Senate Inquiry: Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts

 

Opening Statement: 5 August 2015:

 

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land of which we meet, the people of the great Kulin nations and I pay my respects to their elders past and present.

 

I’m Simon Abrahams, the Creative Director of Melbourne Fringe, an organisation that leads the support and presentation of the independent arts, including the annual Melbourne Fringe Festival which showcases over 6000 independent artists in 400 events each year.

 

Independent artists are the lifeblood of the arts in Australia – they are the innovators, the diverse voices telling the boldest Australian stories and the drivers of creative thinking which advance contemporary Australian culture.

 

Independent artists make work which is both innovative and highly accessible, with significant audience demand across Australia. Artists in last year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival alone presented 244 Australian premieres to an audience of more than 300 000 people over 19 days, with an average ticket price of just $22, making the independent arts the most accessible for audiences across Australia. We support a young generation of arts goers, with our 47% of our audience aged 20-34 years old. Senator Ludlam – you’ll be pleased to hear that 186 volunteers provided 4015 volunteer hours last year to support the work of the festival.  This does not include the many unpaid hours of labour from artists in the festival in creating their events.

 

Independent artists are among the lowest paid professionals in Australia, with a mean annual income of $18 000 and a median income of just $7000 from their creative practice. Artists from non-English speaking backgrounds earn on average 40% lower than this median figure, and artists with disability earn 25 percent less. This disadvantage will be deepened, with budget cuts to the Australia Council seeing the grant pool for individual artists now at 57% of its 2013 level. Individuals are not eligible to apply to the new National Program for Excellence, meaning that these cuts will have the biggest impact on those those who can least afford it.

 

Young and emerging artists must be nurtured for the future health of the sector. Artstart grants supported early career artists to build business acumen and increase self-generated income. A longitudinal study found that it worked – recipients were less reliant on grants. So, cutting this program makes artists more reliant on funding, while simultaneously reducing their opportunity to apply for grants. The impact of this will be felt in the decades to come.

 

The separate roles of cultural diplomacy and arts funding should be emphasised.  The role of cultural diplomacy is to present a positive view of Australia. Arts projects frequently further the interests of DFAT’s cultural diplomacy programs, and have been funded separately by DFAT when they serve foreign policy objectives. The role of arts funding is different – the importance of freedom of artistic expression cannot be underestimated. Arts funding must include the capacity to critique contemporary Australian culture. Indeed, this is fundamental to our job.

 

Arts organisations of all sizes are interdependent, and individual artists are central to the vitality of the arts.  Creativity and innovation, driven by artistic individuals, are the cornerstones of the development of Australian culture. Enabling this work has been the Australia Council’s role for over 40 years, and this budget reduces its capacity to deliver on its vital mission for Australian citizens. Thank you.