marcus westbury

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A billion lost opportunities?

March 21st, 2009 by marcus

The Sydney press is reporting this morning that the NSW state government “has agreed to fund a $1 billion project to finally bring the Sydney Opera House in line with its designer’s vision.” This decision is one that is so staggeringly out of touch with the realities of cultural policy at the moment that it is scary.

Nicholas Pickard over at Sydney Arts Journo has asked the same question that I’ve asked and seemingly everyone involved in this process so far has failed to ask: is this the best we can do with a billion dollars? Even putting aside the obvious case for spending the money on schools, hospitals, public transport and the rest of the state’s clapped out infrastructure he points out and i would agree there are so many far more productive and urgent things that could be done with just a fraction of this money in the arts.

The problem is that we essentially have two art worlds. One is the highly funded, heavily centralised, massively subsidised world from which decisions like this emerge. It consists of funded organisations and institutions whose needs and demands are constantly drawn to the attention of the politicians and policy makers and for whom the logic and consequences of billion dollar decisions make perfect sense.

Beyond that is the vast fertile web of frustrated creators who produce far more with much less. They are not merely without funding but often without a voice. They struggle to get governments to make the kinds of basic, cost neutral policy reforms that would make their life easier. They often fail to have their basic needs register in processes that consistently shut them out – let alone having funding programs that support them.

The billion dollars offered up for the opera house renovations is stark reminder of how the norms of one world clash with the realities of the other. For that much larger community of artists outside government run arts centres and organisations this represents more than will be invested in them for decades or perhaps hundred of years.

As people here will know, I’ve been working on the Renew Newcastle scheme to activate over the empty buildings in the main streets of Newcastle. Newcastle is the second largest city in NSW and has been hollowing out for the last two decades. To date we’ve spent about $15,000, filled 8 shops with artists and unfunded projects and have 10 more on the way. With no funding at all we’ve already started to take make a serious impact in a decline that has has been intractable for a generation. The resources have come from volunteers and credit cards. Though Australia is top heavy with resources for bureaucrats and cultural venues it has few functional systems to bootstrap, seed-fund or support innovation or new cultural initiatives.

After slugging it out for nearly a year Renew Newcastle has just been offered funding from the NSW government. To their credit they were the first level of government to get behind us and we are greatly appreciative of it and we aren’t asking for more money. It is enough to allow us to pay back some debts and pay someone to manage the scheme but it is from a whole other art world to the Opera House announcement. The Opera House’s billion dollar investment would be enough to seed fund sixty six thousand six hundred and sixty six Renew Newcastles or to pay the $50,000 per annum cost of running any one of them for the next twenty thousand years.

There are almost certainly not twenty thousand such schemes out there but there are definately dozens, probably hundreds, and perhaps thousands of projects outside our Opera Houses and state run centres that are crying out for investment or support. Many of them don’t even need money just attention to realities of how space regulation, the tax system, compliance costs and other government decisions far below the billion dollar radar conspire to make it hard to do the simplest of things. Renew Newcastle has been unable to place a single performance project or access a single empty government building becasue the rules that govern them are expensive to administer and impossible to understand. These simple things are vital with limited resources but something that an army of consultants and underlings simply spend their way through through at the cultural institution scale.

At a time when the trend towards decentralising cultural production and diminishing budgets is upending the entire cultural landscape this is the wrong decision at the wrong time. Perhaps a long term plan to restore Utzon’s Opera house vision is a worthy goal but this is not even close to the best use of a billion dollars in the current context. Arts funding and arts policy making desperately needs a radical rethink away from the edifice complex, the arts centres, the photo ops, the opening nights, the operas and the orchestras back to the level where culture is being grown, nurtured and made.

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15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sandy walsh Mar 21, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Anonymous Sandy Walsh said…

    One billion dollars spent across the arts with accessablity to community as the focus, would be the greatest investment in a nation that a government of any persuaion could make. I admire the Sydney Opera House architectually and I do acknowledge they have a Contemporary Culture policy,but unfortunately it seems to be a human trait to desire monuments.The sustainability of such monuments is questionable in todays environmental fragility.

  • 2 Michael Kubler Mar 21, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    I agree. On the one hand, the Sydney Opera house, and maybe the nearby harbour bridge is about the only thing that foreigners can relate to. Kind of like New York city with the Statue of Liberty. Although American’s also get the White House, and Hollywood, amongst other things.

    On the other hand, the Australian Arts scene could have a massive revival with such a large injection of funding. Our film industry has gone through many different funding changes, but there is such great potential for growth.
    Some more funding, and things like the screen hub in S.A, and Fox Studios in Sydney are a good start, but there could be so much more. We could be leading the world in Mobile phone content creation, film, 3D animation, and computer game creation. But I would also love to see things more close to home things like mural walls, and experimental art projects.

  • 3 Dale Slamma Mar 22, 2009 at 1:16 am

    Imagine if there was the opportunity to be individually funded to develop as an artist and by that I mean draw a salary without expectation of commercial outcome. It would be a grand day when artistic endeavor was genuinely valued as a contribution to the broader community.

  • 4 Delores Foxtonfinn Mar 22, 2009 at 1:39 am

    I understand why they want to bring it in line with its designer’s vision, but what a staggering amount of money to go into one project! I’m also shocked by this anouncement because I thought NSW was broke!

