The devastating arts cuts of the mid-90s are being repeated, destroying the painstaking repairs of the past two decades. Robert Reid on this particular circle of funding hell
If we ever get to the stage where only well-heeled people can go to the theatre, it will be the death of it. So that somehow or other ways have to be found so that anybody of any price range can get to the theatre; and that is an immediate thing that they have to address themselves to, because sponsorship now, the government funding, is not good.1
Ray Lawler, 1985
A little over 30 years ago, in 1987, the Mill Community Theatre in Geelong received notification that they were no longer to receive funding from the Australia Council or from state funders. The Mill had pioneered a wave of community-focused theatre in Australia, working closely with and producing theatre for the local community, away from the inner-city focus of most professional and alternative theatres of the day.
In November of that year the Artistic Director of the company, Richard Murphet, wrote in the Mill Newsletter:
The Mill Theatre Company, Geelong’s full time professional theatre company, received notification late last week from … the Australia Council that “the company had been unable to develop a viable community relationship” and from … the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, that “the company’s changing programmes had not given it a firm enough direction or base for its operations in 1988, nor was community support for the work of the company deemed broad enough. 2
This despite the fact that the company could show an increase in box office revenue, which was up 559%, with audience attendance up 300%. They had worked with or performed to 51 community groups and 63 local businesses gave financial or in kind support. 3 This sudden and ill-advised change presaged a wave of funding cuts and closures over the following years that closed, one way or another, most major mid-range theatre companies, including The Mill, Whistling in the Theatre, The Church and Adelaide’s Red Shed. It finally ended with the closure of Anthill in 1994.
The damage caused by the funding cuts of the late 80s and early 90s resulted in a depressed sector and a devastated mid-range that struggled to re-establish itself for a decade.
Murphet wrote at the time that “This decision affects not only the company, but the Geelong community at large. It means money removed from Geelong and farmed back into Melbourne, favouring the growth of arts activity in major metropolitan centres at the expense of regional centres.” 4 Murphet observed a pattern of thought that characterises the majority of funding interventions made by Australian governments – that art is a luxury commodity better suited to the city, not a social utility that benefits everybody. While this underlying assumption continues to persist, as it does today 30 years later, arts funding remains an easy target for electioneering rhetoric and a critically unreliable support mechanism to rely on.
During the 1970s and ‘80s, the middle of the theatre industry was essential for the sector’s sustainability and growth. For artists, the process of going from working in a small venue like La Mama to a mid-sized venue like Theatreworks was an important stepping stone on the path to working in a major venue like the Fairfax. Following this path was essential as a way to gain the skills and build the networks vital to maintaining and progressing a career. The corollary, which isn’t talked about as much as the importance of these venues for artists, is the importance of them for audiences. At the height of the 1980s expansion of fringe and alternative theatres into the suburbs, there were operating theatres with permanent(ish) artistic and administrative staff serving their local and wider communities in Geelong, Hawthorn, St Kilda and Essendon.
The damage caused by the funding cuts of the late 80s and early 90s resulted in a depressed sector and a devastated mid-range that struggled to re-establish itself for a decade. Despite this, within the very first years of the 1990s independent artists were already renegotiating their practices to survive in the new funding landscape. Five Dollar Theatre, Wax Studios, Keene Taylor Theatre Project, kickhouse, Illbijeri, Gilgul, Ranters, Chameleon… for all its anxious handwringing, the 90s was an incredibly fertile time because artists, of course, still found ways of working in flexible and agile company structures, supporting their work from project to project. Structures that we would now more readily recognise as those of Independent Theatre companies.
The ecosystem of live theatre in Australia is as delicate as it is robust
By the 2000s, these unsupported or partly-funded company structures were becoming more established, the mainstream media was beginning to take an interest and new industrial structures were developing to suit the new cultural landscape. Many small theatres expanded to offer support for more entry-level, early and mid-career artists, and the major theatres reluctantly stretched themselves to provide support for some of the more well-established mid-career artists as part of their development programs. The formerly established networks and support mechanisms of the old mid-range theatres were replaced, at first, with ad hoc administration that gradually crystallised into new networks and service organisations such as Theatre Network Australia, Playwrighting Australia, the Australian Script Centre, Theatre Alive and so on.
