Is entrenched inequity threatening the future of Australian arts? Duncan Graham analyses our two-tier federal funding structure and finds it wanting
We owe our future selves, not to mention our current selves, and those already gone, the focused light of fury.
Steven Methven, London Review of Books, April 16, 2020
I’d like to acknowledge the privilege of isolation and the relatively comfortable season of reflection it has afforded. I recognise COVID-19 continues to threaten the most vulnerable across the world.
A couple of months of enforced distance from our social habits has exposed the ideologies that maintain our political structures, the relations of power that ascribe value to things and people, and the fictions that sustain injustice.
The recent inversion of values is no better highlighted than by a negative price on oil. As it’s too costly to simply turn off the taps, oil companies are paying distributors to take the stuff off their hands.
Like the oil companies, the performing arts can’t really afford to turn off the taps. Unlike the oil companies, we have to resist the impulse to negatively price our art. Rather, we must refuse and resist. We must ask ourselves: if we don’t like the way things were before, then why don’t we change them?
In the time of COVID-19, the performing arts have been left with no other option but to retreat. The financial devastation is clear: the industry has been reduced to around 47 per cent capacity and the Grattan Institute predicts that roughly three out of four people who work in the performing arts will lose their job. It’s unclear when they will get them back. Many organisations, weakened by the funding crisis that preceded the pandemic, will not survive.
COVID-19 has beset the performing arts at the end of a series of significant blows to the sector. There has been a slow attrition of indexed arts funding at a federal level. The overall pool of arts funding has dropped by 6.6 per cent (not adjusted for inflation) from $199.2 million in 2013-14, to $186 million in 2018-19. In the same period, the pool of project funding, fellowships and awards has diminished from $45.3 million to $23.5 million. Between 2013 and 2016 alone, grants for individuals dropped 70 per cent. And with 61 small-to-medium arts organisations losing their multi-year funding in the past month, the total number of arts organisations that have lost secure funding since 2015 is 95.
There are currently 95 small-to-medium Four Year funded organisations that share a pool of $32.7 million. These include currently funded organisations – Griffin Theatre Company, Australian Dance Theatre, Back to Back Theatre, Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Company, Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Corporation – as well as recently defunded organisations such as Brink Productions, Australian Theatre For Young People, Barking Gecko, Sydney Writers’ Festival, which are funded for a transitional year. Overall, the small-to-medium sector has shrunk by 34 per cent since 2013-14.
This devaluation isn’t simply monetary, it’s also existential. Despite the $111.7 billion contribution the creative and cultural sector makes to the national GDP – significantly larger than aviation – its presence is barely perceptible at a federal ministerial level. The oversight of artistic and cultural activity has been absorbed by the uber-ministry of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Arts Minister Fletcher seems far more comfortable overseeing major commonwealth infrastructure projects and expounding his neo-liberal ideas about them. Labor’s Tony Burke, Shadow Minister for the Arts, made an impassioned plea to an empty chamber (no irony lost there) for artists to be included in the JobKeeper package, but Fletcher voted against the very workers he purports to represent.
The burden of these funding decisions, as well as the COVID-19 shutdown, has fallen squarely on the shoulders of individual artists and the small-to-medium tier of arts organisations.
Our funding structures are split into two tiers, and one of them gets much more money. The upper tier, The Major Performing Arts (MPA), is made up of 30 “leading companies in the fields of dance, theatre, circus, opera and orchestral and chamber music”. They include major companies such as Queensland Theatre, Opera Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company. In 2018-19 the federal funding allocated to the MPA through the Australia Council was $113.6m, almost 3.5 times the level of funding allocated to 95 small-to-medium organisations on Four Year funding. In the five-year period from 2014-15 to 2018-19, funding to the MPAs has been indexed, growing from $106. In real terms this is much more once the states add their contribution, around about 35 per cent on top.
The MPA is protected by the National Framework for Governments’ Support of the Major Performing Arts Sector (MPA Framework). This Framework was first established in 1999, with adjustments put in place in 2011 by the Meeting of Cultural Ministers (MCM), a joint meeting of the Federal and State Arts Ministers. Funding to the MPA is administered by the Australia Council for the Arts. The MPA Framework ensures the “MPA companies receive funding to develop and present excellent artistic works and foster a vibrant and sustainable performing arts sector.”
In late 2018, the Australia Council conducted “extensive public consultation” into the MPA Framework. The review was prompted by the 2016 National Opera Review Report, which identified “weaknesses and pressures inherent in the MPA Framework”. In 2017, the MCM advised the Australia Council “to identify opportunities to strengthen the MPA Framework.”
