Was 2016 the calm before the storm in the arts?

We may well look back on 2016 with affection. It might come to represent a kinder, gentler time when the only disturbance to Australia’s relatively well-functioning arts and entertainment industry was the sound of bickering among its practitioners.

Come 2017 and the Trump presidency, we have no idea how the decisions of the star of The Apprentice will affect global events. But from what we’ve seen from his election win so far, we can expect – at the very least – a lurch to the right in Australia and a growing intolerance of those who don’t subscribe to the same values.

Look out the arts, then. In Australia the arts have always represented an “affordable luxury’ to borrow a phrase from a mid-level car brand. The arts are kind of nice to have around when celebrities like Nicole and Hugh are winning us plaudits overseas, but when artists start to get whiny, self-reflective and critical of our way of life, then it’s time for the right-wing media to lead the charge demanding a cut to the funding of the the lazy arts wankers who live off the public teat.

Those who work in the arts may even come to look back on former arts minister, Senator George Brandis’ attempts in 2015 to disrupt the arts funding in favour of a less “elitist” and more more populist model as modest interventions: at least be believed the arts were deserving of tax-payer support.

Post-Trump, post-Brexit who’s still game to bet the unthinkable won’t happen?

But while we await the consequences of the actions of the American Disruptor-in-Chief, we can look back at at 2016 and see the impact of Brandis’ ham-fisted attacks on the Australia Council’s funding as a trigger for the simmering resentment between the arts haves and have-nots.

While some of the smaller arts companies defunded by the Australia Council have closed this year and others are scrambling for new sources of income, the damage runs deeper. The artists who work with small and medium companies have been effectively set against those who work in the 28 major performing arts companies whose funding was not touched. Not only that, but Brandis’ National Opera Review released its report this year recommended yet more public funds ($24.1 million) be given to Opera Australia, State Opera of South Australia, West Australian Opera and Opera Queensland.

No wonder that comments by Yaron Lifschitz, the CEO of the small, but highly successful theatre/circus company Circa struck such a chord last month. Writing in Daily Review he argued that a “culture of risk” drove innovation and the big 28 companies were complacent because of their “historical entitlement”.

“I challenge the major companies to demand their funding pool is opened to anyone who can compete on merit,” he wrote.

That seems unlikely to ever happen, but post-Trump, post-Brexit who’s still game to bet the unthinkable won’t happen?

Certainly the replacement Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has placated many in the arts who were outraged by his predecessor’s actions. Fifield’s yet to be announced move to scrap Brandis’ signature ‘Catalyst’ funding program (most likely to be revealed in next May’s budget) aside, he has made an effort to listen to an industry that even in soft year sold over $1.4 billion in tickets in 2016 – and that’s just in live performance and does not include income earned in screen, visual art and design and the publishing industries.

Sadly, few senior arts leaders have exhibited much leadership in the past two years.

The Victorian government claims that those “creative industries” in its state alone generate $22 billion in income and employ 220,000 people. The size of those industries is a reminder to those who work in them that theirs are powerful ones and that their leaders should have the guts to show leadership when their survival is under fire.

Sadly, few senior arts leaders have exhibited much leadership in the past two years. Many (but not all) of those who lead the 28 major arts companies have been missing in action lately.

The jury is out on whether their lack of action is because of the fearful and flabby boards that control (some of) them.

Arts boards in this country are rarely scrutinised, nor are their members expected to account for the decisions they make behind closed doors. These are decisions that can have profound and long term effects, not only on the company they govern, but on the entire sector in which they operate.

In the coming year(s) our arts leaders, be they the artistic directors, general managers or board members will be tested as the culture wars inevitably heat up.

One of the biggest arts stories of the year was the Sydney Theatre Company’s ejection of it artistic director, the British director Jonathan Church, who’d only been in the job a few months. Although the real situation has been shrouded in spin, it was a poorly handled action by the STC board. One wonders how many other talented arts leaders will be loathe to put their hands up for top jobs in our arts companies after observing Church’s treatment.

In the coming year(s) our arts leaders, be they the artistic directors, general managers or board members will be tested as the culture wars inevitably heat up as the conservatives becomes emboldened .

Which leads us to note another disruption in a branch of the creative industries – the media who cover them. As news organisations as big as the global brands of The New York Times and The Guardian have been reminding their readers recently, now more than ever is the time for independent voices to be heard. Those mastheads have been appealing for readers to help them fund the journalism that shrinking advertising revenues can no longer support.

Daily Review‘s tiny operation of two full-timers and a team of contributors is no different. If you care about independent arts journalism when few others do, consider supporting us by contributing to our Support program because, as Helen Razer noted: “It comes down to this: if you don’t fund arts writing in Australia of the present, nobody will.”

Thank you reading us this year — and happy holidays.

Main image: promotional image for Circa’s Il Ritorno. Image by Damien Bredberg

3 responses to “Was 2016 the calm before the storm in the arts?

  1. Nicely written Ray and congrats on a good year! I’m hoping that the Right might meet some significant opposition … Everyone seemed to expect the far right to win in Austria for example, to such as an extent that most reports were headed, ‘Far right loses election’, ignoring the fact that the victor began as a Green Party candidate … I’m not flush with cash at the moment, anything I can spare goes to human rights groups, but the Daily Review and The Guardian will get their turn. I’m nearly back! MERRY XMAS!

  2. I suspect, Ray, that the storm will stir more than just the arts, especially if Senator Bernardi sets course for independent conservatism.

    Best to Daily Review, staff and readers for Christmas and the New Year.

    Vincent O’Donnell
    Producer/presenter Arts Alive

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