Love Your Work: the Australia Council’s supply-side cultural economics

Just a week before Christmas, the Australia Council released an important piece of research entitled Love Your Work: training, retaining and connecting artists in theatre.  

The research paper is the latest in a recent series on the larger end of the performing arts sector – this time dealing with what OzCo calls the “interconnectedness” of the theatre sector – or what I would call the theatre sector’s “industry ecology.”

According to the Australia Council, the research identifies the following issues:

  • creative workforce succession: where are the directors, artistic directors, designers and other key creatives of the future going to come from, and what can the sector do to support their development now?
  • Interconnections: how can the theatre sector’s connections be strengthened to support and manage risk-taking, address issues of talent development and succession, and provide benefit for both small-to-medium and large companies?

As the two dot-points imply, OzCo has suddenly bercome very worried about the succession issues for theatre companies, particularly in terms of key creative staff like artistic directors, directors and designers.  For anyone in the Australian theatre industry, this is no surprise – the opportunities for emerging and mid-level directors are vanishingly rare, as this report explores in some detail. Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing is that OzCo has finally identified a lack of opportunities for key creative staff as an issue at all – given that the problem has been staring the sector in the face for at least a decade.

For the academic researcher, there are a number of useful data points published in the paper, which I examine over the fold. To begin with, there is some very useful published data on where the CEO’s and Artistic Directors of the Major Performing Arts Organisations came from. It turns out that roughly half come from overseas – especially in the orchesaras and operas, where there are fewdomestic sources to recruit conductors and band leaders from.  

Also intriguing, for those intersted in Bordieu-style arguments about the social capital required to even feature in OzCo research, the authors of this paper helpfully publish a list of the 30 people they interviewed as a part of their investigation. It’s disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, institutionally biaised. In fact, only one of the 30 people OzCo interviews is not from an Australia Council-funded organisation – the freelance director Benedict Andrews, who therefore gets quoted extensively in what amounts to a huge plug. It’s interesting that someone like Marion Potts, who was a freelance director for many years, is here listed as “Associate Artistic Director, Bell Shakespeare Company”; given her depth of experience, perhaps she could have been asked about the industry from her perspective as one of this country’s most prolific independent theatre-makers.

The questions asked of the interviewees also underline the institutional slant of the research. Questions are framed around some kind of valorised career path upwards to the plum positions at the MPO’s, and interviewees are asked specifically  in terms of their institution – for instance “What is the training required to work as a key creative (directors, production managers, lighting designers etc) for your company? ”

Even so, this is a very useful piece of research. It will be intersting to see if OzCo follows it up with something that looks at the independent sector more broadly ….  for instance, in one part of the paper Chris Mead is quoted referring to a Playwriting Australia study of 1200 new works performed between 2001-2006:

Playwriting Australia posits that, of the 1200 ‘new’ Australian productions during the period 2001 to 2006, MPA companies accounted for just 10 to 15 per cent of total activity.  

But to my knowledge this data is unpublished – even though it represents a potential treasure trove for the Austeralian cultural researcher.

From a cultural economics perspective, perhaps the most obvious point one can make about the paper is its almost complete ignorance of the demand side of the industry equation. The issue of the lack of opportunities for key creatives is framed around a “lack of resources for independent theatre” rather than an honest acknowledgement of the demand-side issues facing the sector. After all – might it not be the case that what the independent sector really lacks is the marketing and promotion budgets necessary to reach larger audiences?

If this seems like begging the question, it should be acknolwedged that this report openly agrees that the mid-size theatre sector is now a long-gone dream. As one participant (was it Sean Mee?) is quoted as saying, “The middle-sized theatres collapsed for a reason, and artists have not chosen to set them up again or to set up replacements. ”

I’ll discuss the recommendations of the report, and whether they have a chance of success, in a follow-up post tomorrow.

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