Government arts funding is on the way out, says Robert Reid. And if arts companies are to survive, they have to invite audiences in
… if we don’t start talking about this really bloody soon, we’ll miss the bus again, in which case I can’t help but be very pessimistic about the future of what we think of as subsidised – or let’s call it non-commercial – theatre in this country.
Lighting designer Nick Schlieper, delivering the 2017 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture.
I can’t help but be very pessimistic about the future of what we think of as subsidised…
He’s talking about the collapse of government subsidy for the arts.
…the future of what we think of as subsidised…
Something about this sticks in my throat.
…what we think…
Who’s this we?
… the reality is that we are approaching the post-subsidy age. Arguably, we’ve embarked on it already, and if we, as theatre makers, don’t start talking about this among ourselves, then we’ll be in even less of a position to influence the shape of our companies in the future.
I intend to mainly talk about the so-called mainstream companies. The ‘establishment’ if you will. But all of this applies, in even greater measure, to the so- called small-to-medium companies.
Schlieper’s argument is that government subsidy of the arts, no matter how enshrined in our contemporary idea of culture, is neither permanent nor guaranteed. He goes further to argue that the shift from government subsidy for the arts into a post-subsidy era is already underway.
I agree with him.
I’m not sure what he means by “so called” small-to-medium. I’m a little suspicious that it re-emphasises a perceived difference between the major companies and the small-to-medium sector, if not the natural superiority of one over the other. More charitably, it might underline that these differences are superficial, more economic than fundamental.
Despite this, he’s right that artists must start talking about the ongoing reduction of government subsidy and what to do next. In my experience, artists talk a lot about the reduction of government subsidy. They propose solutions that generally amount to increased funding, or redistributions of current levels. There has, however, been a choke hold on government funding levels from the beginning: because it’s not indexed for inflation, it keeps them at 1980s levels while the costs of doing business continued to rise. Effectively this results in a funding cut in real terms with every increase of inflation. More recently there has been a steady downturn in funding and an increase in sudden, occasionally disastrous, governmental intervention into policy, procedure and practice.
I don’t think a rehashing of the history of the Australia Council is necessary, but Alison Croggon wrote a good backgrounder on the dire 2016 funding situation for The Monthly here.
In the long term, nothing suggests that government funding will be a reliably infinite resource. I think that once the money has been siphoned away from the small-to-medium sector, governments will see no reason to stop there. Why should they? The same logic that applies to small-to-medium theatre will likely apply to major companies as well. The Ministry for the Arts giveth us the major performing arts. The major performing arts can just as easily be taken away.
It’s curious that Schlieper uses an evolutionary metaphor to describe what he sees happening. His casting of the coming shift as moving into a “post subsidy age” puts one in mind of the epochs of planetary history. The Pleistocene era, the Cambrian explosion, the controversial Anthropocene.
You can view Australian theatre’s development in terms of eras or ages. As I’ve been outlining on my video History series, Australian performance history can be thought of in five eras: the Indigenous, the convict, the actor manager, the national commercial and the government subsidised. Schlieper and I both believe that we are witnessing an extinction event as the subsidised era heads towards its end to be replaced by…what? Will we help to shape what comes next, or will we just be replaced wholesale? Wholesale replacement has in fact been the history of Australian theatre so far.
We approach the crisis in our arts funding with much the same incredulity that we approach global climate change. “Yes, it’s a terrible problem, but what can you do? And things aren’t really all that bad any way, are they?”
Schlieper is not the only one who reaches for the apocalyptic and evolutionary in his dramaturgy. Ralph Myers, former artistic director of Belvoir St Theatre, titled his 2014 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture “The artistic director – on the way to extinction.” Myers makes the case that “managers” have taken over the artistic leadership positions of the major organisations companies. To illustrate his point, he recalls how he and the director of Circus Oz were the only two people who were not wearing a suit at a meeting of the heads of the major Australian performing arts companies.
Trust a designer to notice that.
