marcus westbury

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Is the flagship arts company destined to be a relic of the 20th century?

July 28th, 2009 by marcus

Flagship1

Culture circa 1960

IS THE flagship arts company destined to be a relic of the 20th century?

The 20th century was an era of “big local” culture. We used to have big local media, big local brands and even big local football competitions in each state and territory. Each major Australian city also built a suite of big local cultural institutions. Each state had a flagship orchestra and opera company, a flagship main stage theatre and a suite of other museums and institutions that collectively made up their cultural life. In the eyes of many, their scale and quality often defined something about the quality and culture of the city itself.

It made perfect sense at the time. Each city needed the suite of cultural institutions in order to have access to the range and diversity of culture. Travel was expensive in time and money so companies, audiences and artworks rarely travelled. Few questioned the notion that “culture” was primarily about a small number of high-value works. The great canon of Western civilisation demanded that each major centre have companies and infrastructures of the right scale to present them.

Fast forward to today and almost the reverse is true. Travel has become cheap and culture has become much less centralised. Audiences are exposed to more and expect more. Festivals and promoters give us access to a global palette of touring works. Audiences can jet interstate for touring productions or blockbuster shows. Even the smallest of local companies can tour nationally and internationally.

We are leaving the age of flagships and entering the era of flotillas.

flotilla3

Culture circa now-ish

Culture is becoming less about a few big things that are geographically located and more about an armada of things of all scales, shapes and sizes that are local, international and everywhere.

For museums, the challenge is an opportunity. Museums are inherently plural and can do many simultaneous things. Successful museums are reinventing their role from being a constant, local, cultural archive to catering for everything from niche interests to blockbuster international tours. Melbourne’s museums have diversified and blockbuster shows are promoted interstate and overseas. Witness the rise of the Winter Masterpieces from Dali at the National Gallery of Victoria through to Pompeii at the Melbourne Museum. Recent NGV exhibitions have covered a range from Bugatti to sneakers, recognising that Melbourne’s cultural life consists of many niches.

In the performing arts the challenges are much greater. Major companies can’t easily choose to chase a variety of niches simultaneously. They have limited capacity of time and talent. The subscription model requires them to hold together a large audience and makes it hard to chase many disparate smaller ones. Where they are expected to reproduce global culture locally it makes it harder to develop the original and distinctive work that will travel and succeed. They are torn between being distinctive and global and catering to a large and local audience.

We need to ask what we expect of our flagship performing arts companies. Do want them to be larger and local or globally significant and resident here? Chasing shows that are big, well promoted, and bankable locally can be a recipe for imitation and mediocrity. Whereas locally it is the breadth of interest that determines success, globally it is far more likely to be the intensity of it. That means pursuing work that is not loved by everyone but will be very much loved by someone. It means encouraging work that can find an audience and knows who its audience is even if it is not a catch-all of a group of subscribers or Melburnians.

More importantly we need to recognise that culture is about much more than our flagships. We need to turn at least some of our attention from the grand scale and down to the layers below. We should invest at least as much in flotillas as we currently do in flagships. We should put as much effort into ensuring that there are a variety of venues of myriad scales as we do in building arts centres. We should resource people to make global work here and celebrate their successes. In the 21st century the most vital thing won’t be to ensure that our flagships are gleaming, but that our flotillas are seaworthy.

Originally published in The Age.

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