A Notion by Sean Mulcahy
The ALP’s arts policy in the lead up to the election pledged a grand total of $10 million over five years in new money for the arts, to be directed towards fellowships for working artists and grants for the creation of new work. The ALP estimates it will fund around 150 new works.
Compare this to the Australia Council’s approximately $170 million budget, where around 93% of the funding goes to established organisations.
As Ben Eltham writes:
If anything, the policy announcement highlights the emerging difference of opinion on the importance of independent artists and new work between the Australia Council and Garrett as minister. The Australia Council could, if it wanted, free up more funding to support artists and new work from its existing budget, but that would mean taking on the big performing arts organisations which effectively dominate the policy framework. Garrett has shown no sign that he wants to do this, and neither has the Australia Council as a policy agency.
Indeed, the debate is always dominated by one issue: funding for the major cultural institutions.
In late July, for instance, prominent composer and West Australian Opera artistic director Richard Mills let loose in The Age, blasting attempts “to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding” and launching an attack new art forms like multimedia art, which he described as “just another example of meretricious, self-serving claptrap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak-minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds might happen to drop from the perch of government”.
A week later, in an article by Rosemary Sorensen for The Australian, Mills said “these don’t seem to be friendly times for the major performing arts sector and there is, in the industry, a perception of subliminal disapproval of our work emanating from Canberra that is puzzling and frustrating”. Sorensen affirmed that “within the arts sector, there is mounting frustration, not yet expressed openly for fear of reprisals, that… heritage art is being undermined by arts funding policies that favour emerging art forms”.
In August, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti went even further. In a report on ABC1 News in Sydney, arts reporter Anne Maria Nicholson crooned that “leading orchestras fear their future because of potential government funding cuts”, and Tognetti warned that “one of the orchestras or leading companies might be destroyed”.
The truth is that there is no threat to orchestra funding or funding of any of the major cultural institutions.
Indeed, as Eltham wrote in The Drum:
[A] recent authoritative study commissioned by Arts Queensland found that 98 per cent of the Council’s $90 million in music funding goes to classical music organisations like operas, orchestras and chamber music ensembles. A risible 2 per cent goes to everything else – folk, hip-hop, rock, jazz, indigenous music, you name it. And yet, according to the Australia Council’s own research, contemporary music is far more popular and valued by ordinary Australians than music of the orchestral or operatic variety.
If the orchestras are worried that they are becoming unpopular, perhaps it’s because they are. The available statistics show that Australia’s orchestras and opera companies rank well down the list of cultural experiences that ordinary Australians enjoy and attend. As the Strong Review discovered, orchestral and operatic audiences are… shrinking as a percentage of the Australian population.
Orchestral repertoire reflects this: they don’t perform much new work, or even Australian work for that matter. Last year, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed 123 works in its main-stage concerts. Only three were premieres. Only seven were by Australian composers. Even Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, which is rightly proud of its record of commissioning new work by Australian composers, still performed only nine new works out of a total of 57.
Furthermore, to again quote Eltham in a report for Inside Story:
David Throsby and Virginia Hollister’s 2003 report Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, found that the mean creative income for an independent artist working in Australia was only $17,000 per annum (in a year when the average annual wage in Australia was about $52,300). But in that year, the Australia Council distributed just 6.3 per cent of its grant funding to independent artists. Ninety-three per cent went to organisations. A recent, comprehensive survey of Australian arts funding commissioned by Arts Queensland found that “grants to individual artists to make work are estimated to be fewer than 5 per cent of all arts funding.”
Since the Nugent report into major performing arts organisations in 1999, there has been no significant inquiry into performing arts funding in Australia. The report on the small-to-medium performing arts sector in 2002 sat at only 28 pages (in comparison to Nugent’s 163) and had only four very broad conclusions (in comparison to Nugent’s 95 precise recommendations). When the Australia Council received additional funding for the small to medium performing arts sector in the 2007-8 budget, it was provided to “key organisations” that had “a sustained national or international presence”, and as such included only 28 theatre companies and significantly less dance and music organisations.
The focus on funding for major performing arts companies, like Mills’ West Australian Opera and Tognetti’s ACO, threatens to marginalise the small to medium performing arts sector and independent artists. The amount of funding poured into the older, established companies, can make it increasingly harder for younger artists to produce work. Moreover, in the debate that erupted in late 2009 about women directors in ‘mainstream’ theatre, Alison Croggon on her blog theatre notes wrote that “women, being communicative mammals, make a certain kind of collaborative theatre, that is itself marginalised”. The funding of the Australia Council, with the support of the government, is heavily biased to an older, white, male dominated industry, to the detriment of the diverse independent arts sector.
By comparison, the Greens have a radically different cultural policy platform. Their policy, recently reported in The Age, “is aimed at encouraging innovation and ensuring as many Australians as possible get to share artistic experiences”. The policy will establish a $5-million-a-year arts research and development fund to support new Australian work; include artistic engagement with arts organisations for the purpose of meeting social security requirements; provide grants to allow small companies to combine with major performing arts groups; and allow visual and performing artists to be assisted by Centrelink.
“Every industry needs innovation to survive and thrive and the arts is no exception,” said Greens deputy leader Christine Milne. “But while in the sciences it is acknowledged that some experiments fail, experiments aren’t given the same chances in the arts.” Much the same can be said for smaller performing arts companies, who have to prove themselves before they can secure funding.
The Australian and other media have long argued of the risk the Greens pose to policy, now especially under their new agreement with Labor and in the balance of power in both the lower and upper house. (The Australian has now announced that they want the Greens “destroyed”.) But maybe this is an area in which the Greens can advocate more considerations for poorer independent artists and the small to medium performing arts sector in the coming government. We certainly need to open up the debate.