Circus as an art form tends to fall through the gaps when it comes to applying for funding. Is it often lumped in with either theatre or dance, and whilst it can certainly contain aspects of either or both of these genres, it is not characteristic of either. As such, it often doesn’t meet specific criteria when circus companies or independent artists apply for funding for their projects, and as a result they miss out on receiving grants. There has been recent campaigning from circus artists throughout the country to have the main arts funding body in this country, the Australia Council, include a category for circus in their grant offers.
However, in the recent federal budget, the funding for the Australia Council itself was slashed in half, instead having these funds redirected towards a fund overseen and administered by the minister for the arts, Sen. George Brandis, for “excellence”.
The Australia Council was set up by the Whitlam Government as an independent, peer reviewed body which has made possible all manner of artistic projects. Redirecting this money to a fund awarded by a singular politician has the country’s artists horrified for a number of reasons.
Firstly, one of the most appealing aspects about any kind of art is that is can be used to offer a critical viewpoint on society, including politics. The thought of having artists have to shmoose up to a politician in order to receive funding to make their art feels incredibly sleazy to me. Even worse is the ability of that politician to silence any artist who is presenting a critique or a viewpoint that disagrees with that of their party or indeed, them personally, by denying them financial support.
And what then happens when the governing party inevitably changes? Do those artists who were personal favourites of the former Minister of the arts lose their favoured status because they were too close to the opposing political position?
Secondly, the minister for the arts may not actually have a very good grasp of what is good art. Playing favourites because of an individual’s personal taste is not a valid way to determine what projects are worthy of receiving funding.
And what is “excellence”, anyway? To me, “excellence” could easily be interpreted as “elitist”. This week, senator Brandis confirmed this suspicion by awarding $1.something million to the Australian Ballet and The Bell Shakespeare company. This is fine for these companies, and I am not by any means disparaging the work that they do. However dance is so much more than just Ballet. Theatre is so much more than just Shakespeare. Music is so much more than just Opera, ect. By limiting financial support to one narrow, and dare I say, safe, conservative aspect of each respective artistic genre, you are strangling innovation and without innovation and creativity, the arts will slowly die. Innovation and creativity and the fundamental principles on which any art form rests. And new works can’t happen overnight. Arts practitioners need time, space, and money to experiment, create, fail and rework and refine their ideas.
In addition to this, in the Arts, just like in every other industry, no one starts at the top. A young actor or dancer may start with a small company, or creating independent work. They learn from their peers, refine their technique, gain experience in the industry. They then gain a reputation amongst their peers in the industry and are eventually invited to audition for one of the above mentioned major companies or similar. With the loss of funding, a lot of small to medium companies will have to downsize their operations and may cease to exist altogether. Independent work will become a lot more difficult to create without financial support. And thus less talented people will persist with their creative endeavours to the point where they would be employed by those companies favoured by Senator Brandis. This will effectively kill the “excellence” that he is intending to foster.
Another aspect of this is that there are a wide range of projects that have been funded by the Australia Council that are precluded from “excellence” by the nature of the people that they are working with, such as projects for Indigenous people or those with a disability. One could argue that artistic expression is one of very few avenues that these and other marginalised groups get for expressing themselves , and now this is potentially under threat.
The arts in Australia matter. They should be innovative. They should be inclusive. They should be accessible. And they should be funded.