Australia, the Australia Council, and the Erosion of Cultural Rights

This week the Australia Council allocated more annual funding to small-to-medium arts organisations than ever before.

Yes, you heard right. In announcing $28 million to go to these organisations each year, it invested more, not less, in operational, multi-year funding than it had in recent years. This funding round saw more of a realignment of support than a reduction. Here are the figures:

To Key Orgs
Total Funding

It remains unclear, though, what other programs will be available to complement this multi-year funding, if any. In the past, a good variety have been available to organisations both with and without operational funding. It will be important to see how many of these, and indeed others available to individual artists, have been dissolved in order to reach this higher level of operational investment.

I think the frustrations of the last few days are, in some part, misdirected. It’s easy to blame the ‘Brandis Raid‘ of May 2015 – and indeed there’s a great deal that was very wrong about that action – but there's a bigger story. The results of this funding round also have much to do with the philosophical shift that emerged after a long consultation process with the arts and culture sector aimed at finding a new funding model for organisations. As part of the shift, the Australia Council set new strategic goals.

This recent round was the first time that organisations across all areas of practice were assessed at the same time, thus enabling a full national view. It was always possible, even likely, that there’d be a big shake-up. There was a similarly seismic shake-up following the 'Make it New' shift that found its resolution in late 2008. It's periodic. 

It was the view of the peer assessors – and let’s remember that arts peers, not government bureaucrats, make the decisions – that a raft of new organisations had better claims to multi-year funding than some others that had been supported for many years. The status quo was rejected. Organisations working in Indigenous arts, for example, have emerged with new, long-term support. So have many in regional areas. A third of the organisations funded are new to multi-year funding. There has been disappointment, but also delight.

Nevertheless, there is a serious money problem.

Circa's Il ritorno (Image: Damien Bredberg)
It’s abundantly clear that many of the organisations that were not successful in achieving multi-year funding were fully deserving of support. I’ve had off-the-record conversations with several of the peer assessors involved in this round, and they all related how heartbreaking - distressing - it was not to be able to fund to the level of displayed excellence. 

Let’s remember that it was this very predicament that motivated the federal government in its 2013-14 Federal Budget to provide an additional $75.3 million to the Australia Council over four years. It recognised that there was a crisis of ‘unfunded excellence’, deeply affecting the health of the sector, and did something about it.

Then things changed. The May 2014 Budget took most of that increase back, and then in the May 2015 Budget more funds were diverted to what is now called Catalyst, to be administered directly by the Ministry for the Arts. A terribly topsy-turvy time, and not at all good for the stability of the nation’s principal arts funding body and the artists it serves, and nor for trust in government.    

Let’s be blunt. The Australia Council is not allocated enough in the Federal Budget to properly achieve its mission. This is despite the fact that each year the creative industries make a $50 billion economic impact against an investment of $7 billion. The Australia Council’s budget is a tiny fraction of that investment, but is one of the principal drivers.

It’s difficult to understand the reluctance to more reasonably support arts and culture. More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to the AFL and NRL combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture, construction or even mining, and indeed contribute as much as 75% of the economic benefit of the mining sector.

The argument is regularly heard that the arts should pay for themselves. This misunderstands the reality of subsidy, because the fact is that there are very few areas of our society that are not subsidised.

Mining receives about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. Believe it or not, government subsidises the big four banks – among the most profitable in the world – to the tune of something towards $6 billion a year. Health, education, agriculture and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. So too, sport. The Australian Institute of Sport spent a record $310 million of public money on the London Olympics campaign, its worst result in 20 years. That cost taxpayers $10 million for each medal won.

Actually, culture is one of this nation’s least subsidised industries.

This deficit of support is also evident when there's talk of an innovative, clever nation or state, or an 'ideas boom'. In these discussions, strangely, our governments largely ignore arts and culture, the great engines of creative thinking. Neither major federal political party has an arts and culture policy of any note. It’s an attitude that makes no sense. 

So let’s get serious. Let’s not talk simply of restoring funds recently taken from the Australia Council. In Federal Budget terms that’s loose change. Let’s talk about doubling them. The Australia Council is one of the most efficient government bodies around. Why not let it do its work? 

Earlier this year, in a game-changing moment, the Canadian Federal Government doubled the budget of the Canada Council – the equivalent of the Australia Council – as part of an injection of $1.9 billion into arts and culture over five years. It was a "vote of confidence in the capacities of the arts to invigorate our economy and support social cohesion". It was the result of a long-term concerted effort. It's an effort we need to make.  

Let’s also talk about a National Lottery for Arts and Heritage. Such things can be huge sources of funds for governments, and could fund ten Catalyst programs, or similar programs devoted to the things that best express who we are or might want to be.

Let’s talk about STEAM rather than STEM. Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics should all be key parts of our education curriculum. Decades of research shows that artistic engagement nourishes all learning, so if we want an innovative, imaginative and well-rounded nation, let’s have one.

Let’s also talk about how a serious NBN could enable all Australians, wherever they live, to have access to the great cultural work our nation produces.

People have a right to arts and culture. It’s a right equal to political, social and economic rights, and it’s universal. All citizens have a right to engage with both cultural heritage and new artistic creation. They also have the right to engage in their own forms of creativity, to have access to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose or design. This universal cultural right is eroded whenever we fail to properly fund the arts organisations and artists who provide that access to the tools and the expressions.

Let’s have the conversation. Because if we don’t, and if we’re not careful, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the books we read and the films and television we watch are all from overseas, that the songs we listen to are not in our voices, and that our stages are not telling our stories. Then we will ask, ‘when did this happen?’ On whose watch, we will wonder, did we decide that it didn’t matter?   

