In response to Kathy Keele

Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele has formally responded to my article in Overland about the future of Australia’s art funding body. In this post, I continue the dialogue.

Firstly, I should acknowledge Keele’s engagement in the debate, and I welcome the fact she has taken the opportunity to respond.

Secondly, there are some specific points Keele raises which I should address. These relate to my imprecise phrasing in certain sections of the Overland article. Basically, where I’ve said the Australia Council “doesn’t fund” certain artforms, I should have written “the Australia Council contributes tiny or negligible funding”. You can see what I mean below. Keele’s points first, then my response:

  • [Eltham] states that the council ‘funds opera but not musicals (except when opera companies mount musicals)’. This is incorrect. The music and theatre boards have an initiative called Music Theatre which supports the development of musicals.

This is true in the narrow sense, but in the broader sense my point holds. The Australia Council does fund a Music Theatre Initiative, but at a risible level. The Initiative distributes a tiny proportion of funding compared to that devoted to opera. In 2009, the Music Theatre Initiative gave out $288,000 to 9 projects. Opera Australia received $17.9 million and Opera Queensland received another $318,000. Hence, music theatre totalled less than 1.6% of opera funding. In fact, the extra money Opera Australia received to produce Bliss nearly totalled what the Music Theatre Initiative distributed!

  • He argues for the artistic importance of gaming, and asks ‘why doesn’t the Australia Council support gaming?’ It does. The council has over many years funded artists who create game art works and explore game culture as an artistic practice.

The Australia Council’s support for game art and game culture is tiny. There is no game art board, in the way there are Theatre, Music, Dance or Major Performing Arts Boards. The Council has over many years funded all sorts of things with very small amounts, but that doesn’t change the big picture, which is that the Australia Council overwhelmingly funds a very narrow palette of artforms and practices – gaming is not one of them.

  • He states that the council supports ‘serious novels, generally, but not genre fiction or online writing’. Not true. The Literature Board has funded genre novels, interactive media writing, websites, iPhone apps and graphic novels through our New Work and Write in Your Face grants programs. The board recently completed a three-year initiative called the Story of the Future and published the Writer’s Guide to Making a Digital Living.

Again, this is true in the narrow sense, and these intiatives are important. Unfortunately, they are also comparatively minor. Indeed, Keele’s response only reinforces my point – Story of the Future, for instance, the Literature Board’s most substantive effort to support these practices, has finished and has not been renewed. The Write In Your Face initiative, while worthy, distributes tiny grants of only $5000 to a lucky few applicants. Go through the New Work Assessment Meeting Reports and you will see mainly literary writers working in traditional forms sch as novels or literary non-fiction.

In fact, the Literature Board itself recognises that it is not really addressing digital literacy and writing in its Sector Plan. One of the goals of the Sector Plan is “Targeted support for multimedia writers by the end of 2011” –  suggesting that not only is there a need for such support, but that the Literature Board does not currently meet that need.

  • Eltham states that the council ‘funds companies that only produce a few works a year but not festivals that produce hundreds’. In fact, each year the council funds dozens of works that are presented at festivals all over the country. We also fund the Major Festivals Initiative which commissions new Australian work for presentation at the seven capital city festivals.

Again, while it is true that Australia Council funds works that appear at festivals, it is stretching the truth to argue that the Australia Council provides much meaningful funding to the festival sector. Key festivals like the Melbourne Fringe and Adelaide Fringe receive nothing from the Australia Council, despite their key role in presenting small-to-medium work. The Major Festivals Initiative, at $3 million over four years, is a tiny fraction of the funding given to Opera Australia or the orchestras, and largely funds major performing arts board organisations anyway.

Where does the money go? We know where the majority goes: to the big companies in the Major Performing Arts Board.

Rebutting Christopher Madden: part 1

Recently I had a piece published Overland magazine calling for radical reform, perhaps even abolition, of the Australia Council for the Arts. This week, the Overland website carries a response by cultural policy analyst Christopher Madden.

I think Madden’s rebuttal misguided in several important respects and so today I’m going to unpick his piece item by item … but before I do that I think it’s worth saying that we agree on many things. More than that, I welcome this debate – it’s exactly what I hoped to provoke with the piece. Madden’s response to my article is robust, informed, detailed and well-intentioned. It’s also, I think, quite wrong. Continue reading

Unintended consequences: will digital TV make your wireless mic stop working?

Wireless microphones like these Sennheisers work using radio spectrum sandwiched between the domestic analogue TV channels. When the government sells off that spectrum in 2013, those mics will stop working.

There’s a fascinating article by Dominic White in Saturday’s Australian Financial Review about the looming crisis for Australia’s wireless microphone users.

Wireless mics, like the ones used by film crews, stage managers and rock musicians, work by using radio spectrum that is set to be sold off by the federal government (most likely to mobile phone companies) in 2013.

Why is that? The reason is that Australian TV is finally going digital. Digital TV uses far less spectrum than analogue TV, and the result is that the federal government can take back that lucrative spectrum to sell to the highest bidder. It’s an attractive proposition to telcos, who can use it for 4G mobile phones. The problem is, that old analogue spectrum used by the TV stations had small gaps between the channels, which wireless mics used for their transmissions. As White reports:

The proposals would mean that 85% of the 130,000 wireless audio devices used in Australia – which operate in the gap between TV stations – would be made obsolete, according to the Australian Wirelss Audio Group.

The Sydney Opera House alone could face a huge bill as a result of the change. The 200 wireless devices it uses, which cost about $10,000 per kit, would have to be replaced with microphones tuned to lower frequencies.

“We rely critically on wireless microphones,” technical director David Claringbold told the Weekend AFR.

“Our devices are in operation fro seven in the morning til midnight every day to make dramas, musicals and all kinds of performances run smoothly.”

