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Where We Started

To all of you who signed the letter of protest to the Chair of the Board of the National Film and Sound Archive and to all of my Film Alert readership I am finally able to set out a few more things . Our letter called for:

  • public release of the Loebenstein NFSA Business Review; and
  • agreement that the NFSA will at the earliest possible opportunity convene a properly publicised open forum or series of fora in the major capitals to enable a full public discussion of these matters wherein those proposing the changes, and in the case of the Board, supporting their implementation, publicly defend and explain them. Such discussion should take place before final decisions on terminations, sackings and personnel restructures come into effect.

While this request has failed to have the effect we hoped for, it has nevertheless resulted in the possibility of input from us into the structure which is now being proposed for the Archive. Unfortunately, the “Business Review” which is the basis of the first wave of change has remained unseen by more than a few and uncontested by those whom it affects -  both the staff now designated as ‘excess to requirements’ and the users and depositors to the national institution. The sacking of some 28 members of the NFSA staff is going ahead.

Regarding the sackings, the process usually employed in any organisation where it is claimed staffing costs must be reduced more usually involves offering voluntary redundancies. This either could not, or would not, be employed by the NFSA. The explanation as to why remains unknown. However, one seasoned observer and former active participant in these matters has said to me, and I quote: ‘the line-by-line staff and operation cuts are the most efficient way for the organisation, although the most inappropriate for the stakeholders, including the staff.  Redundancies are bad, however handled. Voluntary redundancies tend to encourage the best to go and the weakest to hang on.”

Where We Got To

I have had the opportunity to speak directly to Michael Loebenstein, the CEO, about this and he explained in some detail the budgetary pressure he was under to make staff cuts. The savings eventually achieved would ensure that the NFSA operated within its budget for the foreseeable future and would free up some funds that can be directed to what he and his Board regard as the future priorities of the NFSA. Those priorities will not currently include the ARC Cinema, the Bookshop, the open access library and the exhibition areas. There will eventually be much reduced activity of the Screen Lending Collection, an activity which annually has about 70,000 users and beneficiaries.

The Business Review apparently identified only actual positions that will be removed. For most, such removal will be achieved by 30th June to enable the lower staff numbers to operate as from the new financial year. Some areas will wind down a little more slowly. The process by which these decisions were made, according to the Chair of the NFSA Board (in a letter to me and fellow signatories) was “a line-by-line, position-by-position analysis ...central to making decisions in the context of the objectives of the whole of our business, our financial position and of our broad and changing operating environment.

I conclude this part by saying that there has been much confusion created by the way the NFSA has managed these matters. It’s clear only now that the NFSA management foresaw two parts to this process. The first involved responding to budgetary concerns and using that to identify staff whom the Board and management decided are excess to requirements. That solved a significant financial problem although it has caused much resentment among the staff, both going and remaining, and additional resentment among the various communities of users who believe it threatens their access to the current NFSA services.

We may now never know whether there were issues in this process that should have or could have been contested or found lacking in substance. The inexperience and ignorance of the current Board in considering these matters has been largely unremarked upon but the loss of experience and institutional memory held by the many senior staff being forced out, many of whom have dedicated working lifetimes to both our and the world’s film heritage, may well turn out to be a modern tragedy only revealed over time.

The Fairfax Syndrome

By chance the other day at the Sydney Film Festival I ran into Bruce Petty and mentioned that I had been in attendance when a presentation was made to long-serving NFSA staff member Ken Berryman, foundation manager of the Melbourne NFSA office, now Manager of the NFSA’s Oral History Program. Bruce had done a wonderful cartoon that was presented to Ken in Sydney on 3rd June. 

In discussion, it occured to us both that the process at the NFSA and perhaps elsewhere in these straitened times has similarities to what Fairfax senior management imposed on the once great newspapers the SMH and The Age. In order to make savings you decide you have to get rid of your most valuable assets rather than the assets that don’t cost very much. So Fairfax got rid of its prime asset, experienced journalists who cost a lot of money precisely because they are/were the considered the best. The result has been a hollowing out of activity and a dumbing down of content, a lack of much ambition and the shredding of many fine traditions. In the end of course, even less people are interested in reading the papers even if the company’s share price has risen.

To the degree that the NFSA sackings are part of this syndrome, how can we help to minimise similar consequences?

Future NFSA Priorities

I have mentioned that the staff cuts were made on the grounds of freeing up funds for the NFSA’s future priority activities.  Chief among these are the future conservation of the collection, the need for funds to be made available for its digitisation and the expansion of access to it.  These priorities will be outlined in the Draft Strategic Plan which Michael Loebenstein has prepared and has begun to circulate to NFSA staff. The NFSA has announced it will be made public shortly.  This is where the NFSA user community can hope to make an impact.

Time is to be given for people to digest and consider the contents of the Draft Strategic Plan. Public meetings will be held in six, possibly seven, capital cities and further advisory and consultative arrangements will then be set in place. If this is fair dinkum then maybe the polite noise made by the signatories’ letter and by mentions in the press may have had an effect. I know that some of you will feel reluctant to participate, especially given your feedback to the correspondence from the Chair of the NFSA Gabrielle Trainor intended to explain what the Board thinks is and has been happening.  You found it patronising and condescending.

Nevertheless, what is at stake is the future direction and well-being of our Archive. It was established and supported in its development by the efforts of signatories to our letter along with many others within the wider screen and sound community. The Archive is the repository of the work to which many have dedicated their lives – including not only production work but also cultural work. And I am sure we all want the NFSA to achieve its full potential as a cultural institution which reaches Australian people in a vibrant and meaningful way.  I believe this means sticking with it even when we have disagreements with the way it is managed. Hopefully, our constructive critical engagement will in time lessen those disagreements.

This note has been somewhat difficult to write. Admitting defeat in the face of a bureaucracy that believed only it knew and should be privy to how things are done grated a lot with me. Nevertheless, until it is proven otherwise, the Draft Strategic Plan for the NFSA now opens the way for dialogue.  Although we can’t predict whether the results of such dialogue will correspond with what our tiny but aggrieved section of the screen community hopes might happen to one of our greatest cultural institutions, we now have no option other than to give it a go.

Geoff Gardner

20 June 2014

PS. Thanks to Martha Ansara, Dominic Case and Sue Milliken for comments, support and much wisdom.