Look Toward a Positive Perspective When Facing the NPEA

The announcement of the National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), designed by former Arts Minister, George Brandis, is still a devastating blow to Australia’s arts community, especially for small to medium arts organisations and independent artists who are most affected. Even more devastating is the recent announcement by new Arts Minister, Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield who has decided to keep the program in tact with future minor structural changes.

What does this mean for the future of independent arts? I say it is time for the arts, and all of society, actually, to look at the greener side of this predicament by asking what lessons can we learn from the development of the NPEA?

It’s a tough perspective to examine amongst heartache and disappointment; especially from those loosing critical funding for projects in 2016 and beyond. But this is a chance for small to medium arts organisations and independent artists to rise to the occasion and remind society that the art prevails over all obstacles.

History has shown that the arts has struggled to maintain its relevance in society for centuries: in the 1500s, when the church banned theatrical performances, minstrel shows developed as touring productions traveling all over the countryside; Shakespeare and his constituents lost their beautiful theatre spaces to fire and government regulations in the 1600s; and playwrights like Wilde, Chekov and Ibsen wrote plays that failed during their first productions because too much was said about society and politics that made the important people look bad. However, each era made the most of their obstacles by continuing their creative agendas.

So what obstacle does the NPEA present? Lack of funding. The great Stanislavski, godfather of modern acting, credited for developing ‘the method,’ concluded that performers only need a chair, two boards and their imagination to put on a production. If that is true, then how much funding is actually needed for a production?

Unfortunately, a lot of money is required to put on a production, even the most simple of creations. Like most businesses, the arts run on important expenses: basic utilities (light, water, internet access, phone, etc.), marketing opportunities (print and digital ads, networking, website maintenance, etc.), educational advancements and so much more.

Relying heavily on government funding, which is seen by many outsiders as a hand-out, does not lead to long-term sustainability. In 2013, the Australia Council distributed $1.3 billion of government funding to a select few arts organisations and artists after sifting through a rigorous grant application process. In 2009, it is estimated that there are 44,000 practicing professional artists in Australia, which can only indicate the high level of competition during an average government funding grant application process (Arts Nation: An Overview of Australian Arts, 2015 Edition; pg. 17).

Could the NPEA be the opportunity Australia’s arts community has desperately needed for a number of years to rethink their business strategies? I think so. Through observation of organisations and members within the arts community, it is apparent that receiving a government grant is quite an accomplishment. Yes, you have been selected out of thousands of applications to receive a small portion of government funding for this year only. Congratulations! But what happens after that funding? How does money continue to flow into the arts business? The answer should be ticket sales, but, staggeringly, many small arts organisations and independent artists do not charge the public to see their work.

Why? There are two factors that explain this reason: 1.) Artists don’t have the confidence to command respect by charging for their services. They forget their talent is a service, one that should be recognised and paid for just like doctors, police officers and teachers earn a salary for their contributions. Artists are also so desperate for approval and an audience, they rather give away their talent than charge for it. 2.) Many people, artists included, feel that taxes make that government funding that artists and arts organisations receive. Why charge tax-payers more? The reality is, according to a 2015 Australia Council report, in 2013 about 40% of the average national arts budget is funded by the government (and let me just say, that’s amazing! I come from a country that if the arts are lucky because the government is in a surplus and the right political figure is in power, they receive only about 8%). That money distributed by the Australia Council goes towards the creative development of multiple projects throughout the country. This money only covers the cost of materials, cost of rehearsal and performance spaces, salaries for technical support team members and marketing opportunities. Did you notice that I didn’t say the artistic director, the director or the actors receive pay? That’s because most of the time they don’t; there’s just not enough funding.

Ticket prices, when charged, contribute to the sustainment of business expenses – covering the cost of utilities, the rent, the basic office accessories, etc.

What’s my point? The point is that something needs to be examined closer and developed stronger within the arts community: a solid, sustainable business plan. There are resources in Melbourne who are willing to help: fir example, Auspicious Arts Incubator, the only arts-based incubator in Australia, helps artist and arts organisations develop strong business skills and habits including marketing strategies that lead to positive business growth. The best part is they are based here in Melbourne! Auspicious Arts Incubator leads a 12-week program consisting of video modules, in-person mentoring sessions and a Melbourne weekend workshop that guides participants through the development of a sustainable business plan suitable for their business needs. Some past participants have become leading arts businesses by increasing their annual income exponentially within 6 months of completing the course!

According to Philanthropy Australia, it is estimated that 5,000 philanthropic foundations and organisations exist throughout Australia and are enthusiastic about helping non-profits prosper. Are arts organisations using all the resources available to them wisely and persistently? In a future blog, we will discuss applying acts of community engagement to increase marketing and funding needs.

In conclusion, artists and arts organisations need to treat their passion like a business. Let’s rethink the arts business strategy by putting the company needs first. There are resources out there who can guide you along the way. Prove to yourself that your passion is worth sustaining!

For more information about Auspicious Arts Incubator, visit www.auspiciousincubator.com.au.

It’s not a simple solution: what other challenges to funding do the Australian arts community face? Continue the discussion by adding a comment below.