MAINSTRRRM IN A TEACUP

26/05/2010 at 8:22 pm 10 comments

So, an interesting week has unfolded, after the furore of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards had settled (has it?); it occurred to me that there was a writer’s festival on, and I really should get a wriggle onto being there. And maybe tell a few people what happened. But that’s a story for another day, as one conversation lead to the conclusion that We Need to Talk About Funding, Kevin – what’s thirty grand in the scheme of things when Ms Blanchett asked for thirty million back in February and scarcely got a mention in the Federal Arts budget? Apparently business as usual is good enough for those of us struggling to get a snifter of a wage in creating new Australian theatre.

For the record, something like 10-15% of programming is new Australian writing in the ‘major’ performing arts companies (I think that means they are bigger than the others). I’m leaving that issue alone for a moment; because I want to unpack what we mean when we say things like ‘mainstage’ or ‘mainstream’ theatre in this context. It’s pretty clear that the independent sector and established (but smaller) companies are producing a lot of new local product; and yet the vast majority of theatre funding is lining the coffers of ‘mainstage’ production houses like the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies (among others). The actual figures get a bit messy when you start including the State and Council grants into the mix, not to mention the strange stratification system between the ‘Theatre Board’ grants and the ‘Major Performing Arts Board’.

For example, a cursory look at the numbers for 2009, Australia Council grants for the Theatre Board tallies at just over three million ‘roos. This is largely associated with New Work, although the largest grant is $600,000 for the Performing Lines initiative (supporting touring work). To put that in perspective, last year the Major Performing Arts Board granted over Ninety-Six Million of the same – $18,283,409 was handed over to Opera Australia alone. I’m not suggesting that they should get a penny less, but it begs a question or two. I can’t seem to tell why one is considered of more value than another, other than the annual turnover at the Box Office. I assume they put out some interesting and moving work from leading international and local artists, work that I assume makes a mark for the Australian Performing Arts on an international scale. I assume all this because as an artist myself, it’s all completely out of my disposable income range… What I don’t assume, (in fact it’s something I wish to interrogate vigorously) is that somehow all of that excellent work is somehow considered over six times more valuable than the entirety of new Australian Theatre Writing.

It reminds me of a post last year by Marcus Westbury about how “creators make culture, not bureaucracies”, after a comment I made in response, he took me to task about my use of the word “mainstream”.

“What i would pick you up on is your use of the term “mainstream” arts to describe the well funded arts. By what criteria are they “mainstream”? I’d argue that by just about any definition they are niche and subcultural artforms and companies and no more represent the mainstream than any number of other niche and subcultural activities.”

He’s got a point. And when you think about it, how many people do you know who get to the Opera, or even know what was playing last season? Sure, maybe some – but the long tail of independent, unfunded theatre probably caught a few as well. New work draws audiences at a fraction of the cost. So when Cate asks for a thirty million dollar performing arts fund, I’m all for it, provided not one cent of it goes toward projects funded by the Major Performing Arts Board. They’re doing fine as they are. Put it towards the independent sector; the people taking risks, the people putting new work out there. Because some things are valuable irrespective of their financial return. In reality, the only reason certain companies are seen to be ‘Mainstream’ or ‘Major’ is because, well, they are considered under that banner. They get the big money because it’s always been that way, not because they provide anything more valuable or important than any other company. If anything, I’d argue that new writing is far more valuable culturally than any imported text. After all, writing an Australian play is something that nobody else can do.

New Australian writing will create a unique Australian theatre. And when we have that, maybe we might be able to look at an STC season with more than one or two local plays (another tidbit – the two STC ‘New Work’ shows granted OZCO funds last year were both adaptations from European classic plays – *facepalm). Funding new work now will mean a richer vein of local plays to plunder in years to come, we won’t be rehashing fifteen year old plays that were undercooked then and are undercooked now, we won’t scraping around for a play that’s not European in convention and American in execution, we’ll have plays that are a distinctive Australian Theatre , and plenty of them. Funding New Work now will create a grassroots culture of theatre conversation, from regional centres to inner-city bars, because everyone will know someone who’s got a chance to tell their story. Theatre won’t be elite anymore – it’ll be a part of everyday culture.

