Menu Close

Arts companies should be able to tell governments to bugger off

Supposed self-censorship by the Queensland Theatre Company over a joke about Campbell Newman has raised few laughs. Dave Hunt/AAP

The joke was in, then out, then in again.

Over the last week a story reminding us of the delicate politics of arts funded by the government and the need for good governance leaked out of the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC). It quickly became major media story, but then not much of a story at all – all over a rather meagre joke about Premier Campbell Newman.

On the weekend the national media seemed delighted to report, while the local theatre sector seemed horrified to learn, that somehow the state’s flagship theatre company had — between its board and artistic director — chosen to cut a rather pale joke about the Queensland Premier from the Brisbane production of Jonathan Biggins’ play Australia Day:

DEPUTY MAYOR: Why not merge the Liberal and National Parties as they have over the border.
MAYOR: Two words: Campbell Newman.

The nervous decision to self-censor the line after complaints following a preview performance – and then to restore it for the opening night, has left the company, its board, and the state’s arts sector looking a little silly.

It also reveals something of the climate of the arts in Queensland at the moment and the particular issues that the QTC and others like it face as arts companies that are also government statutory authorities.

What happened?

The chain of events has taken a few days to emerge.

As the Brisbane Times reported on February 1:

QTC chairman Richard Fotheringham [a Bligh Government appointee and a one-time political theatre practitioner] said board members received an email and Twitter complaint about the play’s political references, along with several about its treatment of disability, but denied these resulted in overt pressure to change the script.

At some point Fotheringham discussed the matter with a Board member with the Artistic Director, Wesley Enoch, and with the Executive Director, Sue Donnelly. Fotheringham then left the matter in Enoch’s hands:

“Our agreed opinion was we are not going to censor anything, [but] let the creative team know about the complaints being made,” he said. “If they felt there was any merit in [them] and wanted to change the script, that was fine, but we weren’t going to interfere in any way.

Or, as The Courier-Mail reported Fotheringham saying, "they decided to tweak one line”.

Artistic Director Wesley Enoch is usually admirably open about the operations of the company – fresh air after his predecessor Michael Gow’s closed shop – and Enoch was quick to post links to the media coverage about the affair on his personal Facebook page.

But for some reason it wasn’t until this week that Enoch spoke to the media about the restoration of the Newman joke to the play. He discussed his decision to cut the line with the Brisbane Times, saying “people have to acknowledge that this is what an artistic director does: you stand up and sometimes you make mistakes”.

Yesterday in an interview with Spencer Howson on local ABC Radio yesterday Enoch clarified what occurred after Fotheringham had left the matter with him.

Enoch describes the decision to change the line as part of the usual kind of “testing” that goes on during the preview season:

The line wasn’t in the original script that was done in Sydney and Melbourne. It was a line that was added for this season. And during previews we were checking it out and going “Oh is this working? How is it working?”. And the number of complaints that came through were saying that that line created a kind of political prism through which you then watched the whole play.

Enoch takes “ultimate responsibility” for the removal and the restoration of the line. This doesn’t make it a good decision – particularly when it was bound to become public — but it is the involvement of the Board and possibly the government in any discussion around the joke that really seems to have exercised the local industry and the media.

When governments and boards get involved in art

The Queensland Government doesn’t seem to have been in any way responsible.

Campbell Newman told reporters he wasn’t bothered: “I was well and truly aware, and I thought it was quite funny”.

The role of the Board of the Queensland Theatre Company is more intriguing.

What should have Board members done about complaints directed to them or with their own criticisms of the work?

In most textbook and industry accounts, the relative roles of the board versus those of company artistic directors and CEOs are clear. In an ideal world the artistic director drives the artistic vision of the company.

There are good reasons for this. The corporate structures don’t exist as ends in themselves: they are there to serve the creative work, not the other way round.

The board might contribute to a discussion of the overall goals of the company, including its artistic ones, but it is best if artistic directors are left to form and implement their own vision.

The board is mostly there to ensure that the company doesn’t go off the rails. The idea that any board should interfere in a production at a line level — particularly out of party political sensitivities — is a disaster for the real and perceived independence of an arts company.

This is particularly so for QTC which has a government-appointed board and, like the State Theatre of South Australia (STSA) but unlike the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), is a statutory authority administered under its own act. That is, it is in the curious position of being part of government.

Forgetting the hand that feeds you

Government-funded arts require a sleight of hand – or mind – whereby all parties try to forget for the moment that artists are financially beholden to the state. Arts organisations have to proceed with as much courage as they can muster in their cultural and structural circumstances.

QTC, as part of government, faces even more unusual circumstances than most funded arts organisations. On one hand, like STSA, it benefits from being a statutory authority. Compared to most theatre companies, say La Boite in Brisbane or Belvoir in Sydney, it is easier to raise capital funds and maintain operational funding.

On the other hand, the government status places a terrible burden on the company.

The Board is appointed by the government executive of the day, and it is usually a mix of business folk, arts folk, and LNP and Labor hacks (depending on the colour of that government).

There is very little structural distance from government or from the interests of political parties. Worse, the Arts Minister signs off on strategic plan that the Board and its executive prepare.

This all means that the government can have a surprising level of input into the governance of the organisation.

While those arrangements are also true for state museums, state libraries and state performing arts centres, they are somewhat more problematic for state theatre companies.

The cultural goals of a library service tend to be broad and inclusive, but a theatre company has, or should have, more immediately political, polemical, and interrogative purposes.

If they aren’t getting up someone’s nose they are doing it wrong.

In the situation of a state theatre company, while the arts minister and the government appointed board have governance responsibilities – they should recuse themselves from any involvement in the artistic or even the executive functions of the organisation.

The Board of QTC needed to do the very opposite of what it did in this circumstance. It needed to say “bugger off” to whomever first suggested that the play be changed out of a concern for party political sensitivities – and then the Chair needed to avoid being drawn into any discussion with artistic director about the matter.

Any mention of the political dimensions of the work should have waited till after the production cycle of the play was complete.

State-owned arts in precarious times

The other question is whether it is appropriate for a theatre company to be state-owned at all. I cannot see this controversy ever having arisen at the STC and the MTC which, while government-funded, stand at a structural remove from it.

Re-structuring QTC as a company limited by guarantee (a structure used by most subvented theatre companies) might make its cycle of funding a little more precarious – but it might also free the company artistically.

At the moment many sectors of the arts in Queensland are fearful of the attitude of the current state government. The first decision of the Newman Government was to cut the Premier’s Literary Awards. More recently, 15 or so small and medium arts organisations have received big funding cuts or been wholly defunded.

While the Queenland Ballet and a number of the major performing arts organisations are enjoying funding increases, for most in the arts, these are gloomy days.

It is unclear how much any consequent paranoia about the Newman Government’s attitude towards the arts led to this act of self censorship by the Queensland Theatre Company. And it is unclear to what extent the perceived hostility of government might be influencing the decisions of other arts organisation in the state.

But it is bad sign that this is even an issue for discussion. Unfortunately it replays old narratives about Queensland cultural conservatism and repression.

In any case at the next QTC Board meeting the company needs to discuss its protocols around these issues. A government theatre company needs to have the fortitude to tell that very same government to “get stuffed”. That government should want a theatre company to act with exactly that kind of confidence and freedom.

Any board member who feels they can’t stomach a little political discomfort, or can’t leave the artistic staff to make a little political mischief, should resign.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,200 academics and researchers from 4,969 institutions.

Register now