We do not tell our story well. The system that supports us is patchy, ad hoc and antiquated. Robert Reid reflects on the structural malaise affecting our arts culture.
There is an anxiety that I struggle to name. A feeling that in the Australian performing arts community something is no longer working. It’s a feeling I’d hazard many of us know and give our own totemic names to – government funding cuts, lack of diversity, dying subscribers – but I think it’s much bigger than that and that these are only symptoms of a much broader malaise.
Across the country the performing arts struggle with inclusivity, diversity and sustainability. Their administrative processes are over tasked and unresponsive, their catchments shrinking and their resources dwindling.
These, of course, are symptoms of wider social issues too. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a community formed around cultural practices mirrors the stresses and procedural break-downs seen in contemporary postcolonial cultures generally. All these frustrations and disappointments, these exhausted faces and resigned voices, the barriers and myopic gate keepers, are signs of a social system no longer fit for purpose, moving from stasis into decay.
I recently attended a meeting with the Shadow Arts Minister, The Hon Tony Burke MP, in Melbourne, an informal gathering with artists and arts workers to talk about policy, raise concerns and share ideas. For a dreary Monday afternoon in a drab undressed black box theatre we were a decent size crowd and a relatively broad representation of art forms – crafts, fine arts, dance, critics, theatre, educators and arts organisations. There were maybe thirty of us in total.
The Hon Member seemed a nice enough guy. He told us about his passion for the arts, for music in particular, and that he likes to travel with his guitar whenever he can. The Hon Member was Minister for the Arts for all of six months in 2013, before the unpleasantness, and has been the Shadow Minister for the Arts, among other things, since July 2016. Indeed, the Shadow Minister struck me much as have many of the series of junior ministers and retiring frontbenchers that have held the arts portfolio in the past. It’s a portfolio usually bundled together with a grab bag of ministries from communications and tourism to sport and the environment. Well-meaning and undetermined functionaries all.
What was the point of this meeting this guy? No strategy was developed, no action taken, no statement of policy or demands drawn up. Some of us, those not still too disillusioned or tired to speak out, had their say: more money for arts; what is an artist anyway; less bureaucracy in arts funding, a creeping suspicion of “creative arts”, including newer forms like design and games, in the funding process; the usual complaints about the major companies; the usual assertion that the small to medium and/or independent sector is more than just a training ground for the mainstream; assurances from the Shadow Minister that culture is vital to Australia and that should they get into power the current opposition will fully support them. Etc.
I can’t think what this meeting achieved. A few people sat together in an old theatre for an hour or so and, mostly, felt bad together about the state of the arts.
We do not tell our story well. We do not articulate the value of the performing arts well. The system that supports us is patchy, ad hoc and antiquated, but is no less entrenched for that.
Several commentators have pointed this out. In his 2013 Platform Paper Revaluing the Artist in the New World Order, David Pledger characterises the small to medium and independent arts ecology as “infrastructure heavy, ideas light, inflexible, under resourced and counter intuitive.”1
In The Arts and the Common Good, Katharine Brisbane describes the slow creep of the changes occurring in Australian performing arts. “This process has been gradual, but today novelty, spectacular design, star actors in revisionist productions of familiar classics, are evidence of loss of energy and a flagging imagination.”2
Finally, Cathy Hunt sketches the issue facing the community in Paying the Piper: There has to be a Better Way. She claims that we have “reached the “use by date’ of a funding system that has served the sector adequately for the past forty years but is no longer fit for the purpose.”3
If it is true that the performing arts community in Australia is beset by problems caused by system-wide entropic decay, then our task at some stage must be not simply to “solve” the problems and carry on but to assess the sustainability and operation of the system itself and consider if the current processes are worth continuing.
To do this, we need to step back and see the community as a whole, to assess how it is operating and, most crucially, ask ourselves if its methods and outcomes are still relevant. If, as I suspect, we find that the solutions to the problems of yesterday are no longer adequate to the obstacles of today, then we face the choice to adapt and create new structures and systems that address those obstacles, or to continue to support the infrastructure until it inevitably collapses
In 1979 Jack Hibberd suggested that the organisation of companies and their support structures in Australia – much the same then as now – should be replaced with
…a multi–focal poly–centric theatre structure…whereby 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, and you have a different kind of actor, one that wasn’t brought up in the old pseudo–English repertory–elocutionary–mannerist mode of theatre which is just a piece of cultural slavishness [….] So, that needs a whole revolution for a start before you are going to get anywhere.4
Impractical as it may have seemed at the time, is this still such an unattractive concept?
