marcus westbury

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Can i have $30m too please?

March 26th, 2010 by marcus

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Was Cate Blanchett seriously asking for $30 million for the performing arts last week? The big splash is a common provocation but not necessarily one to always be taken literally.

To be fair, Blanchett did more than just ask for money. She made a passionate speech defending the social and economic role of the arts in Australia. I suspect it went down well – to an audience of dedicated Australian performing arts professionals needing a little validation. While Blanchett was widely accused of Hollywood elitism and out-of-touch luvvyism, it was the type of “rallying the troops” message that we should expect from a co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company. I’ve seen similar validation at virtually every industry event, from council planning days to business conferences, but most of them don’t make the newspapers.

But $30 million? In the lead-up to the 2020 Summit, one delegate enthusiastically suggested a billion-dollar theatre fund, an idea so ridiculous that the $30 million floated last week seems modest. Blanchett’s proposal for $10 million a year over three years may be meant to be taken literally or as an ambit claim, a gentle reminder that many theatre companies are run on the smell of an oily rag. If there is new money on the table, let’s start by looking at what we’re not funding and ways we’re not resourcing artists before we single out a claim for any particular sector.

The reality is that the arts are evolving rapidly and that as a nation we aren’t engaging with it. Today, the Australia Council will release its Arts Participation Survey, which shows how Australians participate in the arts.

It is likely to show that the culture makers who “process experience and make experience available and understandable”, as Blanchett puts it, are no longer to be found exclusively or even largely in the performing arts. They are just as likely to be DIY video makers, or games designers, or animators, or digital media makers. They are likely to be contemporary musicians, bloggers, or architects or designers. At present we don’t resource or even support these people.

The whole basis for supporting the arts is stuck in a 19th century understanding of how artists actually work and operate. There are few structures to support the reality of artists as independent professionals mixing commercial and non-profit work. Much smaller amounts of money, invested wisely in this area, would reap enormous returns both creatively and economically, yet there is little understanding that the arts are made up of anything other than single art form organisations staffed by more bureaucrats and administrators than artists.

The question should not be how we resource a particular sector but what should we be resourcing. How can we nurture the niche and the nimble, the new and insurgent, the creative and consequential outside strict historical art form boundaries?

We desperately need to deal with questions that have nothing to do with funding but may cost money to solve. As real estate prices have soared and rules governing use of space have become more onerous, the problems of accessible work spaces for artists of all genres have become acute. Some practical investment in this area would go a long way. Picking out any sector in isolation is the enemy of good policy. The past decade has seen the Nugent Report on the major performing arts and the Myer Report on the visual arts leading to scores of millions of increased funding for the targeted sectors. After all, it’s easy to make the case for any particular art form in isolation – as long as you don’t admit you’re comparing them by stealth with everyone else – but that is not the reality.

In this context an extra $30 million for the performing arts is a tough case to make. The reason is not that performing artists couldn’t use the money – they could. But you simply can’t take theatre or performing arts in isolation. With a limited arts dollar to go around, the costs of big-headline, big-ticket initiatives are almost always borne at the expense of many smaller – and often more effective – ones. We rarely like to admit it but artists and art forms are competing with each other for scarce resources. Unfortunately, the much overdue What the hell should we actually be prioritising spending limited resources on? report is yet to be commissioned.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 glengyron Mar 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I’m surprised you found anything to say from the “Miss Teen South Carolina” mess of Blanchett’s speech.

    Her statements and arbitrary number make no sense, I think your philosophy of seeking tangible support for artists, such as space in which to work is far more practical.

    It also keeps the bureaucrats out of making value judgements about art which is a current trend which needs to die.

    Let me just finish with a little more from Blanchett’s speech. Holy shit it’s bad. Gravity? WTF?

    We process experience and make experience available and understandable. We change people’s lives, at the risk of our own. We change countries, governments, history, gravity. After gravity, culture is the thing that holds humanity in place, in an otherwise constantly shifting and, let’s face it, tiny outcrop in the middle of an infinity of nowhere.

  • 2 Richard De Martin Mar 26, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Here Here!

  • 3 Paul Squires Mar 27, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Really enjoying your articles on Arts Funding, Marcus. It’s a topic that doesn’t get enough coverage or reasonable, disinterested coverage in the mainstream media. Keep up the great work.

  • 4 John Walker Mar 28, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Whatever the intentions of the individual reports over the decades , the trend for decades been the path of more and more payments to people to administrate the system (of making payments), and less and less payments to the making of any kind of art at all. The venice biannual where the OZOC paid for the OZCO to go and Private philanthropy paid for the artists to go, was I hope the nadir of this trend. The problem of the ‘many competing art forms’ is a ironic, recurvsive sort of problem ; because nobody can agree on what art is…. not .. ,we cannot agree on what should definitely not get funding -And so most of the money is used up trying to ‘decide’, ‘facilitate’ and administer ‘who’ gets whats left of the money after administration costs.

  • 5 John Walker Mar 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    The australia Council was formed by the forced amalgamation of a wide range of very disparate bodies.
    Right from The Councils beginning it was pretty obvious that forcing large organisations like for example, the Elizabethan Theater Trust , operas, orchestras… into a collective management system, that would also be shared by the many artforms that mostly consist of numerous small independent organisations and sole traders was…. less than optimal in its outcomes.

    Organisations and a marked preference for dealing with organisations, quickly came to dominate the thinking of the council.

    In the mid 90s the council set out to impose peak industry ‘representative’ bodies on areas like the visual arts .
    This concept of a peak industry, ‘representative body’, could only be achieved by the exclusion of the real independent , “herding artists is like trying to herd cats”, art industry.

    Thus the polices/programs that were advocated by these ‘peak industry bodies” to inquiries like Rupert Myers were mostly advocacy for increased funds for ‘peak industry bodies’ to “represent their artists”, Or were based in ignorance =nonsense. Or sometimes they were grounded in real malice towards the real industry that blankly refused to recognize the authority of these ‘peak industry representative bodies” to speak for anybody much at all.