Tears for peers: the hidden costs of arts funding

Across Australia, hundreds of arts organisations are currently awaiting the outcome of expressions of interest for four-year funding from Australia Council for the Arts. In Warrang/Sydney meeting-rooms, teams of subcontracted industry advisors are being assembled in their respective artforms to advise Council on which applications are eligible to go through to second and final stage of their decision-making process.

Nearly four years ago, I was among them—one of eight peer assessors on one of nine panels convened to make decisions on more than $30 million of multi-year funding (for which we knew only 55-60% of applicants were expected to get good news).

Thankfully, the likelihood of funding success is not quite as bleak this time, due to the recent launch of Australia’s new national cultural policy, Revive, and its promise to return Council funds cut by former Liberal Arts Minister George Brandis in 2015.

The world has changed in other ways since then, however, requiring a detailed and thoughtful review of the hidden costs of arts funding programs and not just the money they provide.

Like many for-purpose sectors staffed by its biggest fans, our sector has always relied on the passion and willingness of hard-working practitioners to sacrifice our wellbeing to obey the maxim that ‘the show must go on’. Like many under-resourced industries supported by public funds, we’ve also been taught by neo-liberal politics to be grateful for our ‘handouts’ while evidence of the significant returns on investment of the sector has been consistently ignored.

‘Post’-pandemic, our sector is both exhausted and animated by a new sense of perspective that leaves many unwilling to put up with these former practices or the way things ‘have always been done’. This includes a new interrogation of the unseen labour of arts funding processes: the expectations on applicants and the pressure on advisors and peers.

A peer by any other name

Peer assessment and arm’s length funding have been guiding principles of Council for the past forty years. In a model also used by other Federal, State, Territory and philanthropic arts funders, panels of industry practitioners are appointed to review and score applications against set assessment criteria.

This provides applicants with the vital opportunity to have their work examined by contemporary, practicing peers with direct, current and relevant sector experience and knowledge.

In spite of the increasing interdisciplinary nature of creative practice, this work is still mostly undertaken on an artform basis—which tends to create discrepancies between artforms that attract less and more funding (literature and theatre, respectively) and the location of most successful proposals (Warrang and Naarm/Melbourne), as well as some confusion about multi-artform, experimental or community-engaged practices.

Since its 2019-20 funding round, the Council has moved from using peer assessors for multi-year processes to ‘industry advisors’ instead.

‘The principle of having investment decisions informed by industry experts remains our primary consideration, whether they be peer assessors or industry advisors,’ Australia Council’s Director of Project Investment Pip Wittenoom said in a statement. ‘Both peer assessors and industry advisors are professional experts, who bring a valuable depth of knowledge, skills and experience to their advice in relation to potential investment decisions.’

The difference is that industry advisors will only advise the Council on what is and isn’t fundable, leaving the final decision on which applications to fund to Council staff, Board or co-investment partners (in line with its multi-year Visual Arts and Craft Strategy and recently revamped National Performing Arts Partnership Framework).

This change was implemented because multi-year funding is different to individual or project funding, Australia Council CEO Adrian Collette explained to me. ‘Four-year funding has a real, strategic and industry-building purpose—whether that’s directly to artists or organisations that employ artists,’ he said.

One arm’s length or two?

In explaining the difference between the Council’s two assessment models, Wittenoom’s statement confirmed that ‘both forms of expertise provided, and decisions made, are at arms-length from government.’

For Collette, ‘the critical arm’s length-ness of Council (and we have a Minister that respects this implicitly) is expert decision making. (…) The Minister of the day, or influences outside Council, cannot in any shape or form influence a funding decision.’

This is enshrined in a single clause of the 2013 Australia Council Act (currently being amended as part of the organisation’s transition to Creative Australia). While none of the Council’s laws specifically mention ‘arm’s length’, ‘independence’ or ‘peers’, they do state that the ‘Minister must not give a direction in relation to the making of a decision by the Council, in a particular case, relating to the provision of support (including by the provision of financial assistance or a guarantee).’

While this holds true, the original peer assessment model is not only arm’s length from government but also arm’s length from Council bureaucracy—itself a victim of neoliberal funding cuts that has seen most artform-specific roles restructured out of the organisation over the last decade.

