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If we have learned anything thus far it is this: one man’s excellence is another man’s mediocrity. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

The Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding: a new live performance work

In live performance, when developing a new work and before getting to the final rehearsal period, previews and season, there is often a public showing. It’s an opportunity to get wide-ranging feedback, refine your research, adjust your process, and source new ideas and inspiration.

On August 5 in Melbourne, the arts sector’s new work, The Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding, was the equivalent of a public showing.

The work was established in response to Minister for the Arts George Brandis’ diversion of $104.7 million from the Australia Council to the new National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) earlier this year.

In Perth tomorrow there will be a standing-room only preview of this “new work”, followed by a national tour comprising Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide, hopefully Sydney, and a much-anticipated regional outing in Far North Queensland.

By all accounts the Melbourne event was an unusual affair for a senate inquiry, marked by an unfolding narrative, intermittent applause and a high rotation of characters that would please the most rabid exponents of theatresports.

I offer my best efforts from that day, below:

As is often the case between a “public showing” and the actual season, new and critical information has emerged in subsequent conversations and consultations within the sector. Some startling statistics may help to create a potentially compelling narrative.

The arts minister’s profiling of arts touring during Senate Estimates in May was flawed. In his words at the time:

[L]et us not forget that the major performing arts companies are the heart and soul of the performing arts sector in this country. They are the big employers of artists and arts workers. They are the people who undertake most of the touring, including the regional touring, as well as the international touring.

He continued that:

They [the AMPAG companies] are the people who provide the performances that the great audiences of Australia enjoy.

The second point is manifestly false, as was outlined previously on The Conversation.

And the first point, regarding touring?

The “small-to-medium and independent” arts sector accounts for 82% of Australia’s international touring and 73% of the country’s national and regional touring.

The small-to-medium and independent arts sector’s funding allocation from the Australia Council is around 30% of the organisation’s total budget, which means it punches way above its weight.

In 2013, Australia’s 145 so-called “key organisations” (a sizable chunk of the small-to-medium sector) received A$21 million from the Australia Council. That’s almost the same as just one of the 28 Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) companies, Opera Australia (OA), which received A$20.5 million that year.

OA’s 2014 Financial Report shows that it is carrying an accumulated deficit of almost A$10 million, as the group’s current liabilities exceeded current assets by A$9,662,802.

The company has an operating deficit of A$2 million. As was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in May, OA chief executive Craig Hassall considers this “an outcome we cannot sustain over time”.

You really have to feel for OA. First, it has to negotiate and explain this not-inconsiderable deficit. On top of that, its hasty public support for the NPEA puts it in a rather invidious position.

Any funding OA might receive from the NPEA – in addition to the ringfenced funding arrangements the AMPAG companies continue to enjoy through the Australia Council – could be construed as propping up an ailing arts company and perceived as contingent on the OA’s public support for the NPEA.

Let me be very clear: I’m sure that’s not the case in reality but it’s an industry perception that’s gathering momentum.

And as we know from all the business workshops artists have been encouraged to undertake over the last decade, in business perception is everything. Any funds OA might receive from the NPEA will now be subject to intense public and government scrutiny.

This may adversely affect the allegiance of the company’s sponsors and audiences, who might become wary of associating with an arts company that’s perceived to be politically partisan.

Another plotline

Another plotline that might be developed in this “new work”, The Senate Inquiry into Arts Funding, is the allocation of Australia Council funds to the classical music heritage sector.

In 2013, orchestras and opera account for more than 75% of the major organisations allocation. Individually, the major organisations have received [sustained and stinging criticism](sustained and stinging criticism over their silence to the minister’s cuts but one wonders how the dance and state theatre companies feel when the funding discrepancy in their pool is so inequitable.

Is it actually worth the bad blood? Will the rest finally join Circus Oz, the State Theatre Company of SA and Black Swan in voicing concern?

Banned, censored or self-censored, the major organisations’ deafening silence simply adds to that of the Australia Council, which has not asserted its independence; nor has it advocated for the arts and artists in the precise circumstances in which such advocacy is critical.

Had ABC management taken this path the national broadcaster would have been reduced to a radio service long ago. The Australia Council and the major organisations are fast losing their relevance as principal players in Australia’s cultural narrative.

They are now officially characters in the tired “old work”: still living at home, too scared to speak up, unable to save enough for their first trip overseas, waiting for their parents’ approval or jockeying for Daddy’s patronage.

Fortunately, a whole new cast of protagonists is rising up to create a wholly new narrative in which equity, integrity, distributed authority, artistic and intellectual rigour are placed centre-stage.

The new cast will be revealed during the national tour of this new work – and the new work’s “excellence” will be partly judged on that cast’s performance. Although, if we have learned anything thus far in this story-in-the-making it is this: one man’s excellence is another man’s mediocrity.

The strangest plot twist of all may yet be the manifestation of any Coalition politician whose ghostly absence in Melbourne hung like Banquo over the proceedings. Could Australia’s latest new work simply be a rehashing of Shakespeare? Sounds like a bell already rung.

Roll up. Roll up.

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