Jana Perkovic on why Australian state theatre companies are really boring

This summer, like last, NewMatilda.com is running a series on the Australian arts that is comprehensively better than anything you’ll find in tired newsprint.

Today’s mail-out was a cracker, with articles by 3RRR’s Clem Bastow and Spark Online’s Jana Perkovic.

Perkovic’s article is  a stand-out, showing why she is one of the country’s best young arts writers (let’s hope she stays here and doesn’t return to Europe). “There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia,” she argues, “but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies.”

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

In contrast, state-funded theatre in Australia is increasingly artistic anaemic.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions”. The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing, and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

It’s an excellent article: timely, perceptive and substantially right.

Creative destruction in the media industries: Adam Carr on the fall and rise of New York media

The New York Times‘ media writer, Adam Carr, has a great column in the Times about the “fall and rise” of Manhattan’s once-great media empires, like Conde Nast and the Times itself.

Beginning with a parable of the golden olden days of media work, he points out that the new landscape emerging is flatter, more diverse, riskier and more opportunistic:

Historically, young women and men who sought to thrive in publishing made their way to Manhattan. Once there, they were told, they would work in marginal jobs for indifferent bosses doing mundane tasks and then one day, if they did all of that without whimper or complaint, they would magically be granted access to a gilded community, the large heaving engine of books, magazines and newspapers.

Beyond that, all it took to find a place to stand on a very crowded island, as E. B. White suggested, was a willingness to be lucky. Once inside that velvet rope, they would find the escalator that would take them through the various tiers of the business and eventually, they would be the ones deciding who would be allowed to come in.

As we all know, those times are over. Continue reading

Bejmain Genocchio on Avital Oz in the New York Times



Avital Oz's “Linkage” (1982), left, and “Black Sun” (1980), from Benjamin Genocchio's review of his retrospective in the New York Times, courtesy of Art Sites.

Australian visual art audiences will no doubt be pleased to see art Australian critic Benjamin Genocchio writing for thew New York Times.

In a recent article, Genocchio reviews the work of noted minimalist Avital Oz, a former protege of Sol Le Witt. It’s typical of Genocchio’s stylish yet understated prose, which makes him one of our best art writers.

For those interested in Genocchio as a critic and writer, the ABC’s Ally Moore interviewed him last year (click forward to 19 minutes in the sound file). The interview canvasses resale royalty rights and why Genocchio thinks that any droit de suite will only benefit the estates of the top few artists. His most recent book is Dollar Dreaming, about the Australian Aboriginal visual art market.

Houses of the future in New Orleans?


A photo by Wayne Troyer of a Make It Right home under construction, in 2008. Originally posted at Jimmy Stamp's Life Without Buildings blog

In The Atlantic, Wayne Curtis explains that the disastrous failure of all levels of government to plan and rebuild New Orleans is having some interesting unintended positive consequences.

Four years after Katrina, the rebuilding of New Orleans is not proceeding the way anyone envisioned, nor with the expected cast of characters. (If I may emphasize: Brad Pitt is the city’s most innovative and ambitious housing developer.) […]

In the absence of strong central leadership, the rebuilding has atomized into a series of independent neighborhood projects. And this has turned New Orleans—moist, hot, with a fecund substrate that seems to allow almost anything to propagate—into something of a petri dish for ideas about housing and urban life. An assortment of foundations, church groups, academics, corporate titans, Hollywood celebrities, young people with big ideas, and architects on a mission have been working independently to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods, all wholly unconcerned about the missing master plan. It’s at once exhilarating and frightening to behold. […] Continue reading

Hazlehurst Regional Gallery’s Sylvania Waters Project


The Kingpins' "Unstill Life" (detail), 2009, from the exhibition page on Facebook

Tonight the ABC screened a documentary on a recent exhibition at Hazlehurst Regional Gallery in southern Sydney entitled “Reality Check”.

It’s a brief but interesting exploration of the curatorial process and ensuing artworks produced as a part of  this exhibition, which was commissioned by Hazlehurst’s curator,  Daniel Mudie Cunningham, and based around responses to the original Sylvania Waters TV series from 1992.

I haven’t seen the exhibition so I can’t comment on the artworks exhibited, but I thought the documentary raised (though lacked the length to explore) some interesting issues. To begin with, let’s look at the artists selected for the show: Mitch Cairns, Carla Cescon, Peter Cooley, John A. Douglas, The Kingpins, David Lawrey & Jaki Middleton, Luis Martinez, Archie Moore, Ms & Mr, Elvis Richardson, and Holly Williams. Sadly, we don’t get to meet all of them. But as a group, it’s collectively what you might call mid-level contemporary artists, some of whom, like Archie Moore and Luiz Martinez, have real talent and artistic credibility, and some of whom, like The Kingpins, I’ve always thought were better known for their splashy performances and canny artistic positioning than for any ground-breaking originality. I found myself wondering what an older, more established artist might have made of the project … or was I perhaps merely curious as to what happens to all the up-and-coming Primavera stars in 15 years time?

The documentary gives us an interesting snapshot of the artistic process in the 2000’s in Australia. One thing I immediately noticed was the run-down condition of the houses many of the artists lived in, hinting at the often penurious circumstances of working artists, even if few nowadays are prepared to take the next step and attempt a class analysis.

We also get to see some intelligent discussion of the original TV series by Catherine Lumby, who I would love to see doing more television and blogging, as well as some photogenic curatorial glosses from Mudie Cunningham.

Overall, the documentary left me a little disappointed. Perhaps it was always difficult to address so much in 25 minutes, but I don’t feel as though – on the basis of the documentary – that many of the artists really engaged with the subject matter at hand. The exceptions are John A. Douglas, who presents an impressively humane perspective on the difficulties faced by the Donaher family, and Luiz Martinez, who painted a scene from the original TV show that beckons an almost Hopper-esque tabluex of ordinary life.

