritage project, with its support for the work of living artists, the Bundanon Trust, occupying the site and former properties of Arthur Boyd, received Catalyst funding for community engagement programs, but notably lost its Australia Council four‑year funding for artist residencies, as did IAS’s Spaced program hosting international residencies in regional communities across WA.

Juz Kitson, The Bundanon Trust Artist Residency Program
Juz Kitson. Photo: Courtesy Bundanon Trust
David Haines and Joyce Hinterding. Bundanon Residency
David Haines and Joyce Hinterding. Photo: Heidrun Lohr. Courtesy Bundanon Trust
Josephine Starra and Leon Cmielewski, Dancing with Drones at Siteworks, Bundanon
Josephne Starrs and Leon Cmielewski, Dancing with Drones at Siteworks, Bundanon, 2014

The current confusion of arts funding was thrown into sharp focus with what is now known as the Hunger Games round—the Australia Council’s Four Year Funding grants for organisations, announced in May 2016. Applicants had been forewarned that funding would be tight, but it was still a shock to see that 65 previously funded organisations were eliminated in the cull. Crucial publications—Artlink, Art Monthly Australia, Eyeline and Realtime—were supported. But neither the Australian Centre for Photography (Sydney) nor the Centre for Contemporary Photography (Melbourne) received funding for their ongoing operations. It seemed that organisations supporting a single medium were no longer worthy of sustained support.

Further casualties were the losses and cuts to the CAOs (Contemporary Art Organisations) so central to the national visual arts ecology, nurturing and supporting artists at the early and later stages of their careers. The CAOs established a reputation for providing crucial support for unorthodox new talent, especially in the smaller states; eX de Medici was a founding member of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, while early in her career Fiona Hall exhibited with Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation. These are notably among the CAOs that lost their funding, alongside the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (CACSA) and Darwin’s Northern Centre for Contemporary Art.

Canberra Contemporary Art Space
Gorman Art Centre Gallery and administration office, Canberra Contemporary Art Space. Exhibition view of work by Ramesh Nithiyendran. Courtesy CCAS
Denise Higgins and Gary Smith, installation view, CCAS
Denise Higgins and Gary Smith, The Barbed Maze, 2015, installation view, Canberra Contemporary Art Space

Immediate outrage occurred when it was also realised that the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), one of the most effective critics of the cuts, also lost its public funding. NAVA’s fate was shared by other peak bodies—the Australian Society of Authors, Australian Writers Guild, the Music Council of Australia, Ausdance—all bodies representing the interests of vulnerable individual creative practitioners, and all supporting professional development for their clients. These organisations are the last line of defence against the savage reduction in grants to individual artists across all forms. Alison Croggon has estimated that since the 2013/14 financial year, there has been a 70% reduction in Australia Council grants to individuals.[16] For many years Australia Council grants were structured so that the lucky recipient could buy time and resources to work on a major project. In 1985 a senior fellowship was $25,000, which is close to $69,000 in 2016. Most recent individual grants have been for less than a third of this amount. It is a problem of the now simplified (or perhaps simplistic) peer review program that while major institutions exhibiting and performing Australian art are supported, artists are no longer given significant assistance in making the work to be displayed, performed or read.

Although the media release announcing the Four Year Funding claimed that the Council supported “diverse art forms and types of practice from across the country”, a close look at both the recipients and the defunded organisations show that this is not the case. The most charitable interpretation of the outcome is that the peer assessors were overwhelmed by the complexity of the task in an environment that abolished consideration of individual art forms and looked to “new media” as evidence of innovation. There is evidence of another agenda at work here, with the consolidation of small arts organisations into larger hubs, bringing art forms together because it is simpler from the perspective of the funding body, not because creativity works best across platforms. If cultural and aesthetic diversity was really a part of the Australia Council’s new funding agenda then surely it would have supported the Next Wave Festival, that innovative hub of creators working across all platforms, but their name is conspicuously absent from any of the lists of grant recipients.

One third of the funds allocated to the visual arts were large grants. Of these, seven previously unfunded bodies were in the category “Multi‑Arts”, which suits the new cross‑platform agenda. These included inner Sydney’s Carriageworks and Campbelltown Arts Centre on that city’s outer‑south west hinterland, both of which share a reputation for innovation and community engagement. Insite Arts International and Multicultural Arts Victoria, both from Victoria, received funding for the first time as did Hobart’s Salamanca Arts Centre and Brisbane’s Metro Arts. Canberra Glassworks, Sydney ARI First Draft and Design Tasmania received money for the first time but so did the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT).

