Bread and circuses ~ theatre notes

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Bread and circuses

Melbourne's Commonwealth Games party is over, but it seems that the $13 million cultural component - a huge program of free events which was enthusiastically embraced by Melburnians, including me - is being used as a big stick to bash the arts, or at least the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.

I was not alone in thinking last year's MIFA was the most exciting for years. But as so often in Australia, it seems that artistic achievement pales before the bottom line. Think of the controversial termination in 2003 of Simone Young's contract with the Australian Opera, or Meryl Tankard's acrimonious departure from the Australian Dance Theatre in 1999. Or of any number of festival directors who have created critically acclaimed arts festivals, only to be shoved out the door once it's discovered that European-class arts festivals actually cost money.

In a recent article in The Age, it was claimed that the success of the Games' cultural festival has given rise to an idea that it ought to be an annual fixture, with possible implications for MIFA. And, perhaps not inconsequentially, Robin Usher reports an attack on MIFA artistic director Kristy Edmunds by the Victorian Arts Centre administration:

The free Festival Melbourne 2006, costing $13 million out of the overall Games' budget, attracted about 1 million people from across the state, including 700,000 in Melbourne. The event's director, Andrew Bleby, says politicians including the Premier, Steve Bracks, all observed the throngs milling around the circus tent and other events along the Yarra and at Federation Square. This is why he believes there will be an addition to March's cultural calendar.

But the question now is whether any new event might impact on MIAF, which reported a box-office return of only $1.64 million after receiving a grant of $5.5 million from the Victorian Government - the largest of any festival except Adelaide's biennial event.

MIAF's programming by the first-time director, Kristy Edmunds, has come in for behind-the-scenes criticism, with several senior arts figures and administrators arguing that the 2005 event concentrated on an "unremitting narrow band" of performance.

Arts insiders also point to poor return for events at the Arts Centre, where the box office was only $650,000.

A furious Arts Centre administration is reported to have complained to the Government about the programming, which put poorly attended shows such as Green by the Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara and Rite of Spring by the New York-based Shen Wei dance company, in the vast State Theatre.

The Commonwealth Games festival was massively well funded, with a budget almost three times that of MIFA; all events were free and so posted no box office return at all. MIFA, on the other hand, has to sell tickets. Why compare the two events? Moreover, is the State Government really going to spend $13 million every year on another arts festival? I find that one hard to swallow.

I am curious to know the details of the MIFA box office figures, since they don't necessarily reflect poor attendance. Certainly, I did not see a single event at MIFA that wasn't packed out - demand for Theatre de Soleil, for example, was so great they had to schedule extra shows. I may have picked my shows with exquisite taste, of course, and seen only the festival successes.

But I am very wary of the agenda being pushed here.

Art Centre chief executive (not, I note, artistic director) Tim Jacobs claims that government investment in arts festivals "ultimately depends on popular involvement". And there is concern expressed by unnamed "others" that the festival is "open to the charge that it is catering too much to elite tastes".

The key word here is "elite". I have personally never understood why no one questions the huge amounts of money thrown at elite sports - the Commonwealth Games reportedly cost more than $1 billion, most of which will be picked up by the State Government - while the comparatively modest amounts spent on the arts rouse such ire. Survey after survey shows that, contrary to popular belief, Australians like their arts. All that the Games festival proved was that they like them even more if they're free.

Culture, like sport, costs money. If we want, as we claim, the kudos of a "world class" culture, why cavil at what what "world class" culture actually is? Last year we had some of the world's most exciting companies in Melbourne, including a rich component of local work. It was, artistically speaking, a huge success: and I saw crowds everywhere. I deeply hope this article isn't a straw in the wind, and that the vitality we glimpsed then isn't crushed by a bureaucratic demand for bread and circuses.

No comments: