marcus westbury

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Creativity needs Creative Destruction

June 16th, 2009 by marcus


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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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ed Peters Jun 17, 2009 at 10:28 am

    No, arts organisations are not comparable to cockroaches and email spammers. And is threatening an arts organisation with closure an effective and healthy way to ensure its vibrancy? And in fact, why is renewal be the best path to creative dynamism? What about nurturing and developing ideas over time instead?

    As for artistic directors quietly admitting that their project is past it’s use-by, what sort of artistic director can afford to squander their funding and reputation by hanging around attached to a project to which they are not committed? Arts funding in Australia is simply not comfortable nor secure enough to allow such complacency.

    Yes, some arts funding is paralysed in Australia – being subject to efficiency dividends, it does not grow at the same rate as inflation. So each year the real worth of a renewing grant diminishes, with the idea that this is good encouragement for arts organisations to make up the accumulating shortfall themselves. It’s not much of a reward for artists. Arts organisations can therefore either reduce expenditure, or increase income through fundraising and/or selling more at the box office.

    If a company wanted simply to keep doing what it’s doing, ie putting on four operas a year, or six dance performances, or five exhibitions, they must either eventually reduce the scope of their output so it costs less, put on cash-cow shows that will earn them money, or start going after the corporate or private dollar. And fundraising isn’t free to do – eventually it becomes necessary to employ marketing and sponsorship people, who instantly must raise more income than they cost, in order to boost the net position of the company. The original arts project has now transformed into an arts and fundraising organisation, which spends a larger portion of its grant on administration than before – a situation created primarily by a lack of cash in the first place. It’s usually about this stage when the funding body starts asking questions about the changed spend ratio of artistic to administrative costs, and for precise detail about philanthropic activity, and it’s effectiveness.

    In the case of the Australian National Academy of Music, the outcry was indeed vocal, but not small in terms of the arts community. Some 15,000 supporters throughout the country and overseas voiced their concern for an arts minister who ignorantly, incorrectly and publicly labelled the ANAM inefficient and ineffective. Luckily, the ANAM had the energy, commitment and drive of it’s exceptional artistic director and general manager to undertake the critical transformation and self-reinvention that was required to regain the confidence of the government and, consequently, its funding.

    Arts funding in Australia is indeed perilously scarce, and of course the largest chunks of it are directed into the largest established activities – Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Symphony come to mind. These companies have the largest marketing and fundraising departments in the country: 20 at the Opera, 31 at the Ballet, and 24 at Sydney Symphony. If there wasn’t the pressure to self-generate revenue, one wonders how different these companies would be. One also wonders what would happen to the money saved in wages expense for these 75 people.

    Maybe instead of making arts organisations easier to dismantle, creativity in this country could be better nurtured through better access to adequate funding. Easing the pathway to artistic production should be smoother, not more fraught. Maybe then there’d be fewer marketing and fundraising people to unbalance arts organisations, and a better opportunity for artists to concentrate on communicating their vision to a country that clearly needs it.

  • 2 marcus Jun 17, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Thanks for the response Ed.

    I guess we are starting off from two different assumptions. Your assumption – and correct me if i am wrong – appears to be that the existing suite of arts organisations is the appropriate and adequate mix for the future needs of Australian arts and culture. My assumption is that we need to vary the mix over time and that we do not have an adequate and fair process that allows us to do that.

    In the context of your assumption, the points you make are valid and make perfect sense. However, in writing this piece i was arguing against that assumption and not within it. You don’t really seem to have responded to that intention — and perhaps it wasn’t clear from the original piece.

    I guess my question is why you take that view? My experience is formed largelyy by seeing the huge number of projects and initiatives that get nipped in the bud because funding and policy structures are preoccupied with the demands of the already funded. Perhaps i’ve just worked too many day jobs to fund too many projects to take the funding disparity without questioning it and the assumptions behind it.