By Derek Strahan, May 2001
The Australia Council for the arts is a statutory body. The ostensible purpose for which it was formed, is to "promote excellence in the arts" (clause i), a noble and daunting task. Naturally the bureaucratic skills required to achieve this high purpose deserve and receive an equally high financial recompense. Exactly how high?
Current figures are hard to obtain because the Council is coy about them until an Annual Report is published. A cherished souvenir of mine is the Council's Annual Report for the years 1997-1998, the earliest report I could obtain in 1999. The Operating Statement for that year reveals (in round figures) that to disburse a grant total of $61.5 million, running costs were incurred of $9.6 million, of which $6.5 million were paid in salaries to Council staff.
$6.5 million might seem a lot of tax payers money to spend on "providing, and encouraging provision of, opportunities for persons to practise arts" (clause ii), but the figure is misleading. Only 10% of applications to the Council are successful, and therefore only $650,000 was spent providing encouragement by saying yes. The other $5,850,000 was spent employing arts bureaucrats to discourage persons from practising arts by saying no. That might sound simplistic, but the calculation has some merit as an old-fashioned time-and-motion computation. However you look at it, however hard the staff at the Australia Council work at processing applications, however diligently they work to earn their salaries,the end result is still that most of their time is spent in processing applications which will fail; and the consequence of that is that nearly $6 million dollars which might have gone to support failed applications is spent telling those applicants that their applications have failed. No amount of bureaucratic sophistry can negate that interpretation of the financial facts - and in the process of research to write this article I am already receiving some interesting feedback from the arts bureaucracy, or their messengers. For further feedback, see the final paragraph.
In the Australia Council's standard letter from the fund manager sent to inform persons of the failure of their application is the comforting assurance: "If there is anything you would like to discuss in relation to the assessment of your application I invite you to contact (the officer) whose contact details appear above."
But a person responding to this invitation, and expecting to be vouchsafed any kind of artistic assessment of their application would be sadly disappointed, as my experience with the Music Fund may suggest. All that a person will be given in the way of "discussion" will be a percentage score averaged from marks given by committee members assessing the person's application. A person may then request a Statement of Reasons, but I found that the resulting 11 page document consisted largely of an elaborate re-statement of assessment procedures already familiar from the yearly handbook. Aside from quoting percentages, 25 lines in the Statement were devoted to a resume of the project being assessed, and 3 lines to stating the obvious: that other projects were judged to "demonstrate the criterion" (for contribution to the arts) more strongly.
Having applied for such a Statement I had to wait much longer than the statutory 28 days for it to arrive (in fact, four months!) because (as the Fund Manager lamented in a second letter justifying delay, 31 August 1999) "as some Fund members have been travelling and one is currently overseas, it is taking me a little longer than I originally anticipated to have the endorsement of all members of the Fund which is required before the Chair can sign the Statement." An identical delay for identical reasons having occurred 3 years ago, I now had the impression that the Council is never adequately prepared to acquit itself of its statutory obligation to provide a "client" with "reasons" for a decision, and, moreover, that the resulting Statement of Reasons (when it finally arrives) is devoid of actual "reasons"! I decided to continue my efforts to find out why.
Correspondence on the topic (of providing "artistic assessments") over 17 months, totalled, in all, a 70 page file, consisting mainly of more obfuscation and evasion. However, amazingly, several nuggets of pertinent information did emerge from the verbiage, which I am able to pass on to interested readers. The first came in reply to my request (21 June 1999) "that, in the present instance, the Statement of Reasons which is being prepared restricts itself to providing an account of WHY the Committee rejected the Application" and "that those preparing the Statement kindly refrain from subjecting me to a further lengthy elaboration of the assessment procedures of the Australia Council which are, by now, well known to me." This elicited a response from the Fund Manager (8 July 1999) as follows: "Council has a set format for Statement of Reasons which was formulated under advice in terms of administrative law best practice. This will involve providing details once more of assessment process." I deduced, in other words, that the Council is under legal advice not to provide "artistic assessments."
