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Malcolm Turnbull Hand Picked An Art Gallery To Visit But They Didn’t Want Him There

Artists say the industry in Australia is "crumbling" under the Liberal government.

On Wednesday morning prime minister Malcolm Turnbull visited the Penrith Regional Gallery in the marginal Western Sydney seat of Lindsay.

Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

The PM's press team wanted to show a “different side of Penrith”, but instead the owners of the gallery used the visit to criticise the government about cuts to arts funding.

Lindsay is a “bellwether” seat, which means it has historically been won by the party who ends up forming government. You might remember Lindsay from the 2013 election when Tony Abbott said his Liberal candidate Fiona Scott was “feisty” and had a bit of “sex appeal”.

Western Sydney has a big arts culture with more than 300,000 people a year using their local arts facilities.

Penrith Regional Gallery CEO Hania Radvan had just one question for the PM during his visit to Lindsay: "can you please reverse the funding cuts to the arts?"

Radvan says the government's 2015 budget cuts are killing the Western Sydney art scene. She told BuzzFeed News that the $105 million worth of cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts by then arts minister George Brandis have already had ramifications for about 40% of arts organisations in Western Sydney.

"So if you can imagine that [almost] half of the arts organisation are going to cut, there’s going to be hundreds of cuts to jobs, and that’s the grassroots, that’s the foundations, that’s where the talent and the creativity are," she said.

"We have to tell Australian stories. If you silence that voice, you have a fractured society."

Radvan is disappointed that Malcolm Turnbull, who she said appears on the surface to be "very cultured" and a "lover of the arts", hasn't made any real announcements or reversed the cuts to the Australia Council.

Lukas Coch / AAPIMAGE

“Long-term they’ve just pulled out the foundations. Random bricks have gone and it’s all going to crumble over years. That sums up this government in the last year," Radvan said.

She thinks the arts is at a tipping point, and if someone doesn't step in to restore funding, everything could change and the arts will shrink.

"I haven't seen a consistent support of the arts to the level necessary since Keating's Creative Nation," she said.

More than $300 million has been cut from the arts budget in the three years of the Abbott-Turnbull government, including from the Australia Council and Screen Australia.

Vince Caligiuri / Getty Images

Some of that money was used to set up what Labor describes as a "ministerial slush fund", now called Catalyst.

In anticipation of the election being called, arts minister Mitch Fifield has shovelled out $24 million of funding in the past two weeks - the last half of it on the same weekend the election was called.

Labor's arts spokesperson Mark Dreyfus accused the government of doling out money in a way that "undermines the principle of independent, arms-length arts funding".

"It is shameful," he told BuzzFeed News.

"Throwing $24 million at a random group of arts projects from the minister’s personal slush fund, some of them in marginal Liberal seats, is no way to treat arts funding in Australia".

Dreyfus told BuzzFeed News that Labor would return lost money to the Australia Council, abolish Catalyst and "rebuild the trust and confidence in the arts sector which has been trashed by the Abbott-Turnbull government".

According to the artists of Western Sydney who met the PM on Wednesday, the government needs to refocus its priorities.

"In the UK, all around the world, instead of talking about STEM subjects they’re talking about STEAM," Radvan said.

STEM is science, technology, engineering and maths, and she wants them to add an "A" to the acronym.

"You know the artists get paid the least for the most amount of training. You know it’s not a great career path. You don’t become an artist because you want to, you become one because you have no choice but to be one of us. It’s who you are."

Alice Workman is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Canberra.

Contact Alice Workman at alice.workman@buzzfeed.com.

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