Dark ages? ~ theatre notes

Friday, November 28, 2008

Dark ages?

Lifting my studious head from the bloody skirmishes of 5th century Denmark, I stumbled over a report which claimed that things appear scarcely less bloody in Melbourne. Today Nicholas Pickard passes on an unconfirmed tip from Crikey which claims that Arts Victoria is about to defund some important local arts bodies.

Names named include Chamber Made Opera, Ballet Lab, Elision and Astra. An alarmed Ms TN phoned Chamber Made - which this year lost its Australia Council Music Board funding, another story to warm the cockles of the heart - and was assured that Arts Victoria is still on board. "In fact," said general manager Geoffrey Williams, "the State Government has increased its funding this year. I can assure you, if our funding were cut, you would hear the screams from there."

So that's good news, and it seems we can put the kybosh on that story. Chamber Made is pushing on stubbornly, despite losing, along with a number of other local organisations, its triennial funding status with the Oz Council. This focuses the dilemmas that face arts organisations which cross artform boundaries - in this case, music and theatre. There's been a fair bit of a musical comedy going on in the Music Board recently, who are the body of choice for funding music theatre. Among other things, they wonder why music theatre companies need so much more money than companies that just put on concerts... It culminated, according to Williams, with their deciding this year to fund no music theatre companies at all.

Instead, they've set aside $350,000 next year - "our money", as Williams said - which anyone interested in mounting music theatre can apply for. This rather broad category includes Broadway musicals and classical operas as well as the more difficult area of contemporary music theatre. Despite the difficulties, Williams says that they're optimistic that they'll mount at least one production, and possibly two, next year. So rumours of their death are definitely premature.


Anonymous said...

Hey Alison, why would you decry the Australia Council cutting funding Chamber Made, and some others, when the funding has simply been re-directed to other companies?

One might argue that for many years now Chamber Made (and those other companies defunded) have proven decidedly that they are no longer 'worthy' or 'deserving' of the funding.

Surely it is healthy for those companies that can be perceived to have lost touch/lost traction to be given a swift wake up call? Surely it is healthy to re-energise the funded companies to allow for fresh blood and fresh impetus to come through?

After all, many more companies have remained funded under their traditional triennial model than have not.

This argument you propose of shock and horror, simply asserts by default that the younger generation shouldn't be allowed to compete for those funds?

You should know by seing what is out there what sort of work is being created by younger artists/companies.

To say that Chamber Made (and the other defunded companies) don't deserve to be cut is basically saying that the status quo should stand.

For a fact, these admin heavy companies absorb a huge amount of resources that others do not, yet their output simply does not justify their expenditure. For example, one of these companies might employ a full time artistic director, full time general manager, full time administrator and some part time book keeper plus hiring an office and all that stuff. How much does that all cost exactly? $150,000 minimum to not actually put on anything. Just to have staff.

I am sorry, but if you offered an independent artist that sort of money to sit there and organise stuff, then you would certainly get some raised eyebrows.

The way certain of these companies have been defunded under the new model of the Theatre Board of the Australia Council, while others have been continued on their merry path, whilst other companies have been brought into the fold is a refreshing and energising thing. It allows for new generations to emerge, and it also allows for the dead wood to be culled.

If you look at the companies that lost their funding, which of them sincerely would you argue still deserved their funding?

Chamber Made? Melbourne Workers Theatre? Ployglot? Illbijerri?

Of those that have been cut, which would you support? I mean, you would have to be drawing a long bow to assert that any of those companies remain relevant. Their work is simply past its use by date, for whatever reason, they have been found they can no longer compete.

The fact is, those lucky enough to be in that loop of funding models where the pool of available resources is way way way less competitive than that possible for independent artists is surely a cause for concern. If you read and have followed the Australia Council's discussion about Make it New you would know that these triennial companies soaked up large amounts of resources, and largely because that's just the way it is and has been. In doing so they did not allow fresh companies to prosper.