Meanwhile, the major organisations were positioning themselves to survive future shocks should they come. Certainly arts funding had already consistently proven itself dangerously unreliable. The big companies were in a position to lobby for their own insulation through the creation of the Major Organisations Board of the Australia Council. Separated from the general funding rounds which include everyone else, by the early 2000s – with the release of Securing the Future (Link) – the mainstream metropolitan/state theatres around the country were siloed from the vicissitudes of government intervention, which focused the most destructive effects of generalised cuts on the small to medium and independent sector.
In this new environment, independent artists and producers painstakingly reconstructed the functions of the old mid-range sector and over 30 years succeeded in restoring the industry to a gerry-rigged stability. Networks between small and medium independent companies and the majors were being restored, though admittedly in an compromised and more gate-kept fashion. Mechanisms for generating and promoting new work had been re-established and the major organisations and media were taking some responsibility for connecting with emerging artists and new audiences.
Then came the 2016 Brandis raid. Senator George Brandis, then Minister for the Arts, requisitioned $104 million from the Australia Council’s discretionary budget – all the money that goes to companies outside the Major Performing Arts Framework – for his new National Programme (sic) for Excellence in the Arts.
In the immediate wake of 2016, just as in the wake of 1987, there was anormous anxiety and some initial semi-high profile losses. Companies including Arena, Brink, Force Majeure, KAGE, BalletLab, Red Stitch, Next Wave, Slingsby, Snuff Puppets and Vitalstatistics were among the 65 companies to lose their funding in 2016, with particular damage in youth arts. Even when some of the Ozco’s discretionary budget was returned by Mitch Fifield when he replaced Brandis – with $25 million still unaccounted for – many of these companies would be lost for good.
In the 1960s, in his ubiquitously misunderstood The Lucky Country, historian Donald Horne asked:
… what other word than “provincial” does one use to describe a nation in which most activities are derivative and most new ideas are taken from abroad? In which the main decisions in manufacturing and strategy are dominated by overseas centres and in which vogues are usually out of date? Which not only lacks a feeling of importance in the present, but has no feeling of importance in the past? That sometimes watches the policies and trends of its twin metropolises (Britain and the USA) with more interest and knowledge than it watches its own? There is a certain type of Australian who can be understood only as a provincial – unless “colonial” is an even better word.” 5
Horne’s “certain type of Australian” is not only focused on the policies and trends of overseas but also the entertainment and culture. They haven’t disappeared in the intervening years and the same craven attitude that describes artistic achievement in terms of “international standards” and “excellence” persists. When all of cultural accomplishment is reduced to a process of ranking and governed by aesthetic standards inherited from the European canon, Australian art generated by and for Australian environments and communities can seem superfluous. How many more plays than Shakespeare’s do we really need? Especially when there’s Hollywood movies for anyone who can’t make it to, or won’t understand, the Bard.
The most recent Australia Council Corporate Plan for the next five years, amongst the platitudes, buzz words and managerial verbiage, describes the current version of this thinking:
All Australians are welcome to engage in arts and creativity, to participate and enjoy the benefits of Australia’s rich cultural life. All Australians, regardless of social, physical, geographic or personal circumstances, should feel invited to connect and immerse themselves in exceptional cultural experiences … Experiencing the arts is not a pastime of the elite. 98% of Australians already are engaging in the arts in many ways. However, our research tells us that many Australians have a narrow interpretation of what constitutes ‘the arts’ and that there is a growing sense of the arts as elitist.” 6
This observation, the “growing sense of the arts as elitist”, has not sprung unbidden from the void. Instead two generations of ideological funding cuts and chaotic restructures focused on “excellence” have driven a wedge between the arts and its audiences. Tellingly, now that there’s barely anything left to cut from the fringes, bigger companies and infrastructural organisations are beginning to feel the brunt of the Brandis cuts. According to the Sydney Morning Herald this August, “two thirds of the arts organisations which applied for multi-year grants from the Australia Council have fallen at the first hurdle and failed to secure long-term funding.” 7 Among these were Theatreworks, Playworks and the Australian Script Centre.
