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A Melbourne theatre company about to celebrate its 40th year fears it will become the first public casualty of a nationwide arts funding squeeze.
The independent company and venue, Theatre Works, was one of 250 small to medium-sized arts companies across the country informed Monday that it had missed out on long term Australia Council funding.
Collateral damage: Theatre Works staff, from left, Adam Gardner, associate artist Ryan Hamilton, general manager Dianne Toulson and chair Ros Willett.Credit:Paul Jeffers
"We run on the sniff of an oily rag – it’s a very lean organisation, it's a small team and this money is what we distribute to our artists so it is actually so much bigger than Theatre Works [in terms of impact]," said Theatre Works chair Ros Willett.
"We’re looking down the barrel at whether we can remain viable. It is that dire. It’s a hard environment at best and this money is our content, is the reason for being – to support these works … to give them a place to live. Without that money we can't do that."
Almost two-thirds of the 412 organisations which submitted expressions of interest did not make it to the second stage of multi-year funding round, the first since the former arts minister George Brandis controversially stripped out $105 million in funding in 2016, a day commonly referred to as Black Friday by the arts community.
Those rejected organisations are unable to apply for the next five years and will need to find alternative sources of funding to survive.
Labor's Tony Burke said independent and small to medium-sized arts companies were the "powerhouse for telling Australian stories".
"If anyone is wondering in years to come why so few stories, images, and shows are Australian, the answer will date back to when this Government slashed funding to the Australia Council," Mr Burke said.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Communications and Arts, Paul Fletcher, said the Australia Council would work with rejected organisations to help manage the transition.
"Unfortunately, it is a reality of the funding cycle in defined-term programs such as these that funding cannot be counted on indefinitely. Changes in the funding line-up happen from time to time and it allows new initiatives to access funding to support their work, in the same way, that so many before them have done."
Most organisations remained tightlipped about who was on the funding hit list as they came to terms with the decision. Of the 162 organisations who have been invited to submit full applications for the funding period 2021-24, a yet smaller cohort is expected to actually receive funding when it is allocated in February.
The vulnerability of the arts sector was highlighted in a recent survey of 200 New South Wales-based theatre and performance workers conducted by Theatre Network NSW which found almost 46 per cent of respondents had referenced the need to supplement their incomes with work outside the theatre and performance sector. A third had received support from the Australia Council over the past year.
Theatre Network NSW sent a message of support and solidarity to the 61 per cent of companies that were unsuccessful: "In a precarious landscape, small to medium companies and independent theatre and performance makers provide critical pathways and platforms for arts and culture," the board said.
Melbourne's Theatre Works received federal funding through the Australia Council, as well as the short-lived Catalyst program, for the past six years but that money will run out at the end of 2019.
General manager Dianne Toulson received the bad news via email just before close-of-business on Monday. Their lost funding is worth $78,500 annually, the funds going directly to artists and programming, supporting between eight and 15 productions a year.
"We had obviously planned for both options [of receiving funding or not] … but it was still quite a shock, especially going into our 40th year [in 2020]," she said. "We’re just collateral damage in the fact that there's no federal arts policy."
Mr Fletcher's spokesperson said there had been no major cuts to Australia Council’s funding, with its funding for 2019-20 of $212.1 million "closely comparable" to its 2014-15 funding of $212.4 million.
It was a long-standing practice for the Australia Council’s peer panel to make its funding decisions independently of government, he said. While several new organisations had progressed to the next stage of the funding round, some organisations had not been successful.
"As much notice as possible – effectively 18 months – has been provided to affected organisations so they can prepare and find new ways of sustaining the important work that they do," he said.
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