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    Here's Why The Budget Has Terrified Australian Artists

    "This will decimate an entire generation of independent artists."

    All around the Australian capital cities on Friday, hundreds of artists got together and performed something called "the hoofer dance" to protest something called the "National Program For Excellence In The Arts".

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    And in Sydney, this guy was there.

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    And so was Greens senator Lee Rhiannon.

    And this nun.

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    And hipster Where's Wally with this fairly excellent sign.

    Alex Lee

    So what are they all angry-dancing about then?

    Melbourne artists hold dance protest against Australia Council funding cuts #freethearts

    When the budget was handed down last week, independent artists around Australia were left shocked and confused.

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    Federal arts agency, the Australia Council, which had just undergone a significant streamlining process, had been kneecapped with a funding cut of $110 million over four years. That money would be funnelled instead to a mysterious new body called the National Program for Excellence in the Arts, under direct control of the arts minister, George Brandis. The council also has to find savings of $7.2 million over four years.

    The government says the new funding agency was established to "allow for a truly national approach to arts funding". Nobody saw the change coming, but a swipe at the Australia Council in the wording of the federal budget gave some clue as to why:

    "Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council. The National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia’s audiences."

    The country's 28 major performing arts organisations (think Sydney Theatre Company, Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet) were protected from the funding cuts, so smaller arts companies will be hit hardest..

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    They can still apply to the new national ministerial program, but Senator Brandis has indicated his preference for more traditional artforms, providing $1 million to the Australian Ballet School in the last budget directly out of his portfolio.

    "Frankly I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves," he told The Australian last year.

    Concerned artists from all disciplines signed a petition and organised a national day of action for Friday to protest against the cuts. But the night before the protest came another blow for independent artists.

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    A letter from the Australia Council, explaining that it would have to scrap the ArtStart, Creative Communities Partnerships Initiative and Artists in Residence funding programs to adjust to the budget cut.

    A six-year funding program was suspended and an entire grant round due in June was cancelled, just as artists were completing the lengthy application process.

    Artists say the budget measure is "terrifying" because there is no information about how the new ministerial funding agency works.

    "The scariest part of this lies in the threat to the small to medium sector where I base my career," says Bek Berger, a Melbourne-based creative producer who was this week running the Convergence forum for independent artists.

    "Convergence was dreamed up five months ago. We were meant to be talking about practice, philosophy, ideology and the importance of independence - not talking about money or funding. At 5-o-clock Thursday night, the rug was pulled out from under us and a lot of people in the room have been spending weeks preparing for their applications," she told BuzzFeed News.

    "We're going to see projects falling down because of the June grant round not happening, timelines being affected and dreams and plans having to be redefined."

    Berger told BuzzFeed News that the types of arts organisations that would be hit hardest by the funding changes, are the experimental companies who put on the most challenging work and the ones who put on interactive artworks and theatre productions for children.

    One such company is the Brisbane-based Imaginary Theatre, which puts on immersive productions for children.

    "The small to medium and independent sectors are the 'heavy lifters’ of our cultural ecology. They do work that is connected to communities, that demonstrates benefits far beyond the small funding they receive, and that is in adored internationally," writes artistic director Thom Browning in a blog post.

    He says he fears for the next generation: "Artists that may go on to be cultural icons, or community champions, or both. I wonder how many artists of my generation, and of future generations, will choose not to follow a creative path at all."

    "This is a very good budget for the arts," Arts Minister George Brandis told ABC Radio National. "There have been no significant cuts at all."

    Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

    The senator says the funding from his new program would break the monopoly of the Australia Council and fund projects with popular appeal.

    “It will give greater access to funding for a greater variety of works,” he told The Australian. “And because one of the very strong funding criteria is going to be audience appeal, I think that will mean that the work will be more welcome by larger ­audiences.”

    But artists are concerned about the reallocation of funds to a model that relies on the discretion and preferences of the arts minister.

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    "The minister has severed the arms of the arms length funding model," says playwright and former artistic director of Rock Surfers Theatre Company, Phil Spencer.

    "I have a strong belief that the systems in place, such as arms length funding and peer review, are tenets of how public money should be spent in a democratic society. It's vitally important that there are mediatory bodies to administer our money," Spencer told BuzzFeed News.

    "It's an extraordinary thing to have done. He's decimated an entire generation of independent artists."

    Comedian Eddie Sharp goes one step further. "An arts minister just completely stripping and rebuilding a funding model, based on his own whims, preferences and grudges is Stalinesque. It's literally Stalinesque," he told BuzzFeed News, adding "If anything I'm glad it's allowed me to use that word."

    If the arts minister is focused on funding "excellence", Sharp says there needs to be support for artists at the start of their careers.

    "The Australia Council helped me when I was under 25 and they gave me confidence to start working for myself."

    Sharp says the experience and skills then "trickle into all the bigger arts organisations, more established theatre companies, as well as great television and comedy. Usually it's supported by Australia Council at the start."

    Author Patrick Lenton told BuzzFeed News the new program could threaten artistic diversity in Australia.

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    "In terms of the Brandis Centre for Arts Brandis Understands, we'll see more money funnelled into rich old white people art - opera, ballet, Shakespeare but when everyone wears old-timey costumes and nobody raps. I'm not against those forms of art, but a rich artistic diversity is so important."

    Lenton says he fears there will be less work of a politically provocative nature. "We'll also see art forms criticising the government forced to go through the government to receive funding to produce it, which, call me cynical, I don't have a high hope for seeing succeed."

    George Brandis has promised more details to come about his "National Program For Excellence In The Arts". Until then, artists will keep protesting cuts to funding the only way they know how.

    Alex Lee / BuzzFeed

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