No way should we decry Chamber Made's culling, to do so would be to punish a dog for shitting on the carpet. There are far worthier, more interesting companies that do deserve to receive the level of support that they did, there are opportunities here to allow a reignition of contemporary music theatre, there remains a very healthy theatre scene and to keep on keeping on, simply because we always have is a sorry reason to keep doing it.

I for one applaud the new funding model and the actions it has taken.

sincerely, the Baron

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Baron - that's the argument of the small pie, and illustrates why artists will always get done over. It would be much better if people thought beyond their own narrow interests.

I have some sympathy with the Oz Council's dilemma of attempting to spread thin resources over a broad sector, and being forced to make difficult decisions. But you might recall that La Mama was one of the companies up for the chop, and only avoided it only by the massive public outcry that ensued. These decisions are not ultimately about worth, but about a budget that can't sustain what's there and respond adequately to the new.

It seems to me foolish to fall into the trap of accepting the line that funding experienced artists is at the expense of new blood, and then saying, well, good riddance. All those young artists clamouring for the pie will one day be mid-career artists: do you then say, well, they've done enough now, and should step aside...? That seems to me to be wholly self-defeating, and explains a lot about the wider problems in this culture. And it misses the point, which is that the budget is inadequate in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Alison, the point isn't that LaMama were failing to do anything but continue running anitiquated systems (like writing money received in an exercise book) rather than their artistic worth. You pose a non argument there, and quite frankly, there are many such instances of companies being asked to 'please improve'.

The fact is there is a limited budget/pie, and the fact remains that there must be renewal. This is public money and quite frankly it is not about generational change, that is a baby boomer argument used to propose that you lot who are all a bit older (with free education, cheap housing, etc) should be entitled to the money that is available.

My argument is simply that yes there are limited resources and it is preposterous to say any one company should continue to claim their portion of those resources when they patently no longer deserve them.

I mean NYID have received funding under this new model, but Melbourne Workers Theatre have not. Which company, if you had to choose, would be more relevant today?

Similarly, Sidetrack Theatre in Sydney and Polyglot in Melbourne, long ceased to be relevant some years ago. It is only fitting that if there is dead wood, that we cull that dead wood and let the rest of the garden flourish.

There is a shortage of funding, there always has been, this is a ridiculous argument, I mean we all would like more money.

The fact is, it is just ridiculous to say that Chamber Made shouldn't have been cut because they are Chamber Made. Their work has been second rate for some years now, they maintained their existence purely from an historical case for their survival, rather than being worth it.

Look at the companies that did maintain their funding - Arena Theatre Co for instance. They were in precisely the same position as all the other Triennial companies - being asked to justify their position, and they did. Those companies that have been cut failed to fulfill some pretty basic stuff: 1. Their management couldn't work out a feasible argument for survival, 2. The work the company produced was not worth funding.

LaMama received its money because it fulfilled those arguments. This is a credit to the management there, not anything to do with a public outcry. The bulk of the outcry came in time, but this is not what swayed it.

And on the issue of renewal and funding for new artists, that is a complete misnomer. Look at a company such as Bell Shakespeare. They exist through enormous amounts of private/philanthropic contributions. Then look at Red Stitch. They have started from a base of some might say questionable motives, to being consistently excellent producers. They produced themselves into a new building, they are looking at new Australian works. They deserve the funding quite frankly.

And quite frankly, if after all these years the companies that insist they still receive public funding can only survive on a government handout, then they have proven they cannot sustain themselves. This is not an argument for renewal, it is more an argument for killing the sick baby who screams the loudest. For years now we have been propping up these companies at the expense, yes, owing to finite resources, of others who simply cannot compete.

TimT said...

This is why I think it's good to move gradually away from public funding, so disputes about which artists 'deserve' continued access to the limited financial resources of the state can be avoided. But that is all by the way.

I read in the Oz yesterday that the Australian National Academy of Music will now continue, being absorbed into Melbourne University. It's good news, sort of (Garrett may have decided to amalgamate the ANAM with the uni with an eye to further rationalisation down the track).

Alison Croggon said...

