I have a friend who has a joke that I love: “If our Agriculture Ministers knew as little about producing food as our Arts Ministers know about producing art, then we’d all starve to death”.
I was thinking of this last week when the Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley took a massive, unexpected swipe at Opera Australia in this very publication. It was a good old fashioned haymaker, a ripping tirade of egalitarian rhetoric that aside from anything else, was factually wrong.
“They need to be here more — we fund them for two seasons, not one,” Foley told Daily Review.
Well they are. They’re here three times this year. They’re here now with My Fair Lady, not traditional opera granted, but a blockbuster that is selling out, one presumably presented by the company to bankroll more challenging productions at a later date. Something that this year Foley isn’t pleased about.
“They have progressively constricted their appearances in Victoria and have gone from (producing) original, commissioned work to increasingly (staging) the big musical blockbusters.”
Like they did last year with Wagner’s Ring cycle which Foley called:
“…an epic and ambitious undertaking… another example of our strength as a leading creative and cultural city.”
I’m not sure if it was any good because all I can find out about it on the Creative Victoria website is that it sold out and almost half of those who attended were from interstate or overseas. Those international guests stayed an average of 11.5 nights, while interstate visitors stayed 9.2 nights and they spent an average of $238 each day during their stay. Good. I guess.
But what was most puzzling about Foley’s foot stomp was his implying that Opera Australia was fundamentally being elitist, citing its unwillingness to develop new audiences and pursue new work as proof.
“Where is the engagement with the new audiences and with new Australian content?”
Foley’s comments follow on from last month’s announcement by the Australia Council of its survey into our national attitudes towards art. It revealed that Australians are markedly less inclined to support public funding for the arts today than they were when they were last surveyed eight years ago. The main reason for the shift seems to have been that the respondents felt that art was “elitist”.
When a survey like the Australia Council’s comes up with a response like this it is easy to seize upon that word elite as a type of “aha” or “I told you so” moment. In reality it isn’t nearly that simple. Before one draws any conclusions, it is important to first determine what it is that people actually mean when they use the term “elitist”.
Australians hate art that they don’t get, art that pushes them out of their comfort zone, that isn’t intellectually and conceptually egalitarian.
We have an interesting relationship with the word elite in this country in that it can appear derogatory or complimentary depending on the context. In last week’s football commentary for example, it was repeatedly used as a descriptor to eulogise the skills of certain players. In the case of this survey, I’m guessing people aren’t disinclined to fund the arts because they find Australia’s artists too skillful.
Without having the opportunity of meeting every one of the 7,500 respondents and drilling down to discover if their views are based on a personal experience of ‘an art’ or a perception, the meaning of the word in this context remains entirely abstract. But because I have nothing better to do, I thought I’d do a little drilling of my own.
So could it be that Australians find art elitist because it challenges them conceptually and intellectually? In my opinion that would be a no. Australians made it clear decades ago that they don’t like work that makes them have to think. They like their art to be neatly packaged and relatively nice. Australians hate art that they don’t get, art that pushes them out of their comfort zone, that isn’t intellectually and conceptually egalitarian. Art that doesn’t look or behave like art.
Over time our artists have acceded to their audience’s wish not to be too clever and the result is that most of the art we create in this country, with some notable exceptions, is what I would call flabby populism. Often pithy, usually guileless, typically overblown work that is created, it would seem, for the express purpose of being liked. Art that never talks down to its audience but always talks up, forever explaining itself so as not to appear too smart and often apologising for itself if it accidently is.
Public money in this country is counterintuitively something that you don’t take risks with.
This niceness is of course mirrored in the risk averse nature of public funding. No arts bureaucrat in their right mind would dare grant money to an artist intent on taking a genuine creative risk because, as has happened on the rare occasion those risks have been taken and the unpleasant or challenging artwork has caught the eye of someone with a loud voice, the arts minister in question has had to board themselves up inside Parliament House to protect themselves from the lynch mob. Public money in this country is somehow counterintuitively something that you don’t take risks with.
