arts funding

On the defunding of Island magazine – and what it will mean for Tasmanian writers

In the general feedback from Arts Tasmania’s Organisations funding round this year, applicants were told that ‘claims that overstated the importance of … an organisation were seen to lack awareness of the context of an application.’

It’s impossible to know if this was directed towards Island. It’s tempting to say that it couldn’t have been, because it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the magazine to Tasmanian literary culture; any argument to the contrary lacks awareness of the very context the feedback is describing.

More than twenty years ago, a stack of Island magazines filled a shelf at my mother’s house; she and my stepfather were subscribers at the time. They were published in the style that has been mimicked a little in recent issues – a larger magazine format, with an author’s face on the cover – and I still remember flicking through the pages, reading the poems, articles and stories. In my early years as a writer living in Hobart, I’d never heard of Overland, Meanjin or Southerly. Some things have probably changed – the world is more connected. But literary culture is not so weighty that emerging writers can readily grasp the scene, especially in the regions where regular events, programming and institutions are distant. It’s rare for me to talk to a young writer down here who has heard of Voiceworks.

Through the decades, Island has remained a point of aspiration for local writers – a Tasmanian publication that has embodied excellence and something to strive for. I wrote for years, trying to sneak into its pages. There was a review in 2009, but it didn’t feel like that counted. I had to wait another three years to publish one of my stories, and at that stage I’d been refining my craft for nearly a decade. Island was the first major literary journal to put my fiction into print.

Did it make a difference that Island was a Tasmanian publication, publishing a local writer? Definitely. These kinds of connections are more significant than is readily acknowledged. Has this helped me to build a practice and career? Of course it has. Granted, not everyone down here is published as often as they would like, and in a small community, this can rankle. Writers are published from the mainland, and internationally. But this is as it should be. A magazine that only published Tasmanian writers would be of no use to them – it needs to be a magazine of national significance, lifting them up on a wider stage, or else what is the point? Island has a distinct focus arising from where it is published, and it continues to publish, champion and develop Tasmanian writing and ideas. That is enough.

But Island has been defunded by Arts Tasmania, and the magazine will suspend publishing if extra support isn’t forthcoming. Island doesn’t receive financial or in-kind support from publishers or universities, as many literary journals do. It’s hard to criticise them for this – extra sources of financial support can be thin on the ground in Tasmania. It’s easy to blame Arts Tasmania here, but this is a competitive funding round for organisations across all artistic disciplines, and Island must have ranked lower than the money stretched. Put simply, they were deemed to be uncompetitive against other organisations. Whether this is a result of poor decision-making by the panel of peers, or a disappointing application by Island, isn’t for me to judge.

But it’s certainly true that as Tasmania’s cultural industries grow, diversify and professionalise, the current funding levels are inadequate, and many worthy applicants are missing out. Having sat on a couple of assessment panels from different funding bodies and seen the results of many grant rounds, it’s quite something to think of how significant doubling the budget of any given funding round would be, even though it’s peanuts in the context of any government’s spending. Slashes to Australia Council funding have also removed some of the breathing space. When Island last faced this situation, back in 2011, it was Australia Council money that got them through.

While I’ve focused on the importance of developing and publishing writers, a magazine is primarily about readers. Research in the book trade indicates that when a bookshop disappears, most of its sales don’t go to other bookshops – they disappear as well. I’m sure the same is true of literary magazines. Most people who subscribed or bought Island won’t suddenly subscribe to Overland or Meanjin. Island was where literature found a tiny foothold in their lives, and if the ledge snaps off, that will be it.

The loss of any distinct literary journal is a major blow to this fragile ecology. It closes down space for the kind of writing that isn’t published elsewhere. Readers are poorer, both in Tasmania and around the nation. When Island was last defunded, it was famously argued that ‘given that Island is competing with publications such as The New Yorker … there was limited benefit to the Tasmanian audience of maintaining a magazine just because it was published in Tasmania.’ You’d need a lot more space than I have here to explore everything that is nonsensical with this kind of thinking. One might as well say, why have an Australian publishing industry when we could just import books from the UK? But, as arts funding continues to be scarce, with literature receiving a disproportionally small amount of it, and as magazines like Island risk folding, this is exactly where we might find ourselves as Australians: reading more of the same writers and ideas from centres of publishing power.

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.

Ben Walter’s writing has been widely published, including in Meanjin, Griffith Review, Southerly, Island and The Lifted Brow. He has been runner up in the Peter Carey Short Story Award and Overland’s VU Short Story Prize. His debut novel manuscript won the people’s choice component of the 2017 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes.