Baron, you misunderstand me. I'm absolutely not saying that public money is a right, or that it ought not to be reviewed. In fact, money given to the arts - as opposed to cash given, say to private industry, which absolutely dwarfs the paltry amounts going to culture - is among the most fiercely accountable there is.

Are you seriously arguing that La Mama, mounting 300 shows or thereabouts a year, fostering young artists who would never get a gig anywhere else, providing a space for valuable artists who've been around for years like Margaret Cameron, etc etc, is "dead wood" because its accounting practises needed to be dragged into the 21st century? Perhaps they were so busy doing theatre it slipped their minds.

TimT, artists are very conscious that money has to come from various sources and very creative in finding it. The government provides the kind of cultural stimulation once offered by, say, the court of Esterhazy... and I think, since culture is in fact a public benefit, the government absolutely should have a role in its patronage. In the absence of a strong culture of corporate philanthropy, as is the case in the states (which is itself deeply problematic in many ways), the alternative is to cling hard to the idea that the measure of artistic worth is immediate commercial success. Is that really desirable? A short survey of art or literary history shows this is not the case. Though the art made through patronage continues to generate $$ - Ulysses might sell in small numbers, but small numbers over a century add up to best seller figures. The profits of those sales, of course, don't go to those who actually made the art.

TimT said...

But I think philanthropy can and should be encouraged.

It's far preferable to the current system, where the same organisation who legislate on our behalf and, indeed, censor and ban freedom of expression where they see fit, not only administer the delivery of money to artistic organisations, but are indeed relied on by the public and those artistic organisations to do so. It's a system that seems designed to minimise and belittle the freedom of artists and, indeed, their audiences.

Alison Croggon said...

Nobody's arguing with philanthropy, TimT. But as the US shows, that too is problematic, and in a corporate culture which (with some honourable exceptions) sees it as sponsorship rather than philanthropy, it can be strangling for the arts. Look at the problems with the off-Broadway non-profits, which scarcely encourage innovation. No model is perfect, but arms length state funding is actually much less stifling than that. (Hence the importance of the arms length principle, which preserves against the kind of thing you warn about - a bit under threat under the moment, I grant you).

Btw, Baron: what I'm arguing against isn't specific cases of defunding (or funding - of course Red Stitch have earned their funded status). I'm arguing against the either/or mindset that sets artists at each other's throats. For example: Chamber Made's defunding has nothing to do with their "artistic worth", however disputed, nor has it anything to do with Red Stitch's funding status, since it is the business of the Music Board, not the Theatre Board. It is to do with the Music Board not seeing why so much money should be spent on music theatre, no doubt in a context where they have too many ensembles clamouring for too little money.

Anyone who has sat in on those meetings, as I have, knows that lack of success isn't a judgment of worth. There are always applications that are wholly deserving but which can't be squeezed in to the budget. Which is to say, the motivations aren't as simple as you seem to think.

David Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Williams said...

As someone who is far from uninvolved in the fallout from 'Make it New', I'll just point out a couple of things. First, the Theatre Board had a funding increase this round, courtesy of the previous government. Whole of the Australia Council received $19.5 million for the so-called 'small to medium sector', of which I believe Theatre got about $3 million or so. So the amount granted to Key Organisations is an increase, not a cut. This hasn't been reported anywhere that I've seen so far. Secondly, yes, there were 10 companies who lost their triennial funding (and one more only received one year's worth). But there were 11 new(ish) companies that received triennial funding for the first time. So there were 40 companies that applied, and 30 that were funded. Compared the usual success rate of 11-17% for New Work funding, that's pretty damn good.

According to conversations I've had with Theatre Board staff, this is the first time in a decade that new companies have been admitted to the Key Organisations category. A decade is a long time.

Thirdly, Chamber Made was previously in receipt of program funding from the Theatre Board (not Music Board). I wish them all the best in their work, and also their efforts to get this funding back in the next three years, and look forward to finally having time to watch the DVD of their show 'Crossing Live'.

