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Cuts 'threaten SA’s global reputation as an arts centre'

Opinion

Adelaide, especially in arts and culture, has always liked to think of itself as being ahead of the curve. But recent announcements – including those in yesterday’s budget – suggest we’ve decided to buck that trend, writes Gail Kovatseff.

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Other jurisdictions seeking to secure the next generation’s future with high-quality jobs have sought ways to accelerate transitioning into a new economy based on creativity. To do this, they have aggregated their arts and creative industries under a single department with a comprehensive vision.

In addition to aggregating arts, screen and creative industries under Creative Victoria and forming a far-reaching vision, Victoria is also investing new funds – announcing in 2016 an increase of $143 million over four years.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has provided an unprecedented level of new investments with an additional $1.8 billion over 10 years for the arts, screen and media sector.

Yet in South Australia, the Marshall Government is disaggregating the arts and cultural industries by spreading them across departments.

It is reducing to a rump its former single department, Arts South Australia, by removing its executive director and absorbing it into the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) in a manner still unclear, with a projected loss of at least 50 per cent of its full-time employees.

On top of this – and despite some important announcements of new funding, including $60 million for a new Indigenous art gallery – the State Government will cut $31.9 million out of the arts budget over the next four years.

A devastating $18.5 million is be cut from arts organisations and programs, which will inevitably diminish both their capacity and what can be delivered artistically, threatening South Australia’s global reputation as an arts centre. The rest of the cuts ($13.4 million) are to be made by what is described as a “refocusing” of Arts South Australia.

Although Premier Steven Marshall is yet to meet with the Arts Industry Council of SA (AICSA), my impression of him and Minister for Education John Gardner, the Liberals’ arts spokesperson while in opposition, is that their intentions are good and they are genuinely committed to arts and culture.

However, while I am sure that Gardner will be an excellent minister to the arts organisations that have been moved from the Arts SA portfolio to the Department of Education, is this really the best place for companies such as Windmill to be administered? This is a theatre company developing and touring its world-class children’s theatre productions internationally, with a film arm producing acclaimed features.

The Government has clearly jumped the gun with these administrative decisions, which on the surface appear to have been driven by sheer cost-cutting. Gut Arts SA and let other departments and the DPC, the department it now is under, absorb the costs of administration.

Yet Arts SA has been extremely efficient, with less than 4 per cent of its budget spent on staff and administration. This 4 per cent was well-spent – I know that, as I worked there for a decade. It’s always been staffed by passionate, hard-working and knowledgeable people committed to arts practice, artists and arts companies. Is this expertise to be thrown away with all of its corporate memory?

Much of the arts and creative sector wants a single, visionary department with gravitas

On a more positive note, the Marshall Government has at least committed to consulting and developing an arts plan. This is something the previous government failed to produce in 16 years, so it is a big step forward for the sector.

The lack of an agreed vision, plan and strategies may be one of the reasons Arts SA has been able to be so ruthlessly dealt with; over time, it came to be viewed by some as potentially disposable. This potential disposability encouraged some of the big cultural institutions to successfully ask to have their ties cut to Arts SA so they could manage their own advocacy, in a way which has worked so well for others.

If the Marshall Government had waited and consulted, before making such major decisions, in balance it would have found that much of the arts and creative sector wants a single, visionary department with gravitas; a department able to deliver on industry development, and run by a skilled and savvy executive director who can negotiate locally and federally on the industry’s behalf.

With such a cavernous gulf now between the newly implemented administrative arrangements and what the sector wants, it is possible that any future arts and creative plan will be contestable.

However, we have to hope that we can move beyond this history of contestability and competing agendas. It is likely possible to run an arts and creative plan across government arms.

The Government can gain much goodwill by comprehensively consulting with the arts and cultural industry on what it wants, and by finally drawing a line in the sand between the past and a future where SA governments finally run the arts and culture with a vision, strategies and plans.

We must also demand that once the Government understands the sector and its full potential, the kinds of cuts announced this week, relatively small to the state’s overall budget but so devastating to the arts, are reversed.

Gail Kovatseff is chairperson of the Arts Industry Council of South Australia, an independent body with more than 100 members representing arts and cultural organisations and independent artists.

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