MIAF: The thrashing begins ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 14, 2006

MIAF: The thrashing begins

Predictably, the guns are out already on the Melbourne Festival's decision to extend Kristy Edmunds' term as festival director. Of course, Andrew Bolt is spitting chips (google if you want to find his comments, linking there makes me tired). More seriously, in a swingeing attack in the opinion pages of the Age, Robin Usher claims that the festival has "lost touch":

Its decision to make her the first director in the festival's 21-year history to serve for four years is nothing if not brave, because it ignores widespread criticism of the festival's recent direction. Until this week, it also seemed to have cost significant patronage. Schwartz said only a month ago that this year's ticket sales were 34,000, up by 3000 on 2005. But Edmunds contradicted this at the media conference called to announce her extension - ticket sales are now put at 57,000, which she says is similar to last year. The final result is comparable with sales a decade ago, which varied from 60,000 to 80,000. At least there is no dispute about box-office returns, which reached $1.2 million this year. But this seems a paltry return on an investment of about $7 million, including a $5.5 million state subsidy. It is hard to know how a Melbourne festival could ever not be considered a success if this is regarded as satisfactory.

Do I detect a note of pique here that the MIAF Board has not bowed meekly to Usher's complaints? The "widespread criticism" was mostly (if not uniformly) expressed in the Age's opinion and arts pages, and mostly by Peter Craven, Robin Usher, Cameron Woodhead and Andrew Bolt. This is a rather narrow spread, strictly speaking, if vocal and prominent. MIAF has also attracted much interest and support, as its ticket sales show, and audiences for MIAF 2006 - as a wide-ranging survey of audience demographics and responses concluded - was very largely positive. According to Edmunds, the rising level of private sponsorship indicates that the moneyed class are also supportive of her programming vision.

Australia has a long and ignoble history of hounding out festival directors who demonstrate that good art costs money. If Usher has a close look at the investment in a show like I La Galigo, the Robert Wilson piece that won unanimous plaudits this year, he will notice it lists no less than 14 producers. And if he thinks for another couple of seconds, he will understand that the vast expense of staging a show like that - with 50 cast members on stage, vast sets, long development times and so on - will never be recuperated by ticket sales, no matter how booked out. Nobody hosting a show like that expects to make a profit.

According to Usher, such realised ambition should never appear on our stages. Not even if 57,000 people want to see it.

If MIAF is attracting growing audiences that are comparable with those of the mid-90s - when people had more money and there was safer programming - then Edmunds must be doing something right. Perhaps part of what she is doing right is making ticket prices cheaper, which would bring down those returns and might also explain those rising sales and changing demographics. Perhaps she is extending the reach of the festival to regional centres, which costs money.

Perhaps what she is really doing wrong, in the eyes of those who criticise her, is making the festival less elitist.

Usher wants the Melbourne Festival to be like other interstate arts festivals, not other international ones. Australia, it seems, has to remain outside the mainstream of international arts practice. His main comparison is with Leo Schofield's heyday, which offered an avowedly populist agenda of "hits".

Nothing wrong with that, but Edmunds' vision is vastly more interesting and offers something potentially much more profoundly lasting to Melbourne culture. The links she is forging between local companies and international touring networks will benefit Melbourne for years to come. And, as Usher ungenerously refuses to note, the festival is putting Melbourne on several international maps. I can vouch personally for the surprise and interest its programming elicits from overseas observers.

Usher talks a lot, too, about Edmunds' disregard for "festival traditions". John Truscott - festival director between 1989 and 1991 - has turned up more than once as a stick with which to beat Edmunds. I remember Truscott's festivals fondly, and it seems to me that in the boldness of her programming, Edmunds is absolutely in Truscott's tradition - perhaps more than any subsequent director, although we've had some fine ones. Let's not forget, for example, Robyn Archer; in many ways, Edmunds is extending what Archer was already doing.

I remember that, like Edmunds, Truscott put his faith in local artists. I remember he staged challenging, controversial and ambitious works. His free outdoor program has not been matched since, perhaps because it was untrackable - no ticket sales there. And far from being lauded as a great festival director, I remember very well that Truscott was "widely criticised" as an elitist who spent too much money. This seems to have vanished into the memory hole that afflicts Australian arts.

Melbourne burned Truscott out - he was a much sadder man at the end of his tenure than he was at the beginning. He found that he couldn't win against the parochial incuriosity of the incumbent powers. I hope that in this brave new century, Melbourne proves bigger than than it did then.

UPDATE: Richard Divall, formerly resident conductor at the Australian Opera and and music director at the VSO, has a letter in today's (Friday's) Age warmly congratulating Usher on an "excellent" article. He gets a gratuitous swipe in at Robyn Archer as well. "There is a widespread apprehension among Melbourne audiences that the program is too narrow, and much of the content not up to an appropriate standard," he claims. "... Three years are sufficient for Ms Edmunds' type of programming — or six years, if we also consider the many similarities of the previous artistic director's choices."

It's not hard to read the swirls of discontent here, and to see that they emanate from sources such as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Victorian Arts Centre and other "major arts organisations" (to quote Usher). The "standard" - if by that one means aesthetic realisation, technical knowhow or performance - of most work at MIAF 2005 and 2006 is as high or higher than at any other festival, and one thing commented on by many people is the diversity of the programs, so "appropriate standard" is code for something else. In other words, by programming innovative work, Kristy Edmunds has, intentionally or not, got Melbourne's arts establishment off-side. Expect more of this as things heat up for MIAF 2007.

