Melbourne Festival this week revealed its 2017 program, with one of the most significant works of live performance of the decade at its centre.
Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is a 24-hour journey through popular music and the history of America, from 1776 through to today, performed by the legendary New York cabaret artist. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated work premiered in its full form last year and was described by New York Times critic Wesley Morris as “one of the great experiences of my life”.
There are just 850 tickets available to the show, which is being performed in four six-hour chapters, rather than the 24 hour marathon experienced by New York audiences. But how many Australians will be able to have this “great experience”?
Several fans of Mac’s work have expressed disappointment on social media that they won’t be able to attend given that standard tickets are priced at $699, with $199 for under 30s. The Festival also says it will be making tickets available for unwaged and disadvantaged people closer to the October event, and is working with Mac on the details of the ticketing. But access programs like that are notoriously difficult to execute.
No doubt it will be an expensive work to produce — it involves more than 100 performers — but Melbourne Festival receives a healthy amount of funding (just over $25 million from the Victorian Government alone in 2017-2020), and, like all major city arts festivals, has a remit to enrich the cultural lives of the city’s citizens. In addition, the Festival has set up a special philanthropic fund specifically for the performance.
There are many, many more affordable events throughout the Festival — and Mac is doing two other more reasonably priced performances as part of the festival — but given that the Festival’s Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway said this one event “might be the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in,” it will inevitably be the hook from which the whole Festival hangs, and Melbourne’s cultural heart during October.
It’s one of those events that will almost certainly stand as one of the great festival moments across Australia. Holloway was Artistic Director for the last one: The Giants at Perth Festival. But The Giants was free and seen by more than one million people.
Of course, Melbourne Festival’s audience is significantly broader than the 850 people who will see Mac’s performance, but its work does tend to attract a particular part of our society; as just one example, a staggering 81% of its audience in 2016 had a bachelor degree, and a 50% had a post-graduate degree. Only 10% of the general population has post-grad degrees.
Of course, these kinds of statistics are hardly unique to Melbourne Festival. Plenty of arts companies with big subsidies present very expensive work that prices out audience members, and they operate in ways that can feel exclusionary. Many work very hard to provide access to those who might be unable to afford top-price tickets, but the rhetoric about Australia’s major arts companies being for all Australians is sometimes pretty hollow.
But A 24-Decade History of Popular Music stands out for a few reasons.
Firstly, it’s built entirely around the popular music that’s been “of the people” for the 24 decades the show covers. It’s music created by and championed by people of many different races, gender identities, sexualities and socio-economic circumstances.
Secondly, it’s a piece of queer performance art drawing on traditions of drag, an art form forged in the underground. Mac is a cult LGBT icon, and while it’s true that there are plenty of wealthy LGBT people, the risk of poverty, particularly among trans and gender diverse people, is significantly higher than the general population.
Melbourne Festival says: “We believe that Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is one of the most important pieces of social commentary in the world at this point in time — one that massively supports the vital need in Australia for continued conversation around social inclusion and marriage equality.”
The work intends to tell the history of American music through a “radical queer” lens, shining light on marginalised parts of America.
Can art be a truly radical “social history” of America if the circumstances of its performance exclude parts of a society? Can it truly be about social inclusion if its price is exclusionary?
These are certainly not new questions, but ones that I hope are constantly front of mind for artists and arts companies.
I hope the Festival is able to work out a successful access policy for these shows, and I hope a significant number of tickets are able to be set aside for those people without a spare $700 lying around.