The Australia Council turns its back on contemporary culture … again

The Australia Council has just released a major new piece of audience research. Entitled More than bums on seats: Australian participation in the arts, it’s a weighty and significant contribution to the field which features statistically significant market research surveys of more than 3,000 ordinary Australians.

Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the typical prejudices and problems of so much Australia Council policy and research.

Most notable is the definition of “the arts.” Perhaps for reasons of funding, or perhaps for political reasons, the research has defined “the arts” in a very narrow sense, essentially confining “the arts” to music, writing, visual arts and performance. Film and television – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the most popularly consumed form of culture – are ignored, and, astonishingly, so are the digital arts and cultural expressions, like gaming.

It’s hard to believe that after all the debate and criticism of  the Australia Council’s recent history by people like Keith Gallasch, Marcus Westbury and myself, when it comes to the most significant piece of audience research by the agency in a decade, vast swathes of Australia cultural participation are simply ignored. But it’s happened. Again.

Here is the relevant paragraph, on page 13 of the report:

The focus of the study is upon the art forms that are supported by the Australia Council (visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theatre, literature). The definitions were agreed after a thorough consultation within the Australia Council and with key stakeholders.

So there you go: “the arts” are what the Australia Council funds. Unfortunately, this not only leaves out the most important cultural expression of the 20th century (cinema), it also ignores many of the important emerging cultural expressions of the 21st (gaming and digital culture). Sure, there are some cursory reference to “digital/video art” in the visual arts section, but you won’t actually find the words “games” or “gaming” anywhere in the report. Gobsmacking.

Moreover, it seems like a step back from recent well-intentioned efforts by OzCo to address digital culture. After looking at today’s  effort, one has to ask why the Australia Council even bothers with its “Arts Content for the Digital Era” strategy if it’s not going to bother to measure the most important forms of interactive digital culture.

It’s not that this isn’t a highly informative piece of research. Like the last such exercise, the Saatchi research report from the early 2000s, More than bums on seats represents important new data on the state of cultural participation in this country. I”ll be delving into it in more detail this week.

Still, it’s another piece of evidence of the ostrich-headed policy direction of the Australia Council under Kathy Keele. More than bums on seats is rather less than the full picture of cultural participation. What a shame.

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.

Ralph Meyers gets the Belvoir gig


Ralph Meyers and Neil Armfield (source: Sydney Morning Herald).

Score 1 for the younger generation, but 0 for gender diversity: designer Ralph Meyers has been appointed as the new Artistic Director of  Sydney’s Company B Belvoir contemporary theatre company.

The appointment marks a trend gathering pace in Australian and international theatre, as designers come to new prominence in leadership roles. In Melbourne, for example, designer Anna Tregloan has gone from strength to strength as a theatrical producer and director, while in Europe designer Romeo Castelluci’s visually sumptuous interpretations of Dante are making him the darling of the international festival circuit.

On the other hand, the appointment will do nothing to appease those, like Brisbane theatre blogger Katherine Lyall-Watson, who are calling for far more gender equity on and behind Australian stages.

Meyers describes his role as akin to a festival director, which I find interesting:

”As an artistic associate at Belvoir, I have come to realise that the role of artistic director is akin to running a festival. You assemble teams, curate programs and inspire artists.”

Elsewhere: Read the official announcement from company B Belvoir.

Peter Craven is wrong, dead wrong, about Australian theatre. Again.

The grand old man of Australian criticism, Fairfax’s bombastic and often self-indulgent Peter Craven, is at it again today with some typically inflammatory comments in today’s National Times about Australian theatre.

Half the trouble with Australian theatre is caused by talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays. Often they cut their teeth with student theatre and have been too narcissistic to grow up. It’s much easier to treat student actors like puppets and to improvise a text than it is to treat Judy Davis like that. Most cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings with classics make Joanna Murray-Smith look like Racine on a good day. But for every production such as Osage, there’s hand-me-down cardboard rubbish of the traditional kind.

Oh dear. Craven is one of the best known critics in Australia. He’s also one of the most reactionary.

There are so many non-sequiturs and errors of fact in even this one paragraph it’s tough to know where to start. Firstly, let’s give Craven the professional courtesy of acknowledging that he has picked up on a real trend in Australian theatre, away from realism and towards a bolder, artier, more hybrid and more design-intensive style.