Arguably, this makes the new industry advisor process less arms-length than before, though Collette stressed that the Council will never fund anything that the industry advisors have not said are artistically meritorious.

‘But there are certainly priorities for our corporate plan, for needs we see in the sector—particularly around access, in every sense of the word—where we would like the discretion to say: within this pool of excellent work, we need to balance the agenda around our priorities,’ he said.

A unclear duty of care

Even as an experienced peer, the emotional labour of Council’s last four-year funding round was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

With stakes higher than any of us could remember, we knew that impartial, expert opinion would be crucial to ensuring an informed and transparent process during a difficult time.

Knowing we were facing one of the most difficult tasks of our professional lives, my fellow peers and I were heavy with the weight of responsibility and knowledge of the unprecedented economic environment unsuccessful applicants would find themselves in after our deliberations—and that was before Covid-19.

After the assessment meeting, we had a few months to wait for the public announcement that only ninety-five organisations had been successful in their applications, down from 128 in 2016.

While completely outside of Council’s control, the timing of that announcement at the start of the pandemic was extremely unfortunate. Forty-nine organisations that had previously received funding went into lockdown facing even more uncertainty. Former hopefuls were left questioning where else they could turn.

Peers were obviously the smallest part of a larger, devastating story. We’d opted into the process and knew what was being asked of us—if not the full scope of the environment in which those decisions would be made. But making often impossible choices between wonderful and worthy applications was still an exercise in angst and pre-emptive guilt. Council expressed empathy and ‘no underestimation of what you guys are going through individually,’ but the task was still gruelling.

Removing advisors from the final funding decisions may relieve some of this burden.  But more is required in order for Australia’s State, Territory and Federal arts funders to meet their duty of care to the peers, experts and advisors they subcontract to take on this work.

Exposure—of poor practices

The conversation about remuneration of assessment panel advisors and peers is currently lagging behind other areas of sector best practice.

Council peers receive a fixed fee of $750/day for deliberation meetings—for which they’ve been told to allocate approximately twenty minutes for each EOI in the current four-year funding round (with the suggestion they’ll get faster as they go).

While assessors are appointed as independent contractors, this rate doesn’t include superannuation, and stays the same regardless of how long it takes assessors to travel to the meeting or whether or not they’re registered for GST. This means a Warrang-based arts employee receives a significantly higher hourly rate than a GST-registered independent producer from Boorloo/Perth.

Assuming assessors stick to the twenty-minute recommendation, this breaks down to between $40 to $70 an hour. For assessors who feel this isn’t enough to give due diligence to the questions, budgets and accompanying support material—or simply don’t read or absorb information as fast as others—this hourly rate gets closer to minimum wage the more time they spend with each application. Significantly, these fees are also significantly lower than the professional rates the Council requires its funded organisations to pay.

‘Fees for peer assessment and industry advice processes are paid as a flat fee and are not calculated on an hourly rate,’ the Australia Council said in another statement.

‘Peer assessment and industry advice is allied to, but different from, other forms of artistic and industry work,’ the statement said. ‘Through our regular evaluation of assessment processes, assessors acknowledge that in addition to a fee, they gain significant insight into national practice, receive sector recognition and are supported in their professional development.’

Yes, being a peer or expert advisor provides opportunities to learn and contribute—but the same can be said of other forms of employment within our traditionally low-paid sector, which has resoundingly rejected the value and validity of the ‘work for exposure’ argument in other professional contexts.

How much peers and advisors get from the process is also disproportionate to what we give in return—particularly for independent artists and artsworkers who aren’t employed by organisations that support their participation.

If anything needs exposure, it’s the working conditions of freelance artists and independent practitioners, SA author Jennifer Mills wrote for Overland:

For some people, [the pandemic] period has been an opportunity to reassess their work/life balance, look at their priorities. For the rest of us, it’s shown us where we stand when the bottom falls out of our livelihoods. How much class and inheritance matters when the other stuff breaks.

For the Council’s last four-year funding round, for example, I estimate that I donated over $10,000 of my time in-kind. Fairly typical of peers in my experience, this contribution equates to below minimum wage, and is one I simply cannot afford to repeat as a freelance practitioner.

