The heritage wars heat up

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra plays Mahler in 2007. Source: Victoria Anderson

Well well, who would have thought an essay about cultural policy would generate so much heat?

A book chapter for the Centre for Policy Development by Marcus Westbury and myself has started to gain some serious attention in the high arts in Australia. I’ve already covered Richard Mills’ reaction to it here. But today in The Australian, there is a long article from Rosemary Sorensen about the debate, which includes the first formal response from Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele:

Australia Council chief executive Kathy Keele agrees that the dichotomy is unhelpful. “It’s not either-or,” she says, “it’s about doing it all.”

While she welcomes the debate, Keele does say that Westbury, who has created festival events under the Australia Council’s banner and also helped write one of its arts guides, has not done his homework well enough.

“He’s talking about an Australia Council that does not exist,” she says. “This whole conversation about heritage is not relevant: it’s really that we need more funding for the arts across the board.”

Keele laughs off the idea that an orchestra playing Bach or a theatre company performing Shakespeare is somehow out of date because the composer or the playwright is no longer with us.

“The people going to see it are not dead,” she says.

“Those performances are still about today.”

Of course, regular readers of this blog will know that this is in turn a misrepresentation of Marcus’ arguments, and I humbly suggest Keele should have a careful read of our essay. In it, we don’t actually say that Shakespeare or Bach are “out of date” because they are “no longer with us”, but we do point out the Australia Council’s overwhelming funding bias towards a small number of cultural organisations and a narrow range of cultural expressions.

As we point out in the essay, while there is substantial funding for organisations to perform works by Bach or Shakespeare (including funding for an entire company devoted to Shakespeare), only 2% of Australia Council music funding goes to contemporary music, only 5% of the arts funding in this country is devoted to living artists making new work, and the Australia Council gives five times as much funding to one opera company as it does to its entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.

The debate is set to continue, so stay tuned.

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Richard Mills tries to defend the heritage arts; fails

I couldn’t let this one go … distinguished composer and WA Opera Director Richard Mills had a wonderful defence of the heritage arts in The Age last week. Sounding like a critic trampled in the riot on the first night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mills thunders on about the new media arts in a tone that would be shocking if it were not so risible:

Some recently emerging mumbles in the national conversation appear to advocate a radical reallocation of government funding to various enterprises seen as exemplifying greater diversity of engagement, relevance (to whom or what is never stated) and, of course, innovation. I suppose I should begin by nailing my colours to the mast through making this confession.
I was a member of the Australia Council for the Arts in the 1990s when the New Media Fund was set up. I opposed it vehemently – and in vain – as it seemed to me just another example of meretricious, self-serving claptrap, which confused content with process, masquerading to the weak-minded as new, with a healthy sense of entitlement to whatever funds might happen to drop from the perch of government.
To educate and enlighten my misguided ways, I was taken to an office in Melbourne by an earnest, believing colleague. This office was the hub of revolutionary “new media” enterprise. I was ushered in and shown, in an atmosphere of hushed reverence, some examples of “new media” which, so far as I could tell, consisted of pictures of yellow flowers changing and moving about a bit on a TV screen.
“Humbug,” I exclaimed, “this belongs to the visual arts” – only to be howled down by the entire clutch of councillors of the day (except, if my memory serves me correctly, Christopher Pearson).
Thankfully, this nonsense, and other things like it, were recognised in their true colours some years later when my esteemed colleague Jonathan Mills (no relation) encouraged the abolition of the New Media Fund with enthusiasm – and final success.

Apart from the important new revelation that we can sheet home some responsibility for the abolition of the New Media Arts Board to Jonathan Mills, the article is an amazingly short-sighted defence. I’ve responded over at Inside Story:

Like the best satire, Mills’s essay skates close to the ridiculous. (When was the last time someone cried “humbug” in a policy discussion?) As spoof, Mills’s essay is a near-masterpiece. As sincere argument, it’s a train wreck. Mills gloats over the destruction of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board in 2004, as though it were some victory in the culture wars. He advances factually wrong statements – for instance, that grassroots music depends on musicians trained by symphony orchestras for the supply of expert teachers. He makes frankly embarrassing comments about jewellery and computer programming. More generally, in his rage against the dying of a light, he reveals himself to be as reactionary and ill-informed about other artforms as he is proficient in his own.