But that’s hardly news. “Director’s theatre” is a serious movement in Europe and has  been going on for decades in Germany, as the many obituaries for Pina Bausch record.  It’s not surprising the style has spread to Australia, given the many tours by Bausch and other European directors and companies here, largely through the auspices of the various capital city arts festivals. In fact, about the only people who wouldn’t know about it are those who only go to see the state theatre companies. Peter Craven appears to be amongst this under-educated minority.

As for attacking “talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays” – this is not only raking over the coals of Craven’s obsession with the (finally receding) culture wars, it’s also frankly wrong. I would be very surprised if any talented directors thought they were “above realism”, but if they were – so what? Realism is a style, often a very stale style, and to claim one style of staging and producing theatre should be privileged above others is the sort of claim a critic makes when he realises he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. I wonder if Craven would recognise truly authentically staged Attic theatre as “realism”? I hope not, because it wasn’t.  As for the crack about student theatre and actors as puppets, it reads like the remarks of someone who hasn’t seen  any fringe, student or independent theatre in a long time.

Peter Craven: wrong again, but no less eloquent as he rages against the dying of his once-impressive critical abilities.

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

Australia Council Theatre Board triennial funding decisions

Below is an article I wrote for yesterday’s Crikey:

The Australia Council, an organisation in almost constant flux, has again spun the bingo barrel and pulled out a new round of surprises in its funding announcements — this time in the theatre sector. Eleven new companies have been granted triennial funding by the Council’s Theatre Board, while the same number have had their funding axed.

The announcement continues a recent history of wrenching change in the Commonwealth’s arts funding agency. In 2005, then-CEO Jeniffer Bott pushed through an organisation-wide restructure (labelled a “refocussing”) that led to two of the Australia Council’s funding boards being abolished. Out went specific Boards to support new media and digital arts, and community arts. In came some impressive-sounding “community partnerships” and a special department called the “Inter-Arts Agency”.

As respected ANU academic Jennifer Craik has argued in her book Re-Visioning Arts and Cultural Policy the Bott restructure was not really about addressing the major issues facing the Australia Council and its client organisations. Instead, “the restructure was more about bureau politics than policy reform.”

The current upheaval dates back to 2006, when the Australia Council’s Theatre Board announced a sweeping new policy reform called “Make It New”. “Make It New” was a comprehensive look at the Theatre Board’s funding arrangements in an environment where much of the most exciting work was being made by companies who couldn’t get a look in amongst the Board’s established clients. Theatre Board Director John Baylis acknowledged this problem, and sought to reshape the Board’s funding arrangements towards “contemporary performance” and to allow room for new organisations — “artistic explorers” in the Theatre Board’s jargon — to access three-year funding agreements.

Unfortunately, you have to throw out some babies when you change the bathwater. Take Polyglot Puppet Theatre, for instance, which was de-funded despite an apparently successful recent track record. Or Brisbane’s second theatre company, La Boite, which appears to have been punished for some safe programming in recent years. La Boite may or may not be artistically innovative, but it certainly performs a lot of contemporary Australian drama.

The Theatre Board’s John Baylis makes a good point when he argues that space needs to be made for fresh talent to enter the system. But in terms of the Australia Council’s overall operations, which remain dramatically skewed towards the support of the 29 so-called “major” performing arts organisations, there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the “Make It New” crusade. After all, how “contemporary” are the orchestras or opera companies?

The Major Performing Arts Board hasn’t kicked anyone off for decades and only allows new members on “by invitation.” Apparently, that doesn’t matter — the Major Performing Arts Board is a separate fiefdom of the Australia Council, where making it old is still quite acceptable.

(Not) making money out of independent theatre

Apologies are due to Elaine and any other readers of my blog: I’ve been rather silent here of late, owing to some very hard work I’ve been doing producing a play in Melbourne.

The play is called “Venus in Furs” and is a new adaptation by my friend Neal Harvey of the 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – a minor classic of fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian literature that also gave the world the term “masochism.”

You can read some reviews of the play in The Age, The Australian and a very fine engagement with the piece at Vibewire.

The reason I mention this involvement is that, rather in the style of Edward Epstein, The Hollywood Economist, I’m going to unpick the economics of this independent production on this blog. In the process, it will hopefully illustrate some of the themes of my upcoming confirmation draft concerning the structure of the cultural industries, and the implications (if any) for cultural policy.

I haven’t been totally slacking off on my confirmation, by the way – I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the daytim, and later this afternoon I’m going to post a series of reviews of monographs I’ve recently read – Bruno S. Frey’s Arts and Economics, David Hesmondhalgh’s The Cultural Industries and Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture.

But for for those of you interested in the micro-economics of independent theatre, read on …

Continue reading