An era of throwaway arts

On the same day that the Morrison government announced they were giving $500 million to defence so they can buy bigger guns (part of a $3 billion increase to the department), I learned that Overland was not invited to renew its four-year funding from federal arts body the Australia Council.

This funding round is supposed to give organisations certainty for the years between 2021 and 2024, as in we’re certain you can keep publishing, and also have time and space to start new projects. As you may have heard, two-thirds of the arts organisations that applied didn’t make it through the expression of interest stage.

Because it’s a brutally competitive process – one that pits peer organisations against each other instead of celebrating success across the arts – such news usually comes as a sense of relief that your own organisation made it through. In a better world, one where bigger guns weren’t considered more important than artistic contribution and opportunity, every organisation would receive funding. Our spaces and pages would be seen as integral to the production of art and literature each and every day.

Feedback from the panel of peers was that they liked what Overland does, but weren’t sure why we needed four-year funding to do it.

My response is: to continue all the programs and activities we already do, and to launch some new projects that build upon our existing work. But in the arts, the pressure is always to be more ambitious – to do more (if you don’t like our magazines, how about these books, these prizes, these partnerships), or something new or faddish (we will send a writer to the Moon!), or to constantly embellish without the need to provide evidence (we publish the best writing, we are the most diverse, we are the only publisher to produce X).

The four-year model is supposed to invest in the arts and organisations long-term, but now it seems more like it’s reinforcing the project model: prioritising new programs that are disposable, that will be abandoned for some different idea in the next funding round. There is no impetus on the peer panels – or any funding body, really – to maintain anything, outside of the Major Performing Arts Companies (for which the Australia Council quarantines 62% of its grants money each year). Perhaps it could be argued that organisations need to grow with ongoing funding – but given the pressure to only fund artists and new works, to what extent is that truly possible?

As anyone who works in the arts knows, no-one will give you money to keep the lights on, to keep producing ‘the great work you’re doing’, to keep to the fundamental purpose of your organisation. For literary magazines, this fundamental purpose is to publish. A disposable arts culture might work for the visual arts, due to the nature of, say, exhibitions, but it’s not how literature happens. In literature, mostly you keep doing the same thing: finding writers, working with writers, publishing writers. It is from these ordinary literary activities that extraordinary cultural works are produced.

As part of our EOI, we had proposed starting a new weekly publication dedicated to fiction that would have a series of ten rotating editors each year. The idea stemmed from the number of applications we receive from writers and editors wishing to curate one of our special editions, and the volume of short stories submitted for those editions.

One of the fundamental problems with the journal model at the moment is that it’s hard to be a writer and to experiment, or to make your stories politically or culturally responsive, when so little short fiction is being published. Such constraints have the fundamental effect of narrowing literature. We argued that we need fast, responsive places for short fiction, and to provide more spaces for editors and writers to be involved in curation and production.

At Overland, we spend a lot of time helping to develop writers and writing. They’re often newer writers, though not necessarily young. They’re not necessarily famous. Sometimes they’re single mothers or people historically excluded from literary production, sometimes simply because they have no publication record. We believe that artist development is key to removing barriers to participating in literature. But it can be hard to make this work seem exciting, because external forces – capitalism – want you to invest in young writers or superstar writers or novelty.

I absolutely believe that the real enemy of the arts is a federal government that places no emphasis on funding culture yet gives billions to the prospect of endless war and running concentration camps.

But if the Australia Council remains committed to the four-year model, perhaps it can still be improved upon. For established organisations, project funding is not an alternative to the four-year model, because it results in projects that are different and one-off. It’s a model that means orgs can’t commit to programs beyond that timeframe, or to supporting artists, not in any meaningful sense. Funding bodies can’t claim to be investing in Australian culture long-term, when the work you do is praised, but you are simultaneously criticised for wanting to be supported to do the work you do well.

Moreover, all at once and every four years is a tough ask for small-medium arts organisations, and there are some publications and groups that will vanish over the next few years. Opening the program every two years would mean organisations weren’t reliant on precarious project funding for extended periods of time.

