A radio documentary about Vulcana Women’s Circus and how the organisation survived a funding crisis
This documentary was made as part of the 2016 National Arts Journalism project
in collaboration with 2SER 107.3 Sydney, the CBAA, the CRN and the CMTO.
It was broadcast as part of ‘Out of the Box’ -
a special community radio project funded by the CBF and managed by 2SER.
In 2012 Vulcana Women’s Circus lost all core state and federal funding. Vulcana is a Small Arts Sector (SAS) organisation. For funding purposes SAS means ‘a small/medium organisation or individual arts practitioner’. To keep the doors open, it changed its income model. Vulcana no longer relies on core government funding.
Since 1995 Vulcana has worked with women to build and strengthen community networks across Brisbane. At its centre is a conscious practice of cultural community-building. It values women as leaders; holds that empowered women ensure individual well-being and connectedness, which are essential in shaping strong communities; focuses on place-based projects; draws on traditions of inclusiveness and empowerment; and it uses contemporary circus techniques as a transformational tool. It’s proudly feminist.
In 2012, no one knew what was to come. Federally, over $300 million have been taken from the Arts Sector since 2013. In hindsight, the 2012 cuts foreshadowed the scope and nature of the cuts under Abbott and Brandis, Turnbull and Fifield. The 2012–’16 cuts; the 2015 raid on the Australia Council’s SAS funding pool; and the formation of Catalyst, using the plundered money, are all acts of political influence designed to erode artistic independence and erase freedom of expression protections. Each individual and dogmatic act increases the future likelihood of further and unprecedented political influence in Australia’s Arts Sector.
Under the Australia Council framework all SAS organisations compete for funds across all Australia Council literature, music, theatre, dance, visual arts, and inter-arts boards; whereas Australia’s Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) companies — think chamber and symphony orchestras; opera, ballet and dance companies — have ring-fenced funding allocations. This was the case before any of the recent changes.
In 2015 the 28 AMPAG companies received roughly $165 million for an audience reach of 4 million; that’s 60% of Australia Council funding to generate 16% of total audience ticket sales. That’s a $41 per person subsidy. The other 781 funded SAS organisations received $110 million for an audience reach of 14 million; that’s 40% of Australia Council funding to reach 84% of the total audience. That’s a $2.50 per person subsidy. Nearly 18 million Australians pay to attend a ‘live performance industry’ show each year; it’s just that government money isn’t going where the audiences are. According to Marcus Westbury in his article ‘#fundedlikeamajor: Who is really subsidising the arts Australians love?’:
That whole diverse ecology of creativity and participation is heavily subsidised. Not by the government. They support it barely enough to leverage the massive resources the rest of the community puts in. It is mostly subsidised by the passion, the sweat, the volunteers, the discount labour, the effort and the imagination of artists, participants, arts workers and the communities that love their work and support them.
For over thirty years contemporary SAS circuses, like Legs on the Wall (1984); Circa (initially Rock’n’Roll Circus, ‘87); Stalker (‘89); Melbourne’s Women’s Circus (‘91); Strange Fruit (’94); Vulcana (‘95); and Flipside Circus (’98) have been significant contributors to, and builders of, Australia’s Performing Arts Sector. If innovative cultural productions are to continue as part of our national identity, we need artistic diversity; professional outreach that develops community exchange and fosters creativity; we need art that is for everyone, not just for those who can afford it; and we need art that reflects the world we’re living in. The short-sighted funding decisions made by state and federal governments are corroding the quality of Australian arts and individual artists.
Governments attack the things they don’t think we care enough about to preserve, or the things they don’t think we’re organised enough to defend. As we move into more and more rounds of austerity cuts to health, education, scientific research, public and community broadcasting, CSIRO, rural and regional services, social security… well, austerity cuts to pretty much everything except defence spending, coal mines and politicians’ benefits, we will lose our storytellers to other narratives, experiences, audiences and regions.
Conservative governments demand the Arts Sector demonstrate ‘economic benefits’ and ‘job creation’ rather than the ‘inherent value’ of culture — as if that’s not important. Even then, they ignore the numbers. The Australia Council’s competitively-funded SAS pool embodies everything the current Federal Government claims to stand for: it’s processes are open, efficient and transparent; it stimulates small business, economic growth, innovation and tourism; individual artists make weighty taxable returns on public investment; it employs more people than the Mining Sector; it’s a responsive, national approach that supports participation in and access to Australia’s Arts and Cultural sectors; and, by the by, it just happens to celebrate the inherent value of culture: that is, art’s capacity to engage, inspire and make meaning. Catalyst, on the other hand, is a closed and obscure body, with a Ministerial veto provision, that duplicates Australia Council processes while syphoning huge amounts of public money from the efficient SAS funding pool to prop up a tiny number of inefficient AMPAG companies. This is all part of a long-term trend that has seen more and more money taken from SAS organisations and handed to AMPAG companies — even before Catalyst allowed them to do it behind an even heavier set of closed doors. In anyone’s language, the short-term decisions being made by those controlling the coffers since 2013 illustrate vehement and rabid ideology and third-rate economic management.
On March 17, 2017 there is a significant win for the Arts Sector. The Turnbull Government announces it is dissolving Catalyst and returning approximately $63 million of the outstanding $70 million pillaged in the 2015 Excellence Raid. A win for community pressure; the Arts Sector; and the #FreetheArts campaign.*
*This announcement occurred after ‘No trickery, no re-takes, no stand-ins’ was recorded & edited.