The recent restructure of Arts South Australia and budget cuts of $31m have thrown the state’s arts sector into chaos. Ben Brooker reports
“From even the greatest of horrors,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft in The Shunned House, “irony is seldom absent”. Arts funding policy in Australia since the Brandis cuts of 2014-15 has seen its fair share of ironies, the good abutting the bad in a complex series of shocks, confusion, and more than a little bloodletting.
Theatre people tend to catastrophise. It is, I suppose, in our nature – to seek out and spotlight drama, struggle, conflict. We doomsday message before we know what day it is. But our fear, while not unfounded, is often of the unknown, the half-glimpsed. We are not consulted, we are told. No reasons are given. Divided, pushed onto the back foot, we scramble to understand, to endure and resist.
We do know that last month’s state budget, the first by Steven Marshall’s new Liberal government, was as deleterious for the arts community as it had been expecting. Most significantly, it was announced that “efficiency savings” of $4.9 million in 2018-19 – comprising $3 million from organisations and programs, and $1.9 million from administration – would increase to $31.9 million over four years. Concomitantly, we were told a “refocusing” of Arts South Australia as a “policy unit” would see staff numbers cut by half to two-thirds.
Even before the budget, it was clear Arts South Australia is now a shunned house. In July it was moved into the Department of Premier and Cabinet from the sprawling State Development portfolio where it had been under Jay Weatherill’s Labor Government. At the same time, the agency was mysteriously stripped of its responsibility for high-profile organisations including SA Film Corporation, Adelaide Film Festival, the Music Development Office, St Paul’s Creative Centre, and the Jam Factory (now delegated to the Department for Industry and Skills), as well as the History Trust, youth arts organisation Carclew, and children’s theatre companies Windmill and Patch (now Department of Education). Slingsby, for some reason, stayed where it was.
The following month, after a “high level independent review” of departmental “business operations”, Arts South Australia Executive Director Peter Louca was dismissed and the position abolished (DPC bureaucrat Jennifer Layther will oversee the operational aspects of the agency’s work “until further notice”).
While the lack of transparency is galling, not all of this upheaval is unequivocally bad. The usual machinery of government changes, at least, can explain some of it. No doubt, too, Louca was tainted in the eyes of the Government by his long association with the Labor Party. But why wait so long after the March election to dismiss him? And why abolish the position with only the thinnest of justifications? The fear is that, without executive leadership, Arts South Australia now has no advocate in government, and may be denuded further still. It is not hard to imagine how the agency’s slow dissolution – if that’s what it is – could pave the way for the kind of outrageous ministerial interventionism we saw in New South Wales last month.
It’s all sending a chill down the collective spine of an industry still reeling from the effects of years of federal cuts and policy uncertainty. Organisations were given a couple of days’ notice of the changes but, as usual, there was no prior consultation. Despite repeated requests, nobody from Government has met with the Arts Industry Council of South Australia (AICSA), the state’s principal arts advocacy body. While the current funding round will most likely go ahead as planned, we won’t know until January next year what future rounds will look like or even whether peer assessment will be continued. Most significantly, we don’t know what principles underlie the cuts and shifts. Offered the familiar neoliberal clichés – savings targets, budget surplus – we are simply left to rue, once again, a policy environment for the arts that feels ad hoc and without vision.
But the picture, even where it remains unclear, is not wholly bleak. $1 million has been allocated for (unspecified) grants, and there is money for the establishment of a National Aboriginal Art and Culture Gallery, maintenance works at three regional theatres, live music and music programs in schools and universities, and the Adelaide Festival. In contrast to federal arts policy of the last few years that has seen the quarantining of major companies, it looks as though it is statutory authorities and major organisations, rather than the small to medium sector and individual artists, which will bear the brunt of the cuts.
Meanwhile, ironies flash like Lovecraftian tentacles. As millions are poured into the establishment of the Aboriginal Art and Culture Gallery, millions more are ripped from First Nations policies and services. And while the grants, a pre-election promise, may well benefit individual artists, the timing of the cuts – announced after most arts organisations had locked in their programs for 2019 – will mean, as AICSA Chair Gail Kovatseff put it, “that [they] are faced with the choice of either delivering deficit results for 2018-2019 or cutting actual artistic activity”. That means, in short, increased hardship for organisations already under strain, fewer opportunities for artists perpetually struggling, or, most likely, both.
In Senate Estimates last week, the Premier promised that in the lead-up to next year’s budget his government would announce a new “strategic plan for the arts where there will be very extensive consultation with the sector and that will inform exactly and precisely what the sector is going to look like going forward and provide greater certainty to artists, arts organisations, and the government more broadly”. There is reason to hope these words will not ring entirely hollow. Despite being surrounded by those who view the arts as an easy option for funding raids – most notably his Treasurer, Rob Lucas – Marshall is said to be sympathetic to the industry. But what does it say that the significant changes already ushered in were done so without industry consultation, in the absence of anything remotely resembling a cogent, evidence-based policy framework?
AICSA is readying an online survey to collate responses from the sector to present to Government. The Council will also hold a second sector meeting in response to the budget on Tuesday 23 October to discuss practical next steps. You can listen to a recording of the first meeting here. While the SA arts community waits and sees, we must also prepare for the worst.