A great example of how public money was perceived to have been wasted and how that particular brand of public outrage can hold art hostage followed James Mollison’s purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles in 1973 for the fledgling Australian National Gallery. A public backlash over a picture that “wasn’t art” so vehement that it almost derailed the purchase and very nearly cost Mollison his job. Today we can only thank him and the late Gough Whitlam, who was accused of ineptitude for his part in the purchase, for holding their nerve and hanging on to what is widely recognised as one of the greatest paintings of the second half of the 20th century. But Australians have long memories when it comes to wasting public money on art and Mollison, a champion of Australian contemporary art and one of our greatest public art figures, the man who with passion, insight and a brilliant eye built one of the world’s great collections may well be remembered simply as the bloke who bought “that painting”. The one that even today when you sit in front of it people walk past, shake their heads and either say “my granddaughter could do that” or “How much? What a waste of public money”.
Back in the early ’70s those involved with the purchase knew it was a risk and they knew there would be a backlash, but sadly these days most arts bureaucrats wouldn’t even know what taking a creative risk meant and sadly many of our artists, if they ever knew, seem to have forgotten.
So if it isn’t that it’s too challenging could it be location? That is a distinct possibility. Most of the art and performance venues in Australia are located within the inner urban cultural precincts of our capital cities. This is nothing new. What is new is that over the last eight ears — coincidentally the length of time between the two surveys — there has been a sharp decline in funding to the small, medium and independent arts sector. The very real effect of this is not felt in our arts precincts but in the suburbs and the regions, areas that were serviced by those small to medium companies and independent artists that no longer exist.
Despite the appropriation and attempted application of the terms and practices of big business to the arts by people like Martin Foley, the arts are not a manufacturing industry.
Regional touring that was once undertaken by the major companies the Melbourne Theatre Company, Opera Australia and the like is also rare these days because, whilst they have had their base funding guaranteed, there is no onus on them to travel “off campus” and they couldn’t afford to under the current funding arrangements anyway. And funds for regional touring for small to mediums, if there were any, have been slashed. So in some ways, the policy of government has contributed to a geographic elitism but let’s be honest, there aren’t enough votes in regional Australia that are going to swing on less art to worry the policy makers.
That lack of electoral concern could explain why when someone recently proposed a biennale of Australian visual art for one of Victoria’s major regional centres, the head of Creative Victoria dismissed the idea of supporting it outright. And why the beautiful Castlemaine Art Gallery, for so long a cultural focus of that town and home to an impressive, unique collection, has been forced to close its doors for want of frankly not much.
To my mind that only leaves the question of cost. I love both theatre and opera. It’s more than my job, more than an occasional distraction. It is my life. But I can’t afford to go unless I have a friend who can offer me freebies and nor can the majority of my colleagues. An adult ticket to a performance of Opera Australia ranges in price from $89 to $189 which is without question elitist. There are a limited number of tickets available from $59 if you sit a mile away but still, it ‘aint cheap.
Similarly if you want to go to the Sydney Opera House and see a play by the Sydney Theatre Company it will cost you between $79 and $102. Throw in parking, a glass of wine each and a box of Maltesers and you could conceivably have a $500 night for two . That, to my mind, would make a regular night at the theatre an unrealistic option for most Australians, the sort of night that only the “elite” could afford.
So why does it cost so much to go? The answer of course is simple. Funding, or rather, a lack of it and the apparent unwillingness on the part of governments and I guess the public to accept what it costs to make, costs that don’t decrease with time. Despite the appropriation and attempted application of the terms and practices of big business to the arts by people like Martin Foley, we are not a manufacturing industry. We cannot amortise our costs over years long product life cycles, we cannot dump excess production on foreign markets, we cannot use lower grade materials to make our products more competitive, nor can we stockpile our work until the market recovers. Opera Australia can’t go to the banks to borrow money to invest in new work and unlike the situation in the US, the banks wouldn’t lend them the money anyway because in Australia art is considered too risky to invest in.
