It can be incredibly difficult to kill an arts company in this country and damn near impossible to simply let it die a natural death. Come the apocalypse, the only things likely to survive are cockroaches, email spammers and arts companies.
Yet finding a way to let things die is vitally important in the realm of creativity. We fund and support a vast portfolio of companies and programs that are probably well past their use-by date. While most artistic directors will quietly acknowledge the reality, very few will admit that their company is going stale.
The Australian National Academy of Music saga demonstrated how quickly the arts community can ward off a perceived threat. The Australia Council Theatre Board discovered the same thing late last year. It made a long-overdue reshuffle of its small and medium-sized theatre funding, and several companies fell down the list to a great outcry.
Culture is in flux all the time, yet arts funding is often paralysed and fixed. A healthy creative ecology is one that actually encourages variety and change. In an ideal world, a large number of projects would be starting, a smaller number of them going professional and receiving ongoing support and only a much smaller number would earn the right to security so strong they can’t be blasted out with dynamite.
We live with the reverse.
If any established company is bumped for funding, a small and vocal community reacts loudly. We debate the decision as though it was made in isolation. We treat the government of the day – of whatever political persuasion – as making some sort of conscious attack on the very idea of art itself. Rarely do we acknowledge the decision as one about allocating and prioritising scarce resources.
In Australia, culture is largely resourced and funded in retrospect. Systems to identify, nurture and take risks on new things are inconsistent and poorly designed. New funding is almost impossible to come by – but once funded, organisations can be practically and politically incredibly difficult to dislodge. A lot of arts organisations are far better at self-preservation than cultural production.
Most independent companies or arts organisations begin life in a burst of enthusiasm. They start out with a few talented individuals but with little in the way of administrative ability or overhead. Talent, enthusiasm, persistence and some degree of luck mean they can manage to create projects and programs that demand to be noticed. If they can survive long enough, their output is rewarded with access to infrastructure and administrative assistance.
This can be where the trouble starts. The arrival of the support can coincide with or be shortly followed by the departure of the key people driving it. Taxpayers can be left funding the administrative rump of a once-vital company. Occasionally, such companies are reinvented by new creative energy, or evolve into productive and valuable roles beyond their original creators’ intent. But often they do not. They are left over-resourced administratively and under-resourced creatively.
This wouldn’t be a problem but for arts resources being extremely scarce. Everything has an opportunity cost. Everything we put resources into means effectively making a decision not to resource something else. Rarely do we stop to ask ourselves not just whether something is worth supporting, but whether it is the best thing we could support.
Creativity and culture – perhaps more than any other area of our lives – is in a state of constant reinvention. When we act as though culture is the product of fixed organisations and structures to be preserved and defended, we miss the point. Culture isn’t just about preserving the legacies of the past. It’s also about us. It’s about realising the unique possibilities of now.
Sometimes creativity needs a little creative destruction.
First published in The Age 27/04/2009.
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