The review was conducted in three stages: consultation with the MPA companies; an online survey with the arts sector and the broader community; and finally, a series of 15 forums across the country.
The public survey was run during July and August in 2018 and received 8026 responses from all states and territories. 87 per cent of responses came from major cities, with more than 80 per cent of people having engaged with an MPA in the past 24 months; and 72 per cent identifying as MPA company audience members. 51 per cent identified as an audience member of a performing arts company other than the MPA.
The survey asked respondents to rank various elements of three components of the MPA Framework in order of importance:
- The guiding principles which underpin the national approach to supporting the MPA sector
- The criteria for being an MPA company
- The government priorities for the MPA companies
68 per cent of respondents rated having a vibrant MPA sector that “enriches Australian life and builds Australia’s image as an innovative and sophisticated nation” as the most important guiding principle. Presenting works of a “high artistic quality” was ranked as the most important criterion for being an MPA company (52 per cent). Delivering innovative and new programming, including new Australian works, was ranked as the most important government priority (50 per cent).
Other themes that emerged from the public responses included a need for greater social diversity, questions about affordability and accessibility of MPA work, a desire for a broader repertoire of new works and Australian works, and accountability and transparency in MPA decision making.
Most consensus occurred, however, around the following question:
The Framework states that “the MPA companies are not subject to a competitive process through peer review for their base funding but must, however, remain highly accountable for the significant public funding they receive”. This approach provides the MPA companies with financial certainty, which assists with long-term business planning and improvement, as well as long-term artistic program development, strengthening the companies’ sustainability. Do you agree with this approach?
85 per cent of people responded yes. As far as I know, the same question was not asked about the security of individual artists or small-to-medium companies.
The responses from the MPA companies called for more clarity of expectations and the changes to the nature of their funding. They advocated for more “flexible” funding scales able to respond to opportunities of excellence, more securely “indexed” funding, especially from the states, and more evenly distributed funding across all jurisdictions. It’s hardly surprising that the MPA companies were overwhelmingly in agreement about the security of their own future and the means to achieve it:
Companies advised that stability of funding enables them to take calculated risks, encourages innovation, and enables long term investment in developing new voices.
The feedback received from the MPA companies and the wider sector indicated there was support for “changed arrangements”, and identified “opportunities to create an enhanced framework to better support Australia’s arts ecology”.
The responses were outlined in the Major Performing Arts Consultation Paper. They were broken down into findings from the MPA companies, and those from the broader arts sector and community; but the arguments of the MPA seemed to carry most weight. The paper proffered a list of recommendations to achieve this funding security, which was tabled at the 2019 MCM. All of the recommendations from the MPA were, in effect, granted and established in the new National Performing Arts Partnership Framework
The framing of the consultation that led to this new framework was itself telling: “to canvas views on enhancing the MPA Framework”. Nothing else was on the table – not the proportion of funding relative to other parts of the industry, nor an audit of artistic merit, and certainly not their very existence. However, this is exactly what is demanded of the small-to-medium organisations every four years. If they are lucky.
There was a widespread acceptance among the MPA that a “fully open and competitive program with short funding cycles would not be appropriate and would destabilise the sector.” It’s hardly a new thought that if artists are given even a modest level of security they might flourish; the only point of astonishment is its application to only one tier of artistic activity. In fact, it’s the very foundation of the tiered, hierarchical system itself. Witness the recent comments by Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, who suggested this type of “ecology” is “democratic”.
There was some acknowledgment that other parts of the performing arts sector might benefit in the same way from a “similar level of security”. But this kind of rhetorical charity only serves to prove one thing: the best place to hide the damage that this sort of self-interested thinking has done to the small-to-medium sector in Australia is in plain sight.
I keep thinking of two images of Boris Johnson, an early exponent of the herd immunity response to COVID-19 and effortless proponent of class hypocrisy. Firstly, Boris the untouchable Etonian, shaking hands with hospital patients and all and sundry around parliament, professing he’s not afraid of a virus that was silently ravaging the herd. And secondly, the ruddy-cheeked and obviously ill Prime Minister limping out of Downing Street to applaud a National Health Service he’s spent most of his political life undermining.
The performing arts hierarchy is embedded in the way we speak about ourselves and conceive of solutions to the problems we’re staring down.
