It is difficult to fathom the federal Coalition Government's agenda concerning the arts and arts funding in Australia.
The particularly ill-considered and unprecedented $104.7 million raid on the funding of the Australia Council, by the then Arts Minister, George Brandis, did more to cripple visual artists than the Global Economic Crisis and the end of the mining boom in Australia combined. The worst effected were the small to medium size players, art galleries, museums, arts magazines, arts networks and a large number of struggling artists dependant on such infrastructures. I know personally of a number of artists who have either lost their jobs or have had their meagre incomes severely curtailed as a direct result of Brandis' cut to the promised Australia Council funding.
To exacerbate the situation, just before Christmas, in the Turnbull government's first MYEFO announcement, Canberra's cultural institutions were savaged. Some $52.5 million had been stripped from the arts and culture budget over the next four years. Particularly targeted were the Canberra-based institutions, especially the National Library that faces about a $6 million cut, the National Museum of Australia a $5 million cut, the National Gallery a $4 million cut, as well as smaller cuts to the National Portrait Gallery, National Film and Sound Archive and the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House. Fortuitously, the Australian War Memorial, with former Liberal Party minister Brendon Nelson at the helm, has been spared and survives within the safety of the Department of Veteran's Affairs.
These senseless 3% "efficiency dividend" cuts, which were outlined at Senate estimates hearings last week, will come into force in June. Already plans are being announced for cutting of staff positions, programs and the possible reduction in opening hours. The newly established Book Council of Australia is being axed and Screen Australia will be stripped of $10.3 million over four years.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, and as an example of a cultural cringe of gigantic proportions, the MYEFO statement included an announcement that $47.3 million will be redirected over the next two years to the Hollywood projects of Alien and Thor sequels to be filmed at Sydney's Fox Studios.
The efficiency dividend approach in the cultural sector is a particularly ineffective and blunt instrument with the institutions too small to experience savings in economies of scale. The National Library, that in terms of staff is the largest of the Canberra-based cultural institutions, has a little over 400 staff, the National Gallery is next with about 240 staff, while the others are even smaller. The envisaged cuts of about 10 staff in each of the larger institutions will be crippling, while the savings will be negligible. All of them are now operating below the required critical mass and the present path adopted by the federal government is simply a path to disaster, where the cutting of the fat and flesh have long passed and we are now hacking into the bone that supports the structure.
What is particularly frustrating is that the Canberra cultural institutions have been ticking all of the required boxes with innovative, popular and historically significant exhibitions. These have been critically acclaimed and have attracted substantial interstate and overseas audiences. As most professionals know, the so-called 'blockbuster shows' do not make money, with very few exceptions, but are generally deemed necessary to attract and renew audiences. The bleeding of finances will force the cultural institutions to curb their outreach activities and to retreat back into their shells and this will be to the detriment of the broader arts community.
So why is the Turnbull government so intent on punishing the arts community in general and the Canberra community in particular? This is a bit of an enigma.
Savings to the budget bottom line cannot be the only explanation as in times of extreme austerity one does not splash out millions to Hollywood or redirect more millions, out of the Brandis NPEA slush fund, to what Brandis considers as 'high culture' at the top end of town. Malcolm Turnbull's own standing in the arts community was once fairly high. He acquitted himself well during the inglorious Bill Henson affair under Prime Minister Rudd and after the culturally bleak Abbott interlude, Turnbull was happy to appear on the national arts stage and spoke with passion and knowledge at the opening of the Tom Roberts exhibition at the National Gallery and at various other arts gatherings.
However, his actions have spoken louder than his verbal eloquence and as one leading artist mentioned to me privately, "no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, it remains a pig". At a time when Labor's stocks within the arts community were riding low, the senseless round of punitive cuts to Australia's cultural infrastructure as well as to the national cultural institutions has guaranteed a surge of support away from the Coalition government and back to Labor.
Sadly, when there is so much potential for change, the TINA - there is no alternative - factor has been reasserted.
The new conservatives remain suspicious and hostile to the great mass of Australian artists and arts organisations in this country and the arts community is once more swinging largely behind Labor.