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  • Aug 17, 2012

The State of Arts Funding in Australia

Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. Photo by John Gollings. Courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

The Queensland state government has ended its AUD 75,000 funding for the biannual  National New Media Award (NNMA), previously known as the Premier’s National New Media Art Award, organized by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) since 2008. A change of state government earlier this year, from the Australian Labour Party to the National Liberal Party, quickly saw the “Premier’s” prefix dropped from the award title.

In a media release announcing the winner on 2 August, QAGOMA said: “The National New Media Art Award is a three-award program first held in 2008, comprising a biennial acquisitive Award . . . The 2012 Award . . . concludes the program.” However, the press release issued by the office of previous premier Anna Bligh during the inaugural award in February 2008, made no mention of funding being limited to three editions. It simply stated, “The inaugural awards would be held this year and hosted by the Queensland Art Gallery on a biennial basis.”

A change of government means a change in funding priorities, but just last week the Sydney Morning Herald described Queensland’s new premier, Campbell Newman—who in April this year also scrapped the annual Premier’s Literary Award that had run since 1999—as “determinedly philistine.” But his determination is perhaps due to the need to paper-over a $4 billion budget deficit. Suhanya Raffel, acting director of QAGOMA, attempted to sport a brave face when she told ArtAsiaPacific: “The Gallery did not have any expectation that the program would continue beyond the third award in 2012. It is not uncommon for art awards to run as finite programs. QAGOMA has not sought further funding for the National New Media Award.”

Premier Newman, who steered the Liberal Nationals to a decisive victory at state polls in March, has been uncompromising in defending his government’s decision to slash funding for the NNMA. A spokesperson told Brisbane’s Courier Mail newspaper, the incoming government had been “clear in communicating its plan to control government spending, return the budget to surplus, revitalise frontline services and lower the cost of living for all Queenslanders.”

Indeed, across the country arts funding is proving to be a soft target for governments wanting to meet budget targets. Federal- and State Government-funded art institutions, such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, are being forced to make staff cuts and to delay exhibitions in a drive to meet “efficiency dividends”—reduced funding that is imposed on government-backed art galleries and cultural institutions, reflecting savings they must make to help bring budget deficits back on track.

The AGNSW’s new director, Michael Brand, is currently wrestling with a $1.2 million reduction in the gallery’s annual operating budget that it receives from the New South Wales government. Such cuts could well bring about redundancies, Brand told AAP last month. The National Gallery in Canberra has already let 17 staff positions evaporate and delayed exhibitions such as the National Indigenous Art Triennial, “unDisclosed”—postponed from 2011 until this year to meet financial constraints.

The NGA declined to speak to AAP other than to say they “don’t comment on government policy or funding.” However, director of the NGA, Ron Radford, was outspoken earlier this year when answering questions from Australian Greens senator, Christine Milne, at a senate estimates hearing. Radford blamed the gallery’s financial woes on government cost-cutting via the 1.5 percent efficiency dividend applied to the $31 million in federal funds it receives each year. “We’ve all had to live with efficiency dividends for over 20 years under successive governments,” he stated, “and if it continues for the next many . . . decades there’ll be no money left for anybody.”

The Australia Museum and the nearby Sydney Opera House also have to accommodate efficiency dividends. The Opera House must find ways to save $6.8 million over four years, while the Australia Museum needs to make savings of $500,000 this current financial year. Due to similar pressure, the National Museum in Canberra has already sacrificed 20 staff positions, director Andrew Sayers told the senate estimates hearing. It was widely canvassed in September 2011 that having to meet government-wide efficiency saving targets was one of the key factors in Gerard Vaughan’s sudden resignation from the directorship of the National Gallery of Victoria, though Vaughan at the time said his resignation was entirely unrelated.

Rupert Myer, chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts, wrote in The Australian this month, “Investment in the arts is wise, self-sustaining and a significant adornment to the nation’s balance sheet.” If it is to remain so then a more sustainable and guaranteed method of funding needs to be achieved by both federal and state governments. As long as galleries and arts institutions are structured as government departments they will always fall victim to imposed political economies.

Neither are independent institutions completely immune. Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art told AAP, “Because the MCA is not a government department but independent we do not have efficiency dividends imposed on us.” However, she also pointed out that the funding the MCA receives from the NSW state government has remained at the same level for five years.

In recent months, federal minister for the arts Simon Crean has been working on a new National Cultural Policy (NCP) for Australia, the first such policy in 20 years. The NCP was due to launch earlier this year but has been delayed, and as yet no alternative date has been announced. Ironically, a spokeswoman for Crean’s office explained that the reason it was not published earlier was because the funds to implement its policy recommendations were not available in this year’s budget. However, she also said, “The government remains committed to the National Cultural Policy, which will be published later this year.”

While such budget constraints continue to limit government financial input into all areas of the arts, both federal and state ministers are nevertheless often the first in line when public accolades are being contended, earnestly posing for the cameras to bask in the cultural credibility. Last month, New South Wales’ minister for the arts, George Souris, was crowing at a media conference, claiming two blockbuster exhibitions later this year—Anish Kapoor at the MCA and Francis Bacon at the AGNSW—will generate $75 million in new money for the state. Souris remarked, “Bringing major exhibitions such as these to Sydney puts the spotlight on our Harbour City and I am confident that these exhibitions will be successful in attracting local, interstate and overseas visitors.”

Taking money from Peter but not paying Paul, it would seem.

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