Let’s look at the language Myers uses to describe the meeting:
[The meeting was held in a room] overlooking the harbour and the opera house. In that room was the crème of the Australian performing arts. Actors, directors, playwrights, dancers, violinists, choreographers and composers who had risen to the top of their professions and were now charged with the task of leading the twenty eight largest and most established performing arts companies in Australia. It was an intimidating group of people to find myself amongst…. So here are some of the finest and boldest artists – the great dreamers of our culture – dressed up like real estate agents.
I find myself wondering, do real estate agents not dream?
Myers is drawn towards expressions of culture as power, and uses Eurocentric tropes to frame his notions of success: “the crème”, “risen to the top”, “charged with the task of leading”, “largest and most established”, “intimidating”, “Actors, directors, playwrights, dancers, violinists, choreographers and composers”.
Myers is describing a world that Schlieper tells us is in its evolutionary twilight, a world of meetings of the powerful, in glamorous rooms overlooking Sydney harbour. This world is doomed by managerialism, according to Myers, and the end of government subsidy, according to Schlieper. The sense of a world coming to an end suffuses these men’s deliberations. The sense that culture, or this kind of culture at least, is approaching its collapse.
The apocalypse has historically been a middle class concern.
In 2016, in a Daily Review interview with Ben Neutze, Candy Bowers summarised the systemic issues facing Australian Theatre.
Theatre is such an invitation-based space, unless you’re doing fringes. You need to be asked. That opportunity has to be given, you can’t just go and take it….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.
That theatre is an invitation-based space is undeniable. The problem that Bowers identifies is that the invitation to work on the stages of the major companies is not being extended to women and people of colour. I think that observation can also be made about the relationship between that Australian theatre and its audience
The population of the greater Melbourne area, taking in Mornington to Bacchus Marsh, from Laverton to just shy of Marysville, is 4.5 million. In 2016, the Melbourne Theatre Company had a paid attendance of a little over 202,000, across 14 shows. That’s roughly 5 per cent of the possible available audience. Accounting for repeat attendees and subscribers across the season, that percentage probably drops a few per cent. The Malthouse numbers are not doing much better at a little over 101, 000 for the year, coming in at around 3 per cent.
There are mitigating factors, of course. The travelling distance from outer to inner city is not an inconsiderable factor among them. Then there is the almost total dominance of productions in English, which presents a barrier to the non-English-speaking percentage of the population of the city. Another is season programs that are overwhelmingly built around received European standards and canon. In her book “And then, you act”, Anne Bogart observes:
The intentions that motivate an act are contained within the action itself. You will never escape this. Even though the “why” of any work can be disguised or hidden, it is always present in its essential DNA. The creation ultimately always betrays the intentions of the artist.
The culture of invitation that Bowers describes exists in this DNA. It’s not enough to put up eye-catching posters for the latest classic in Braybrook and Carrum Downs. Audiences need to be invited. And we can tell when the invitation is not genuine.
In his Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, Ralph Myers asks:
Is it any wonder that our own artistic leaders are so timid? By creating a model where managers and artists are interchangeable in the role of Artistic Director, and where foreigners are favoured above local talent, we are implicitly signalling that the role is managerial, not artistic, that the role is corporate and generic, not cultural and specific. That we want our ADs to be moderate, and produce digestible and middle of the road work. This is a grave mistake.
He goes on to declare that:
ADs need to be dreamers and big thinkers. And they need to be cushioned within structures that allow them to be that dreamer, to be the risk taker that they naturally are. They should not feel compelled to change to fit in to an existing, managerial, corporate culture. They need to think big, be bold, and inspire – both the company they lead and our culture more broadly.
He describes the artistic director in sumptuary, if not Mephistophelean, terms:
An artistic director is the artistic head of a performing arts company or festival. They’re responsible for making artistic decisions – things like choosing repertoire, commissioning new works, hiring artists and so on. They’re essentially there to exercise taste – to say what is hot, who is good, what is going to work, and then to work with those people to make great things happen – whether it be dance or music or theatre.
The idea that one person is uniquely empowered to make pronouncements on “what is hot, who is good, and what is going to work” is a refraction of the 19th century notion of genius (along with its attendant uncomfortable relationship with the Muse). This notion of genius is almost always male, white and educated. “Thinking big” and “being bold” as a job description for an artistic director strike me as dangerously close to the argot of the corporate culture that Myers derides.