I think the so-called 'dead wood' argument is pretty bunk. Many companies that were cut were still producing good work. I hope that they will continue to do so. The Board had to make some hard choices in this meeting, and they did not shirk from this. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to have to sit in on that meeting!

'Make it new' has been a long process, and it certainly hasn't been taken lightly by the Theatre Board. Yes, it's a risk, but it's clearly a calculated one. It'll be fascinating to see the effects over the national artistic landscape over the next three years.

(Disclosure: version 1.0 was one of the 11 new companies funded, so after a decade of project to project funding, I have a regular ongoing artist job, for the next three years at least.)

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks for that, David. And nothing I would argue with. Except that it's worth pointing out that funding increase (a Howard Government decision)in fact only makes up for the decrease in real terms that has affected the small-to-medium sector since around 2000. So in fact funding hasn't in real terms been increased at all, as grants are not indexed, for around a decade, while expenses have got higher and higher and the sector itself has expanded enormously.

David Williams said...

Just on the Music Theatre side of this conversation, just received this from the Ozco, which might be of interest:

Dear Colleagues

I am writing to let you know of a new initiative in the area of Music Theatre that may be of interest to you.

This initiative will assist the creation and presentation of engaging, high quality contemporary Australian music theatre. It is aimed at creative and technical practitioners, working in direction, production, music and sound to collaborate on the production of new works that excite, challenge and engage audiences. Partnership proposals are encouraged.

For the purposes of this initiative the definition of music theatre is broad. It may encompass contemporary work created and/or presented in experimental or more traditional staged forms, and include chamber opera, musical theatre, cross-cultural, hybrid or sound works that push the boundaries of the artform.

Although this is a three-year initiative, applicants should note that 2008/09 is the only year that a quick-turnaround grant initiative will be available. In 2009 a consultant will be working with key stakeholders to identify potential models for delivering the initiative in future years. If you wish to be part of the consultation process please contact staff at the Music Board of the Australia Council for further information.

You can now download application forms and guidelines here on the Australia Council website: http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/grants/grant_items/music_theatre_initiative

Closing date for applications is 28 January 2009

Please contact Vanessa Chalker at the Music Board of the Australia Council to discuss your proposal on 02-9215 9310 or 1 800 226 912 or via email v.chalker@australiacouncil.gov.au

Anonymous said...


A correction. ELISION has not been funded by Arts Victoria since 1994.

RE: Music Board side of the conversation.
Renewal is an interesting mantra. In my experience “the money” does not necessarily and fully go to other new companies. Renewal is often a slogan that mobilises a natural internal divisiveness within the arts, a set of resentments and the ubiquitous sense of ‘its my turn now’ while freeing funds to support short term initiatives that are more about fulfilment of political and bureaucratic purpose. The recent Music Board results for its Key Organisations confirm what is now a longterm drift away from the support of contemporary practice. The emphasis is upon Youth Orchestras, Choirs, and an increase to service organizations. Without disputing the worth of any of these vehicles what is clear here is maximal electoral delivery….the shift of funds to supporting organizations where real salary costs are born by the community (family and friends), whose features are high rates of volunteerism, non-controversial artistic practices and broad community engagements and forums resulting in short term high delivery of numbers. Think Carols by Candlelight.

Whether this is the result of a de-professionalised set of peers or the lack of longterm clear policy development at the Music board resulting in a diluted eclecticism its hard to say but I don’t see a renewal as defined by the funded emergence of new ensembles whose purpose is contemporary practice and who could be described as fresh blood or part of a generational change.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Dsryl - I remembered Elision moving to Queensland for that reason. Crikey's informant was a bit confused.

Re "renewal": I'm certain you're right. "Divide and rule" was the policy that permitted a small number of British to maintain rule over millions of Indians during the Raj. It's very effective. And what you say about contemporary practice in music is depressing.

Anonymous said...

