Signs of the times ~ theatre notes

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Signs of the times

The worst of the GFC (which, incongruously, always makes me think of Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant) is yet to hit us here in Australia. I suspect that its real impact will begin to be felt in the arts next year, as major companies deal with tightened budgets caused by dwindling sponsorships, and the effects of fewer opportunities trickle down (trickle down economics, I've noticed, only works in a negative way) to smaller outfits.

The initial impact is being felt at the top end of town, as patrons cut back on expensive tickets. Opera Australia yesterday announced a review of its organisation, following a 10 per cent drop in ticket sales and a $4 million write-down in its capital funds. The new Music Recital Centre has cancelled several concerts scheduled for September, which may not be linked to the GFC, but on the other hand, may well be. And the Melbourne City Council - a major supporter of the arts here - has cut its arts budget by 20 per cent. (I'm sure, of course, that decision has nothing to do with this Bolt-worthy beat-up).

Arts organisations are responding by turning to their supporters for help. They have always depended on private support, but this time there's a desperate edge - many are talking about their future survival. This might make good sense - our very own Michael Lynch, who has been running London's Southbank Centre for the past few years, caused a flurry in Britain this week when he blasted private industry for dropping the ball on arts sponsorship, claiming that the bulk of Southbank's multi-million pound refurbishment was supported by private individuals.

Certainly there's been a recent upturn in appeals. I reported a couple of weeks ago on the international poetry publisher Salt Publishing, a major literary casualty of the GFC, whose imaginative Just One Book campaign has been a stunning success. (If you haven't bought a book yet, go there now). But they're not the only literary organisation with their cap out - the Melbourne Writers Festival is also asking for private donations to bring over some star guests. And Polyglot Puppet Theatre - hit by funding cuts as well as the economic downturn - has also launched a public appeal to help it continue its work for children. (Donations can be made here). I suspect these appeals will become a common feature of the post-crash arts landscape.

It remains to be seen how deep private pockets are, and how the culture weathers the storm. And I can't help wondering how the brilliant upsurge in creativity that has characterised so much recent Australian theatre will negotiate these hard times, as companies inevitably turn to programming with more guaranteed commercial appeal. On the other hand, those at the smaller end of the cultural scale might paradoxically suffer less: what's the difference between poor and poor?

On a brighter note, as Marcus Westbury points out, the fallout can also be positive, as hard times force some creative thinking. "Looking at a post boom Melbourne it is easy to forget how much of what I love about this city is the product of the last great recession of the early 90s," he says. "Its laneway bars, its smart graffiti, its living CBD, its distinctive inner suburbs of eclectic shops and retail strips, its creative community are not the product of arts agencies or central planning but of the fertile ground, cheap space, and hard working initiative of a decade ago. The city is a rich ecology not created through central planning but grown in economic detritus and forged in the harsh and searing furnace of hard times."


Jana said...

Marcus Westbury writes many smart things, but in this particular article conflates things laterally and somewhat wrongly. From what I know, the re-residentialisation of the CBD and the laneways were both City of Melbourne projects, the very definition of central planning.

On the other hand, the Australian experience is that central planning goes out the window in times of economic boom. Suddenly, whoever can't make money is a bit sus. Recession, if anything, usually marks a great return of governmental involvement in policy. I imagine the generous welfare that some comments on Marcus's blog associate with the 90s recession would be one such thing. It's a great time for rethinking policy on a large scale.

For the average starving artist, though, I think this may not be as important as knowing that recession also encourages creativity (which it does), and that independence that comes with poverty is not to be spat at. But I wonder if that isn't as true as it is in boom times. The main factor of change may be simply that the audiences are prepared to get less glitter, as long as the ticket is also cheaper...

Anonymous said...

For me, the "arts" is like weight loss - you lose fat from the last place you put it on. And the arts are (and I'm making extremely broad and unqualified assumptions here) the last part of a civilisation to develop - art such as commercial theatres, anyway. So once society is rich enough, it puts on commercial art, and as soon as the budget starts to drop, it's the first thing to come off. Mind you, I'd much rather see a Harvey Norman franchise close before a theatre does, but it doesn't seem to work that way unfortunately.

A possible solution to the crisis, of course, is more invasive sponsorship - including Tobacco. I'm sure they'd pay bucketloads of cash if the actors smoked on stage:

HAMLET: To be or not to be.
HAMLET takes a lungful of (Sponsor name)'s cigarette, the smooth taste satisfying his craving and making him more attractive to the opposite sex.
That is the question.

Problem solved!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for that, Ms Town Planner. Indepedence is certainly not to be spat at, although you can get very tired of poverty.

Epistmysics, art is - according to some people, anyway - the faculty which drove civilisation and the evolution of human consciousness. Commercial art is a function of capitalistic society. Though don't the commercial mass appeal arts tend to do well in recessions? The listick factor ... (Doesn't mean that they have to be bad, though - probably the reverse). The need for stories, images, music and song goes very deep in us. Which is why this apparently useless thing has been so persistent, and why some people so passionately make it. I guess what hard times burn out are those who don't have that commitment.

