On reading the draft guidelines for The National Program for Excellence in the Arts

I DO hope I’ve got this right. Senator George Brandis is appropriating about $100 million, give or take, from the Australia Council for the Arts so he can give it to applicants approved directly and personally by himself. It’s what the guidelines say, kind of. The language is not always as direct as one would wish, but the implications are there: “The final amount of any funding and length of funding term will be assessed by the Ministry for the Arts and independent assessors, subject to Program budgetary limits. Recommendations will then be made to the Minister for the Arts.”

The independent assessors will, of course, be selected by the Ministry for the Arts, which doesn’t sound incredibly independent, but perhaps that’s just me. The killer is that final sentence, classically expressed in the passive voice. After the assessments, who exactly makes the recommendations? Can’t tell, although presumably you’re supposed to take it on trust that it’s those members of Senator Brandis’s own ministry and the assessors chosen by that ministry. And then after those recommendations are received by the minister, who makes the final call? One must assume it’s the minister, even though a definite statement on that is delicately omitted.

It’s not a good look. What qualifications does Senator Brandis have, I might ask, to carry out such an important task? What are his arts credentials? What has he seen (when not carrying out his undoubtedly heavy duties as Commonwealth Attorney-General), where has he gone, what has he studied, what are his tastes? What, in short, does George Brandis find excellent? (Or, if he happened to get bored or promoted or rolled or whatever else can happen in politics, his successor?)

It’s possible to find some clues in what is an often vaguely expressed document. (“ … applicants should keep in mind that the program seeks to support projects that deliver national outcomes and deliver a diverse range of quality projects in each of the program streams.” Empty bureaucratic-speak at its finest.) It would appear the Senator thinks the Australia Council has been funding too much arty-farty navel-gazing stuff for his liking. One of the program’s objectives is to “strengthen Australia’s reputation as a sophisticated and artistic nation with a confident, outward-focused arts sector’’. It goes without saying the italics are mine.

Individuals need not apply. (Even if they are really excellent?) They are specifically excluded from the process, those mad experimental teat-sucking wierdos, and so, one assumes, must seek funds from the depleted Australia Council coffers, from whatever is left after all the major organisations have received their untouchable grants.

I particularly like the dot point in the Assessment Criteria under the Quality heading: Relevance and likely appeal to audiences and communities. Who the hell knows what will “likely appeal”? As William Goldman so famously and sagely wrote in his Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” That was in 1983, and it remains true.

I give you The New York Times, May 26, 2015, in which Michael Paulson wrote that while sales and attendance records were set in a bumper season, the resulting bounty was by no means divided equally. Indeed, “about three-quarters of shows fail financially”, and that’s not just in the season just gone. That’s every year. Let’s just say that again. In the most audience-aware, audience-friendly market in the universe, 75 per cent of all shows lose their entire investment. Does an investor set out to lose all that dough? Not likely. No, it’s just that no one knows anything. A musical about Mormons going to spread the word in Africa? A play about an autistic boy? A musical about a lesbian whose father was secretly gay? Who knew that The Book of Mormon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Fun Home would be so excellent? (I can say this definitively because I have seen all three.)

I fear that this likely audience appeal – a criterion repeated under Access as “audience appeal and demand” – means that work that has already proved itself popular will be favoured. But surely something that already possesses audience appeal and demand isn’t so much in need of public funding? Just thinking out loud here.

And on we go. The guidelines make fascinating – if dolorous – reading from the heading onwards. What is this excellence? I go to the theatre constantly and have done so for more than three decades, and see good and often great work at all levels and in many different and often surprising places. Under Senator Brandis’s plan many of the companies responsible for this work will be forced to vie for funds from the reduced Australia Council budget or apply to the NPEA and put themselves at the mercy of one man. This, before any work has had a chance of proving itself in the one place it counts: before an audience.

Culture isn’t neat and tidy, nor should it be. Things will fail. Work will enrage. It will also teach, enlarge, embolden, inspire and alter thinking. It’s just that we can’t tell before the event which things will do what. We have to take the plunge.

In her recent Platform Paper The Arts and the Common Good, published in May, Katharine Brisbane wrote: “No amount of calculation or modelling can guarantee success and it is arrogant of us to claim it.” Senator Brandis proposes to take $100 million-plus of our money – not his money, our money – and dole it out at his sole discretion in the name of some untested vision of excellence, whatever that word means to the minister. Arrogant. Yes, that’s the appropriate word. Arrogant beyond belief.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry into the NPEA closed on Friday but feedback is invited by the Ministry for the Arts until 5pm (AEST) on July 31. You might want to let Senator Brandis know what you think.

nationalexcellenceprogram@arts.gov.au

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