As many of you know, my career has been bookended by the Australia Council. I started work there in 1972 as assistant to its first CEO, the unforgettable Jean Battersby, and under the inspirational Chairmanship of Dr HC Nugget Coombs. The Minister was Gough Whitlam and the Council comprised of some of the great leaders of our country and some great artists, who presided over the development of the organization as a significant catalyst for cultural development in Australia.
Twenty years later, in 1994, I came back to take over the CEO role when Paul Keating was the PM. It was the time of Creative Nation and the establishment of the Major Organisations Fund of the Australia Council.
We attempted to stop the competition between big and small arts organisations for government funding while making the big be a little more planned and business-like and a little more self reliant. We also wanted to ensure that there was new work and that artists could earn a living wage and that Australia could project itself to the world in a more interesting and innovative way long before the new dawn of the Age of Innovation.
In 1996 the Howard government was elected and the then Minister Richard Alston advised us that the government, as part of their first post election budget, would cut the funding by 10% and that they expected the Board and management to deal with that issue in a responsible way, which naturally my Chair and I agreed to do. This was done in a climate of distrust of the arts community, and Election Day front page stories that Hilary McPhee would be the first Public Officer to be replaced and that I would be the fourth of the top ten to go.
It never happened, but provides a telling contrast to the events of last year when, without warning and contrary to all the public commitments given by the Abbott government, the Australia Council had $40 million taken without discussion and given to the then Minister George Brandis to create an alternative funding mechanism in Canberra under the Minister’s direct control and divorced from any advice from the Australia Council.
What an astonishing way to run arts funding and arts policy!
What has happened since is a disgrace to the present government.
Post the demise of George Brandis as Arts Minister and the elevation of Mitch Fifield, some $12 million was restored as some sort of salve to the arts community that had welcomed the new leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. But the effects of last year’s cuts are about to be felt across the arts sector and, while we don’t yet know the detail,
Announcements from the Australia Council will be made in July. Who as yet understands what the impacts will be, but I’m sure it can only be negative and destructive and unnecessary.
The way these decisions were made ranks as one of the worst pieces of bad administration I have seen in almost 40 years of working in this sector. The duplicity to the Chairman and the Australia Council at the opening of the new Venice Pavilion was astonishing and without precedent.
But what disturbs me most is the way the main players reacted to these changes. The Major Organisations seem to have been struck dumb by the Minister’s decisions and only a very few uttered any reaction to what was being done to artists and in particular small and medium arts organisations.
Ten points to noted philanthropists Neil Balnaves and Simon Mordant who criticized the decisions and the impacts they would have on the arts ecosystem. Ten points to the courageous group who set up the Artists Party to articulate the case for the Arts when the Government had failed them.
Nil points to most of the Major Organisations who were requested to shut up as it would be in their interest to get access to the money that had been taken from the Council and dispensed by the Minister at his whim. As I understand it, one of the grants made is half a million dollars to a commercial gallery on the Gold Coast!
Malcolm, you must stop this madness and restore the funding to the Australia Council and you must do it in this next Budget before you go to the people this year .
My final points relate to a developing concern over governance in our arts organisations and where it may lead us.
The Captains of Industry seem to have done very well in taking over the governance role in most of the arts organisations I have encountered. The Chairs and boards are now comprised of the truly great and the good, who have played a significant role in building private philanthropy as the most desired funding source. I have no quibble with this development but it comes with a corresponding slide in corporate support for the arts and a perilous prospect of diminishing government support from both State and Federal sources and also from local government.
The competition in the fight for funds is creating a real climate of competition between the arts companies where ultimately the biggest and the richest and the best connected will dominate at the expense of the artists and the innovators and the truly creative.
One of my esteemed colleagues said to me last week this was the most competitive and difficult time he had experienced in his whole career of working in the arts and that the nature of governance in the sector was a major contributor to this. This is something we need to be very careful of as I’m sure it’s leading to very risk averse activity in many arts organisations.
Surely the Age of Innovation should open up huge opportunities for our creative community and innovation should not just be predicated on becoming rich tech entrepreneurs. The attitude to the CSIRO fills me with a deep sense of despair at what Innovation really means in this new age.
My final words are about our most important cultural institution, the ABC.
Mark Scott has done a great job and I wish Michelle Guthrie, his successor, the very best in her future tenure. To our Government, I ask that you honor the promises Mr Abbott made prior to the last election of “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. If we can afford 12 multi billion dollar submarines and all that other stuff, we can surely afford a properly funded cultural sector and an appropriately funded ABC and SBS.
Thanks for listening and allowing me to get this off my chest.
I will now take my daughter’s advice and slip quietly into obscurity.
This is an edited version of a speech given by Michael Lynch CBE, AM, to a Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney on Wednesday 9 March.