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20 November 2015

Innovation in, excellence out - Australia Council gets a small refund

Innovation in, excellence out -  Australia Council gets a small refund

The long-awaited news about the canning of ex-Minister Brandis's National Programme for the Excellence in the Arts, NPEA, was released overnight by the Australian Government. The arts community received the news with mixed feelings, as the NPEA will continue its life under a new name and new guidelines, while only $32m ($8m per year over four years) of the $104m diverted from the Australia Council for the Arts by Brandis for the NPEA will be given back to the Council.

The guidelines of the new program, entitled Catalyst - Australian Arts and Culture Fund, have been released and can be read on the website of the Department of Communications and the Arts. The program is meant to complement existing mechanisms, and its brief is worded in a way that seems to embrace a wider array of arts bodies than Brandis's NPEA. The Federal Government's new buzzword 'innovative' is prominently present, while any emphasis on 'excellence' has been carefully removed from the guidelines.

'Catalyst aims to fund innovative ideas from arts and cultural organisations that may find it difficult to access funding for such projects from other sources. This could include galleries, libraries, archives, museums, arts education and infrastructure projects', the guidelines state.

'The program aims to forge new creative partnerships and stimulate novel ways to build participation by Australians in our cultural life. It enables access to high quality arts experiences in regional communities and international activities that achieve cultural diplomacy objectives, and recognises the essential role of small to medium arts organisations. Catalyst works in a complementary way to the Australia Council, Creative Partnerships Australia and other Ministry for the Arts programs.'

Presumably as a result of the vocal opposition of the NPEA program, particularly by the small-to-medium sector, projects involving small-to-medium organisations 'will be given priority'. Individual artists are not able to directly apply for funding, however unincorporated groups of artists are eligible if auspiced by an organisation that meets the funding criteria.

The Government will provide up to $12 million each financial year for Catalyst. The three funding streams of Catalyst are 'partnerships and collaborations', 'innovation and participation' (innovative and digital solutions to access arts, disadvantaged groups and regional arts all get a mention here), and 'international and cultural diplomacy'. The level of funding provided for each stream may vary, and funding can be provided as annual or multi-year funding agreements of up to a maximum of four years, however operational funding for organisations is excluded.

Catalyst will be administered by the Ministry for the Arts, and applications will be assessed by a combination of independent and Ministry for the Arts assessors. Expressions of interest are being sought for this process. For details, see the website.

First reactions by representatives of the arts community have been cautious. Tamara Winikoff of the National Association of the Visual Arts said,

'This is a bittersweet moment for the arts in Australia. We are relieved that the Minister is prepared to go some way towards alleviating the havoc being caused by the original decision of his predecessor. However, the renamed Catalyst program is still being created at the expense of ensuring the survival of organisations that are the engine room for developing and presenting new Australian work.'

Free the Arts spokesperson Norm Horton (Feral Arts, Brisbane) said:

'On balance we have to say this looks to be a bad deal for the arts sector, and small-to-mediums in particular. The government's decision to push ahead with cuts to the Australia Council of more than $70m over four years will have damaging effects in the sector. The fears of hundreds of arts companies across the country have been realised. They will now be denied access to the promised multi-year operational funding - support that has been shown to be the key to sustainability and growth. With no new money being bought to the table it's a zero sum game.'

A Senate Inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the arts is set to give its report on 2 December - by revamping and renaming the NPEA program the Government will be able to pre-empt some of the criticisms coming its way. The Inquiry received an impressive 2,200 submissions from individuals and arts organisations. Transcripts from the public hearings organised as part of the Inquiry are available online. For more details and links, see this news article on Resonate.

Further links

Catalyst - program guidelines and FAQ sheets (Federal Department of Communications and the Art website)
'Turnbull government overhauls George Brandis' arts "slush fund'' - The Sydney Morning Herald (20 November 2015)
'Arts Minister Mitch Fifield's Catalyst for arts funding' - The Australian (20 November 2015)
'Is it over? How protests killed the NPEA' - ArtsHub (19 November 2015)
'Arts Minister Fifield rebrands NPEA as Catalyst Fund' - The Limelight (20 November 2015)

Anni Heino is the AMC's Editor of Communications and Resonate magazine.


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