Loosely speaking, a system is any group of agents interacting in an environment. The classic example is a pond with fish and bacteria and birds, all feeding off each other and co-existing in routines that sustain the pond itself. In each case, a system is a group of things with some degree of agency (hence “agents”) operating together and affecting each other within an environment. A system evolves and either achieves homeostasis, a productive and sustainable balance between its individual agents, or it fails and collapses. The longer a system carries on and the larger it grows, the more it must adapt to the changes in its environment in order to maintain homeostasis. If the system does not adapt, it gradually builds up entropy that leads to stasis, decay and eventual system-wide collapse.
Norbert Weiner’s 1948 introduction to systems theory, Cybernetics, says that systems are not only mechanical or biological: their metaphorical frameworks can be applied to human behaviours and social organisations.
The degree of integration of the life of the community may very well approach the level shown in the conduct of a single individual, yet the individual will probably have a fixed nervous system, with the permanent topographic relations between the elements and permanent connections, while the community consists of individuals with shifting relations in space and time and no permanent, unbreakable physical connections. … Obviously, the secret is in the intercommunication of its members.5
In this sense a social system can be a group of people who set out to do “something” together. They establish goals, roles, rules of engagement, decision-making processes, and so on. They become a community with an established set of practices and aims – a social system.
In Australia around the 1940s, a group of people began to establish a system that would eventually support and generate a certain kind of performing arts experience which they felt was under-served by the existing system. The pre-existing national commercial network, J.C. Williamson’s, was beginning to falter. At the same time the founders of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (the AETT) constructed a system that would gather money for and generate awareness of contemporary European drama and the “professionalised” theatre in Australia.
Today the system established by those founders is not just the AETT’s eventual successor, the Australia Council (Ozco), but also the Artistic Director-led repertory subscriber season company model, the metro-centric company distribution, the endless festival cycles, and the hierarchical constructions of cultural value as “excellence.” As JCW’s before it, this system is showing signs of entropic stress and decay. Many of these signs are addressed in the Currency Platform papers series. Together they paint a picture of the industry as it is now.
In his book When the Goal Posts Move, an analysis of the disastrous funding cuts under then Arts Minister George Brandis, Ben Eltham writes that “excellence” was never an artistic concept. “No national cultural policy can coherently articulate what ‘artistic excellence’ even is, let alone devise a policy which procures more of it. Instead, ‘excellence’ was simply the name given to the policy of supporting the major companies and institutions – those big companies that attracted the support of the elite class of art-loving bank CEO’s, company directors and merchant bankers.”6
In his 2013 Platform Paper Revaluing the Artist in the New World Order, David Pledger writes that “the idea that infrastructure solves the problem of the artists limited resources is fallacious. One reason is that governance structures come with conditions, often implicitly denoted, that suffocate and inhibit the artistic processes which they are supposed to support….There is a one-size-fits-all approach to the independent and small to medium sector. The fact is these areas of artistic production are varied, complex and changeable.”7
In Paying the Piper: There has to be a Better Way, Cathy Hunt sets out the major problem. “There never has been a coherent national system for funding and financing the arts in Australia. We have a group of agencies at different levels of government (as well as more and more foundations and individuals) that may be interactive and interdependent but certainly do not form an integrated whole and can still make unilateral changes without regard to their impact on the other players. Call it what you like, but it is not what we need to build a ‘culturally ambitions nation.’”8
In his 1985 book Arguing the Arts, Tim Rowse questioned whether a single system could produce a diverse culture. “It is a fiction quite inappropriate to a pluralist society, in which culture and values are in dispute, to think that there is a single ladder of excellence along which all endeavours can be placed,” he said. “But that fiction is sustained partly by the existence of an effectively singular set of public funds, whose controllers make judgements in the form of grants. This then is the first element in the utopia – that Australia is sufficiently homogenous that we could act according to a singular consensual scale of values.”9
These observations show the strains being placed on the system. They are descriptions of entropic drag caused, arguably, by the inappropriateness of the system itself. Inflexibility and increasing layers of administrative across the system increase systemic drag, contribute to the increase of entropy and manifests as the strain placed on artists and the failure of policies.
