marcus westbury

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Teething problems

August 13th, 2009 by marcus


WHY don’t we see teething problems coming when we build a new cultural centre? There is something strangely familiar about events at the Melbourne Recital Centre last week. A major new cultural centre opens and soon finds itself over budget. Programs are slashed, directors are accused of mismanagement and recriminations begin among former allies.

It’s not the first time this has happened. The history of launching major cultural projects is littered with such tales. The most remarkable thing about the recital centre’s “teething problems” is not that they have happened but that apparently no one saw them coming.

How quickly we forget. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image had its own set of debacles not more than a few years ago. While a centre for film, video and computer games may appear unlike a recital centre, the two share more than their geometric architecture. Both are ambitious venues, and both make a feature of their world-leading technology. More importantly, both are also entirely new cultural centres – not mere upgrades or relocations – driven by a passionate group of people realising long-held ambitions.

Passion is a great thing. Passion is the lifeblood of the arts, but it can only get a major project so far. Passionate proponents of new centres and schemes inevitably overestimate the audience, underestimate the difficulty and assume that once the centre is built, the audiences will come. Yet that same passion can actually make it harder to create viable organisational cultures and to make complicated compromises. People with a common ideal around the “what” can quickly clash over the pragmatics of the “how”. The same passions that drive many towards an exciting vision can become public frustrations as visions clash with each other or organisational realities.

Writing last week, MRC chief executive Jacques de Vos Malan seemingly blamed overconfidence and unrealistic expectations for at least part of the problem. In hindsight, he wrote, the figures on which the maths behind the centre was based “did not relate the true cost of running the business to the actual size of the audiences”. As a result “individual artists and small ensembles . . . find themselves unable to afford to hire our venues”. That this might happen is understandable, perhaps inevitable. Failure to anticipate it verges on unforgivable.

The harsh reality is that as good as they might seem on paper, major institutions are opportunities and burdens for many independent artists. One that boasts on its website that it is “a custom-built professional venue, costly to run and expensive to hire” is likely to be even more so. The cost and complexity of working in any public institution is a recurring complaint of many artists and at times a running joke. The trade-off is meant to be bigger audiences. But determining whether they exist and what marketing is required to attract them takes more than the passions of the already enthusiastic.

None of this is in the minds of a community realising a dream. Ideally, governments, the media and the wider community need to recognise that the ambition and enthusiasm for a vision needs a dose of pragmatism before it gets to the “teething problem” stage. We could also help by cutting down on the hype and starting with more realistic expectations. It would be far cheaper and more sustainable to let new centres start small enough to allow for trial and error, to grow an organisational culture with enough licence to under-promise and over-deliver – instead of the other way around, as so often happens during start-ups.

There is hope. After repeated near disasters, rounds of redundancies, and taxpayer bail-outs, ACMI is becoming better known for its programming than its crises. Time, changing management and trial and error have yielded some stability. It has cast off parts of its original vision, consolidated other plans and attracted large audiences by embracing the likes of Pixar, computer games and the camp nostalgia of Australian TV history. Yet inevitably and understandably, many of the harshest critics of the newfound pragmatism will always be those whose passions were invested and – to them – betrayed in getting there.

Did we really not see it coming? Some almost certainly did. History tends to prove that it is a tough call for any government to cut any major cultural centre loose once it has been built and opened. Regardless of budget blow-outs, the Melbourne Recital Centre, like all cultural institutions, will inevitably attract the resources necessary for survival. It’s how plenty of things have started. It’s the price and product of passion.

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