‘All of this is creating a class barrier to participation in literature, art, journalism and media that impoverishes everyone,’ writes Mills. By comparison, Australia Council Board members receive $33,540/year (rising to $45,740 and $60,980/year for its Deputy Chair and Chair).

How can arts funders ensure diversity and support viable arts sector careers if only employed, independently wealthy and/or east coast-based artists and artsworkers can afford to take up these opportunities? This extraordinarily personal investment not only puts peers’ wellbeing at risk, but risks perpetuating Australia’s arts sector monoculture and power imbalances.

In recognition of the impact of the rising cost of living, the Council began a review of its assessment fees across the organisation last year—which will include national and international benchmarking. The review will be considered by its board in the months to come before being shared with the sector.

But this issue isn’t limited to national funders. State Government arts departments also prevaricate between treating peers as fee-paying contractors or volunteers who receive an honorarium for their work—without meeting Australian Tax Office (ATO) requirements for either. This is particularly concerning given the insecure gig economy and historically low levels of superannuation accrued by freelance artists and arts workers—in spite, in many cases, of meeting ATO eligibility requirements for the work that we do.

Due diligence respect

Even before peers and advisors are asked to consider this important—if undervalued—task, applicants for public funding have to consider whether investing the time it takes to submit an expression of interest or similar document is worth it given the minor chance of a positive outcome.

On average, organisations applying for the current four-year funding have reported spending between thirty and fifty hours on each expression of interest —many giving up their usual new year shutdown period or finding time during festival season to meet the February 2023 deadline. Others opted out in anticipation of the workload required, particularly over the busy summer period and in the midst of unprecedented, sector-wide burnout.

This very familiar scenario is an example of a much more widespread issue: namely, the excessive levels of accountability required of the Australian arts sector against relatively small investments of public funding. This is particularly galling when compared to the significantly fewer hoops that higher-subsidised industries like mining are required to jump through (even though the arts, cultural and creative industries employs more people than mining and contributes half of its economic impact on less than 10 per cent of the mining industry’s subsidies).

Only a fraction of Australia’s artists and arts organisations ever receive government support, and research shows that we return that investment many times over. Every $1m of self-generated turnover creates nine jobs in the arts and entertainment industry, for example, compared to 0.36 jobs for every $1m spent on oil and gas. Yet there is both less public investment in arts and cultural organisations, and the workload required to apply for that funding is disproportionate in comparison with other sectors.

The size (and funding requests) of many applicant organisations is also often disproportionate to the impact of their work. The primary applicants for the Council’s four-year funding come from Australia’s small-to-medium (S2M) arts sector. These S2Ms attract larger (and faster growing) audiences than their better-funded counterparts and reach nearly three times the number of people than the major performing arts organisations on less than half the funding each year.

S2Ms also lead the country in engaging and representing the full diversity of Australian stories and identities, and employ or create opportunities for a vast community beyond their direct employees. Yet they are the least likely to have dedicated funding and development staff, or the resources to allocate to weeks-long application processes.

For those that do apply, expert assessors will then spend just one or two minutes of consideration for each hour of their work (based on Council’s recommended timeframes). This raises questions about the respect that should be afforded to the vital (if hidden) cultural labour of applicants as well as peers.

A revival of hope

Our sector needs rigour and accountability in its management of public funds, but at a level that is not only proportionate and fair, but respectful of the conditions in which applications for funding are made.

We need the independence of arms-length arts funders and the wisdom that knowledgeable and representative peers or advisors can provide, but we need to value the people who provide it too.

This means we need to approach the issue from both ends: with both a reduction of red-tape and application requirements, and with adequate compensation of the experts who review those applications.

We need to ensure that these issues are on the agenda of the incoming Centre for Arts and Entertainment Workplaces announced as part of Revive.


Image: Harriet Backer, The Library of Thorvald Boeck (1902)

Kate Larsen

Kate Larsen is an arts, cultural and non-profit consultant with more than twenty years’ experience in the non-profit, government and arts sectors in Australia, Asia and the UK. She is on Twitter as @KateLarsenKeys.

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