An “island of culture” for the Gold Coast?


A mock-up of Super Colossal's Island of Culture in the Nerang River

This year, the Gold Coast City Council held a “Master Plan Ideas Competition” to decide what to do with a 16 hectare site in the middle of the growing city. The site is planned to house a new Gold Coast Cultural and Civic Precinct, eventually containing the Council chambers and a swanky new art gallery. The competition aimed to “generate creative new visions”, “stimulate community discussion” and “identify specific design features” for the site.

As the Gold Coast  competition website says, “the 16.5 hectare site is located at 135 Bundall Road and is bordered on three sides by rivers and canals. Formerly a simple rural cane farm, the site is now at the heart of a growing city with views across the skyline of Surfers Paradise, Main Beach and Broadbeach.”

Last week, the Gold Coast Council announced the winner of the competition and its $90,000 prize: Sydney firm Super Colossal, who proposed an entirely new island in the Nerang river for the precinct’s various civic and cultural buildings.

Competition judges praised the winning entry for its creation of open space, its many pedestrian bridges and its defensibility in the face of rising sea-levels. One judge even compared it to “the ancient islands in the Laguna Veneta such as the Isola Murano and Isola San Michele.”

“We think the Gold Coast is one of Australia’’s most interesting cities,” Super Colossal’s Marcus Trimble told me in an email. “Nowhere else do you have close proximity of the ocean, high rise towers, waterfront suburbia, natural and man-made lagoons and industrial buildings.” Continue reading

Kate Oakley reviews the literature on creative work

I’m spending this afternoon reading Kate Oakley‘s new review monograph, “Art Works” – cultural labour markets: a literature review.

It’s a major new addition to the field and I expect will prove an important teaching tool for many lecturers. Oakley surveys the last half-century of research in cultural labour markets, as well as the nature of creative work itself. You could say she examines art as a job, hobby, vocation  and calling, as well as from the sociological and cultural economic perspectives.

She then moves on to discuss the idea that work in the cultural sector is a template for all kinds of work in the future, the geography and organisation of cultural work, outlines the literature on creative work as  ‘precarious labour’ and looks at the implications of these studies for cultural policy and education.

Oakley is a significant figure in the field and so this review will end up defining the way much of the field is envisaged. It’s a thorough and highly readable account that I sincerely hope finds it way to policy-makers in Australia. It should enable them to better understand some of the implications of the nostrums and platitudes that so often litter government arts policies in this country.

One policy point that immediately comes to mind is the evidence this study furnishes for the value of emerging and fringe arts festivals and other infrastructure that supports early-career opportunities for artists. Oakley points out the literature repeatedly underlines the difficulty faced by artists transitioning from education and training to creative work:

Honey, Heron and Jackson find that most of these artists attended art college, and that many considered the years spent there as a ‘special time’ during which they could dedicate many hours to artistic practice (1997:vii). Many artists considered the first year after school the most difficult, a finding which concurred with that of earlier work (Blackwell and Harvey 1999), which found that cultural workers often experience a difficult time post-graduation, as they struggle to make contacts, organise a portfolio, and negotiate (often multiple) work contracts.

Honey, Heron and Jackson find that most of these artists attended art
college, and that many considered the years spent there as a ‘special time’
during which they could dedicate many hours to artistic practice (1997:vii).
Many artists considered the first year after school the most difficult, a
finding which concurred with that of earlier work (Blackwell and Harvey
1999), which found that cultural workers often experience a difficult time
post-graduation, as they struggle to make contacts, organise a portfolio, and
negotiate (often multiple) work contrac

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.

South Korea’s culture minister aims to increase Korean culture funding

From the Korea Times, an interesting interview with Yu In-chon, the Republic of Korea’s Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sports.

South Korean culture minister Yu In-Chon

South Korean culture minister Yu In-Chon

Like Australia’s culture minister Peter Garrett, a former rock singer, Yu is also a former artist – in his case, an actor.

An actor-turned-minister, Yu began by explaining how he wants to retain existing edifices while looking to expand venues for creative arts.


Yu’s goals are clear. Rather than build anew, he wants to preserve. Rather than unilaterally export Korean culture, he wants to exchange and infuse.

His aims are also high in terms of budget: He hopes to raise the total cultural budget to account for 1.5 percent of the national budget by 2012.

Yet, he wants the benefits of culture to seep into the nooks and crannies of Korea, so that grandmothers in the smallest villages can enjoy performances with their grandchildren.

The article also adds that “the minister seems intent on revamping national art organizations. After taking office, he has replaced eight chiefs of national art organizations, saying repeatedly it is time they live up to their names.”

Can Darwin really be a “creative city”?

One of the best papers I’ve yet read in the often controversial academic debate about “creative cities” was published this year in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography. Written by Australian authors Susan Luckman, Chris Gibson and Tess Lea, it’s entitled “Mosquitoes in the mix: How transferable is creative city thinking?” [30(1): 70-85].

Darwin harbour, 2009

Darwin harbour, 2009

The paper takes a close look at the municipal cultural policy pursued by the northern Australian city of Darwin, and asks some hard questions about the validity of so-called “creative city” strategies of the type championed by Richard Florida, Charles Landry and Brisbane’s QUT school of academics.

The project is a kind of mid-way report of a government funded research project (funds are coming from Darwin City Council, the Northern Territory Tourism Commission and the Northern Territory Government’s Department of Arts and Museums, “each of whom are interested in pursuing new policies to enhance Darwin’s creative industries, and its liveability and attractiveness to new migrants.”)

Despite this clear agenda from those funding the study, the authors here produce a fascinating paper that calls into question the rhetoric and spin of creative industries/cities policies: Continue reading