16 July 2015
I am writing in response to the Senate Inquiry into the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts and related matters.
I am a writer, in that this is how I define myself and it is the focus of my individual arts practice, but my involvement in the Australian arts sector is multifaceted: I write and have published fiction, non-fiction, criticism, commentary and review for numerous Australian and international publications, including Overland, Meanjin, The Big Issue, harvest, Voiceworks, The Guardian, the ABC and more. I have featured on panels at the Melbourne Writers Festival, Adelaide Writers Week, Emerging Writers’ Festival and at The Wheeler Centre. I have also undertaken paid writing roles for many of these organisations. I am represented by Jenny Darling and Associates literary agency. I have written a novel and am currently working on long-form narrative non-fiction, for which I have received state-based project support. After a 5-year publishing relationship with Overland literary magazine, I was recently engaged as its Deputy Editor. Prior to this, I worked for nearly 4 years full time as the Executive Administrator and, subsequently, Philanthropy Coordinator at Melbourne Theatre Company. I thus have a keen, first-hand understanding of the internal mechanisms of a major performing arts organisation, insight into the ecology and efficiency of the small-to-medium arts sector, and direct experience of the realities of life as an individual emerging and career artist.
I received my PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University on a scholarship in 2012 at the age of 26. In 2013, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of an Australia Council ArtStart grant. The purpose of this grant is to assist creative postgraduates to obtain skills which allow them to better engage in the marketplace. For example, this grant allowed me to take up a marketing and business-planning mentorship, to attend and appear at local and international literary festivals, and to network and to grow my industry connections. As an emerging artist, these tools are crucial. They are not taught in Creative Writing or Fine Arts courses, nor do they come naturally to most artists. ArtStart gave me training and opportunities that I am still drawing on two years later, and expect I will be drawing on for many years into the future. ArtStart was also an unequivocal success story for the Australia Council: a longitudinal study of ArtStart recipients found that the program yielded dedicated career artists who spent a higher proportion of their time on their art and received a higher percentage of their income from it, too. Yet ArtStart is one of the programs that have been cut as a result of the funding reappropriation from Australia Council to the Ministry of the Arts, with no replacement career development programs offered to emerging artists.
I have taught and mentored young and emerging writers, and not so long ago I was one. One of the most fundamental dilemmas that young and emerging artists face is how to support themselves while simultaneously improving their artistic practice. This is because for art to become ‘excellent’, one needs to treat it like a job: it must come first, and a lot of time, energy and money must be invested in it for an artist to develop to their full potential. And yet even highly acclaimed and influential artists in Australia struggle to make ends meet, and are forced to spend much of their time and creative energy on work that has little to do with their creative ambitions.
Perhaps there are some people who believe this is as it should be, as if the creation of art is not a means to an ‘honest living’ – except that the majority of artists, regardless of whether or not they supplement their artistic practice with other jobs, live at or below the poverty line. The Australia Council itself commissioned a number of reports (e.g. Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: An Economic Study of Professional Artists in Australia, D Throsby and V Hollister) which detail this reality. In my own case, I did not work for MTC because my ambition was to become an arts administrator (although I certainly found the experience incredibly valuable); I worked in those roles because I needed to support myself financially while I developed my creative practice. If I must work a day job to support myself, at the very least I want to be able to do so within the sector in which my skills and passions lie. Many other artists come to similar conclusions – I know this because I worked with them: lighting designers by night are ticketing officers by day; writers are also editors and publishing assistants; dancers are also marketers and administrators. But this lifestyle also takes a toll. When you are working the equivalent of two full time jobs on below-average pay, burnout, fatigue, acute anxiety and severe depression are not simply likely, but common. It is even more difficult for women, particularly parents, and particularly those who live alone, whether by choice or circumstance. Many exceptional young and emerging writers I know (and many that I taught) gave up their creative practice not by choice, but because the physical and emotional strain of attempting to work to make ends meet and work to make art was simply too much.
Project grants for individual artists are one of the primary ways in which artists can afford to spend time actually working on their art. A $10,000 project grant may allow an artist (who would otherwise need to work full time) one full day a week for a year to devote to her creative practice. This is at the smaller end of the scale, but it can and often does make the difference between an artist retaining her practice or giving it up entirely.
The new National Program for Excellence in the Arts guidelines state that it will not fund individual artists. The funds with which it has been created have been cut directly from programs in the Australia Council that did. This is a direct loss to individual artists at all stages of their careers, and will result in the creation of less art, less accomplished art, and less representative art from across the community. It will mean that the only people who can afford to make art are those who are already wealthy, or who have a partner who is willing to carry the burden of breadwinning while the other works on her creative practice. This is a deeply divisive, discriminatory way to fund arts practice.
But even if the NPEA did fund individuals, it is deeply concerning to me, as a writer who is not only committed to the development of her art form as an aesthetic and communicative tool, but whose work is also often deeply political, that an arts funding scheme be directly administered by Ministry appointees. Such a scheme makes me and those like me incredibly vulnerable to direct political intervention preventing my work from receiving financial support, even as increasing numbers of my peers, numerous publications, and the sector in general have and continue to encourage and support my artistic development. Arms length, peer-reviewed assessment processes mean democratic, community-driven funding that benefits artists across the sector. In the NPEA, the Ministry appears to be establishing a bureaucracy that is precisely the opposite.
Furthermore, a large proportion of the funds appropriated to establish the NPEA has come from Australia Council programs that provided operational funding for the small-to-medium sector. In literature, this means operational costs for literary journals and small festivals. The NPEA will not, however, fund ongoing operational costs for organisations, only ‘projects’. This means that even those of us who have attempted to maintain some semblance of financial stability in a permanent part-time administrative role in the sector now have our livelihoods directly threatened on two accounts.
The NPEA also does not make any mention of literature as an eligible art form for funding. As a result, with the cuts to the Australia Council affecting both operational funds and individual artists, the literary sector in Australia has been completely defunded on a federal level. And yet our reach is enormous: at Overland, for example, where we publish a daily online literary magazine as well as quarterly print issue, we have had over 426,635 unique visitors to our website alone in the past 12 months. For comparison, that is nearly double Melbourne Theatre Company’s paid attendance for its entire 2014 season (236,835), and at a fraction of the cost.
I do not believe that the private sector can fill this funding gap. In my role in the Development Department of MTC, I was responsible for grants application and administration, as well as the solicitation of funds from private individual donors. I spent considerable time researching the overall funding landscape, and in particular, opportunities to secure core operational funding for arts organisations, i.e. funds that were not tied to particular projects, but which assisted the core purpose of an organisation, such as producing a magazine, or putting on a regular season of theatre. While there is a modest appetite within the private sector to fund the arts, operational funding grants for arts organisations of the scale provided by the Australia Council simply do not exist. Arts organisations cannot continue to exist on a project-to-project basis. We, like every other industry, require stability in order to thrive.
I believe that art matters beyond its capacity to sell: it helps us remember our humanity; it reflects the world back to us anew and to allows us to explore the possibilities for different and better ways of living. It reminds us of who we are and who we want to be. That the cultural ecology which allows us to do that in Australia could be at stake at the whim of a single bureaucratic decision is terrifying, but no less true for that.
Stephanie Honor Convery