Mills’s essay is destined to become an important source document for those studying the current shape of Australian cultural policy. Sadly, one of Australia’s finest living composers has shown himself to possess a narrow critical mind. But Mills has also done us a favour, because he has been honest enough to reveal a widespread attitude among influential decision-makers in the Australian arts: the attitude that some forms of art, particularly their own, are more meritorious than others.

More on The Tote closure

Well-wishers line up outside The Tote hotel, 5.30pm, Sunday 17th January. The line strecthed several blocks. Image: Sarah-Jane Woulahan.

Yesterday, more than 2000 people attended the public protest over the closure of The Tote hotel due to the vastly increased licensing costs mandated by Liquor Licensing Victoria. I was there, as you can see above. The protest was peaceful but passionate, with many placards and some speeches, all making the point that live music was being penalised over so-called “high risk” provisions in new licensing laws that bear no correlation with the actual safety record of Victorian music venues.

But don’t expect the Victorian government to take notice. Showing her typical tone-deaf approach to media management, Liquor Licensing Victoria’s Sue McLellan opted to attack the Tote’s Bruce Milne in an interview with the Herald Sun. Asking for a meeting with Milne to discuss mediating an issue that has quickly mushroomed into a public relations disaster was clearly not on McLellan’s agenda.

Let’s get personal here. The salary for a senior public servant like McLellan would comfortably cover the annual running costs of a low-profit venue like the Tote. We can’t expect her to understand the appeal of sticky carpet or rock music, but wew can ask her to get out of her air-conditioned office and actually engage with the issues at hand. Or maybe not.

Today’s Crikey has an article by Andrew Crook with further details on the Tote story. Crook reveals that a consortium of small bar licensees have offered to take over the license from Bruce Milne, with Milne reported interested:

A trio of white knights look set to assume control of iconic Melbourne rock pub The Tote, which was scheduled to close its doors for the last time today.

In a prima facie offer posted late this morning on music website Mess and Noise, the current proprietors of The Old Bar, and the former managers of After Dark in High Street Thornbury, wrote of their willingness to assume the licence, following a public plea from current proprietor Bruce Milne.

“Joel [Morrison], Singa [Unlayiti] and myself would dearly love to sit down with you at some point and talk about this further. As you know we are running a very similar venue (although on a smaller scale) with very similar licensing.

“I think that if there is a baton to be passed along that the three of us would consider ourselves a sincere and reasonable group of guys to accept responsibility of The Tote,” wrote Liam Matthews on the online forum. Milne responded minutes later:  “You guys would run it with the love and respect it deserves. If you can find a way, I’m there for you.”

Milne, a stalwart of the Melbourne music scene, had previously spruiked for a new licensee to keep the venue open: ”If someone can work out a way to keep the place open and deal with liquor licensing, I will work with them to make it happen. But it needs to be the Tote, not some lame-o version.”

Milne told Crikey that he would be “happy” if the trio took over the venue but that it would need to be removed from the “high-risk” category that has led to  liquor licensing fees and compliance costs skyrocketing.

In an article in this morning’s Australian Financial Review, The Tote’s millionaire landlord, Computershare mogul Chris Morris, said he was happy to keep the venue running under a new licensee. Matthews told Crikey he had contacted Morris but was yet to receive a response and a jump in running costs could still see the doors closed for some time yet.

An increase in liquor licensing fees of about $1600 was dwarfed by a requirement in Milne’s licence to have two security guards stationed at the Tote’s doors at all times — a near-doubling of his  current annual expenses of $60,000. This came on top of the installation of “quality” CCTV cameras. Attending the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to revert the licence away from the high-risk category would slug Milne with about $15,000 in lawyers’ fees.

The “high-risk” ruling puts the venue in the same category as several King Street nightclubs, leading to calls for a more nuanced approach from Liquor Licensing Commissioner Sue McLennan.

Well-funded art museums cry poor, again

Christopher Menz has taken his bat and ball and gone home. So why should we care? Source: Fairfax.

The news that the Art Gallery of South Australia’s director, Christopher Menz, has declined a contract extension because the South Australian government has not increased the gallery’s funding has brought predictable squeals of outrage from the champions of the entitlement culture at Australia’s large cultural institutions.

Now art critic John McDonald has weighed in with a mendacious opinion piece in the Fairfax newspapers in which he claims that Menz’ dummy spit “represents one of the few occasions a senior figure in an Australian public art museum has shown the courage of their convictions.”

Was Menz asking for an outrageous sum of money? He wanted only another million. Over the past two years, even allowing for its slender budgets, the gallery has initiated important shows such as The Golden Journey, Hans Heysen, and Misty Moderns. There could be no questioning the quality of the staff’s work and commitment.

