Are we too funding reliant?
This is a question that I was recently asked. "The Arts Sector is too reliant on funding" has been a stance that many governments have taken for some years now. And I must say I took up the rhetoric a bit myself for a while. Several years ago funding programs shifted focus to "investment" and even has assessment criteria that refer to the applicant's capacity to fund future projects in other ways and be more "sustainable". The continual emphasis on gradual reduction of funding and organisations in particular needing to find other ways to be sustainable is exhausting and detracts from our sector producing innovative outcomes.
As someone who coaches people in the area of creative entrepreneurship, I am all for independent artists getting business savvy and creating sustainable frameworks for themselves financially. However, in Australia there are massive gaps in the sector that need to be bridged by funding. Parts of the sector and some of the roles we play will never be sustainable without funding. I include government and philanthropy in that funding mix.
I am going to delve into just three areas of our sector as a demonstration.
Most organisations that service the arts are heavily reliant on funding - and for good reason. What they provide to the arts sector including things like networking, resourcing, training, mentorship, touring and producing, cannot draw in enough money through commercialisation of those services to fund the positions that facilitate them. Without those services, the sector will often struggle to operate to its potential. We have seen many service organisations over the years defunded based on trends and priorities, with significant impact on the future capacity of elements of the arts sector to thrive when that service has gone.
Festivals are another example. There are few festival models that can survive without some sort of funding behind it. The iconic Brisbane Festival is currently being delivered and receives significant organisational and project funding from the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council. I counted 62 other partners who I'd imagine put in either financial or in-kind contributions to the festival as well. Why? Because the festival attracted 1.5 million attendees last year, contributed $36 million to the economy through the attention it brings, engages with 244 locations across Brisbane and importantly employs more than 1,100 local artists and art workers. Last year there were 16 world premieres, 16 First Nations-led productions and 128 sold out performances. But 70% of the program was free! The artists and artsworkers still need to be paid and at the same time, we need to be able to offer accessible, quality arts to the community. This is a major festival and regionally, on a smaller scale, hundreds of other events and festivals are doing magnificent work with great outcomes. This needs to continue to be funded to be viable and continue to inspire us all.
Artist development is another area that needs to continue to be funded. If we want innovation, artists need paid time to experiment and play with new ideas to generate new work. This is difficult when they are holding down 2 or 3 part time gigs and running their arts practice as a business to make ends meet. Funding is often the only way artists can afford to take time out to develop a new body of work. I can personally attest to that.
Ultimately we need to change our mindset. Funding the arts should be like funding any other service to the community. Yet the arts have to battle against each other within a smaller pool of funding than many other sectors, and spend a lot more time demonstrating why our idea should be funded. Have you ever tried to apply for a business grant? So much less information required because it is already understood what impact that funding can have on a small business.
I don't have a solution to this long-term issue. Only lots of questions.
So as I wrap up my rant here, I just want to say to anyone who may have influence, that we need to change the language and thinking around funding. It is an investment, but not one that can drop a bit of money into the pond, creating a ripple effect that the sector then needs to find other ways of supporting to continue riding the waves created to be seen as successful.