When all of cultural accomplishment is reduced to a process of ranking and governed by aesthetic standards inherited from the European canon, Australian art can seem superfluous.
The editors of the 1982 Australasian Drama Studies Journal (probably Richard Fotheringham and Veronica Kelly) wrote that the arts are vital not only as entertainment but because “people cannot know what they are capable of if they forget what they were able to do in the past.”8 In the aftermath of the new budget, Victorian Shadow MP for the Arts Tony Burke told the SMH: “If anyone is wondering in years to come why so few stories, images and shows are Australian, the answer will date back to when this government slashed funding to the Australia Council…” 9
What word – other than provincial or colonial – can be used to describe a nation in which the arts are seen as elitist because the little art that manages to survive the semi-regular government intervention is regularly derided by politicians and mainstream right wing media as highbrow, out-of-touch wank. What word indeed…
Just as in the 1990s, more than companies have been lost in the latest cuts. The ecosystem of live theatre in Australia is as delicate as it is robust. We have seen that it can be rebuilt, over years and decades, but it can also be devastated in a moment. Thoughtless and vindictive changes to funding policy and structure can and do result in wide-spread industrial chaos. This chaos is not only founded on wilful government intervention, I think, but a persistent provincial misunderstanding of what it takes to make live entertainment.
Take, for example, “An Imagined Future”, the theoretical case study presented as part of the 2019 – 2024 Arts and Culture Policy for South Australia. This document describes a representative project in which a principal from a remote primary school takes a punt on a new State government “Artist in Residency Program” in 2025.I think this imagined project reveals the kind of misguided thinking about the arts that continues to hobble its expansion beyond a luxury and an elite pass time.
At the end of another busy day, the school bell in a primary school in regional South Australia rings across the yard. Instead of rushing to catch the school bus, most students are staying behind to prepare for a culmination of a three-month “Artist in Residence Program” that has captivated the school and broader community. For the past three months a South Australian writer and interactive storyteller has collaborated with the students to capture narratives and oral histories from this remote area. Students have chosen a range of different media to express themselves – six-second sound-bite stories for social media, video interviews with family members sharing their memories, and a live dance sequence, accompanied by a “choir of the spoken word”. Together, the project is called, “We’re not arty out here!’” 10
So, the professional artists working on this project are at most two, though I’m inclined to guess the “South Australian writer and interactive storyteller” are both the same artist. Presumably they’re working with the community to get everything else done on a volunteer basis.
In reality, done properly, this is already a much bigger task. The writer/interactive story teller can certainly work with the community to gather stories and craft them into prose. Who will coordinate the meetings for this process? Who will handle the admin, the PLI, the many little approvals and permissions an artist needs to make work? Who will arrange props, costumes, set? Who will direct the filming, who will edit, who will host all this digital material once generated? Who’s going to tell people about it? Who’s going to choreograph this dance sequence? Is this all to be done by the individual writer/interactive story teller? Will that labour be passed onto the community, already pressed for time with work and family and all their other commitments, and now have to also make cardboard kangaroo costumes for Grade Five?
To be clear, this sounds like a wonderful project, the sort of thing that could do real good in a community… but the artist is not a magical creature who can be airlifted to a remote community and single-handedly conjure up a collaboration that captures and repackages its soul in three just months. Trust needs to be established, relationships need to be built. Much more than just three months of one artist’s time needs to be invested to make a meaningful contribution to these people.