Pursuing the matter further with the Chair of the Australia Council I was informed (27 October 1999): "While I also understand that you might appreciate a detailed artistic assessment of your proposal, I am sorry that Council does not have the resources to provide these for the nearly 4,000 applications per year." Interesting! Further enquiry produced the following question/answer exchange by email , which allows easy compilation of question/answer reply (January 25 2000). My questions, AO replies:
QUESTION: Is the inability of the Council to supply "detailed artistic statements" the result of budgetary constraints?
ANSWER: Yes, as per instructions from government about maintaining a lid on the administrative costs of the Council (e.g. staff) as opposed to funds for grants.
QUESTION: If the answer to the above is "yes", would you please supply an approximate figure for the additional budgetary requirement which would make it possible to supply "detailed artistic assessments" to client-applicants?
ANSWER: Across all artform areas, it would require at least a doubling of the staff and peer budget, which would not be permitted by government. We would also have to increase our peer costs, to enable them to provide the detailed artistic assessments in writing on each application. We estimate this would add another $500,000 to our peer assessment budget, due to the time required.
QUESTION: If the additional budgetary requirement specified above were to be made available to the Council, would the Council then have any objections, either in principle or in practise, to supplying "detailed artistic assessments" to client-applicants?
Hello? So is insufficient funding the only reason for non-provision of "artistic assessments" to clients? If so, was it misleading, in the first place, to cite "administrative law best practice" as the reason? On reading this you may feel as confused as I did, and still do. Is the Federal Government aware of this inconsistency in the advice given by its own arts advisory body? You might be moved to question why our government is spending $6.5 million on the salaries of arts bureaucrats to create such an impenetrable maze of contradictions! And you might think that a better system could be devised which would apportion most of that $6.5 million directly to the persons to whom the Australia Council is presently saying "No" without saying why! That way Australia would be richer in intellectual property (but poorer in bureaucrats). A good thing?
Some do not think so. Some people to whom I have spoken (in preparing this article) are entirely happy with a system in which a dozen people make decisions for the entire Australian continent as to what intellectual product gets developed with public money. This system is called "peer group assessment" and it has been developed so that the government of the day remains "at arm's length" from the decision making process. The problem begins with the amount of money which is available for funding so-called "grassroots" arts activity, as distinct from the amount available for funding what is called arts "infrastructure". In round figures, $2.5 million is available for the former, and $55 million for the latter.The work of the individual creative artists falls into the "grassroots" category, and arts organizations fall into the latter. Individual artists might well be aggrieved to realize that the Australian Council does not regard them as part of the "infrastructure" of the arts. But the problem does not end there.
The full funding picture is even more discouraging for the individual creative artist when you include the fact that, in addition to getting most of the public money, the "infrastructure" sector also has a monopoly on receiving the tax-deductible arts-donation dollar. This source of funding is only available to "registered arts organizations", and in the performing arts, for example, money from this source is rarely spent on commissioning new work, since performance organisations need every cent they get from any source, simply to stay afloat. So, if they want to commission new work, they apply to whom? To the Australia Council!
For those interested in reading a proposal for a widening of the funding base for the individual creative artist, also formerly known as the "primary creator", click here to read "Registrar of Primary Creators".
This proposal, in essence, offers a formula which would empower individuals in the private and corporate sectors to make decisions about what new art works get written - without the benefit of advice from "peer groups" or committees of any kind. The prospect of private individuals having the power to decide what art works get created fills many people in the mainstream music establishment with alarm. In my most recent conversation on this topic what most struck me was the distrust displayed by the speaker towards the aesthetic standards of the very people on whom the speaker relied ultimately for employment - the general public, otherwise known as the taxpayer.
I was told that the power of decision in this area should not be granted to the general public (i.e. the taxpayer), because this would result in a form of economic rationalism in the arts - in order words, it would result in artists writing to order to sell their product in the market place. On no account must this creative approach be encouraged. When I protested that members of the general public might not appreciate having their artistic preferences treated with such disdain, I was told that it was all right sometimes to "eat at McDonald's", but that some people might prefer to go round the corner to eat at a better class of restaurant. Amazed, I asked if the speaker was suggesting that the general public is only capable of appreciating McMusic, and that only McMusic would result if they were allowed to decide what gets written!
It was a rhetorical question, because I had already been given the answer. And I think the General McPublic should know what their arts gurucrats think of them.
Derek Strahan is a Sydney-based composer and writer.
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