Australia Council Theatre Board triennial funding decisions

Below is an article I wrote for yesterday’s Crikey:

The Australia Council, an organisation in almost constant flux, has again spun the bingo barrel and pulled out a new round of surprises in its funding announcements — this time in the theatre sector. Eleven new companies have been granted triennial funding by the Council’s Theatre Board, while the same number have had their funding axed.

The announcement continues a recent history of wrenching change in the Commonwealth’s arts funding agency. In 2005, then-CEO Jeniffer Bott pushed through an organisation-wide restructure (labelled a “refocussing”) that led to two of the Australia Council’s funding boards being abolished. Out went specific Boards to support new media and digital arts, and community arts. In came some impressive-sounding “community partnerships” and a special department called the “Inter-Arts Agency”.

As respected ANU academic Jennifer Craik has argued in her book Re-Visioning Arts and Cultural Policy the Bott restructure was not really about addressing the major issues facing the Australia Council and its client organisations. Instead, “the restructure was more about bureau politics than policy reform.”

The current upheaval dates back to 2006, when the Australia Council’s Theatre Board announced a sweeping new policy reform called “Make It New”. “Make It New” was a comprehensive look at the Theatre Board’s funding arrangements in an environment where much of the most exciting work was being made by companies who couldn’t get a look in amongst the Board’s established clients. Theatre Board Director John Baylis acknowledged this problem, and sought to reshape the Board’s funding arrangements towards “contemporary performance” and to allow room for new organisations — “artistic explorers” in the Theatre Board’s jargon — to access three-year funding agreements.

Unfortunately, you have to throw out some babies when you change the bathwater. Take Polyglot Puppet Theatre, for instance, which was de-funded despite an apparently successful recent track record. Or Brisbane’s second theatre company, La Boite, which appears to have been punished for some safe programming in recent years. La Boite may or may not be artistically innovative, but it certainly performs a lot of contemporary Australian drama.

The Theatre Board’s John Baylis makes a good point when he argues that space needs to be made for fresh talent to enter the system. But in terms of the Australia Council’s overall operations, which remain dramatically skewed towards the support of the 29 so-called “major” performing arts organisations, there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the “Make It New” crusade. After all, how “contemporary” are the orchestras or opera companies?

The Major Performing Arts Board hasn’t kicked anyone off for decades and only allows new members on “by invitation.” Apparently, that doesn’t matter — the Major Performing Arts Board is a separate fiefdom of the Australia Council, where making it old is still quite acceptable.

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