Making art in a time of crisis

Artists will continue to make work despite the cuts to Australia Council – but the sector needs to build resilience, support, and collaborate to get through this period with the least collateral damage.
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Theatre Works will hold a fundraising event Abundance for its artists this Saturday 12 September. Image: www.theatreworks.org.au

I’ve just returned from the British Council Showcase as part of Edinburgh Fringe. The two things that artists seemed to know most about Australian politics was our disgraceful treatment of asylum seekers and the recent cuts to the Australia Council. While the details around the cuts weren’t understood, I was surprised to realise just how many international artists and arts workers knew of the severity of the changes to Australia’s arts funding landscape. A number of artists mentioned to me that their collaborations with Australian arts organisations had been cancelled because of the change in funding models and cancellation of Australia Council rounds.

I am the Creative Producer and CEO of Theatre Works, St Kilda. Our primary focus is to support independent artists to develop their practices and create new work. To say that it has been a rough year so far would be an understatement, and I know that small to medium arts organisations, and artists across Australia will be in agreeance. 

We started the year with hope: the Australia Council had launched its new strategic plan in 2014 and a there was the promise of new and interesting opportunities. The funding program had been refined with a new model that, at its core, asked the question, “What do you want to do?” and that felt, to me, very artist-focused; like the quality of an idea or project would matter more than how it fit within a category of funding.

There were going to be four funding rounds per year to enable artists and organisations to remain responsive and there was also the opportunity for organisations to apply for six-year organisational funding. Through this process visionary ideas were generated, business plans refined and developed, and big ideas were thrown onto the table. Organisations were able to reflect on their achievements over the last three years and dream about what might be in the next six years. There genuinely seemed to be great energy moving forward about the possibilities of the Australian arts landscape. 

The impact of George Brandis’s reallocation of funding from the Australia Council to the newly established NPEA has had a huge impact on our whole sector already. Board members, staff, artists, participants and audiences throughout Australia have been affected in a variety of ways: capacity to deliver programs as planned, staffing structures, partnerships, shortfalls in budgets, realisation of artistic projects; and for our audiences and community participants, the opportunity to attend or participate in potentially life-changing artistic experiences. 

I’m worried about the effect all of this has on the lives and well being of the thousands of people who work in, or with, the affected small to medium arts organisations.

We are a resilient and optimistic industry full of passionate people with big hearts and great minds. We are having to let go of dreams and ideas and face even more job insecurity than perhaps ever before. I’m worried about what stories won’t be told, what workshops won’t be run, what books won’t be written and what artwork won’t be painted. I’m worried that those in most need of subsidy to make art will have even less access to funds. I’m worried that more artists will end up subsidising more of their art and therefore only art from a small demographic will be made. I’m worried that I have to ask artists to commit to projects without any security of payment. I’m worried that the diversity of experiences reflected on our stages will be reduced. I’m worried that visionary artists might just decide to give up. I worry that those who speak out about this will get even less funding.

But when I’m not worrying about all this, I’m plotting and planning and thinking and scheming and focussing on what I can do, in my position, to get us through this next period of time with the least collateral damage. I was recently asked if I thought this whole process might make an otherwise fairly collegiate industry become competitive. I really don’t think so, and certainly haven’t noticed this so far.

I think we need to be working together, thinking outside the square, supporting each other, thinking of ways that we can share resources to enable projects to be realised. I think those of us employed on a full-time basis need to look at ways we can support freelance artists, through fundraising and lobbying.

When the final impact of the grant rounds and organisation funding is known at the start of next year we need to be ready to act quickly, openly and bravely. We need to make sure that crowd funding campaigns are not just artists supporting other artists’ work. We need to keep talking to and connecting to people from all walks of life; we need them to understand the value of the arts. We need the current government to realise once and for all the importance of diverse artistic practice on society.  Or we make sure that we elect a party that does. We need to get together and fully understand how we can access the funding available from the NPEA. And, as organisations we need to make sure we get that money into the hands of the artists making work who are ineligible to apply.

I’ve just returned from seeing incredible work in Edinburgh. Mind-blowing theatre that was political, diverse, urgent and about things that really mattered. If that’s what living under a conservative government can do to the art that a place can make then I look forward to seeing how we respond to the situation we find ourselves in. 

I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know that artists won’t stop making work. We are artists because that’s what we are – funding or no funding. We are compelled to create work, tell stories, and try to understand the complexity of this world we inhabit. Our imaginations, our voices and our passion cannot be touched by Mr Brandis. These are ours and we will find a way through this. 

Theatre Works will hold a fundraising event for its artists this Saturday 12 September. For more information on Abundance, hosted by Die Roten Punkte and featuring acts including Maude Davey visit here.


Daniel Clarke
About the Author
Daniel Clarke is the CEO/Creative Producer at Theatre Works.
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