Well, there are obvious questions about at least one staff member’s commitment. The director has effectively resigned.

But what really annoys me about these kinds of articles is the utter detachment they show from the on-the-ground conditions in which actual working Australian artists ply their trade. Recall that the average Australian visual artist can’t even earn a wage above the poverty line from his or her art. Meanwhile, art galleries spend millions on acquiring thhe masterpieces of dead foreign artists.  “Only another million” writes McDonald, without realising that this is by no means a trivial sum in terms of funding for individual visual artists.

Actually, the South Australian government injected more than $2 million in recent years to pay for renovations, but McDonald doesn’t let that get in the way of his spray,  dismissing it as merely about “air conditioning” – which I would have thought was a rather significant investment in a city where summer temperatures regularly get into the 40s.

I’m sorry, but McDonald and Menz are nothing but whingers. Let’s examine the facts. Menz enjoyed a healthy salary to run a major cultural institution with a budget that would comfortably exceed all but a handful of Australian arts organisations. If this wasn’t commensurate with his talents and abilities, he is free to take his bat and ball and go home. But let’s not mourn his departure. The board of the AGSA should immediately get on with the business of appointing a young and dynamic director who can take the institution forward. For his part, McDonald should stop whinging.

Jane Rankin-Reid, in a devastating quote I have often cited, had this to say on the issue way back in 2002:

“It is time Australian visual arts bureaucrats faced the fact that although they are professionally dependent on artists for their raison d’etre, the guy in the paint-splattered suit may never enjoy quite as high a standard of living as an arts management desk jockey. Ideally, artists are here to promote these and other truths, but the politesse of the Australian arts funding system often muffles these dangerous voices in our society.”

Lyndon Terracini on “why our art’s in the wrong place”

lyndon_terracini_headshot

Lyndon Terracini (source: Opera Australia website).

The former Director of the Brisbane Festival and incoming Artistic Director of Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini, has orchestrated a well-publicised spray at Australia’s major performing arts sector in today’s Australian.

In an article by Michaela Boland, Terracini previews a speech today to the Australian Business Arts Foundation, which will dovetail with a forthcoming publication with Currency House:

Lyndon Terracini, the former artistic director of the Brisbane Festival, has arrived at the opera company with a bold vision to make it more accessible and more representative of the community. He believes storytelling in Australia has become predictable and conservative, and is concerned it lacks creative inspiration.

Even productions acclaimed as visionary, such as Benedict Andrews’s epic War of the Roses and the plays of Barrie Kosky, fall short of his expectations.

“I don’t think they have the element of daring that Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll had,” Terracini told The Australian on the eve of his speech.

Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, staged at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 1955, was the first mainstage Australian production, and signalled the end of British domination of the Australian theatre. Such a landmark effort is difficult to replicate.

“The work we are doing now is much more professional, even sophisticated, but where is our core ethos?” Terracini said.

“What has happened to the boldness and cavalier daring of our performing aesthetic? We’ve become comfortable, the art we’re making is very comfortable and we’ve become mean-spirited.”

In a speech in Melbourne hosted by arts publisher Currency House and the Australia Business Arts Foundation, which will be repeated in Sydney next week, Terracini will accuse contemporary artists of lacking courage in their work. He intends to pour scorn on the major performing arts companies for selecting performers from a limited ethnic pool.

“How many indigenous faces do you see in the SSO, MSO, Brisbane’s orchestras or the ACO? We’re not seeing them, and we should ask why,” he said.

Terracini intends to rectify the racial sameness that is obvious at Opera Australia.

“Opera companies have remained the same since their inception and the world has changed dramatically,” he said. “Yet 200 years ago the role of an opera company was very different to now. Opera used to be what the movies are now. People for all sorts of reasons may have had a prejudice about coming to opera, but once they come you can bet they will adore it,” he said.

Oh really? I’m not sure  if the stats would back that assertion up.  Continue reading

Does Brisbane have culture?

Matt Condon, writing in The Courier-Mail, says “yes”, but I’m not so sure.

Brisbane City's "Creative City" strategy was a leading piece of Landry/Florida worship - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

The Brisbane City Council's "Creative City" strategy was heavy on the Landry/Florida rhetoric - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

Condon’s article points out that the city has a historic legacy of under-appreciation of culture and the arts:

In an anguished letter published in The Courier-Mail on March 27, 1934, one T. L. Smithson Jones asked: “Sir, May I ask if there is any culture in Brisbane? For many years I have spent some months of the year here, and I frankly am appalled by what I see.”