There’s a very clear rationale behind the MPA Framework which is articulated in a particular language. The MPA companies, the Australia Council, the general public and the MCM believe that the “MPA companies receive funding to develop and present excellent artistic works and foster a vibrant and sustainable performing arts sector.” Moreover, the security of the upper tier of “excellence” leads to “more vibrant artistic outcomes” and provides “important flow on benefits to the broader ecology”. These benefits include developing the careers of performing artists and creatives, bringing works of scale to Australian and international audiences, and supporting Australia’s venues, festivals and other arts infrastructure. The MPA are considered to be the “life blood” of the performing arts sector.
This language, like all language ascribing class values and entrenching inequality, naturalises the existence of something that would otherwise appear to be entirely fictional. Weren’t the aristocracy and the colonisers always the “life blood” of any society? Weren’t their social mores and tastes always “excellent”? Aren’t they the natural inheritors of power? If they don’t flourish, nothing will be sustained.
It’s also embedded in other seemingly benign and fashionable phrases like “arts ecology”. It’s used by members of the arts sector, usually those in positions of power, especially when describing how precarious the situation is for artists, or how we might preserve our delicate system. The term, together with its purported goal of “sustainability”, masks the brutal, predatory and ruthless reality of a tiered system.
While the vast majority of artists are forced into a “fully open and competitive program”, a survival of the fittest, the MPA companies are quarantined. This structure of funding creates a grim reality for individual artists and the rest of the small-to-medium sector seeking to make and support artistic activity in this country. In the language of the times, it’s more akin to some of the early ideas of herd immunity that circulated among neo-liberal conservatives as the preferred response to COVID-19.
Neoliberal economic thinking has pervaded both sides of politics since the 1980s. It’s hardly surprising that theatre companies and arts administrators have (even unwittingly) adopted it. Implicit in this type of economics is the idea that taxpayers must foster, preserve, subsidise, or even bail out, the larger economic entities such as banks, big business and mining, allegedly because wealth trickles down from above and sustains the livelihoods and careers of those below. The many depend on a wealthy few. The upshot is that larger economic entities shouldn’t be subject to the same cut-throat “market forces” as smaller ones.
As we face down a crisis in the performing arts, should we really, as many high-profile cultural leaders have suggested over the past few months, preserve the performing arts infrastructure as it now exists? Is this the way to ensure that there will be jobs after the shutdown?
Let’s take a neoliberal approach for a moment and examine the relative productivity of the two tiers. It’s an instructive exercise that should inform where scant and diminishing resources might be applied to the performing arts as we open up again.
The following figures are summarised from the 2018-19 Annual Report from the Australia Council. Given the relative amount of funding received, the differences are stark.
The small-to-medium sector and individual artists achieved a lot:
- 518 organisations received $28.7 million in Four Year Funding and $10.9 million in individual project funding
- The small-to-medium sector was the “leading presenters of new Australian work”, creating 3800 new Australian works
- Four Year Funding delivered 978 world premieres of new Australian works
- 362 creative developments and a further 293 new productions, arrangements or remounts of existing Australian works
- The work reached audiences of 12.9 million
- Australia Council project grants delivered 458 performances and exhibitions overseas, and reached audiences of 1.1 million people – a 49 per cent increase on the previous year
- Four Year Funding delivered 976 international performances and exhibitions in 37 countries and reached audiences of 881,000 – a 26 per cent increase on the previous year
The MPA’s contribution looks, in comparison, rather modest:
- 29 companies received $113.6m and presented 440 works
- 175 world premieres of new Australian works, representing an increase of 18 per cent on 2017
- 169 new productions, arrangements and remounts of existing Australian works and 40 creative developments
- 3.8 million people across Australia attended a performance, exhibition, workshop or school activity presented by an MPA company in 2018
The MPA companies achieved a record $591.9m combined turnover in 2018, a 2 per cent increase from 2017. This combined turnover is only a third of the total turnover of the performing arts ($1.7b). Approximately a third of the total income of the MPA was from government sources (31 per cent), with these organisations leveraging a further $2.25 for each $1 of government funding invested in 2018. The companies received $121.9m of private sector income in 2018, an increase of 10 per cent on 2017.
Much of the $591.9m turnover goes back into wages, but in 2018, of the 9900 people employed by the MPA, only 58 per cent of wages went to artists and creatives. While many artists are still waiting for JobSeeker, the core administrative staff members of most MPA companies are supported by JobKeeper.
These numbers reveal a disparity in perception between what the MPA companies (and their audience) purport to offer and what their actual output is. Through project funding, the small-to-medium sector and individual artists create the bulk of the new work, contribute to most of the performing arts turnover and play to more audiences. And they do it with a third of the public funding. Far from being the “life blood”, the MPA lags behind the small-to-medium sector.
Moreover, the conditions imposed on individual artists and small-to-medium organisations are plainly punitive. They must apply and reapply for ever diminishing funding, justifying their existence at every juncture. As the MPA admits, this is a corrosive force on artistic output. Imagine what could be achieved then if the bulk of the artists in this country were afforded the same security of funding as the MPA?
This is a major cultural imbalance that endangers our cultural future as much as any external factors. It raises a serious question for all artists in this country. When light is restored to our theatres, do we really want to resume with business as usual?
Not every MPA company is in the same financial situation: they all receive different amounts of public funding relative to their overall turnover. However, there’s an argument (not a new one) for some of them to become wholly commercial. The larger theatre companies with healthy subscriber numbers, access to private funding streams, and the capacity for “star casting” don’t have the same imperatives driving their output. It’s not uncommon for companies like MTC or STC, for whom public subsidy hovers around 7 per cent of their budget, to sell out a show before they open. Perhaps that money might be more productively spent by being redistributed to smaller companies?
There’s also a qualitative question that shouldn’t be ignored. We need to drill down into the use of terms like “excellence”. Risk, rebellion and invention – arguably the real “life blood” of the arts in this country – are far from the exclusive domain of the MPA. It’s worth doing a quick inventory of what the MPA companies were producing at the moment all live performance was shut down. Did they truly uphold artistic excellence, or were they doing something else? Who were the MPA playing to? What was the mean yearly income of these audiences? How much was each ticket? How many new Australian works were in production? How many new Australian works were in development?
It’s often argued that a major reason to maintain the small-to-medium sector is that it’s the supply line to the MPA. This suggests that it’s not worthy in its own right. It’s popularly framed as the place where this or that celebrity got a break, before they became famous and moved on to bigger and better things. We must resist considering the industry like a ladder we ascend to a higher, more secure plane of cultural activity, one that is self-evidently more excellent.
I have worked between both tiers and would never consider my work with the MPA to be of inherently higher artistic quality. Most of the risk and innovation in my work has been achieved in projects with the smaller-to-medium sector, or independently through single project grants. My artistic life blood comes through making and seeing works that take the greatest risks, and this is by no means defined by the amount of money thrown at a project, or even what tier of company produced it.
In 2016, the MPA struggled to muster a coherent public response, or sometimes any response at all (there were notable exceptions) to Senator Brandis’s raid of the Australia Council for his National Programme for Excellence in the Arts. This perceived failure in leadership created a rift in the performing arts: the small-to-medium sector felt like it was taking the full brunt of all the decisions while those above, perceiving their advantage, remained silent. I feel this rift is only widening in the current crisis as artists are hung out to dry and the arts as a whole has failed (in the short term) to make its case for federal assistance. In 2016, Alison Croggon described the rift between the two tiers:
Under the newly constricted funding, small organisations and individuals – the sources of our most robust critique – are those who are most at risk. With a few noble exceptions, it’s always been those with the least institutional heft who have been the most outspoken. Indeed, small organisations and artists, rather than our well-resourced institutions, have driven almost all of the political heavy lifting in the turmoil of the past year. Just as the larger companies rely on the poorly funded independent sector to take the creative risks that generate new ideas and new talents, so the smaller organisations and individuals are those expected to stick out their necks to defend the whole.
This is as true in 2020. The same artists that bear the creative risk seem to be taking the financial risk. This isn’t to say that the MPA aren’t experiencing the pain of the pandemic. However, five years on, the livelihoods of more artists hang in the balance. As the stakes increase, there are calls for a more radical action. When we ask for assistance, what are we aiming to save? This question must be posed with a clear-eyed view of the injustices we face externally and internally, perpetuated by language and beliefs used by us as performing artists, administrators and policy makers.
In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a study of the accumulation of capital over the past 200 years, Thomas Picketty argues that inequality “implies that the past tends to devour the future”. “Wealth originating in the past automatically grows more rapidly, even without labor”. Ultimately this tends to give “disproportionate importance to inheritance”.
Isn’t this exactly what has been happening in the performing arts? The creative future of our industry is literally being eaten by decisions made in the past. Arts funding is effectively feudalising the landscape (or ecology). There are large portions of heavily guarded real estate scattered across the country, our manors if you like. Behind these walls live the proponents of “excellence”, the “life blood”. Their very existence is meant to provide for the rest of the arts labourers whose output must compete in an open market. Moreover, the manors are protected by their own framework, drawn up and negotiated by those whom the framework protects. And to close the circle, we are told this is necessary because it provides important “flow on benefits” to the overall “ecology” – things like careers and international reputations, works of scale with their homes in iconic institutions.
Furthermore, this quarantining of indexed funds for a select, relatively fixed group of companies, makers of “excellent artistic works”, leads to modes of artistic inheritance. Some MPA companies have started to use the word “family” to describe their artistic affiliations and operational style. Looking at the selection of artistic direction inside companies, we can certainly see evidence of patrilineal favour.
Artistic inheritance eschews other ways of valuing artistic output and allocating resources. But worse than that, it diminishes our voice. You’re born, or adopted, into a family. Families are the place where favour is exercised and identities are included or excluded. It’s where we learn to desire the same things. It’s the major source of conflict, especially conflict over fortune.
Inheritance and privilege also tends to give the greatest weight to artistic flattery and mimicry: think of King Lear and his three daughters. A desire to please those in power endangers the artistic process, firstly by muffling truth telling. But it also cultivates a more corrosive process, what Freud called, the “narcissism of small differences”. It becomes important to remain close to what went before, as this is where favour will be granted. Artistic decisions display their allegiance to a certain class; and in ever-tightening, conservative spirals ultimately they lead to atrophy. This is what will devour our artistic future.
In the wake of the chaos Brandis’s Australia Council raid and the consequent loss of 62 arts organisations, Kate Mulvany gave the 2016 Parson’s Lecture at Belvoir Street. The speech was billed as “tough love from a resident artist who thinks the Australian theatre house needs a radical renovation so that it may be as open and honourable as it claims to be”.
The title of the lecture, Act Well Your Part, is taken from Alexander Pope’s An Essay On Man. As Mulvany outlined, the performing arts was in a “state of enforced shock”. The defunded companies that had enabled her and so many others to make it to where they were had been decimated, with “devastating repercussions”. Artistic opportunities, like those Mulvany had been afforded, were diminishing. The funding cuts and the lack of leadership from the MPA, Mulvaney said, had put the performing arts at odds with itself. Four years on, this process is only intensifying.
Mulvany then invited us into the “theatrical house”, stepping through its top and bottom floors. She had some good suggestions, such as keeping doors open to new ideas. And then she encouraged each member of the theatrical house to “act well their part, for there all honour lies”.
This is where we have to reconsider our response. Despite its affirming and galvanising intentions, today the idea of “acting well our part” sounds too much like compliance with injustice. All over the lower floors are artists taking great risks with their work, engaging in delicate and often radical conversations with their audiences. And now the longevity of independent makers, among whom I count myself, is in serious jeopardy.
We are being faithful to parts or roles that are denying us our potential. This class deceit lies at the heart of what we call the theatre family and its split-level house. We have to take on the weight of the task and propose some new models of valuing our art and assigning scarce resources.
The change will only come from the lower floor of the theatrical house behaving badly. It’s not about the ladder being pulled up, it’s about it being torn down.
Get out, I say. Act up.
COVID-19 and the long train of funding cuts have brought into focus some strong divisions between the inhabitants of the “theatrical house”, highlighting the apparent immunity of privilege and the perilous role of the individual artist in society. Just as Boris Johnson’s privilege didn’t afford him immunity, it’s increasingly clear that the privilege of the MPAs won’t grant them any real security.
There has never been a better time to dispense with the old re-runs of our favourite theatre shows online; or to keep closeted the nostalgia of our old family photographs that accompanied our ineffectual protests for justice. We must resist the temptation to snap back to old ways.
At this time, more than ever, we need to open up lines of conflict and speak what is normally unspeakable. We need to understand the invisible hold the old structures have taken on our lives and how they continue to limit what is possible in the theatre. We must call out how our parts are formed and performed.
In the spirit of Artaud, it’s time for the earthbound, those on the lower floors, to raise their in-excellent voices, and to consider how they will make work that is confounding and difficult, that abandons the illusion of our so-called universal humanity and tears down the false idol of artistic excellence.
What if we don’t start making again until we get what we want, not just from our governments, but from ourselves? In this moment of refusal and resistance, a new arrangement might be negotiated. We have to ask, who is evaluating our work? To what end? With what self-interest? Those who have been excluded from that discussion must be invited in.
Or perhaps best of all, we should all walk out of the old theatrical house and meet in the open. As with any true revolution, this might reveal terror and virtue in equal measure. But if we do not seize the moment, we risk a slower, more exacting death than if we move with unflinching demands into a new future.