The community theatre companies of the 1970s and 80s in some cases spent decades living and working in communities to make exactly the kind of art described here. The governments of the day shut them down and destroyed the networks that enabled this kind of work. Now they think a single artist, of any stripe, can just waltz in and do the work of a whole company.
What’s described here sounds like a bank commercial.
The “case study” continues:
Everyone’s excited about this interactive exhibition and performance, supported by local businesses who’ve helped with in kind goods and services. The family-run hardware shop donated the paint to clean up the hall, and parents helped with costumes.” 11
Sentiments like this make my heart hurt a little. In Australian theatre history they’re so often followed by, “unfortunately at the last minute the project lost its funding and had to cancel the performances and archive the website”. Nevertheless:
As the students put the finishing touches to their creations, the Principal of the school stands at the entrance and it’s hard to know who is more nervous. But the night goes off without a hitch and is a great success. Everyone enjoys this new way of coming together and celebrating their community. As the principal says in her thank you speech, “It’s been a tough year and everyone has been grateful for this new way of coming together to share stories and celebrate their region. This is just one example of a state-wide program that has introduced more creativity into school life. What’s more, the program is being embraced by primary schools across the State.” The crowd roars. 12
Yeah, this final paragraph, right down to the awkward policy-speak wedged into the principal’s speech, is the fantasy. The night goes off without a hitch and is a great success. So who’s working the lights? Who’s stage managing? Who’s coordinating box office? Who’s the First Aid officer? Does anybody here have an RSA?
This is a problem, this vision. It demonstrates how people see artists and the process of making art in this country. We have been told a story about individual success and art that centres on the genius artist, so ubiquitously patriarchal it’s called The Great Man theory and teaches that things happen because of one person.
Art isn’t magicked up out of community goodwill one spring evening by a travelling minstrel. You’re thinking of the Pied Piper. And look how well that turned out for Hamelin.
The artist does not labour alone. The artist works like anybody else, in a network of product and service providers who make the art work possible, and markets/audiences who give the art its value. The current funding system is vulnerable to the depredations of government intervention because it assumes the labour, the real system wide distribution of labour, can be outsourced to volunteers. Maybe this is a variation of the unpaid internships and “good exposure” projects emerging and more established artists are regularly subjected to.
While the story about art remains that it is a labour of love that takes one person to do the work of hundreds, funding structures will remain vulnerable and unstable. Art is made by teams of people. Creative, skilled, experienced, trained people. It’s not magicked up out of community goodwill one spring evening by a travelling minstrel. You’re thinking of the Pied Piper. And look how well that turned out for Hamelin.
In 2016, Australia Council CEO Tony Grybowski told ArtsHub:
We always acknowledge there is unfunded excellence and in this particular round it was highly competitive and there were many excellent organisations that did not get funding…. We are history-making. This is the first time we have been able to look at the sector as a whole. In realizing a culturally ambitious nation, it was critical that we looked at the whole sector. So much has changed. There are so many exciting new models. 13
There is something telling in his assertion that the Ozco is in the process of “history making.” The phrase speaks to a triumphalism that measures Australian art against established and new works by international artists as a standard of excellence. Though the rhetoric of arts policy leans heavily on the importance of arts for the whole community, the practice of funding distribution still tends to overwhelmingly favour centralised, metropolitan artists who fit into the established models of European imperialism tempered by already obsolete economic theory. Kay Ferres and David Adair write in their Platform Paper that:
Today, arts advocates are more likely to appeal to the arts economic contributions to cultural tourism, or else couch civic prestige and aesthetic attainment in terms of the arts’ ability to attract capital and a creative and talented workforce to a city or region. Advocates are less likely to resort to an apparently outmoded humanistic consensus that the arts were the finest expressions of the human spirit, with a vital role in improving individuals and society alike. 14
The new models that Grybowski champions rely on the presence of the “unfunded excellence” that there “always is”. The “so much” that Grybowski sees as having changed across the whole sector, is in reality just more work that must be pushed onto volunteers, amateurs and emerging artists to carry the load.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Communications and Arts, Paul Fletcher, told the SMH:
Unfortunately, it is a reality of the funding cycle in defined-term programs such as these that funding cannot be counted on indefinitely. Changes in the funding line-up happen from time to time and it allows new initiatives to access funding to support their work, in the same way, that so many before them have done. 15
Jack Hibberd said in 1979 that Australian theatre needed to be completely restructured. The theatre Hibberd saw was:
A multi-focal polycentric theatre structure in Australia where you break down the major monoliths into smaller more intimate theatres only seating 200 and have a whole spread of them through the cities and you have community centres around the country, regional theatre … So, that needs a whole revolution. 16
In 2017 Candy Bowers told Ben Neutze in The Daily Review:
For whatever reason, Australia is holding onto this idea of a classic aesthetic. For me, it ties so deeply into the history of the patriarchy and the white patriarchy and colonisation; that set of structures that comes from the white straight male gaze. For me, personally, it’s like – burn it down. 17
To those of us who have been saying “burn it down” for all these years, me included, I guess what I have to say is that we should get ready, because the fires are lit.
