Australia Council Funding 2015

book_logoOn August 27th I attended the Australia Council discussion about their new funding model at the State Library of Victoria. It was an interesting night and on first impressions it appears that the Australia Council has vastly simplified and improved their application process for arts funding at the Federal level.

I’m not closely familiar with the old model except that it included a vast number of categories and separate application dates for the categories so that the end result was that the Australia Council had an application closing date of some sort or another approximately every three days throughout the year. The new model has simplified the categories to just five and these categories have application dates that are either quarterly (4 times a year), biannual (twice a year) or annual (once a year). The smaller grants tend towards being quarterly and the larger grants tend towards being annual.

All of the details included here are based on notes taken during the night or promotional hand-outs, and if interested in grant funding for the arts you should obviously go straight to the horse’s mouth and check out the Australia Council’s own website. That said, I’ll run through a quick breakdown of the new categories, then discuss some of my impressions of the information night and some broader thoughts about arts funding generally.

The five categories for funding are:

  • Fellowships ($100,000) Closing: June. This category is intended to support already established artists for up to two years.
  • Development Grants for Individuals or Groups ($5-25,000) Closing: March, June, September, December. This category is for the development of the careers of individual artists or groups of artists. The examples given all link into career development rather than supporting art production. Mentorship, attending workshops or arts markets are examples provided.
  • Arts Projects for Individuals and Groups ($10-50,000) Closing: March, June, September, December. This category is for the funding of actual arts projects. Creation of new work, touring, attending or running festivals, publishing and recording fall into this category.
  • Arts Projects for Organisations ($10-150,000) Closing: March, June, September, December. In what seems like a sensible move, funding for organisations has been split away from funding for individuals and small groups so that individuals are not in the same competitive category as better funded organisations. Broadly speaking the sorts of projects supported are the same as for Individuals and Groups (above).
  • Six Year Funding for Organisations (funding by negotiation) Expression of interest: March. Full application: September. In another interesting move the Australia Council has moved away from 3 year funding cycles towards 6 year funding cycles to generate more stability for organisations that do obtain ongoing funding. This seems sensible, at least in principle. The only concern might be whether a 6 year cycle might generate more of a grant dependence ethos in some organisations.

The evening itself was an interesting insight into what sorts of things the Australia Council might be looking for in art funding applications. It started with a montage of artists extemporising on why they make art – although to be honest it this felt less like an inspiring series of clips about creative people and more like a how-to guide on wording your grant application. The question of why make art? is a grand and difficult philosophical sticking point, and I suppose it strikes me as being an unfortunate situation where the funding body in charge of grants feels it even necessary to justify why art should be made… this isn’t to say that I don’t think art can have a purpose or a reason for existence. It can be pragmatic, useful and applicable in day-to-day life. I think art can and does improve our quality of life just as much as the sciences improve our quality of life, often enough on similar dimensions. It’s wrongheaded to think that science only improves our physical wellbeing and art only improves our psycho-spiritual wellbeing. The reverse can be true, and often is. Just consider the deepening volume of happiness research on the one hand, or how a person’s hypothalamus-pituatary-adrendal axis (mediating stress) can be calmed by direct engagement with or the creation of art.

In any instance, the speakers first off moved into a discussion about the categories given above, and then the goals that the Australia Council has placed at the core of their policy. The goals are:

Goal One: Australian arts are without borders
Goal Two: Australia is known for its great art and artists
Goal Three: The arts enrich daily life for all
Goal Four: Australians cherish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and culture

Goal One appears largely intended to support international collaboration. Goal Two seems intended to raise the profile of Australian art and artists, both domestically and internationally. Goal Three is circling around the idea that contact with the arts improves wellbeing. Goal Four is the domestic improvement of Australian’s appreciation for their own indigenous arts and by extension the indigenous cultures of Australia (one presumes).

Goals are necessary in public service, largely because accountability is demanded of elected representatives and they in turn demand accountability from their staff and the public sector as a whole. However, goals are not especially meaningful without objective and measurable outcomes, and it is not especially clear how the above goals might be measured. It’s not clear to me that it even is possible to say that any of the goals listed above have been advanced or met after a given length of time…

Another point worth raising is that in relation to Goal Two we heard that statement that 86% of Australians engage with art. This struck me as a bizarre statistic – surely this can’t include art contained within film, TV or the internet as the value would be closer to 100%. What does it therefore include? It turns out this is (apparently) a statistic from 2009-10 Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys and is an estimate of the number of Australians who attended a cultural event. The relevant information from the ABS:

ATTENDANCE

During 2009-10, nearly nine in ten Australians (86% or 15 million people) aged 15 years and over attended at least one selected cultural venue or event. This is similar to the rate 10 years ago.

