The sad story of dance defunding in Australia and a thoughtful response from the executive director of the country’s biggest dance company

After 29 years, the annual gala and presentation of awards to Australian dancers and dance companies could be coming to an end.

The next Australian Dance Awards to be held in Perth on 18 September might be the last if Ausdance National can’t find enough funding to continue the event.

The ADA has been managed by Ausdance National since the awards began in 1997 when Ausdance NSW, with support from the city of Sydney and the Australian Ballet, presented the inaugural awards at the Sydney Opera House.

Along with four dance companies, Phillip Adams BalletLab, Force Majeure, Legs on the Wall, and KAGE Physical Theatre, Ausdance National learned on May 13 that it would lose its funding from the Australia Council at the end of this year.

Ausdance had been operating with annual Australia Council funds of $261,066, which allowed for an operating budget of $427,740 for 2016.

Roslyn Dundas, the chief executive of Ausdance National, said she still has hopes the awards presentation will continue, describing the event as a showcase for the organisation and dance community.

Next year is a particularly important for the ADAs as it marks the 30th anniversary.

When the funding cuts were announced in May, Neil Roach, then acting chief executive of Ausdance National said “the loss of funding from the Australia Council will cripple the organisation, which has a 40-year legacy of supporting professional dance, dance teaching, and dance development and research projects.

“It will have to seriously consider the future of the Australian Dance Awards and other projects as it looks to survival, and the voice of dance will be diminished by a federal government policy that concentrates [on] arts production in existing companies, and subjects it to a political influence through Catalyst funding”.

Catalyst, a national arts and culture fund administered by the Ministry of the Arts, has become the focus for much of the frustration and anxiety in the arts community at large.

Established last November with the intention of handing out $12 million a year to companies and organisations over the next four years, the fund has already doubled the annual amount, having committed over $23 million in last seven months.

Oddly enough, a dance company, KAGE, and a branch of Ausdance – Ausdance WA, both recently defunded by the Australia Council, were among the successful Catalyst applicants with KAGE receiving $130,000 and Ausdance WA receiving $106,500.

With no peer review system and arms length funding, the decision of who gets what from the Catalyst fund is hardly transparent as the choices are made by unnamed Ministry for the Arts assessors and independent assessors.

Anyone can apply to become an independent assessor, but not everyone can join the party. Each applicant is assessed by the Ministry of the Arts.

So far about 370 people have been successful in applying to be an independent assessor and while all their names are listed on the Catalyst website, the names of those selected for particular assessments are not revealed.

Catalyst replaced the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. Under the control of the then arts minister, George Brandis, NPEA syphoned $105 million from the Australian Council.

As Sasha Grishin, emeritus professor at the Australian National University wrote recently in The Age, “crippling one organisation by taking away a big slab of its funding to create a parallel organisation that lacks transparency is bad policy”.

Brandis was targeted by a very disgruntled arts community and mocked on a new Facebook page, The George Brandis Art Experience, featuring his face superimposed on famous art works.

The page was last updated in mid October 2015 about a month after Mitch Fifield was sworn in as the Minister for Communications and the Arts.

Fifield soon returned $32 million to the council and, now, Bill Shorten and shadow arts minister, Mark Dreyfus have pledged to shut down the Catalyst fund and return what money remains to the Australia Council if Labor wins the Federal election next month.

The May 13 announcement of the Australia Council’s four-year funding recipients (and those who lost their funding) came at an unfortunate time.

Earlier in May, and with no public announcement, Catalyst updated its list of recipients with approximately $12 million committed to more than 45 organisations.

A list of Catalyst recipients on the Department of Communication and Arts website shows that the company that has received the most funding is the Australian Ballet with a total of $1.2 million from two different streams: $200,000 from the International and Cultural Diplomacy stream to support this year’s Australian Ballet’s London tour and $1 million from the Partnership and Collaborations stream, to support the two year redevelopment of Melbourne’s Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre to upgrade facilities for dancers, musicians and medical staff treating artists; to provide community facilities for recording/broadcast, education and engagement; and for a new home for the Australian Ballet subsidiary, Orchestra Victoria.