We need a better plan for what comes next. Artists, restless and determined beings, will doubtless take the next two or three decades to once again rebuild and repair the damage. We need real alternatives to government funding this time, something other than corporate sponsorship or philanthropy. Relying on, demanding, the largess of the rich (the individual or the state) has only ever proven problematic at best. We can’t keep thinking someone else will come to rescue us with big pots of cash because we think our art is important for the country.
At the Mill in 1987, Murphet concluded:
What we have learned from this experience is that these days government funding is unreliable, and we must now look to the local community to provide financial and other assistance to enable the Mill theatre company to exist. One form of assistance which would be appreciated would be a show of support by performance in or attendance… 18
Have we learned this particular lesson yet? I feel like the boundless optimism that is demanded of artists in Australia, the ability to still believe it’ll be alright on the night despite all evidence to the contrary, is keeping us from seeing the situation we’re really in.
Relying on the community didn’t work out, of course, for The Mill. Within a year or so they were closed. Because the problem is not simply one of financial capital: it’s about social capital as well. Ferres and Adair suggest that: “Unfamiliarity and difficulty, it would seem, do not necessarily act as barriers to induction into a new taste community, especially when an art education has built up appropriate cultural, emotional and social resources and thus helped bridge the gap.” 19 We need a plan for that. We need a plan for how we’re going to engage the audiences that are here in our cities and suburbs and towns. Rather than more complaint that the Ozco is moribund (which it is) or the government is inept (which they are) or that art is elite (it isn’t), what we need more than anything is a plan to move forward with or without government intervention.
We need to find a way to do what the major companies did 20 years ago, a way to future-proof what we do. There’s no less potential paying audience out there now than there was before 2016. I humbly suggest, once again, that we need to find new ways to reach out and include them.
These are the lessons of 1987. I’d really like to believe we’re going to learn from them this time.
1 Interview: Ray Lawler talks to Alrene Sykes, Pg 25, ADS April 1985
2 Murphet, R 1987, ‘The Mill Electrocuted’ The Mill Newsletter, November edn. The Mill Theatre Archive, held in the Australian Performing Arts Museum.
5 Horne, Donald The Lucky Country, 1964.
8 Editorial, Australasian Drama Studies, Oct 1982 Vol 1 no 1. Pg 3
14 Kay Ferres and David Adair, Who Profits from the Arts? Taking the Measure of Culture, Platform Papers; Currency House Inc, 2007, pg 7
16 Palmer, J (Ed.) 1979, Contemporary Australian playwrights. Adelaide University Union Press, Adelaide.
18 Murphet, R 1987, ‘The Mill Electrocuted’ The Mill Newsletter, November edn. The Mill Theatre Archive, held in the Australian Performing Arts Museum.
19 Kay Ferres and David Adair, Who Profits from the Arts? Taking the Measure of Culture, Platform Papers; Currency House Inc, 2007, pg 23