Every two years would also allow a pool of people with organisational experience to be involved in the peer assessment process, because the skills and knowledge required to run an organisation are specialised. (Perhaps the Australia Council formed a panel like this, but it’s hard to say until April 2020, when the list of peers are released.)

The next few years will mean many more grant applications, uncertainty, anxiety and all that goes along with precarity. However, allow me to stress that this funding development, while disappointing, is not a horror story for Overland. We work hard so as to not rely on only one source of funding. We know that people like our work and you can be confident that it will continue.



Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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.

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  1. This is an astute and clear article that articulates the difficulty facing arts organisations at the moment, especially literary ones. Thanks for publishing it, and, simply to echo your comments about why journals continue to matter. This is a question of how to built better bridges from communities that are often in need, and, the ongoing importance of why we need avenues like Overland to create opportunities of speaking truths to power. That is the transcendent possibility of writing itself, that it allows us to create possibilities that were not there, which is an essential part of democracy, society, and changing the world for the better. So, thank you Jacinda and Overland, and in solidarity, keep going.

  2. Jacinda:
    Well said, in an era when the Federal Cabinet is choc-a-bloc with flat-Earthers and other such luminaries.
    I have not checked, but is your rival (right-wing) journal Quadrant facing a similar funding crisis? I used to have a subscription there, but notice that it has dropped its paywall; so no need any more for that.
    Overland has an extremely important asset: its established name and presence. You are automatically distributed world-wide electronically. Trouble is, no-one has worked out a way to make money off the Net through journalism and creative writing: unlike the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which latter got started by flogging print books and has never looked back. Google and Facebook offer a free service, which in turn makes them the biggest advertising agencies in the world, and awsh with money.
    Karl Marx would probably agree were he still around: capitalism is an ever-evolving phenomenon.
    If it is any comfort, all print media I know about have the same problem. Just ask Mr Murdoch.
    The Internet has been the bane and torment of the whole bang lot of them, not only in Australia but world-wide. But at the same time, that very same Internet has solved a lot of distribution problems.

  3. The Arts definitely need recycling, monetarily, rather than being thrown away in these global warming times. Science doesn’t seem to speak so imperatively on the topic, wonder why? Possibly because the mountain of funding Science, Innovation and Research is guaranteed each budget completely shades that which the Arts receive.

  4. It’s really shocking and depressing that Overland and other beloved and important, long term cultural producers (like Theatre Works) should ever have to think twice about funding.

    ‘Precariat’ is the word – keeping individuals/orgs struggling to survive is an excellent way to divert energy and resources from the social and political critiques they’d otherwise be creating. This is a general effect right now – that goes well beyond the Arts sector – seems to be worsening.

    And what exactly IS the relationship between ‘the government of the day’ and the Australia Council? Seems like there’s a “let’s defund-to-destroy” attitude from gov to the council, and then from the council to the creators/orgs… Who are the ‘peers’ that decide the latter? How are they chosen? How are they directed to choose????

  5. Lucid as always Jacinda. Thanks. Australian arts – and literature in particular – are in a truly parlous state.
    The half-baked post the other day by Emmett Stinson is indicative of literature’s insularity, narcissism and blindness. Competitions are just a very small part of a neoliberalised industry that is so brain-dead, white and academically suffocating that it can only be kept alive by active practices of exclusion and privilege. Australian literature has always been conservative and colonial, but whatever was potentially radical in it got run over by capitalism a long time ago, and any arguments it could make for its continued relevance are now not much more than a faint squeak back down the road somewhere. One of the great things about Overland is that it has come to really value itself as a marginal and even unfashionable space. I think that’s the only space worth inhabiting and whatever difficulties the new editors face, they are at least in a marginal precarious space – which is where the most interesting things happen. Good call on the new editors jacinda (and Overland). Well done. I know nothing about Dunk’s work, but Araluen is a legend and giving her a lit journal is a great move.

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