Thirty mill isn’t a whole lot in terms of the net Federal Arts budget, but it’s a start.

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Entry filed under: Funding, Marketing, New Work, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , .

“It’s not America. Is it?” CHOICES, PROMISES, LUCK

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alison Croggon  |  27/05/2010 at 10:52 am

    Compared to tv or film, theatre will always be “elite”: it simply can’t reach those kind of audiences. That is, however, its strength: it offers another kind of experience.

    I question whether posing main stage companies as competitive antagonists of smaller companies is a positive thing. That’s poverty thinking, and it’s a trap that’s very useful for politicians: what matters is the whole ecology, and like it or not, major companies are part of that ecology. Equally, they depend on smaller companies for their vitality – where else is talent to come from? If there are no major companies, where is talent to go? Overseas? (That’s where it’s often going at present). We need bigger, joined-up thinking.

    Reply
  • 2. anvildrops  |  27/05/2010 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Alison, thanks for the comment,

    what about big TV events like Olympic Ceremonies? are they theatre? or State of Origin? Roland Barthes might argue that it is 🙂 but I’m splitting hairs…

    I take your point about setting up an oppositional position, which is why I am careful to point out the value of Major Performing Arts Companies. I love seeing big ticket shows!

    I just don’t think it is more valuable culturally speaking … it’s equally valuable to the independent scene (which admittedly, is the work I find myself preferring to do – so it is not as though I have no stake in the argument). but there’s a massive discrepancy in support for community based, grassroots storytelling.

    I believe that given breath, we can have a culture of performing arts in this country that is operating at all levels, and respected equally whether it’s at the pub on a Friday night, or at the Brandenburg orchestra in Angel Place. That breath can come in three ways; direct financial support that is equal to the ‘majors’; or through support in-kind (venue hire or professional mentorship); or simply via word of mouth like the kinds of conversations we are having online.

    some of these things are starting to happen, but not from the Australia Council, and from the media… they are too focused on the bottom line!

    i reckon i am thinking pretty big 🙂

    Reply
  • 3. epistemysics  |  29/05/2010 at 2:15 am

    Well, sitcoms are theatre too, in a way – people are in the studios, yes? Anyway.

    It is perfectly simple to determine what is mainstream and what isn’t. If the program costs more than $5, it’s mainstream, if it costs less, it’s independent. Don’t see why people have so much trouble splitting the two. Hmph.

    Reply
  • 4. Jana  |  03/06/2010 at 5:29 pm

    This is an oldish story by now, but it’s also a neverending discussion, isn’t it?

    There are two things I take for granted, but that don’t seem to be voiced very often. I’ll put them out there for comment.

    1. How do we know what precisely fuels our culture, culturally speaking? For example, it seems to me that something like a big international arts festival, which may showcase mainly international work, may do wonders for our culture if it brings in new influences, inspiration, workshop opportunities, and even just exposes us to another way of doing things.

    2. Classical music is very expensive, because it’s labour-intensive, and rehearsal-intensive. Funding a good orchestra really cannot be done on the cheap. I would say our Opera still gets less than it needs to operate comfortably – and what it gets, it gets because someone up there thinks that every civilised country needs to have an opera (just like it needs a flag, an anthem, an army and a big ferris wheel). Should the argument perhaps be about the importance of independent arts for the country? So that we can say, we’re just another kind of opera, ma’m. Otherwise, it always comes across as a kind of demand that the opera be defunded. I know that’s not how you put it. But other people talk about this disjuncture in funding, and that’s how it always comes across…

    Reply
  • 5. anvildrops  |  03/06/2010 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks Jana, yes, it is ongoing; you will hear more on this from me! 🙂

    you make a fine point. But I’ll leave the lobbying for more funding for Opera Australia to the people who get paid to apply for more funding for Opera Australia. I simply picked them as the top of the pile when i went through the figures for 2009, getting 18M for a dozen (or so) shows may or may not be enough, that’s another argument. 3M is definitely not enough for supporting new work.