Check out the comments here too for David Williams' observations on Usher's comparisons with the Sydney Festival.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,
As a Sydney-sider, I truly don't understand how Edmund's detractors are able to continually use Sydney's 'bow office record' as a stick to beat her with. If nothing else, Sydney's origins as a commercial festival funded by the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and designed to provide encouragement for shoppers to remain in town through the heat of January might have been a clue that for most of its history, Sydney has been highly focused on the commercial dollar. Also, and this seems quite simple to me but is never mentioned in the commentary, Sydney's ticket prices are markedly higher than Melbourne's, especially for student tickets (the Melb fest tradition of $19 student tickets has no Sydney equivalent), so obviously they'll take more at the box office! I've just bought tickets to two shows in Sydney Festival, and the cost was greater than my whole Melbourne Festival trip!

Also on the programming front, Sydney Festival has been so godamned dull for so long, a marked difference from Melbourne's always sparkling and exciting program. At last with Fergus we have someone who approaches Kristy's level of programming genius, and Robyn's before her. Still, even under Fergus there is little interest in artists work from Sydney, other than the big players (Company B etc) with occasional outings for the truly remarkable Sydney work of a company like Urban Theatre Projects. There's a lot more to local performance practice here, but Sydney festival just isn't interested. (It took a public berating from Robert LePage to get someone from Sydney Festival to go and see My Darling Patricia, for instance. Sydney work is only worth a look when the visiting gurus smile upon it, it seems).

As I commented to Kristy at the fantastic artists lounge last festival, Melbourne is the only artists festival in the country, the only festival committed to building links between different artists from different practices to different communities. Its a festival of dialogue and exchange, as much as a festival of shows, and consequently its the only festival that I and dozens of my fellow Sydney artists must attend each year. Kristy seems very much within this Melbourne tradition, and I for one will be back in October 2007. Despite not liking all of the work I saw in 2006, this truly was a festival of conversation, and there's nothing else like it out there at this time. If the nay-sayers want to call that 'political', then let them. Civic and artistic dialogue should be the mission of an arts festival, not a distraction from the main game of providing high art to satisfy the guardians of our Western cultural heritage.

long may Kristy reign!


David Williams,
version 1.0

Alison Croggon said...

Hi David

TN's familiarity with the Sydney Festival is on par with its travel budget (ie zilcho, aside from the brochures). So it's great to get this perspective, which is very welcome, and very interesting.

The bottom line of Usher's article is the bottom line. Art? Forget it. A bit depressing from a so-called arts journalist.

Anonymous said...

I think that we've got a pretty good line up for the Sydney fest this time round, and also think that the program will do well (I hear that some events are already selling out, which is great). But this program is pretty rare in my experience of Sydney Fest over the last decade, in that there are more than 3 things that I'm interested in seeing...which is why the constant harping on by the Kristy boo-squad depresses me. and yes, don't we have a business section in our newspapers in which the criteria of success in purely financial? the way I read commentators like Usher though is not purely about the financials - they're an excuse - but about a very specific high cultural agenda very reminiscent of current federal government funding policies (ie. there's always extra money for non-elite artforms like symphony orchestras and opera companies - the rejection of the Strong Report reccomendations to defund the smaller symphonies, and the establishment of a new victorian opera company are uncontroversial ways to spend milions of tax payer dollars it seems... its not that there's no money for the arts, just that you have to have the right arts!


Anonymous said...

on that last comment, David Marr has a nice line on arts funding priorities in his 2005 Philip Parsons lecture here: http://www.currencyhouse.org.au/documents/ch_d_theatre_under_howard.pdf


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks David - that Marr pdf link live here for anyone interested.

The subtext on the question of "High Art" is kind of interesting. I'd say the battleground opening here is between contested versions of high art. It's bizarre to suggest that I La Gailgo doesn't qualify as high art. I would say even more of Romeo Castelluci's Tragedia. Or Pichet Klunchun and Myself, maybe my favourite, with the intelligence of its take on Debord.

What Usher is disingenously calling for as "high art" is what's generally called middlebrow. (I hasten to emphasise here that this isn't my vocabulary, but it is the vocabulary being pulled on here). The middlebrow - the expected, the "mainstream", the appropriated and comfortable - is more about social status. So something is felt under threat here. Even though anyone here can go see the MSO or the Australian Ballet any time of the year, if they're not on at MIAF all hell breaks loose. What's that?

Various comments about goths at Galas last year suggest that some think the wrong sort of people are going to the Concert Hall. Not only must culture be made by the right sort of people, but only the right sort of people are allowed in.

Anyway, interesting times...

Anonymous said...

"Beta Blocker" isn't alowing me to log in. Frustrating! So, forgive the anonymous post.

A coupla random notes...

I'm guessing that Perth's box office take looks so stupendous, relatively speaking, because the outdoor cinema seasons are now included. They could easily take a million from two venues -- soooo many deckchairs -- over the summer months.

The Sydney Festival started getting interesting in the lead up to the Sydney Olympics. Leo the Lobster had buckets of cash and had a hometown advantage.

Brett Sheehy did a couple of goodies, too, though still leaning towards High Price High Art. (Actually, I reckon Brett's final Sydney Festival was considerably more interesting than his first Adelaide festival, which is a worry.)



william zappa said...

the David Marr link is http://www.currencyhouse.org.au/documents/ch_d_theatre_under_howard.pdf

Alison Croggon said...

Leo the Lobster? That's a new one to me!

Interesting point about the outdoor cinema. Maybe Edmunds ought to do something at the Myer Music Bowl or the Botanical Gardens. (Thinking about October hail, maybe not...)

And Chris, sorry about the login problems. I checked the comments settings, they're as open as possible. Maybe it's a temporary glitch?