Phew, wot a scorcher ~ theatre notes

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Phew, wot a scorcher they used to say in the UK Sun when the temperature nudged over 25 degrees: a cue for white English people to throw off their shirts and dance maniacally on pebble beaches with handkerchiefs on their heads, while puzzled Australians still wandered around in their woollies. My English compadres are often puzzled by my fondness for damp mists and pale blue winter skies, but they have never experienced the brutal heat of a Melbourne summer. The recent temperatures of over 40C (almost 110F) really did me in, I fear. Anyway, this by way of apology for the lateness of my meditations on the MTC's first production of the year, Patrick Marber's Don Juan in Soho. On the way folks, though it's already in the Oz.

While I'm looking towards the northern hemisphere, allow me to alert you to the increasingly loud hoohah over the British Arts Council, which has taken advantage of a injection of 50 million pounds to cut funding to around 20 per cent of its clients, in its biggest shakeup in recent years. The fuss began with the cutting of funds to the National Student Drama Festival just before Christmas, and since then the conflagration has been slowly spreading, up to a rowdy public meeting this week which passed an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the Arts Council. A round-up of the row and blogger responses here.

(UPDATE: The row has now spread to the British Council, the government's international arts arm, with a bunch of the UK's most distinguished visual artists protesting a "radical shake-up" in the council's structure. What is going on over there? The one thing that is clear is that nobody really seems to know...)

What is most striking to an antipodean observer is that artists are demanding a system very similar to what we already have here with the Australia Council - a transparent and accountable process with peer review. Let's count our blessings while we have them. Speaking of which, I'll point to a sobering SMH article on NSW arts funding which suggests why the Sydney Festival has gone so populist this year, and why this might be something that should concern anyone who cares for the arts.

Match this with Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett's apparent indifference to ideas and the heart sinks lower. Garrett has passed on attending the Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, a major international shindig held for the first time in Melbourne this year, with a new brief of political edginess. In a small but cutting comment, convenor Jaynie Anderson says she is "slightly disappointed" she could not convince Garrett to come. "The previous incumbent, George Brandis, had been keen, but then, Anderson says, he is an intellectual." Ouch.


sydney arts journo said...

You are so quick Alison Croggon! I just saw that opinion piece in the herald this morning.

It is alarming up here in New South Wales. I recall speaking to a senior political journo about six months ago who was damning of the government and their arts policy. The journo believed that the reason that no one else apart from Sartor took the arts was that "between them all, he is the only one that has ever read a book."

It is a slight exaggeration, but not far from the truth.

I wrote an article about all of this in September when the
Australian Financial Review quoted some less than convincing figures from David Throsby.

But I don't quite see your correlation between the Sydney Festival being populist and the funding crisis in NSW.

(Apart from the fact that the Government took out $2million out of community arts programs which in turn helped pay for the $1million extravaganza opening night.)

Sorry this is turning into a blog entry instead of a comment. But let me say one more thing.

The catastrophe of course is that under Carr we have all these marvelous venues now, but no money to fill them with shows.

So, if any one you Melburnians have a show coming up this year, you should be able to find a brilliant venue here in Sydney to tour it to. And make sure you haggle - cause now you know - they need the money... desperately.

Alison Croggon said...

Heh. You answered your own question there, Nicholas! Let me say hastily I have nothing against the arts being popular (or even, pulp novelist that I am, populist). But if that is all the arts are permitted to be, and the arts are supposedly only to be measured in the wisdom of the marketplace, then I am deeply concerned. And there are too many straws heading that way in various Labor government policies (Queensland and NSW for starters). I'm not saying the Sydney Festival is all bread and circuses, since there are some good things in the program: but if I were a Sydneysider, I would be concerned. Programming acts like Brian Wilson may be the only way that ADs might be able to justify its funding. Its very success might pave the way for more cuts in the enginerooms of art, leading to a further impoverishment of those groovy venues. Ie, it's caving in at the top...

Anonymous said...

Is it any surprise that Garrett won't attend the congress?

Now that his arts adviser is Alex Broun (of Short & Sweet fame), I think we now know what to expect... A short and sweet arts minister.

sydney arts journo said...

In my mind I seperate the festival from the year round work of the theatres and venues.

What this festival is doing is getting people involved that would not necessarily go and see anything.

Just at Parramatta Riverside, the programme is an eclectic collection of new Australian dance and physical theatre as well as music concerts for a wide range of audiences.

Ironically, in my conversations with industry and with the average punter, the decision is clear. The industry think that the festival is a mixed bag - the public think the whole thing is amazing.

What does that say about the programme other than this festival, more than any other is breaking down barriers and introducing a wide range of audiences to new things. And I think that this is good for our arts industry.

I mean, the blog which I am doing on the telegraph website comes from a desire to feed readers with jealousy over what they are missing out on. Maybe next year they will see the festival come along... or even a show during the year and think about going.

I just don't see how the programme should affect the rest of arts practice. It has to be made clear to Costa, that the festival is a showcase... the hard yards still need to be done by our artists.

Of course, I agree that they could become complacent and say to us - "well, we funded the festival - what more do you need?" That is indeed a cause for concern.

Sorry - I hope I am making sense... this week has been a little nuts.

Alison Croggon said...

Fair points, Nicholas. But an arts festival is part of the continuum of a city's arts culture, and represesents to some degree its cultural priorities; that's why these events are so hotly debated. It's all a matter of balance. If the programmers program no art music (new music, classical music), for instance, how is that going to open anyone's minds to its possibilities? Is an arts festival just about getting crowds (in which case, is it anything other than a concert promoter) or is it also about providing work that is not so easily seen elsewhere, about expanding artistic vocabularies? I obviously think the latter.

Btw, are you seeing Chunky Move's Mortal Engine? I had a preview of it in progress and was mighty impressed...