In 2009-10, the most popular cultural event and venue attended by people aged 15 years and over was the cinema, with 67% or 11.7 million Australians attending. Attending zoos and aquariums (37%), botanic gardens (35%) and libraries (34%) were the next most popular venues or events.

Frequency of visits

Nearly half (46%) of those who attended libraries went 11 times or more during 2009-10. Of the people who went to the cinema, 23% went 6-10 times and 15% went 11-20 times. However, people attending museums, and zoos and aquariums were more likely to have attended these venues only once (52% and 48% respectively).

Now call me finicky but this raises some questions about the statistics used by the Australia Council to flag-wave the importance of ‘art’ and whether or not this actually maps to their funding. The Australia Council explicitly does not fund film (that is delivered by Screen Australia) so using a statistic that is built largely from attendance of cinema, libraries, zoos and aquaria is arguably disingenuous. I think I would also be happier with the statement if the Australia Council funded the sort of low art that builds up the bulk of library attendance (at the very least). I’m afraid that I’m left wondering whether the Australia Council has ever given funding to a commercial romance writer, for example?

At any rate, I do appreciate the desire of the Australia Council to tout a statistic. I just wish it weren’t a statistic that makes such an easy target for anyone antagonistic to arts funding.

Finally, there was some discussion on the evening about changes to the peer review process being used to assess grant applications and the application rules and processes. Some salient points:

  • You can apply up to four times per year regardless of whether you are successful
  • The Australia Council has an approximate $180 mil budget
  • A grant can be for a single event or piece or work or for a series of interconnecting events or works that form a whole
  • The applicant can pick the type of peers to be assessed by (literary, theatre etc) including ‘multidisciplinary’ if the art project doesn’t fall neatly into a given area
  • There will now be a pool of peers that will be selected from rather than a smaller set panel. This seems like a move for the better, as it means that targeting known panel members with invites to shows etc should be harder to pull off now.

I’ll finish up with a few closing thoughts. Overall the changes do seem like improvements and in some areas they are quite substantial improvements. Some things that the council could potentially consider:

Include at least one layperson on each assessment panel. In the same way that Animal Ethics committees are not made up entirely of scientists, I’m afraid I think there is a need for more diversity on arts funding panels. A layperson would be a good start, but thinking laterally and including someone along the lines of a working school teacher or an aged care worker where relevant (in addition to the layperson) might help improve the selection of projects that have relevance to Australians at different stages of their life for example.

Allow for only one 6 year grant per organisation every 12 years (or similar). There is a potential concern that organisations can fall into grant dependence, and knowing that you have 6 years of funding and only 6 years is a good way to stimulate some serious thought about how to continue operating past the 6 year line. Now, this might simply result in people shutting down their organisation every 6 years and starting a new one that does the same thing… although I would imagine that would be easy enough to spot and at the very least the practise could be unofficially frowned upon and count as a strike against funding.

Try to match funding closer to relevance. If we know that a huge percentage of Australians engage with art and culture through libraries, then it would perhaps behove the Australia Council to communicate to applicants that art events held in and around libraries would be favourably looked upon. Ditto for zoos and aquaria. There’s no reason that we couldn’t have more theatre or music performances in or near libraries and zoos. Cinema is obviously a trickier prospect, as these are commercial enterprises, but as cinema is the ‘cultural event’ attended by more Australians than any other event, it does seem some thought in that direction is needed also.

The problem, I feel, is that the Australia Council still gives off something of an impression that they are looking for ‘important art’ as defined by a relatively small coterie of the art in-tribe. Art and artists can unfortunately give off quite a strongly repellant vibe to anyone on the outside, and a tendency to use arts studies language (where it seems like every piece of art is involved in a ‘dialogue’, whatever that is) only enforces this. There perhaps remains a tendency to favour art that is attempting to be knowingly profound (wink, wink, nudge, look at my profundity), sophomoric even, rather than art that is accessible or merely aesthetic, emotionally moving or thoughtful.

However, these are just my own personal opinions. At the end of the day if you want to obtain funding you need to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk that the funding body expects. Prior to launching off on a mission to fire four applications a year to the Australia Council I’d highly recommend that you check out their website and the material relating to the launch of the new strategy and take notes…

 

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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