Today the structures and systems of the performing arts in Australia are the remnants of the system built to support the Union Theatre Repertory Company, NIDA, the Old Tote, and the ABC Orchestras. Serious consideration of our theatre culture rarely includes the professional commercial theatre, the suburban amateur theatres or student theatre, despite the vital role each of these sectors should play as part of the wider industry. Its industrial and non-governmental apparatus has developed organically around the companies and communities they were developed to support, and excludes vast aspects of the performing arts community, serving niche interests and ultimately transient audiences.
In 1979 Hibberd said we should deconstruct the whole thing. It’s worth going back to re-read the quote because it covers a lot of interesting territory, including the use of council arts venues as homes for independent artists, new training structures, and new interfaces with the public.
Though all systems eventually tend towards stasis and decay, they also exist to perpetuate themselves. If they remain responsive to the changes in their environment, systems can evolve and transform.
Hibberd’s argument for regional expansion has some merit today, as populations begin to concentrate on the fringes of the greater suburban areas of our cities although our systems remain concentrated on the centre. The suburban arts complexes built during the 1980s and 1990s are coordinated by a range of administrators who book independent touring works and commercial children’s theatre, but they could also, for example, be used to house a number of independent companies to share resources, produce work for and develop relationships with local audiences. The same companies and venues could coordinate to develop and present new Australian works in a network that connects around the country and operate as a de facto National Australian Playwriting company.
None of these ideas is particularly new: they’ve been advanced in the past by Theatre Hydra, the Melbourne Independent Theatre Project, The Mill Community Theatre … the list could go on. They each demonstrate a systemic response to local environmental conditions. What would be new, I suppose, would be applying this thinking globally.
The realities that underlie these suggestions beg age-old questions. Where will the money come from? Who will direct the deconstruction of the old system and the implementation of the new? How will each local situation be developed responsively to community needs? How will they coordinate? How will we determine and share value in such a pluralistic structure? Such questions are, of course, far beyond the scope of this paper. I write only to propose that the way things are at the moment is not the way they have always been and not the way they need to stay.
The exhaustion felt across the sector right now, the tired sighs, the slumped postures I saw huddled around the Shadow Minister that day in Melbourne, is not simply that of the people at the coal face of the practice, unfunded artists. It’s not just the groaning of the overloaded major companies and the funding bodies that support them, already too burdened but still expected to do more. It is the exhaustion of the whole system, worn down by maintaining itself since the 1950s and carrying forward the structural values and assumptions of a world nearly ninety years old.
Australian theatre history can be traced along lines of pre-colonisation, convict, actor manager, commercial and government subsidised epochs. Our current age, the age of the government subsidy, the age of the AETT and the Ozco, is struggling to adapt to the contemporary environment. Notions of excellence and international prestige remain as vestiges of a colonialist mind set. Imperialist structures of centralised power coalesce into exclusivist community and industry structures. Inequality grows and propagates systemic sexism, racism and classism. The arts are increasingly privatised and enclosed.
Systems stiffen as they age. The life leaves the pond.
The anxiety which I struggle to put a name to – the feeling that I sense in the work of our artists, the programming of our companies and the cuts to our funding – is systemic drag. It is the sign that the solutions of yesterday, the values and the structures that shape our community today, are no longer fit for purpose.
1 Pledger, David. Re-Valuing the Artist in the New World Order. Currency House, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2013, p.25.
2 Brisbane, Katharine. The Arts and the Common Good. Currency House, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2015, p.32.
3 Hunt, Cathy. Paying the Piper: There has to be a better way. Currency House, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2015, p.3.
4 Hibberd, Jack. Quoted in Palmer, Jennifer (ed.) Contemporary Australian Playwrights. Adelaide University Union Press, SA, 1979, p.128 – 129.
5 Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics, or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1948 p.156.
6 Eltham, Ben. When the Goal Posts Move. Currency House, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2016, p. 20.
7 Pledger, David, op. cit., p. 4 – 15.
8 Hunt, Cathy, op. cit., p.3.
9 Rowse, Tim. Arguing the Arts: the Funding of the Arts in Australia. Penguin, Ringwood, Vic, 1985, p.34.