I’m sure Opera Australia isn’t thrilled that its audience is potentially going to “die in their seats” as Foley rather tactlessly said in his statement. And I’m sure that if Opera Australia could afford to commission new work it would, but what Foley clearly doesn’t even get close to understanding is the cost of developing a new work. For an opera it would easily be in the region of $500,000. Money I’m pretty sure the company will only find putting on something that makes them a crust like My Fair Lady. And what’s left over will be used to cover the losses that new work will make, because let’s not forget that new work means risk, and risk is not something they are funded for. Unlike Britain where the funding balance is 30/30/30 — 30 % funding, 30 % sponsorship, 30 % sales and considered risk is possible, here in the case of say, the Melbourne Theatre Company — it is 10% funding, 25% donation 65% sales and yes, we pay for it at the box office.
So Minister Foley, when you say you are “not an insubstantial funder” of Opera Australia it turns out you’re right. You’re a substantial cost.
Eight years ago Opera Australia received at total of $22.1 million in subsidy a year, this year it received $25.4 million. An increase of 10 percent in eight years from a low base. Most of that increase has come from the Federal Government. NSW investment as part of that overall subsidy has gone from $3.1 million eight years ago to $3.4 million and Victoria’s has gone from $1million to $1.1 million.
Despite the Victorian Creative Industries’ minister dropping a cool $107 million of the state’s budget surplus somewhere. Those figures become more interesting when you look at where Foley’s $1.1 million goes.
Eight years ago the OA paid the state owned Arts Centre, Melbourne around $900,000 in rent. By 2014 that had grown to $1.2 million and last year it topped out at $1.8 million. So Minister, when you say you are “not an insubstantial funder” of Opera Australia it turns out you’re right. You’re a substantial cost.
They are funded to be elite. And woe betide the artistic director of any of our Major Performing Arts organisations that sends its company to the wall taking risks. Let’s not forget we are talking about “public money” here.
But perhaps the most galling thing about survey results like this one and the comments of arts ministers like Foley is that it implies that the elite in art comes from the artists themselves — and that could not be further from the truth.
None of us want to perform or create for the same group of people over and over again. None of us want it to be exclusionist. We want people to see it, all people. We know what the problem is and we know that it is not a problem that will be solved by sociological studies into peoples’ viewing habits, innovative use of social media marketing tools or policy aimed at capacity building, whatever that is. It will be solved by making it more affordable and that means money. And let’s not forget that if you give more money to Opera Australia it doesn’t go into the singers’ pockets. They get paid the same. regardless of how old the audience is or what they’re wearing. It goes to the public. Potentially all the public. Not just the elite.
The National Theatre of Great Britain understood this in the thick of New Labour’s now discredited “third way” creative industries funding model. The same discredited model Martin Foley and all our arts ministers have grabbed a hold of, that same policy that almost buried theatre in the home of theatre, the one Foley wants us to believe was a miraculous, self-authored virgin birth divinely conceived by the sweaty brows of the hard working staff in his office.
In 2003 The National decided that if they were to truly be a “national theatre” they had to be priced within the reach of all Britains and so began a relationship with Travelex to specifically offer low cost tickets. Today that relationship continues and at 50% of all National Theatre shows 50% of tickets are 15 pounds. And it’s full. The Globe has done the same with groundling tickets at five pounds. Full. And in the standing room only theatrical mosh pit at the home of Shakespeare the audience is a diverse mix of young and old, the rich and the less well off, black, white and all in between. Art doing all the things our policy makers want it to do, creating social cohesion, developing new audiences, informing and entertaining. That is how art works.
Of course, the union of business and art requires leadership. The philanthropic and sponsorship culture in Australia is not as entrenched as it is in the UK. Business in this country often needs a push to see the benefit of engaging in the way that Lloyd Dorman the chairman of Travelex did. Here it’s a bit more follow-the- leader in that regard, and often the leader is Government.
So Mr Foley and friends, instead of shooting from the hip with untethered, spurious rhetoric, stop misleading the public and instead of attacking the artists. why don’t one of you get off your arse and show a bit of leadership?
If you really are concerned with art becoming elite, make a commitment to helping Opera Australia and our other MPAs become what they should be. Companies for all Australians. Start selling the arts to business if you don’t want to stump up the cash yourself.
Make a commitment to something instead of squealing like spoilt children who want more lollies but don’t want to open their money box to pay for it. If you did then perhaps in eight years time the results of the Australia Council survey might be markedly different.
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