It’s not surprising that the few media releases and news stories covering the arts funding issues in May emphasised the comparison between the companies losing funds from the council and the major performing arts companies that already receive government funding but are also recipients of additional funds from Catalyst.

The Australian Ballet, with its strong philanthropy program and secure funding from federal and state governments is an easy target for less fortunate companies or organisations.

On 9 May, Tamara Winikoff, spokesperson for ArtsPeak, criticised Catalyst’s “allocation of significant monies to capital works projects such as the $1m for the redevelopment of the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre. This would appear to fall outside the remit and original intention of the Catalyst fund.

“It simply is not appropriate for Catalyst to fund things like this regardless of how important it might be. The capacity of the sector to be adventurous and innovative is being smothered in favour of government anointed programs”.

In a recent article in The Australian about the loss of Australia Council funding for the four dance companies and Ausdance National, the writer, Michaela Boland, referred to Libby Christie of the Australian Ballet as ‘defending’ the government funding of ‘the nation’s richest dance company’ at a time when smaller companies were suffering.

Christie told Boland that “we want there to be adequate funding and for everybody in the sector to be funded on their merits,” that “the national dance culture was interconnected” and that “the most important thing about a time like this is that the sector works together and doesn’t turn in on itself”.

Last week I asked Christie for her thoughts on arts funding, and specifically dance funding, following the recent news of the defunded.

Has the dance community turned in on itself?

She wrote: “Not at all. In fact through Ausdance National and through other regular interactions, the dance sector has collaborated around funding challenges and issues quite effectively over the past seven months”.

After the Australia Council funding decisions in May, the company had been in contact with Ausdance National “about how to support the 2016 National Dance Awards and what the longer term future of Ausdance National holds”.

“We worked together on a joint submission to the Australia Council late last year requesting a meeting to discuss the sustainability of dance in Australia, which made the following points:

“Jointly expressed concern about the future health of the sector due to funding arrangements in the small/medium organisations.

“Dance has been underfunded compared to other art forms supported by the Australia Council for many years approximately 10 per cent (all up) of Australia Council funding for the last five years. There is a notably high level of unfunded excellence – over 70 per cent of dance sector funding applications were unsuccessful.

“In 2013, dance organisations supported by the Australia Council reached local audiences of over 700,000 through performances and activities. 1,273 artists and creatives were employed in the sector. It’s an artistically vibrant sector: in 2013, key organisations (S/M orgs) presented 56 new Australian works and Major Performing Arts’ companies 22 new works.

“There is significant representation internationally through extensive overseas touring by Australian dance organisations.

“Underfunding of the sector is having an impact on dance practice, dance audiences, dance education programs and employment in the sector.

“Small/medium dance orgs are particularly vulnerable – they are working hard to increase sustainability. Private sector funding is growing, but this needs to be in partnership with government funding.

“As a sector we meet annually and regularly request and share information and experiences.

“TAB recently shared information and details re policies/procedures with one of the S/M orgs in the sector.

“The Australian Ballet has been housing BalletLab since late last year, while they are developing new facilities.

“If TAB can develop more/better studio facilities we are looking at how we might make these available to other companies when we are on tour.

“There is certainly more we can do – David [McAllister] and I have been talking about this over the past week. With the recent advice regarding Australia Council funding decisions we have only just started to consider what this might be.

“I know the various companies affected are working through their options right now and when appropriate I’m sure the sector as a whole will have some constructive conversations.

Perhaps you said more than the words published in The Australian’s article? If so, it would be good to know any of your thoughts that were not published (for space reasons).