    The Opera House was originally paid for by the “Opera House Lottery”. Personally I think the renovations should be paid for by
    the “Opera House Renovation Lottery”.

  • 5 Tax Payer Mar 22, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    @delores Another lottery fund would be great but isn’t the NSW Government selling off NSW Lotteries?

  • […] 22, 2009 Both Marcus Westbury and Nick Pickard lead their blogs with strongly critical posts about recent reports that the NSW […]

  • 7 Ben Eltham Mar 22, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    Marcus, I think there is every reason to believe this decision will not go ahead. More discussion on my blog at:

  • 8 TimT Mar 22, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    If a government is to be able to distribute taxes on public arts, then I don’t see how we can really restrict their freedom to choose *where* that money should go. Insisting that money be spent on one artistic project, as opposed to another, could quickly become churlish – another way of saying, ‘No, I’M more important than that other person! I DESERVE more money’. That’s how it seems to me, at least – and so on those grounds I can’t really object to this money going to the opera house.

    There are sound historical reasons for the opera house to receive this money. It is certainly one of Australia’s few known and recognised architectural masterpieces, but it has suffered in the construction from day one due to the interference of politicians. The internal design of the building has, for years, suffered from a number of flaws that have been deleterious to the performance of operas and concerts.

    The opera house needs, and deserves, to be finished according to Utzern’s original plan. A pity the billion dollar grant has been announced just as we’re going to go into a recession. But that’s life.

  • 9 Kinsley Mar 22, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    “They struggle to get governments to make the kinds of basic, cost neutral policy reforms that would make their life easier.”

    Amen to that.

    It’s gotten so bad now that in Sydney it’s almost impossible to organize any sort of live music performance.

  • 10 marcus Mar 22, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    @Tim. Love your work but that’s about the most tortured logic i’ve ever heard!

    What is it with you free market conservative types who go ape shit every time the the government drops a dollar on some project to keep kids on the dole from stealing cars but start talking about the governments’ “freedom to choose” when they blow a billion on imporving the view at the Opera.

    Andrew Bolt is the king of it. Former Opera critic, more than happy to drop a bomb on every 5 grand project, yet loves nothing more than lauding THE MOST SUBSIDISED ARTFORMS in the country at will.

  • 11 TimT Mar 24, 2009 at 8:59 am

    I wrote this yesterday afternoon, forgetting that I wasn’t able to post it at work:
    “Oh, I’d much prefer that the arts were funded substantially through private and philanthropic means, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Governments DO tax Australians, and they DO throw around large amounts of money at the strangest artistic projects. So why not be practical and look upon this funding as an opportunity, a public commitment by the government of the day to the arts?
    There’s another point: if politicians aren’t prepared to refurbish the opera house; if they are prepared to let one of Australia’s only recognisable artistic icons, and one of its hugest tourist drawcards, remain unfinished – what hope is there for the rest of the arts industry? Is there going to be perpetual war between the ‘large’ and the ‘small’ art groups over the limited amount of public funds available? Is this really desirable?
    In the final call, there seems to be a place for both ‘big’ and ‘small’ artistic projects. Big projects will naturally require and attract more money, but this doesn’t necessarily reflect a failure to commit to smaller projects.
    That being said, the timing in this recession is really, awesomely bad. But the costs are only going to go up and up in the future.”
    Subsequent to that, I revisited the debate about this funding on LP and I have to say some of the arguments against are pretty strong.

  • 12 East Mar 25, 2009 at 12:31 am

    here’s the thing – the Opera house is a big project. It is going to cost money as it is heritage listed.
    It does however cater for all art forms, and as it stands is unfinished. It is not functioning, it is an OH&S hazard to it;s employees, and is unsatisfying to all audience members. Utzon has fixed that is his renovation plans – so, bring it on.
    One of the icons of the 20th C is right here is Sydney – let’s fix it and ensure it’s survival as an international hub for the arts. Otherwise it will be relegated to endless Idols or high school musical night – which are a part of Sydney’s musical life, but not the only part. Unless it is completed it may as well be a pretty looking town hall, and every high street has one of those – this is our House!

  • 13 Jeoffry Katz Mar 29, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    If we were in a fairy tale land called Denmark, then there would be no question about such an important building which purports to be the soul of a nation. A $1billion spend would be seen as the only good and right thing to do in order to properly finish the building. (Well, at least the opera theatre… the concert hall is another matter.) In this strange land, they would also fund artists well to engender a society of creative visions, where visual arts, theatre, music etc are all valued highly. Why is it so hard in this place?

  • 14 Unpaid? Unremarkable. Mar 31, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    […] My comments here about the proposed billion dollar redevelopment of the Sydney Opera House have attracted more than the usual amount of attention as has Ben Eltham’s post about the same subject over at Larvatus Prodeo. […]

  • 15 John Jacobs Apr 11, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    WTF? indeed!
    A billion to one? That’s bad odds for a bet on a single cultural investment.
    Obviously a better spend is a more distributed one.
    Imagine the outcome of putting a thousand dollars each in the hands of a thousand creative people?
    Mass innovation is the only way forward.