It’s on our watch.


  1. Wonderful truth-telling. Not on my watch!

  2. Thank you thank you David. You always provide such clarity and eloquence to the cultural debate. The arts are indeed a public service and as history shows us civilisations are defined by their arts which chronicle their times. Artists in this country are becoming so wearied and depressed by constant invalidation. We not only accept to live below the poverty line in order to do what we do but we are constantly called upon to validate what we do for that demeaning remuneration. Artists in Australia are demoralised and hamstrung yet we still keep on keeping on, but it's exhausting. As long as the arts in this county and indeed the world are squeezed into the straight jacket of economic rationalism then our societies will become less humane. You know I've always wondered what it would be like if every single artist in the country downed tools for 24 hours, it would be a dark day indeed.

  3. Thank you. This provides very useful data and interesting arguments. Could you fill in some gaps, please?
    How do you know that the Australia Council’s budget is a “principal driver” of economic impact?
    When you say “Culture employs more people than agriculture, construction or even mining”, what do you mean by “employs” and how wide is the definition of “culture”?
    How is what you refer to as “economic benefit” defined, and what is its relationship to GDP?

    1. Hi Stephen,

      I can't presume to answer for David, but if you're interested in knowing where you can find employment figures for the cultural sector in Australia, there's a dedicated report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics here:

      If you are further interested in knowing how economic impact figures for the arts are derived, with a particular focus on the methodology used, here's a link to another report by KPMG -

      While the latter is restricted to Victoria, I presume the methodology would be the same one would use for a national audit. If you find more along the way, please share!

    2. Australia's Creative Economy Surges 2016 has analysis of 2011 Census data by Professor Stuart Cunningham from ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation, QUT

      “Creative professionals now outnumber mining sector employees three-to-one, and those of agriculture fishing and forestry two-to-one,”

      Professor Cunningham says. “This gives some feel for how this sector is emerging relative to two traditional ‘backbone’ industries.”

  4. Brilliant David. Insightful and measured. You'll be taking our journo jobs soon if we're not careful! Look forward to reading more.

  5. Re 'one day we’re going to wake up and realise that… the films and television we watch are all from overseas' - fortunately Australian broadcasters have to invest in and screen a predetermined quota of Australian product.

    1. That's all well and good but where is that quota going to come from if future generations of artists have no support to create new work?

    2. That's all well and good but where is that quota going to come from if future generations of artists have no support to create new work?

    3. Yes, that's right Sally. But my point is that one day we might wake up and they're gone...

  6. Arguments that are based on the 'economic' contribution of the Arts and the like are both disingenuous and harmful to the case for public support of the arts. Truth is the ' figures' for the economic value of the arts and participation rates etc are to anybody with a grasp of economics simply literally ,unbelievable.

    For example the ABS figures include ministers of religion and funeral workers in the category ' cultural' .

    And they state:

    "Around half of the people employed in a cultural industry worked in a non-cultural occupation (50.6% or 181,142 persons). A cleaner employed in an art gallery is an example of a non-cultural occupation within a cultural industry. "

    That is not going to convince any hard head,to increase funding nor should it - there are plenty of more pressing needs - dental cover for the poor to give one example .

    You would be much better off arguing that the ,spiritually uplifting , and what Socrates called an "examined life" are absolute necessities for a fully human life. That they have intrinsic value.

    Who ever it was that thought up ' arts- cultural , industry' should be shot.

  7. Hi David. Thanks for the great post. However, one story that the dollar figures on your table don't tell (unless I have misunderstood or there has been a change in policy) is that the operational funding received by each of those companies is all that they can access for the four years from the Australia Council. All funding for special project-based initiatives, research and development, conference attendance, access programs and so forth have to come out of that base figure. In the past, companies would receive their base operational funding and then have access to a range of other funds from the Australia Council over the life of the triennium - such as In The Mix, Interconnections, Arts Projects, Emerging Artist Residencies. In the case of a small to medium theatre company such as La Boite, Arena, Griffin or Polyglot, it would not be unusual for this to be in the order of $50000-$80000 per year. I haven't even done the most rudimentary number-crunching on this, but it would have to be a few million that Key Orgs would have been reliably expecting to access between them to enable them to achieve their artistic goals. And those funds haven't gone to increased project funding for individuals or small companies - that pool hasn't grown - the money has gone to Catalyst, which in principle could be used for such purposes, but we all know how that is playing out, with nearly a quarter already spent in a very ad hoc fashion.

    1. Yes, that absolutely my understanding too. It's also worth pointing out that the $300,000 a year cap will represent a real cut to some of the organisations at the higher end of the small-to medium sector. And how many programs for individual artists, who cannot access Catalyst, have been dissolved in order to shore up the orgs?

  8. David if the sector really generates a annual return of around %500 on the investment then it would be the best performing business, in the whole world. People would be queuing to buy shares...

  9. Sorry am a bit late to the discussion but this is an outstandingly clear case for doubling support for the arts, as in Canada. However it may not be most productive just to increase funding to the Australia Council. In the interests of diversity it would be interesting to give some support at more micro levels. Dedicated arts funding to local councils might help arts practitioners far more directly for example by supporting the establishment of studio spaces and rehearsal facilities in places which currently never get arts support of any kind. Working only through existing organisations may simplify the management of arts funding but it also tends to channel creativity in more limited and familiar ways. Thanks anyway for the great post. Good that it was republished on Arts Hub but the argument should receive far wider circulation (maybe with more facts and figures to support it) in a pre-election period. DOUBLE ARTS FUNDING sounds like a great slogan.

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