Why are orchestras so worried?

From my article on the ABC’s The Drum/Unleashed website today:

… when we talk about cultural policy in this country, the debate is always dominated by one issue: funding for cultural institutions. That’s not because they’re more worthy, more noble or more excellent than all the other things a cultural policy might fund or regulate. It’s because a noisy and well-organised arts lobby has made cultural policy all about funding for a small number of privileged organisations.

And how they scream when someone – anyone – suggests that perhaps we should take a second look at the status quo.

In late July, for instance, prominent composer and opera director Richard Mills let loose a cannonade in The Age, blasting attempts to “to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding” and launching a bizarre assault on the cultural validity of art forms like jewellery and new media arts, which he memorably described as “meretricious, self-serving claptrap.” The article was apparently an excerpt from a piece commissioned by the Australia Council itself, and is due to appear on its website soon.

The tirade was picked up by The Australian a week later, in an article by Rosemary Sorensen which gave Mills’ views a prominent splash in the national daily’s arts pages.

“From where I sit,” says Mills – the composer is also artistic director of West Australian Opera – “these don’t seem to be friendly times for the major performing arts sector and there is, in the industry, a perception of subliminal disapproval of our work emanating from Canberra that is puzzling and frustrating.”

On ABC1 News in Sydney this week, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti went even further, whipping up a non-issue into a frenzy of fear and loathing. In one of ABC News’ less balanced efforts, viewers were informed – literally while violins played in the background – that “leading orchestras fear for their future because of potential government funding cuts”. There are no cuts announced, of course – but that didn’t stop Tognetti from warning that “one of the orchestras or leading companies might be destroyed.” Wearing his hippest flannelette shirt, Togentti was given just enough rope to say some very silly things indeed… such as “it’s a bit like saying we’ll burn all the books because we’ve all got iPads now.”

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