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  1. That New Yorker line still gets to me. Why have a Tasmanian government when there’s an Australian one, why have an Australian government when there’s an American one?

  2. Ben, as a founding editor of Island I couldn’t have expressed your overview better – and this coming from you, a young writer who represents an entirely new generation of writers. Island has been an open door for new work and fresh ideas for decades. It has been through many tough times. It may not survive this one if its core funding body can’t grasp how important the magazine has been and continues to be. It is one of the major lit mags in the country. Just imagine if, in similar circumstances, the rest were threatened with closure. Let’s hope good sense prevails.

  3. Island Magazine also brought the brilliant David Ireland back into publication with the serialised “World Repair Video Game” in 2015. Thank you for that.

  4. Beautifully said, Ben, as if I’d expected anything else from you. I too viewed Island aspirationally as a young and emerging writer. I despair that other young and talented writers, of which this island has a good many, will lose a valuable opportunity for the development and exposure that Island could provide.

    One of my big concerns, however, is the inequity with which Arts Tasmania has handled recent similar cases: last year, when none of the Island’s major theatre companies were funded, the Tasmanian Theatre Fund resulted–suddenly and seemingly without precedent, a new pool of $400k was made available, to a single theatre company over two years, for which all companies had to compete. Two years ago, the Tasmanian Writers Centre was thrown under the funding bus, though thankfully it appears to have survived somehow–but without any sudden largesse like that afforded to the theatre sector. And for Island this year, will some spare change be suddenly retrieved from the back of the couch to ensure at least some short-term viability?

    If not, then someone at Arts Tasmania has some reasonably serious questions to answer. Because on the face of it, the playing field does not appear level at all.

  5. I was a subscriber to Island but could see the writing on the wall. The physical magazine itself is a very undemocratic thing. It’s very boutique and always seemed to me to smell of the privilege of State money. It’s an object that privileges gloss and image and colour and design over text and substance and one that’s meant to be positioned on upper middle-class (‘artsy’) coffee tables and the like.

    The New Yorker, NYRB, LRB, TLS etc are items you can read, roll or fold up and stick in your pocket as you head on your way. And you can buy them at local news stands on the street. Much more accessible, more democratic. And they usually privilege text, or narrative and story (whether fact or fiction) over everything else.

    Island can learn some hard worldly truths against its boutique view of the world.

  6. It is with sadness I learn of the non-funding of Island. When I first arrived in Tasmania only 20 months ago, I was—and still am—highly impressed with the standard of writing in Island magazine. If it folds, this island State will be much the poorer in terms of its literary landscape. Perhaps John Donne’s famous quote can be paraphrased a little in this context. We will all be poorer, whichever State we are in. As you say, Ben, aspiring writers need a standard to work towards and Island provided that. Australia is in danger of becoming a nation run by accountants with a profit and loss mentality, who do not understand nor care about its cultural identity. We are fast losing what we already have. Hopefully this funding loss is only temporary and will not be repeated elsewhere. Kate Eagles.

  7. The removal of funding for Island is a disaster for Tasmanian writers, and the reasoning quite incomprehensible. I have had seven short stories published in Island, firstly in The Tasmanian Review as it was known, and over time by three different editors including of course the founders of Island, Andrew Sant and Michael Denholm. Lacking significant grant money, this publication record has stood me in good stead, as I now have a collection, State of the Heart (Ginninderra Press), which has been highly praised, a novel almost finished, and a new collection of longer short stories underway. It is hard to see where substitute funding might come from, but I do wish David Walsh would take more interest, as a writer, in supporting institutions such as Island in Tasmania.

  8. This is a clear and persuasive piece, not only about the particular importance of Island as an expression of regionalism but as a way of thinking about the arts in general. In that way, the phrase that stuck with me was: ‘it’s peanuts in the context of any government’s spending’. Here, Ben is absolutely correct. It is peanuts even if we double, triple, make it tenfold. Compared to tarmac, to navy ships, to MP salaries, arts funding is minor. What the failure to fund it means is that something is wrong with the values, direction, and meaning of our elected representatives. The arts, by all indicators, help economies, health, wellbeing, lifestyle, and people. They are more sustainable than mining, and, people can be proud of their efforts. That is even more acute in places that perceive themselves as outside centres, and that objectively are. Something similar can be said for Western Australia, if we think nationally. It might be about building from Ben’s opening to think about co-ordination for the sector as a whole.

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