    My argument is very much about the importance of independent art, and specifically the importance of creating a culture of writing and performance, which cannot exist in any impactful form without encouragement.

    Because we should aspire, as a creative culture, to have more Australian work on at the Opera House, but until we develop a grassroots environment of performance, it will always be given less credence.

    I’d like to chat more on this but have to run off to a launch; feel free to carry on the debate as you see fit!

    Reply
  • 6. Jana  |  04/06/2010 at 4:10 pm

    You’re right – and I think we fundamentally agree. I think a good line of argument would be to compare our theatre budgets with arts funding in other, more independent-work-oriented countries. For example, arts in Berlin (just Berlin) have a budget of approximately 945 million euros (just in Berlin), of which 85% goes to big institutions: operas, theatres, arts centres. Still, that leaves almost 150 million euros to independent art. Germany’s total arts budget is around 10.5 million euros a year. (The figures are from 2009, and the link to the policy powerpoint is here: http://www.powershow.com/view/21c3a-MWNhZ/Live_or_die_A_Report_From_Berlin_on_the_Future_of_Arts_Funding_in_Germany).

    I cannot find the budget details for specific institutions or arts organisations – I’ll get to it later, when I’m not finishing a literature review. But your comments when you come back?

    Reply
  • 7. Jana  |  04/06/2010 at 4:12 pm

    Oops – 10.8 BILLION euros a year. The other way around made no sense.

    Reply
  • 8. anvildrops  |  06/06/2010 at 1:42 pm

    Jana, yes it goes to show how wildly different our cultural priorities are… even in a comparison per capita or in relation to GDP; I would expect these figures to be out of proportion to Australian funding levels.

    interestingly I was talking to someone from Berlin on Friday night and he said that all city planning projects must have an arts component of 3%. it can be anything they want, but 3% of total construction costs must go towards the arts. So a massive new apartment complex under construction in say, BROADWAY might include a space for performing arts.

    The beauty of this is of course that it would not simply be an arbitrary add-on. Potential buyers of such apartments would recognise that having a cultural precinct under their very nose would be adding massive value to their investments. Imagine buying a flat in the West End, before it was the West End… WIN for artists, WIN for developers, WIN for the buyers. Imagine such a policy across the board?

    but I’m guessing the folks at MacQuarie St have a few other things on their mind than putting forward a planning strategy that integrates the arts with other long term development priorities.

    Reply
  • 9. Jana  |  06/06/2010 at 10:12 pm

    I think what interests me is making an argument not in terms of ‘look how little we care here’ (as glaringly obvious as it is from these figures), but in terms of comparing like with like. Since we may all agree, for example, that Sasha Waltz or Thomas Ostermeier make good independent theatre (based on the positive reviews and ticket sales they got as part of Melbourne and Sydney Festivals, respectively), we could then say, look at their budgets. This is the money that one needs in order to make good independent art that Australian people and critics will like.

    The relationship of arts and urbanist policy is a very interesting thing. I was writing about it for RealTime just last week. The problem, for Australia, is that it’s very hard to make that link before you have a national cultural policy. But what I like about your example is that it shows that it’s not just the question of how much money, but also how it reaches the arts.

    (Also, the Berlin developer would have all sorts of other requirements to satisfy, from the building quality to affordable housing, not to mention design guidelines. Our developers have an absolute free rein, in comparative terms, and every time the planning system tries to impose some restriction, they go all mass-media about how the cost of housing will be affected. The power given to private developers is a great shortcoming of our planning system.)

    Reply
    • 10. anvildrops  |  08/06/2010 at 5:17 pm

      it’s not that we don’t care, but in a typical Australian manner, we have a funny way of showing it!

      seems to me we care more about keeping up appearances of having a creative culture, than actually having a truly open, creative culture.

      it’s getting better, could use a bit of a push though, in my not-so-humble-opinion :p

      Reply

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