An unmatched problem

Amidst all of the savagery of Senator George Brandis’ arts budget reforms, the almost-footnoted mention of $5.3 million redirected from the Australia Council towards private sector matched funding didn’t rate much commentary. Compared to the $104 million that will go into establishing Brandis’ National Programme for Excellence in the Arts, $5.3 million seems little more than a post-feast belch. But in other sectors, the emergent phenomenon of matching funds has been cause for grave concern, not least because of its use as a soft way of pushing the ‘marketisation’ of government resources.

Matched funding is an easy sell. Raise a certain sum from the private sector, or philanthropy, or crowd-funding, and we’ll match it dollar-for-dollar. The Federal Government’s Plus1 program was established to do just that, initially offering arts organisations matching funds for ‘capacity building’, which in less dry-mouthed language means jacking up the business end of your org. Creative Partnerships Australia (which administers Plus1) has now extended the funding to the actual production of work.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with matching funds. Many artists already engage in crowdfunding campaigns and if reaching your target means someone will double it, what’s not to like? Looked at upside-down, however, matching funds looks less like government largesse and more like a new condition imposed on funding applicants. That $5.3m was once administered by Australia Council peers and, whatever the faults in that process, it’s apparently now the free market that decides where it goes.

Elsewhere, that’s enough for outcry. When medical scientists are impelled to go cap-in-hand to industry in order to find matching funds for government assistance, their ability to conduct impartial research is compromised. When educators have to woo corporate investors just to retain government funding, a school or university’s image becomes a bigger priority than its actual outcomes. When the Abbott government’s co-payment scheme for GP visits was announced, much rage was outed. The practice of matching funds is on the same political continuum, and during last year’s Sydney Biennale fiasco Brandis made clear his wish that artists refusing funding from particular avenues on political grounds should be denied government assistance.

This isn’t a Liberal versus Labor thing, either. Creative Partnerships Australia was created under the last Labor government after the commissioning of Harold Mitchell’s review into private sector giving to the arts, and both major parties are in support of increasing private sector involvement.

But upping the money offered by third parties isn’t the same as making it a condition of government funding. It rewards those with the skills to spruik their art like a start-up, to refashion themselves as arts-mongers hollering their specials over the din of the marketplace.

Popularity contests are rarely won by weirdos. Artists should be encouraged to develop their marketing and promotion skills, but art that trembles at the horizon of experience and scratches at the lens through which we perceive our world just doesn’t always translate into a pithy sales pitch with accompanying HD trailer.

Crowdfunded projects are already biased towards the best networkers, which in practice can mean those with the most friends and richest family members. And while crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Pozible tend to pull the off-milk wince when the subject is raised, it’s no secret that many projects succeed through last-minute cash injections from those who are applying for the money in the first place. If a final $1,000 is needed to make it over the line and secure the overall sum sought, who wouldn’t raid the piggybank? In the case of arts funding, as elsewhere, this puts those already in a healthy financial position well ahead of their poorer peers.

In the most pessimistic scenario, matching funds could be used to buy grants. If I’m sitting on a lazy few grand, I could channel it through mates in a crowd-funding campaign and double my assets. The neoliberal ideal of competition (sorry, ‘contestability’) may allow our cultural landscape to be increasingly defined by those in positions of economic power.

The lack of a level playing field in this regard might not look too ugly to Brandis-style governance. There’s been little note made of the class bias of his notion of ‘excellence’, which promotes the kinds of art forms where technical accomplishment is favoured over experiment, access and community-building. It’s a generalisation, but the many years of private tuition and higher education required to reach truly elite levels in ballet, opera and classical music come with a price tag that isn’t viable for everyone, or wouldn’t seem worth the investment. To claim that success in this field is only a matter of meritocracy ignores barriers that are social in origin and systemic in effect.

‘Excellence’ as a value is up there with ‘quality’ and ‘vibrancy’ and too many other words imported from corporate strategy seminars. These are boneless terms, mere placeholders. They have as much real-world weight as the ‘gourmet’ your local milk bar uses to describe its bain-marie sandwiches.

None of this is a slight to anyone seeking, or having received, matching funds (or who enjoys an honest milk bar sandwich). Get ’em where you can, and do the good work funding enables. We can step back and ponder the politics that motivate matched funding, however, and attempt to ken where the privatisation of arts giving might eventually lead.

A ministry that directly funds its vision of excellence while letting the market decide what else is worthy is managing a pretty mean feat of Frankensteining cultural conservatism with economic liberalism. We’ve already made great strides in reframing the arts ecology as a ‘creative economy’, in which audiences are customers, supporters are stakeholders and artists, above all else, are businesses. Time to get selling. Quality creativity! Getcher excellence ’ere!

John Bailey

John Bailey is the name of a bunch of writers from around the world. This one lives in Melbourne and writes for the Age.

More by John Bailey ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Dear Mr Bailey, Although you have made some excellent points, respectfully, your statement – “There’s been little note made of the class bias of his [Brandis’s] notion of ‘excellence’, which promotes the kinds of art forms where technical accomplishment is favoured over experiment, access and community-building” – is inaccurate. I was denied a music grant a decade ago – under the Rudd government – for a song-cycle of 15 of the poems of Greek poet, CP Cavafy. When I rang the grant board to enquire why the work wasn’t funded, the reason given was that the board was looking for works with a more ‘technically innovative’ aspect. The fact that my work had already proved to be popular in both the Australian (a full-house season at Mietta’s) and the Greek communities (part of the Antipodes Festival) was irrelevant. In fact, when I queried this narrow qualifier with ‘So, I suppose if Schubert had submitted ‘Winterreise’ during this round, that would also have been rejected?’ ‘Yes,’ I was informed. Same circus, different clowns. Pass the popcorn.

  2. Hi SM,
    I considered that. Which is why I offered the Schubert example. But by rejecting the suggestion of ‘Winterreise’ as well, they pretty much laid their cards on the table. If what you are saying was so, then they were also saying the Schubert wasn’t ‘much good’ either. (Which as we know is pretty ridiculous.) So, we’re they lying? I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they were trying to be polite, or lying. I think they said what they meant. They were looking for ‘technical’ innovation. Looking at the kinds of musical projects that have been funded over the past decade, this appears to be so. JD

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.