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory was the only NT visual arts organisation to be funded. The accusation that the Australia Council now has an inherent bias towards large institutions gains credibility when looking at the largest grant recipients. With the exception of grants to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bodies, many of which are in regional and remote Australia, the bulk of the money has been allocated to large organisations in capital cities. While Adelaide’s contemporary spaces missed out, the Art Gallery of South Australia received generous support. Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary, Art Biennale of Sydney and Performance Space were also well funded.

Those bodies representing professional development within the arts and touring exhibitions were especially hard hit—Museums & Galleries NSW, Museum and Gallery Services Queensland, Guildhouse, National Exhibitions Touring Support (NETS), Art on the Move—all lost their funding. Small to medium art centres and museums will find it hard to sustain their programs without any assistance from exhibition touring agencies or essential professional development. The overwhelming impression is one of confusion, where assessors were asked to do the impossible, in a context where no one was in a position to grasp either the big picture of arts funding or the fine detail of why particular programs and sectors were important for developing infrastructure, audiences or future great artists. 

The chaos of the current grant process has meant that some organisations that were denied Australia Council funding for day‑to‑day operations, have nevertheless been given substantial grants from Catalyst for special projects. Despite the Prime Minister’s claim that “the money that’s been spent through the Catalyst program has gone to regional arts companies”[17], only 37% has gone to the regions, with further support of a meagre $604,352 allocated via the specialist Regional Arts Fund.[18]

The good news, and there is always some good news, is that some state governments have noted the consequences of reduced arts funding and are now stepping up to increase their assistance to the arts. Creative Victoria has announced increased assistance to small to medium arts organisations and Arts South Australia has indicated a redirection of additional funding for its Arts Organisations Program for 2017. South Australia has another advantage. The most influential group in Australia’s new realpolitik appears to be NXT, headed by Senator Nick Xenophon. Although NXT has not released a formal arts policy, it is on record indicating that Australia Council funding should be returned to the same level as before the 2015 Budget, and that “Catalyst funding decisions to be subject to greater scrutiny and to be more transparent”.[19] 

Other independents whose support will give the government stability represent constituencies in regional Australia, places where local arts communities make a significant contribution to local wellbeing. Rural and regional arts communities are probably better placed than those in big cities to undertake the kind of grassroots networking needed to make the restoration of arts funding a priority.

This, then, is the paradoxical strategy to restore arts funding. In order to take partisan politics out of the funding of art and arts organisations, those of us who understand that creative inquiry and visual stimulation is an essential part of life need to become political for art.

National Day of Action, 17 June 2016. Courtesy Canberra Contemporary Art Space
National Day of Action, 17 June 2016. Photo courtesy Canberra Contemporary Art Space


  1. ^ Malcolm Turnbull, Q&A, 20 June 2016:
  2. ^ Budget 2016–17, ‘Statement 5: Expenses and Net Capital Investment’:
  3. ^ Creative Australia: National Cultural Policy, 2012, p. 6:
  4. ^ Senate Hansard, Tuesday 25 June 2013, p. 3878.
  5. ^ A Culturally Ambitious Nation, launched 18 August 2015,
  6. ^ For a wide ranging discussion on this issue, see Ian Milliss, “Let’s boycott all biennales!” Artlink (36:1), March 2016:
  7. ^ Bridie Jabour, ‘Brandis Threatens Sydney Biennale over Transfield “blackballing”’, The Guardian, 13 March 2014
  8. ^ John Gardiner-Garden, Budget Review 2015–16 Index 2015:
  9. ^ Hans-Hoegh Guldberg, The Arts Economy 1968–1998: Three Decades of Growth in Australia, Australia Council, Sydney, 2000, p. 86.
  10. ^ John Gardiner-Garden, Commonwealth arts policy and administration, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2009:, p. 6. 
  11. ^ Michael Lynch, Meanjin blog, 11 March 2016:
  12. ^ Harold Mitchell, Building Support: Report of the Review of Private Sector Support for the Arts in Australia 2011:
  13. ^ Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts:
  14. ^ Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts ‘Guidelines released for new arts fund’:
  15. ^ Catalyst Partnerships and Collaborations recipients, 2016: 
  16. ^ Alison Croggon, ‘The 70% drop in Australia Council grants for individual artists is staggering’, The Guardian, 19 May 2016:
  17. ^ Malcolm Turnbull, Q&A 20 June 2016:
  18. ^ Department of Communication and the Arts, Regional Arts Fund, 2016,
  19. ^ Email from Sarah Randall to Catherine Speck, 20 June 2016. 

Joanna Mendelssohn is an Associate Professor at UNSW Australia: Art & Design and Editor in Chief of Design and Art of Australia Online. She is the lead researcher in an ARC-funded Linkage Project on the history of exhibitions of Australian art.