Circa’s Yaron Lifschitz – the big arts companies protect no-one by protecting the few

Yaron Lifschitz, CEO of the Brisbane based circus gave a speech in Sydney at a Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast last week that challenged the major 28 arts companies (who include the major theatre, ballet and opera companies) that make up the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) to demand their funding pool be opened to anyone who can compete on merit.

“What have you got to lose? Either you are strong and supple and good enough to survive, in which case you have the chance to prosper – to argue for more. Or you aren’t, in which case hiding under the covers of your historical entitlement is just cowardly. Come on out here. Into the real world. With us,” he said.

On Monday, Jon Irving, the chair of the AMPAG, responded to his criticisms in Daily Review, arguing that “the stability created in the MPA framework should not be confused with complacency”.

Today, Lifschitz responds to Irving and writes that there’s no point in mud-slinging; all in the arts need to work together to ensure their health.

“Let those that are vital and alive, grow and prosper. Let those that are not, gracefully exit and make way for the new. Together, as a sector, we have an obligation to make this happen, ” Yaron Lifschitz writes below.

 ***

Dear Mr Irving,

I wrote five complete replies to your response to my Currency House speech. It was too easy. Gags flowed quickly, poetic phrases twirled effortlessly on my tongue. Dusty castles, trust fund kids being told to get jobs, dinosaurs. There were dozens of cheap shots and I fired most of them.

Then I went for a walk through the streets of Mumbai. I saw men and dogs writhe in agony on the sidewalk, unattended by the hordes that passed by. I smelt and saw and touched an unbelievable diversity; tragedy and humanity jumbled together to make a whole, absurdly vibrant world.

And I realised it is just too important. What we do is too necessary, too endangered, and too fragile for it to be caught in the crossfire. You and I, we both speak from a position of great privilege. We have jobs. We work in culture. We are educated and in roles where people will listen to us. It is simply too important to waste our time slinging mud at each other.

Your arguments do not stack up — I never called for the structures to be torn down and what is working is clearly up for a discussion you never present to us. But that is unimportant. My dislike of your embedded privilege and the way many of the executive staff you represent ride up the front of the plane is real. But it isn’t important.

What is important is our responsibility. This is a challenging time for our civilisation. We — you and I and our cohort — are the protectors and nurturers of culture. It is our job to ensure that this fragile light is guarded against rising levels of inhumanity and environmental degradation. To do that we need to be open-minded and utterly clear-eyed.

Any new and all existing funding must not be used to entrench advantage – it must be allocated on merit to those who can use it to produce the greatest value.

My speech called for opening the doors to the MPA so that their funding would be contestable. It has garnered almost unanimous assent. The only naysayers have come from the sector that receives the funding, and they would say that.

I contend that we are protecting no one by protecting the few. I believe that we need our strength and our creativity and our resilience now more than ever. And that these things are not bred in chateaus of indulgence, rather they are hardened by contact with others, they achieve their destiny through struggle and challenge and having to prove their mettle.

I don’t want the majors to open up to destroy them but to make them stronger. Let those that are vital and alive, grow and prosper. And let those that are not, gracefully exit and make way for the new. Together, as a sector, we have an obligation to make this happen.

We all want more funding for the arts. We know they are systemically and criminally underfunded in Australia. But any new and all existing funding must not be used to entrench advantage – it must be allocated on merit to those who can use it to produce the greatest value.

I want to thank some artists who brought it to my attention that I need to acknowledge that Circa enjoys a position of privilege and there are a great many underfunded and unfunded small companies and independent artists who do it much tougher than us. Our position entitles us to nothing except the responsibility to cause good and champion progress while continuing to fight for our own survival.

All of this means we all need to challenge the received wisdoms and encourage the policy leavers into more flexible settings even as we lobby hard for a greatly increased flow of funds into the arts sector.

This is our duty — to ensure we help create the richest cultural sector possible. We will be judged by how much better the world is that we leave behind. It is all of our duty. Yours. Mine. Our sector, the artists; all of us are complicit and responsible. And this requires, no, it demands, regeneration and meritocracy. I urge you to join me, for these times require it. It is that important. —Yaron Lifschitz

Main image: A scene from Circa’s Il Ritorno. Photo by Chris Herzfeld.

7 responses to “Circa’s Yaron Lifschitz – the big arts companies protect no-one by protecting the few

  1. “Let those that are vital and alive, grow and prosper.” Straight from the Neo-con playbook. Let the market decide who is to survive a who not. Never mind that the market can and will kick a vital prop from under the whole ecology so none survive. And what is or is not vital? We won’t know until it’s gone. The graceful exit of one to “make way for the new” may signal the end of any new other than 4 people in a room, watched by no-one else.
    Even worse, we are to let the market decide which art is “vital and alive”. Andrew Bolt also sings from this song sheet.

    1. Rob ” four people in a room, watched by no- one else” is not exactly ( free) ‘market success’.
      And ” vital ” in this context references, vital spirit.

    2. Hi Rob,

      Sorry for any confusion. My point is absolutely not in favour of a neoliberal the market decides approach. Rather I’m arguing that having 28 companies isolated from the rest of the sector is limiting their capacity for regeneration and evolution and is preventing others from having the opportunity to compete for public funds. I acknowledge the devil is in the detail- who decides, what merit is, etc. But even though there are risks attached surely opening a window and letting the fresh air of fairness and opportunity in is ultimately a good thing?

      1. Hi Yaron
        You speak of ” the rest of the sector “, truth is right from it’s beginning in 1974, it was never clear what the funding to the rest of the sector was for. Was it for ‘excellence’ , was it for ‘ inclusion’ was it for ‘fairness ‘, was it for ‘ experimental’ things that intrinscaly have very little popular appeal etc.
        That profound and ongoing, confusion about :ends and means, is the reason for the wall.

        1. thats fascinating. I never really thought about what happened at the inception of the system. It was before my time in the arts and I wasn’t in the country. So it’s great to learn about the this. The long arc of policy and power. I’m not sure it bends towards justice and Martin Luther King says. I think flaws and inequalities tend to grow over time.

          1. Hi Yaron
            The SMH editorialised on the Australia Council and Policy incoherence, back in late 1975 and (apart from ‘names and the dollar figures) the SMH could run virtually the same editorial today.
            BTW historical research runs in my family . If your interested in more , the Daily Review can pass on my email to you.

  2. “Let those that are vital and alive, grow and prosper.” Amen, brother. The gods bless you for sayin’ it.

    Vital and alive.

    In our hearts and the bodies they pump blood and life through we know exactly what that means, if we’re not asleep, complacent, anaesthetised, or dead. For any artist or company to produce anything less (or for an audience to accept it) is much more than a breech of trust, or an abdication of responsibility, it’s a denial of life. Slow comfortable cultural euthanasia.

    It is also literal and figurative sacrilege. Let’s stop pretending this is an abstract debate. This is sacred (or should be). This is why we’re here. The gods demand it (yeah, the gods. maybe in passing, lets see secular humanism for the slow-acting poison it is). Without it we are nothing (except perhaps machines for generating statistics).

    If it’s not vital and alive, it ain’t art and neither are we. :)

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