In August this year (75 years after poor T. L. Smithson Jones’ lament) the same question was being batted about on that new-fangled thing called the internet. Acclaimed young Australian festival director and cultural commentator Marcus Westbury incited an interstate debate when he asked similar questions about culture and its comparative robustness in Australian capital cities. “This week, I’ve been discussing the respective state of cultural life in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide and been amazed at the passionate vitriol that comparisons evoke,” Westbury wrote. “It seems we love taking potshots across state lines.”

Former Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald has described the state as a “cultural wasteland”.

And in an article in Artlink magazine several years ago titled “The New Brisbane”, local writers Stuart Glover and Stuart Cunningham pointed out our city’s “coming of age” had been announced several times in the past three decades, from the 1982 Commonwealth Games through to the Smart State manifesto.

It’s worth taking up on that final paragraph. In that Artlink article, Glover and Cunningham mentioned two festivals in particular as unique and exciting models showing Brisbane was creating new ways of presenting culture: the River Festival and Straight Out of Brisbane.

Today, neither festival exists. River Fest was gobbled up by the influential but charmless  Lyndon Terracini in his crusade to dominate Brisbane’s festivals sector, while Straight out of Brisbane (which I founded and helped to organise) died an agonising death waiting for Arts Queensland funding that never arrived. Add the previously successful Livid Festival to that list and Brisbane now has three fewer nationally-recognised  festivals than it had in the early 2000’s.

Other aspects of Brisbane’s cultural health are also open to question. While ABS data for Brisbane is not disaggregated from the total Queensland figures, across the state employment in cultural industries barely grew at all – flatlining at 48,000 jobs from 2001 to 2006. This was during boom years for other parts of the state’s employment market.

When you add in the substantial growth in state cultural employment at big institutions like the State Library and Queensland Art Gallery in that time, it appears as though private sector cultural employment in Queensland actually fell between 2001 and 2006.

This is in stark contrast to the rosy forecasts predicted by the glossy cultural policies developed by both the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council in the early 2000’s – policy documents with ambitious titles like “Creative City” and “Creativity is Big Business.”

In fact, if you talk to cultural practitioners in Queensland, you find that the micro-economic conditions for cultural growth are stagnating. Music venues are struggling with high costs imposed by tougher licensing and bouncer regulations, while small galleries and incubators are finding it hard to pay the rent in Brisbane’s appreciating property market. While music festivals such as Parklife and the Big Day Out continue to draw strong crowds, government-run cultural centres like the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Brisbane Powerhouse have not lived up to expectations, neither commissioning as much local work as first claimed or creating significant new audiences for their venues. During one recent week of the Brisbane Festival, the Brisbane Powerhouse was nearly completely empty, running only one 60-minute show, Elbow Room’s There.  One show in an entire week of the Brisbane Festival!

Ironically, Elbow Room is basically an expatriate Brisbane company, composed of Brisbane actors, playwrights and directors who left the state for greener pastures in Victoria, where there is a far stronger independent theatre scene.And there are plenty more stories like this.

Film production in the state is another good example. It remains essentially a chase for Hollywood production dollars rather trying to develop local stories and film-makers. The result is that local production is  highly vulnerable to currency fluctuations like the current strong Aussie dollar. Meanwhile, the state film funding body, the Pacific Film and Television Commission, has gone through a series of internal convulsions that have seen a clean-out of top management whom had comprehensively lost the confidence of the local film industry.

In fact, despite the publicity lavished on Brisbane and Queensland’s  so-called “creative indsutries” policies, the evidence suggests that they have failed – even in terms of the economic and employment goals they set themselves.

It’s not all bad. Brisbane’s fertile music scene continues to spawn new bands with significant national and international appeal, while many of the state’s writers are also gaining wide appeal. And Fortitude Valley’s game design sector has grown into a significant employer. But in sectors like the performing arts, dance, visual arts, artist-run initiatives and commercial visual arts galleries, design, festivals, media and advertising and even food and dining,  Brisbane and Queensland trails badly behind its southern cousins – and the gap is if anything widening.

When cultural policy = boosterism: Vivid Sydney

In The Sunday Age, Steve Dow has taken a long hard look at the dubious policy logic behind Events NSW’s Vivid Sydney program, suggesting that he boosterism only too common in this kind of policy initiative is alive and well in NSW:

In a sure sign NSW wants to unsettle Victoria’s claim to the high ground of ideas, on May 27 Events NSW will also launch an annual Creative Sydney festival to become “an annual hub for the creative industries throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific”, with three weeks of conferences and talks on music, design, architecture, writing, performance and film.

