marcus westbury

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Waiting for God knows what, why or how long

August 11th, 2010 by marcus

THE news last month that Arts Victoria and the Victorian government was not getting around to notifying successful applicants for their 2010 arts grants in time for them to actually do their projects hit a raw nerve with me. It has an ominous ring for many who have schlepped around in the underfunded, under-appreciated bottom-feeding end of what is sometimes referred to as the “arts industry”. Hopefully it’s not the start of a pattern.

Arts Victoria is usually better than most at this, but in other states and for many programs it’s surprisingly common. Smaller grants programs simply fall off the priority list when it comes to ministerial attention. It’s not just arts and it’s not just Victoria  across many fields and jurisdictions, across governments of all political persuasions, there can be a tendency to treat the recipients of small-scale funding programs with an attitude verging on contempt. In the arts, it is often individual artists and small companies that bear the brunt. Of course they are the ones with the fewest resources  and they are also least likely to kick up a stink.

For those without access to much support, the whole funding process is bewildering and intimidating, even when it’s working well. For many artists and small companies, their entire viability can rest on resources that to government departments might seem like rounding errors. I once worked helping young artists with their first applications  and it constantly reminded me how much they invest emotionally and practically in the outcome.

I did it myself. It seems stupid now, but for my first funding application I made a five-hour round trip to ensure it was received by the inflexible “at our office by 5pm” deadline. At the last moment I read the fine print that stipulated that it be filled out in black  not blue  pen. Almost in tears, I spent an hour camped in the foyer of a government office building tracing over every letter, every number, every word in black for fear of being ruled out on a brutal technicality. All this was in the hope of receiving a few thousand dollars for a project that in a best-case scenario had no prospect of paying me anyway.

For many, every day of waiting comes with a cost: trying to hold off saying yes (or no) to other work while waiting for news; trying desperately to keep a project team together while not knowing if you can pay them or get the resources to go ahead. It’s hard enough, without the additional complication of not knowing when you will know.

In not knowing, it’s also easy to make the wrong call. When the recommended funding for a project I was working on once languished for months on a minister’s desk, our deadlines for marketing and publicity  and for the execution of the project itself  came and went. Faced with no other choice, we decided to go ahead with it.

The sign-off, we hoped, was a formality, and if we didn’t go ahead now it would be impossible. When the decision finally came the minister in question compensated for his delay by unilaterally moving the dates on our project to the following year.

Net result in the real world: a $10,000 deficit and an obligation to do the same program twice. My mistake.

Too often the system is not user-based. It’s to be expected when most artists feel that any support is a luxury, so they rarely complain (not to mention there are obvious risks in alienating those with money and power by speaking up).

If you had the luxury of starting again, you’d begin by designing the process to be relevant to applicants. It would be far more responsive. It would be quick and timely.

It would minimise the onerous compliance bureaucracy that has grown with every petty crisis, and remove the small army of political hacks, spin doctors and advisers who have an inordinate ability to clog up what should otherwise be simple processes for relatively small sums.

That’s probably too much to ask. Still, it doesn’t hurt to occasionally ask a simple question: does this process work as efficiently and effectively for the taxpayers and those it aims to support as it could do? If not, then perhaps we should fix it.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Katharine Aug 11, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Artists shouldn’t have to be profficient paper-pushers, application filers, accounting experts, etc. That’s one of the good things about the “Intermittent du spectacle” system in France – artists know they’re going to have money coming in and don’t have to waste hundreds of hours a year on paperwork.

  • 2 john walker Aug 12, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Marcus , in 1984 I handed back a largish grant and walked out the door for good . I do not regret that choice. A lot of good people have spent far too long waiting for something to happen.

  • 3 Zippy Aug 12, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    It’s an incredibly flawed & expensive system.

    It appears to be set up for those with the ability & timelines to conform to it – which is very rarely in synch with those who actually do stuff. Successful grant applicants in my circles are unfortunately only that — they rarely have skills or vision apart from grant getting.

    The recent round of VicArts grants has been accompanied by monstrous politicking and conflicts of interest.

    Abolish grants, make the dole a no questions asked system – if you can live on it we will leave you alone and free up unused government buildings as cheap arts spaces.
    That will cost society bugger all and sort out the ninnies and the twits.

  • 4 john walker Aug 16, 2010 at 11:01 am

    The truth is that public programs like the Australia Council are intrinsically expensive to run well.And thus they need justification in significant community benefit that the market would not otherwise deliver.
    The ‘arts’ are virtually impossible to define and community benefit outcomes that are definitely attributable to actual funded programs very hard to measure. Claims that %93 Australians just ‘love it’ are as plausible as Afghan election results.
    And thus whether the community benefit outweighs the administrative costs is, I think, a fair question.

    It is also true that peer review systems in both the arts and sciences are intrinsically conservative and self-perpetuating.

    But what to do it is a biggish Question. –

    •What sort of things could be done to counter the natural tendency of pier review systems to become closed circles of, every increasingly, very similar people?

    •Are the benefits of running an Australia Council Style System worth the significant costs?

    The Councils foundation was laid down in a 1960s command economy conception of ‘Top down leadership’ ; Its role was to facilitate the creation of ‘advanced’ art. Art that was radically different to art that had market appeal.

    Ever since then the council has struggled to adapt to Australias modern free market society and to subsequent government demands that it change its role into to one of helping the growth of art-forms that have (at least potentially) independent market support.

    • What changes could be made?
    •Would it have been better to keep the councils role that of an openly ‘elite arts’ Public Patron ; And so avoid the confusion, contradictions and waste, that the ‘arts industry model’ created ?

    •Publicly funded systems that attract private philanthropic donations to individually chosen art projects- for example the Australian Business Art Foundation- allow more direct individual choice as to what gets support and what dos not. Thus they do address the problems of circularity that arise from too much pier review.
    However they are costly to run – ABAF has cost the public about ten million in direct payments over the past ten years. ABAF has delivered about 5 million in private donations to art projects. These individual donations are tax deductible – at 40 cents in the dollar – these deductions represent a loss of about 2 million in tax revenues.
    Thus Abafs program has over the past ten years cost the public about 12 million in total. This is a similar cost/benefit ratio to the Australia Councils.
    •Is it much of an alternative?

    •Are there other, more cost effective (and/or more innovation encouraging) ways of providing public support to the arts that might be worth thinking about?

    Any Ideas?