The AWAG wants the federal government to use some of the windfall gain from the spectrum sale to compensate users. It estimates that “$32 billion of economic activity and 140,000 jobs in Australia” are reliant to some degree on wireless microphones.

I’m not  I agree with that figure, but hey, it will certainly make a big difference to audio hire firms, who will have to replace every single wireless Beta-58 and wireless guitar pickup in their rigs.

Jana Perkovic on why Australian state theatre companies are really boring

This summer, like last, 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.

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


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

Marcus Westbury on why the Australia Council doesn’t get digital culture

Was the Australia Concil’s abolition of the New Media Arts Board the single worst decision by an Australian cultural agency of the last decade? It’s certainly beginning to look that way.


A screenshot from "Escape from Woomera". Speculation persists that the funding of the game by the Australia Council's New Media Arts Board led eventually to that Board's abolition

Cast your mind back to 2004. John Howard is ensconced in power after comprehensively defeating Labor’s self-destructive Mark Latham. The culture wars rage on the op-ed pages of Australian daily newspapers (remember when people still read daily newspapers?). And in the arts, internal political machinations lead to the axing of two of the Australia Council’s most progressive and innovative funding boards: the Community Cultural Development Board and the New Media Arts Board. It all happens late in the year, with a brusque announcement by the CEO of the Australia Council, Jeniffer Bott, that the Australia Council would be “refocussing.”

At the time, Keith Gallasch called it a “devastating failure of nerve.” The CCD sector organised some relatively feeble protests, while OzCo’s power play steamrolled internal opposition. In response to the criticism, an amazingly poorly briefed Bott organised a series of largely symbolic “consultation meetings” which did little to allay fears that any “consulation” was merely window-dressing. Dark rumours circulated in the sector that the abolition of the New Media Arts Board in particular was payback for its funding of the controversial game mod Escape from Woomerra, which implicitly criticised the Howard Government’s highly politicised refugee detention policies.  Artworld insiders like Michael Snelling rallied to Bott’s cause, giving self-serving interviews to arts journalists like myself.

Five years on, what’s the wash up? Bott has moved on, replaced by Kathy Keele, and the Australia Council is playing a desperate game of catch-up with this whole “‘digital culture” thing. But, as we’ll explore in this post, OzCo doesn’t get it. It’s not even close. Continue reading

100 years of Australian arts policy

Dr John Gardiner-Garden of the Australian Parliamentary Library has published a briefing paper on Australian federalm arts poplicy and administration. It’s another fine effort from this estimable researcher:

Commonwealth involvement in the arts began soon after Federation. For example, in 1908 the Deakin Government established the Commonwealth Literary Fund, and in 1912 the second Fisher Government appointed a Commonwealth Art Advisory Board.

In the post-war period non-government grant giving bodies such as the Arts Council of Australia and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust were established with Commonwealth assistance, and the Menzies Government established the National Library of Australia.

The Holt Government involved the Commonwealth further in the arts by establishing the Assistance to Composers Advisory Board and agreeing to the establishment of an Australian Council for the Arts and an Australian National Gallery. The former was realised in 1968 by the Gorton Government.

 There’s plenty more in the way of a valuable overview of Commonwealth arts policy and funding right up to the initiatives of the Rudd Government.

What’s new in the International Journal of Arts Management: Jennifer Radbourne on audience metrics

In the IJAM, a team led by Jennifer Radbourne reports the findings of a fascinating study entitled “The Audience Experience: Measuring Quality in the Performing Arts.” 

We propose that the “quality” of an artistic performance can be defined by the individual audience member’s personal definition of quality based on her or his experience of the performance.

The Audience Experience:
Measuring Quality
in the Performing Arts

There’s some highly valuable insights from the group of focus groups that they conducted. For instance, Radbourne’s team probes the idea of knowledge and risk in watching a performance:

Non-attender A: “I was amazed the audience [was] raptured at the end . . . and I thought, what for? . . . I heard some people, when . . . we were in the queue going in, talking about him, so he’s obviously renowned. Clearly, I missed that.”

Non-attender B: “It’s just that thing of everyone sitting down and . . . that’s why I find live performance quite difficult. . . . When people started laughing . . . it’s, like, are they in the know? . . . Did they know the people, did they know stuff about the play? I mean, I don’t know anything about it . . . I didn’t know he wrote plays.” 

On risk:

Non-attender A: “You pay $50 [for a theatre ticket] – that’s a big night out for me . . . If I’m outlaying a lot of money, I want a guaranteed good night, and if it’s a band, then . . . that’s going to be a guarantee, but generally I wouldn’t take a punt on it for that amount of money.”

Non-attender B: “But that’s what live performance or theatre is. It’s not free – it’s a gamble.”

There’s plenty of other insights in the piece, which is published in the current edition of IJAM, with the following citation:

Jennifer Radbourne, Katya Johanson, Hilary Glow, Tabitha White (2009) The Audience Experience: Measuring Quality in the Performing Arts. International Journal of Arts Management 11(3), Spring 2009: 16-29

$1 billion to renovate the Opera House

Both Marcus Westbury and Nick Pickard lead their blogs with strongly critical posts about recent reports that the NSW government is about to commit to spending $1 billion to renovate Joern Utzon’s iconic Sydney Opera House.

As Westbury writes, “this decision is one that is so staggeringly out of touch with the realities of cultural policy at the moment that it is scary.”

As usual, I find myself in agreement with much of what Marcus writes (more of that below). However, I think there is every reason to be far more optimistic about this decision than the initial outrage from the various unfunded parts of the arts community suggests. It may be that this decision will actually materially advance the cultural policy debate in Australia, by motivating the various forgotten voices in the arts community to finally coalesce into a coherent movement for change.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading