Excellent! The arts budget and other tales of woe

Over the last few weeks, since the sudden announcement by Senator George Brandis that the government would be creating a a new National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) under the control of the Arts Minister, the one and only George Brandis, himself – I’ve been trying to make sense of what’s happening and trying to read through the many and exhausting online news items about this government bombshell.

There’s a lot to take in. I’ve skipped a lot. Thankfully NAVA has a dedicated site for artists and arts organisations seeking info. 

However, in all the discussions the problem for me is with the word ‘excellence’. Excellence in the arts is not a new value, especially for the arts in Australia, in recent times. Even the Australia Council uses it. It’s bandied around a lot. It seems to be an institutional term that governments and funding bodies and other institutions of note can spout and mouth as if, said often enough, everyone will agree. Yes. excellent. But what does it mean?

“Excellence” according to my online etymology dictionary can be defined as:

” mid-14c., from Old French excellence, from Latin excellentia “superiority, excellence,” from excellentem (nominative excellens) “towering, distinguished, superior”

So it’s about being ‘superior’, ‘towering’ ‘distinguished’. That will certainly delete a lot of experimental, small-not towering art practices. And that’s probably the point. Art is to be made by people who are superior, towering and distinguished. Nothing there to quibble about. Excellence is excellence. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to argue about. But that’s just the problem, especially in a field as contrary, counter-intuitive, creative, surprising, unexpected and experimental as art and the arts. And this is especially so for small artist-run initiatives.

It’s difficult to predict exactly what the $104.8M –  that will be removed over four years from the Australia Council’s funding – will mean for artist-run initiatives. ARIs, on the whole, are not funded at all by the Australia Council. And if they are, it is project based rather than support for the running of the space.

Rather than a direct hit I think the effect will be more pervasive and insidious. What I worry about and what keeps me awake at night is the shift in cultural and political values that this government and George Brandis are pushing. This of course has been happening across all sectors of Australian society with the drone word “austerity”. And now the arts sector is being included in this neo-liberal makeover. The values being pushed are the old traditional values, the pre-1970s, even pre-Whitlam revolution, pre-aboriginal land rights campaigns, pre-feminism, pre-gay rights, all the battles that we thought we’d won – well at least made some movement on. It’s a return to ‘the canon’ which means the usual suspects, no surprises and ultimately shifting money to the privileged few and let the rest eat cake. (btw Marie Antoinette never said this). I could go on… but it’s probably better if you read Naomi Klein or Richard Denniss (The Australia Institute.)

The Australia Council may not be perfect. Let’s face it we’ve all had our moments of not getting that grant that would have changed everything. And its mission and its work has often been contested by just about everyone. But isn’t that the nature of a public institution with such broad responsibilities. It’s always going to be an agonistic situation.

But the Australia Council is more than its parts. It is a symbol and an actuality in the world that represents the possibility for a more democratic arts. And it is ours. It is a public institution that stands for something that I hold dearly and that is, the accessibility and possibility of the arts for all Australians. Not just the few.

And so that’s why I’m definitely participating tomorrow, June 18, in the national day of action.