Says Events NSW boss Geoff Parmenter, the former head of marketing at Football Federation Australia: “I’d like to think that people throughout the region would come to Sydney every June to get their ideas.”

He’s also done me the favour of quoting my views on the topic:

Ben Eltham, a Melbourne-based writer, musician and theatre producer, agrees. Eltham, originally from Brisbane, moved south in 2007 to take up an internship with the Melbourne Fringe Festival, which receives funding from Arts Victoria. He says that while he has noticed that some artists are being forced by high rents to move from traditional creative suburbs such as St Kilda and Fitzroy out to the likes of Brunswick and Preston, he has been able to find reasonably cheap digs in Collingwood.
Eltham, who is researching a PhD in cultural policy at the University of Western Sydney, and is a fellow at the Sydney-based Centre for Policy Development, says Melbourne’s virtue is its “ecosystem of cultural enterprise”, which Sydney fails to emulate because of a lack of proper funding at the lower end.
“In Melbourne, there are big companies and there are big performing arts venues, but there are also small companies and small venues. So, if you’re an artist trying to work your way through the system, or a director or a person who’s a stage manager or works in a crew, or simply a cultural entrepreneur, there’s a ladder there, a stepping stone.”
Eltham is highly critical of Luminous. He sees it as a form of “cultural cringe”, importing the likes of Eno and ignoring local artists, although Events NSW insists local artists are important players in all its festivals being launched this month. Eltham says the NSW Ministry of Arts largely ignores much of the “really awesome underground stuff” going on in Sydney. “The classic example is a fringe festival … Melbourne’s had a fringe festival for 26 years, Adelaide’s had one for 49 years. Sydney doesn’t have one at all.”

Ben Eltham, a Melbourne-based writer, musician and theatre producer, agrees. Eltham, originally from Brisbane, moved south in 2007 to take up an internship with the Melbourne Fringe Festival, which receives funding from Arts Victoria. He says that while he has noticed that some artists are being forced by high rents to move from traditional creative suburbs such as St Kilda and Fitzroy out to the likes of Brunswick and Preston, he has been able to find reasonably cheap digs in Collingwood.

Eltham, who is researching a PhD in cultural policy at the University of Western Sydney, and is a fellow at the Sydney-based Centre for Policy Development, says Melbourne’s virtue is its “ecosystem of cultural enterprise”, which Sydney fails to emulate because of a lack of proper funding at the lower end.

“In Melbourne, there are big companies and there are big performing arts venues, but there are also small companies and small venues. So, if you’re an artist trying to work your way through the system, or a director or a person who’s a stage manager or works in a crew, or simply a cultural entrepreneur, there’s a ladder there, a stepping stone.”

Eltham is highly critical of Luminous. He sees it as a form of “cultural cringe”, importing the likes of Eno and ignoring local artists, although Events NSW insists local artists are important players in all its festivals being launched this month. Eltham says the NSW Ministry of Arts largely ignores much of the “really awesome underground stuff” going on in Sydney. “The classic example is a fringe festival … Melbourne’s had a fringe festival for 26 years, Adelaide’s had one for 49 years. Sydney doesn’t have one at all.”

Creative Sydney’s Luminous festival: another example of the cultural cringe

NSW Premier Nathan Rees is kicking off his dual tenure as the State’s Arts Minster with a big, splashy arts festival called Vivid Sydney.

Some of it is long overdue in the NSW arts events mix, like the innovative program of independent producers and scrappy start-ups for Creative Sydney. Some of it is more of the same, like the achingly wanky Luminous at the Sydney Opera House, curated by none other than the man who brought you The Microsoft Sound, avant-garde composer Brian Eno.

Eno’s Luminous picks on an international trend of “curated” popular music festivals such as the All Tomorrow’s Parties family of events.

According to the self-important marketing of the festival by the Opera House and Events NSW, “Luminous is a cornerstone of Vivid Sydney, a unique public festival that will transform the city into a spectacular living canvas of music and light in and around Sydney Opera House, The Rocks, Circular Quay and city centre. One of five anchor events in the first-ever NSW Master Events Calendar created by Events NSW on behalf of the NSW Government, Vivid Sydney will showcase the city as a major creative hub in the Asia Pacific region and celebrate the diversity of Sydney’s creative industries.”

Really? Continue reading