Crikey Informant here...with maybe a clarification from that original Crikey tip. What I was trying to flag was the issue that worthy and innovative organisations are being defunded - either from one or both funding sources. ChamberMade from OzCo, Elision from OzCo, BalletLab from Arts Vic, Astra from both OzCo and Arts Vic. My question is, if organisations have been able to demonstrate sustainability over a number of years, with government funding as part of the mix, what impetus is there for other organisations to grovel for that holy grail when it can be whisked away with no notice leaving companies facing meltdown?? The second issue is the populist and anti-new-music agenda that seems to have creeped in when no one was looking. As Daryl says, dollars seem to be drifting towards less challenging artforms and the arts is becoming the one industry which government will not reward for innovation, quality or sustainability. Dark ages indeed.

Alison Croggon said...

Ho there, informant! You're right, certainly, on the broader issue at hand, even if Arts Vic incorrectly got all the blame. The fact that Ballet Lab is on that list surely calls into question the assumption by some commenters that any organisation that gets defunded is moribund, old and dull (or possibly Babyboomer, whatever that means).

If the arts can't get it together to make a representative organisation - the one thing I hoped would come out of the 2020 and my biggest disappointment on that front - then this is going to continue bigtime under this government, with some nasty new twists. But it does mean thinking outside one's immediate self-interest to a bigger picture.

TimT said...

As Daryl says, dollars seem to be drifting towards less challenging artforms and the arts is becoming the one industry which government will not reward for innovation, quality or sustainability.

Ergo, relying on government for something they cannot be relied on (adequate funding for the arts) is not an effective strategy and has not been for some time.

Private forms of funding would be useful, at the very least as a fallback position.

Anonymous said...

TimT - all the named organisations do get private and trust funding - that's the expletive deleted point. But even if government funding is only 25%, 30% or 40% of an organisation's income stream, if it goes without warning (private donors are a lot more considerate in giving notice if they are not able to support) the organisation is left in the lurch. And corporate support is just not an option for this size organisation - it's not worth corporates' while.

And Alison yes - hear hear about better coordination between arts orgs. This may be the final straw that finally spurs them to brave speaking up - and as you would know, it is a very brave and risky thing for them to do.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tim T and Crikey Informant.

In 2008 ELISION will have achieved an overall turnover of approximately 1.2 million with direct State and Federal Government sources constituting about 22% of that. In other words we use what were core and stable funding supports to leverage a wide range of partnerships, both domestic and international, to invest in contemporary Australian practice. This contributes to the sustainability and ongoing viability of people being able to engage in the arts. With a lean administration we provided in 2008 a significant income for upwards of sixty writers, directors, composers, sound artists, engineers and techs, and musicians. And on top of this there is an advocacy function which builds opportunities and work for people through the exposure of a public platform.

When you pull the plug on the core support you destroy quite a bit.

It is interesting being overseas at the moment and reading all of the international press on the Sydney Opera House triggered by the death of Utzon. Not one article that I have seen has commented upon either the Australian arts companies that work within the building or arts work that might be performed or have been created there.

It takes time for artists and arts companies to make a difference. My thought here is that we need other ways of talking about renewal without robbing the country of the ability to act strategically in cultural areas through benefit from investment already made.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Daryl. I always admired the Elision model, it seemed to me to be far-sighted and exciting, an exemplary case study for a small contemporary arts company. (And good to see also how well you're being received in London!)

I noticed the thing about Utzon too - it's the first time I can ever remember the death of an artist being on the front pages here (if you don't count celeb deaths like Heath Ledger or Michael Hutchence). And I gloomily noticed too that it was about the building and not what went on inside it, which kind of sums up how so much of our funding goes. The problem is that you can't put a plaque on a performance, and politicians seem to find plaques oddly attractive.

Your point about the economic and other knock-ons are important. The tangible social and economic benefits, direct and indirect, of the arts to the wider community are widely documented. But in the face of, for example, hostile, ignorant or indifferent mass media coverage, artists have been able to do little to counter the prevailing popular opinion that artists are indulgently soaking up public money for private gain. We need better and more aggressive advocacy that drives home to the wider community what the arts actually do.