Rosalind Appleby investigates the reasoning behind the cancellation of key State Government arts funding, and how it impacts the local arts sector.
Western Australia’s creative sector faces more uncertainty after the State Government suspended key arts funding streams to focus attention on its COVID-19 Lotterywest Relief Fund.
The Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural (DLGSC) this week announced the indefinite suspension of several funds including the WA Theatre Development Initiative, the Arts 15k-Plus ($15,000-$60,000) and Contemporary Music Fund 15k-Plus grant programs.
The announcement shocked many in the arts industry, particularly artists and organisations who had been waiting nine weeks for the results of the March round of applications for projects starting from July. On Wednesday the DLGSC advised applicants that their applications had been withdrawn.
Applicants (which include Seesaw, the publisher of this article) have been redirected to two revised grant programs, the Arts Grant Program and the Contemporary Music Fund Grant Program, both under $15,000.
Arts organisations operating within the not-for-profit sector can also apply for the government relief fund managed by Lotterywest, which closes on May 13.
The Department website states: “DLGSC is suspending many culture and the arts funding programs that are currently open, due to open or with applications being assessed. This is to acknowledge that many projects can no longer take place in the way they were originally conceived due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Personal circumstances have also dramatically changed for many people.”
The department has applied a flexible approach to arts companies currently funded through its triennial funding programs. This includes adjusting output requirements, bringing forward payments and redirecting funding meant for cancelled shows to wages, rent and utilities.
The Chamber of Arts and Culture executive director WA Shelagh Magadza said there was evidence the State Government was making efforts to ensure the survival and resilience of organisations.
“The recent announcement of the U15K addresses the individual and independent artists who are not covered by other packages,” Magadza said. “There is, however, a need to ensure, at both ends of the spectrum, that funding continues to be available to create new work and to ensure that artists are able to respond to the current crisis through their practice as well as develop material in anticipation of an opening up of restrictions.”
Impact on artists
Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company had submitted two applications in March for the development of two projects.
“It has meant that we will have to, once again, find new avenues and pathways to support the necessary development of our regional relationships, playwrights and productions,” Yirra Yaakin artistic director Eva Mullaley said. “Surely, during this situation, our energy is better spent keeping our heads above water.”
Several applicants said they had sought grants for development work that could have gone ahead, despite COVID-19 shutdowns.
Artists used social media to express their frustration that the applications were cancelled without any apparent consideration of whether the projects would be able to proceed under different time frames.
Arts sector consultant Barry Strickland is involved in a dance project involving more than a dozen creative artists. It was intended to be performed in November and could have gone ahead, with a delayed public outcome.
“Given the uncertainty surrounding a ‘re-start’ of the arts and cultural sector, I can understand the Department’s position,” Mr Strickland said. “However, I think assessment of the applications should have proceeded and funding recommendations made on the basis of, ‘yes, things have changed but we believe this is a worthy project and we hope you are still able to achieve it once all the social distancing is over’. Thousands of hours have gone into their preparation and it is only fair and reasonable for them to remain ‘alive’ and ultimately see success or failure.”
Bow & Dagger theatre company producer and playwright Clare Testoni had submitted two applications for a theatre show that is currently still scheduled at The Blue Room Theatre this September.
“Without funding we will now be operating at a tenth of a professional budget for a show that has professional expectations with a seasoned team of creatives,” Testoni said. “Pre-COVID we were prepared for this possibility and willing to make it work. But now, with paid work being hard to come by and with a real concern for our actors’ safety (there is no way to rehearse our show with social distancing in place), I don’t think that I can, in good conscious, ask people to work for free and risk their health on the possibility of being paid in a profit share, especially as we are unsure what crowds will be like if we do go on.
“I understand that art funding might need to be put on hold while we focus on people’s health,” Testoni said. “But the timing couldn’t be worse for artists like myself who have lost work for most of the year and yet don’t qualify for Job Seeker or similar. We also feel we are being pulled in two directions to keep the show going but without the support we were expecting.”
The Blue Room Theatre acting executive director Kathryn Osborne said independent artists were the hardest hit.
“An U-$15k grant as the only option will absolutely not cut it,” Ms Osborne said. “The Blue Room will continue to support our [independent artists], but our capacity to do so has also taken a hit. The burden on artists will get heavier and heavier.
“The big question this announcement raises is, where is the recovery strategy? We need to survive, but just as importantly we need a plan to ensure that when we come out of this, Western Australian stories can be brought to life and Western Australian artists can breathe life, joy and healing back into our state. This is about the world we want to live in.”
Equitable application assessment not possible
A spokesperson for Arts Minister David Templeman said these were unprecedented times and the Government had to look at refocusing existing programs to support the sector.
The Department evaluated the viability of the applications in the system and concluded that most of the activity in the project proposals required variations, she said.
“Many projects can no longer take place in the way they were originally conceived due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Personal circumstances have also dramatically changed for many people.
“The Department considered that there was no equitable way to finalise the assessment of applications when most projects require variations.
“Many of the projects are for the second half of this year and into 2021, we do not currently know how long the State of Emergency will last for and therefore cannot commit to fund activities that may be effected into the future.
“Viable activities that are able to re-apply under the U-15K programs will be assessed in relation to allowable activities at this time.”
The Government was working with the arts sector, delivery partners and other stakeholders on a regional relief package, she said. “It has also commenced planning for recovery, to create Western Australian content and re-engage audiences when restrictions relax.”
DISCLAIMER: Seesaw, the publisher of this article, was an applicant for the Arts 15k-Plus ($15,000-$60,000) round of funding for March.
Pictured top: Leah Shelton performing in her work ‘Bitch on Heat’ at The Blue Room Theatre during Fringe World 2019. Photo: FenLan Chuang.