While the ABC’s recently announced changes to state and political news services attracted headlines, there has also been considerable backlash against the decision to close its standalone arts unit and make senior staff redundant.
Namila Benson, host of the ABC’s Art Works program
On 15 June, the ABC announced that its screen arts team would move into a new screen Arts, Music and Events department, with arts digital roles moving into a new Digital and Innovation team.
As a result of the changes, the two most senior ABC Arts staff positions will go, making Managing Arts Editor, Edwina Throsby, and Digital Arts editor, Dee Jefferson, redundant.
Many within the arts sector have questioned the decisions at a time when the ABC is striving to attract a younger audience and increase its capacity for digital content – both of which, arts organisations argue, can be met by the ABC focusing on, rather than reducing, arts coverage.
National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) Executive Director Penelope Benton said that 2021 research showed that Australians aged 18-29 see engagement with arts and culture as inseparable from their other everyday activities.
"Young middle Australians value the capacity that arts and cultural activities have to help them express themselves, connect with others both alike and different to them, feel inspired, learn new things and think differently about the things they already know," the research showed.
In a statement, the ABC said savings made by the changes would be "reinvested into arts coverage which will lead to more of the arts content audiences want and expect."
"No other Australian broadcaster comes anywhere near offering the depth and breadth of arts coverage that ABC does…Our commitment to the arts remains as solid and comprehensive as ever."
Media Union Chief Executive, Erin Madeley, said the decision by the ABC is out of step with the Federal Government’s recently released national cultural policy, Revive, which seeks to restore the importance of the arts in Australia’s society and economy.
"Arts coverage has been a fundamental role of the ABC from its earliest days so we struggle to see how this decision fulfils its charter obligations to 'encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia'," Ms Madeley said.
"For people living in remote and regional Australia who rarely have physical access to arts and rely on the national broadcaster to provide them with their cultural 'fix', this risks leaving them with even fewer opportunities to participate in our artistic and cultural life."
Former NAVA Executive Director and deputy chair of Creative Arts Precincts, Esther Anatolitis, said the ABC’s announcement occurred only days after Federal Parliament passed its Creative Australia Bill, which will deliver increased investment and better support for Australian musicians and artists.
"For the first time in a long time, it feels like arts are on the national agenda. So, it’s been quite jarring to see the national broadcaster take steps in the other direction."
Anatolitis said that the proposed changes risk the ABC not providing "an approach to the arts that’s contemporary and relevant; coverage that draws on significant expertise to extend well beyond Archibald wins, and to engage rigorously with the industry and present timely investigations".
Live Performance Australia warned that getting rid of the two specialist editorial roles would have a 'damaging impact' on coverage of Australian arts and culture and called for the strategy to be reviewed.
"Audiences are diverse in their ages and background and drawn from across metropolitan, regional and rural communities across Australia," Chief Executive, Evelyn Richardson, is reported to have said in a letter to ABC Chair Ita Buttrose.
"Given this, if the ABC is genuinely interested in engaging and growing its audience, it would be investing more in its reporting and coverage of the performing arts as opposed to further scaling back its coverage as has been the trend over recent years."
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