“Yes I did. I talked about our financial results, explaining that like all other arts companies, we work very hard to maximise commercial and box office earnings and can only bridge the gap between box office income and rising costs with sponsorship, government funding and other contributed income.

“In my interviews last week I spoke about how important philanthropy has been to The Australian Ballet’s recent positive financial results, but pointed out it takes many years to develop these supportive relationships.

What is your view on the media release by the ArtsPeak spokeswoman, posted on the Ausdance National website on May 9, regarding the $1 million grant for updating the Ballet Centre?

“The Australian Ballet is eligible to apply and made an application under the Partnerships and Collaborations stream against the published criteria.

“This stream requires other funding partners to provide the majority of funds and we were eligible to apply based on this criteria.

“We applied for funding to assist in the redevelopment of part of The Australian Ballet Centre in Melbourne to upgrade our facilities. These facility upgrades are required to enable company growth, and audience and community engagement activities committed to under The Australian Ballet’s 2015-19 Strategic Plan – previously submitted to and considered by the Australia Council.

“By way of background, the Primrose Potter Australian Ballet Centre was completed in 1988 thanks to seed funding from the Australian and Victorian Governments, a loan and a major philanthropic fundraising effort. It provides a permanent home for The Australian Ballet and The Australian Ballet School.

“The purpose-built centre has enabled the company to develop and support the careers of thousands of Australian dancers during this time, to build artistic standards to world-class levels, to invest in and create new productions, to develop specialist skills in dance medicine and injury remediation programs–which are in great demand throughout the dance sector and now available to musicians–and to develop and distribute dance education programs to schools around the country.

“Despite the company’s growth in size and reach in the past 28 years, the building has not undergone any major redevelopment since its inception.

“We are planning and fundraising for a $15.3m upgrade to our building:

“To support employment and facilities for additional dancers (the company and School have grown significantly in the last 28 years and studios and dancer facilities are very crowded and badly need refurbishment).

“To expand our public programs for the wider community (which are in strong demand).

“To develop a Dance Medical Centre, which can offer treatment for all Australian dancers and other creative artists.

“To house our musicians (due to a Victorian Government decision to develop a new school in Albert Park, Orchestra Victoria is required to vacate its premises later this year and a new, suitable home has not been found).

“To build multimedia/broadcast facilities to distribute our education and professional content.

“Our application to the Partnerships and Collaborations stream of the Catalyst fund, which provides important seed funding that enables us to attract other partners, represents just six per cent of funds required to meet the total project cost. We also appealed to the Victorian Government for the component of the project, which will provide premises for Orchestra Victoria, we’re exploring corporate partnerships and we will undertake a major philanthropy campaign in support of the project. The company will also contribute funds.

“Upgrading the national headquarters for ballet and dance medicine in Australia is good news for the dance sector.

“But it’s worth pointing out that as a national company (like Opera Australia) our headquarters have not been developed as State arts infrastructure (e.g. Opera House, theatre companies) or National arts infrastructure (e.g. Australian National Gallery, NIDA).

“These specialist dance facilities, which will continue to be funded significantly by the company and our supporters, are available to support professional development of current and future dancers and musicians in and beyond our company.

“As a national institution, we take our responsibility to the sector very seriously. Given we receive funding as a Major Performing Arts company, we believe we have obligations and responsibilities to support sector development and, through our leadership, be ambitious for our sector. This project demonstrates that support and ambition.

“It is unfortunate that issues around the origins of the Catalyst fund and recent Australia Council funding decisions have meant it has been difficult for The Australian Ballet to explain this project and its very positive outcomes. I think the public commentary to date reflects some of this confusion”.

In my opinion it’s also unfortunate that the return of the ongoing arts funding issue has come during a federal election campaign.

In the dance community there’s a great deal of worry but in the wider community it’s a case of ‘who cares?’

After all, in Australia, the arts and artists and those who support them are way down the list of importance when it comes to votes, page one stories, current affairs programs, and newsworthy public debate.