Schlieper identifies a range of impacts he’s observed across the performing arts sector as a result of decreasing subsidy. These include conservative programming, smaller cast sizes, parochialism in casting and the increasing incidence of co-productions. He asks:
How much longer will it be before our arts companies are no longer run by artists? Unless we are all vigilant on this score, I believe it will be not too long at all and I further believe this would be the end of theatre as a true art form, in this country.
I’ve said why I think the likelihood of an increase in subsidy is slim and indeed, perceived wisdom has it so. There will be many shaking their heads patronisingly over these words. But unfortunately it’s the only sustainable option. Only with greater levels of subsidy, can we continue to rise above the level of light entertainment. None of the alternative sources of funding are viable, without its underpinning. Have you ever wondered why a country the size of the United States produces such a minute amount of good theatre? A virtual absence of public subsidy and an attendant dependency on private philanthropy would go a very long way towards an answer.
Schlieper offers three alternatives to funding increases to save the arts: box office, corporate subsidy and private philanthropy. He eschews all three. He believes that corporate subsidy has “had its day” and is in any case compromised by its demonstrated lack of return on investment for the companies. On philanthropic investment, he claims that companies bargain away the moral authority of the work to speak for itself, thus compromising the art.
I can’t say I entirely disagree about corporate sponsorship or philanthropic sponsorship, although I’m not sure the moral authority of a work is necessarily compromised by taking corporate money. Artists are not unknown for biting the hand that feeds them, and the same assertions can be made about government funding. Certainly, Senator George Brandis, then Minister for the Arts, demonstrated the wrath of a patron spurned over the Sydney Biennale arts boycott. Ultimately, all money is blood money, Bono.
But it is Schlieper’s thoughts on box office that give me pause.
In essence, it’s actively deleterious to the whole idea of developing an art form, in that the tacit contract with the vast majority of your audience is one of continuity and predictability. They keep buying tickets and turning up, because they know what they’re going to get. In this way, you end up not serving, but rather servicing, your audience, as opposed to leading them to new pastures. What must eventually happen when you depend on an audience for your survival is stagnation, because it hamstrings your ability to lead from the front.
Like Myer’s artistic directors picking who’s hot or not, Schlieper expects his companies to bring art to the masses. For them, only artists are endowed to distinguish proper art from what Schlieper rather sniffily refers to as “commercial” art.
Here, I think, is what has been bothering me from the start. In this conception of the world, the audience – the community these artists make work for – can’t be trusted to have their say, lest they opt for something substandard. Something popular. While our artists and cultural leaders are, of course, experts in their fields, excluding the audience and the wider community from a conversation about value and devaluing the feedback they can offer can, in my view, only stunt the growth of the company and the development of the art.
But more than this, a company must go out to meet its audience. They must be invited to the theatre. The people who come are the ones who feel invited.
Ultimately we need strategies for how we’re going to make performance in the future. With or without government subsidy, the need and desire for live performance is not just going to go away.
If we leave it to market forces, we’re going to end up with a return to the actor manager model, which I maintain we’ve been seeing in the independent sector for decades now.
Myers thinks we should halt the spread of managerialism. Schlieper can only hope we cling to what little funding there will remain. Bowers wants to blow up the whole system.
I’m inclined to agree with Bowers. The old model is not built to suit the challenges of the present day. A significant restructure of a system often requires an explosion or a collapse after a slow starvation, to clear the way for a new system to emerge.
A persistent myth in Melbourne theatre is that the population here is simply not big enough to support the theatre from box office alone. This assertion is usually supported by comparing Melbourne’s 4.5 million population with London’s 16 million plus. But only 5 per cent of Melbourne’s population was responsible for half the MTC’s total budget last year.
It’s not geography or population that limits Australian theatre’s box office. It’s our own assumptions about who will come to the theatre and who we make work for. Theatre is only too small to survive without government subsidy if its audience is limited to just you and people like you.