Lolo said...

Good analysis Ms C. Unfortunately I think it is going to get worse, due in no small part to two dominant characteristics of Australian culture.

Firstly, we have never been huge on arts philanthropy here (with some notable exceptions) - compared to Europe and the US, we are much more reliant on combinations of grants and box office to make the books balance, boosted by corporate support for the bigger players. In hard economic times, government and corporate support tends to shrink in unemotional response to market pressures. Philanthropy, on the other hand, can be motivated by an acknowledgement of the innate value of art in itself and is less swift to change purely based on changes in the stock market. Hence in Australia, arts organisations find themselves facing less dollars from public and private sources.

Secondly, in these tough times, another Aussie characteristic comes to the fore - helping a mate in strife. Those in financial trouble such as Salt, Polyglot and Astra have asked their peers for help in desperation, and their supporters have dug deep and will ensure their survival - but only in the very short term. This generosity cannot be repeated ad infinitum – it is impossible to foster sustainability from a non-renewable resource.

I would argue that arts funding bodies should be in a fever of thinking, consultation, analysis and forward planning to develop creative and sustainable support frameworks for Australian arts and culture. If they do nothing, it’s not going to be pretty.

Born Dancin' said...

Um. I think various sides of this argument imply (slightly) that artists were actually living above the poverty line due to better funding in recent years. I think the City of Melb cuts, for instance, will simply mean less people receiving an already disappointing amount (don't misunderstand the double negative there - I'm not saying more people will receive a healthy sum, obv). 'Poverty' won't be a new experience for most.

Less philanthropy will definitely change things, for sure. On the upside, it's cheaper for MTC, Malthouse etc to program a little indie work in one of their smaller venues, but I wouldn't be surprised if these (still expensive) shows will more often be safer bets, if such a thing exists. More comic works, I imagine.

Also - I'm just rambling here - the most interesting companies and artists who emerged at the end of the 90s and early 00s weren't the result of better funding or planning. Red Stitch, Stuck Pigs, Eleventh Hour, Store Room, Schlusser, Ellis, Cerini, Theatre@Risk, etc usually acted first, asked money questions later.

I think this did result in a culture of mateship or camaraderie while at the same time creating a sense of distrust towards funding bodies amongst much of the indie sector.

Alison Croggon said...

Australia's always done spectacularly good poor theatre. (Add in the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project there, who started - and did most of their best work - in the Brotherhood of St Lawrence warehouse in Fitzroy in 1997/8 and for the first few productions had a budget of zero). But it's a problem when that's all it's possible to do, or when this kind of aggressively indie theatre is the only possibility for artistic adventurousness. People should be able to think big, too. I guess this is where the absorption of the VCA begins to really hurt in Melbourne, because the VCA provides resources - people, design, infrastructure - for many interesting projects that otherwise wouldn't find them.

Anonymous said...

"Though don't the commercial mass appeal arts tend to do well in recessions? The listick factor ... " - I would agree with this, although I hadn't heard of the lipstick factor (which made for an interesting time on Google looking it up!) However, I wouldn't class opera as "commercial mass appeal" though (I mean, if it was, and mass-appeal is supposedly doing well, then why is Opera Australia posting downturns?), and that was the type of art I was referring to, with theatre coming in a close second (although this may be open to dispute), I suppose. Compared to free-to-air television, theatre/opera aren't exactly the bastions of commercial mass-appeal.

But I entirely agree with you with the point you made after, namely that "the need for stories, etc, goes very deep in us." I have no doubt that Art (the pictures on clay pots, the paintings on the wall of the caves, etc) will survive, but I'm worried about the commercial "arts".

But I wouldn't call commercial art a "function of capitalistic society" - I recently went to China and they seemed to have some interesting commercial art there (including a great acrobatics show in Beijing, which I would recommend). But then Beijing is probably turning somewhat capitalist now anyways...and I've just argued this paragraph moot. (This happens surprisingly often.)

So yes, the passion will still be there, and people will still make art. But passion alone doesn't keep you fed and sheltered. (If it did I'd be living in a mansion and eating caviar!) I suppose the difference between boom-time and bust is full-time vs part-time art? (That is, artists that can support themselves vs artists who need a day job.)

(And sorry in advance for rambling on so long!)

Alison Croggon said...

Perfectly fine to ramble here, especially as it's so interesting. I guess that when I think of "commercial art", the last thing I think of is opera, which is totally impossible to do without subsidy - very expensive and short seasons that make it all but impossible to make money back. I read once that Phillip Glass carried a debt of thousands of dollars for years after the worldwide smash sell-out success of Einstein on the Beach...

Thoughtful Theatre said...

I can't help but wonder and hope if those who regularly patronize higher end (dollar mark wise) arts events might not tighten their belts by going to see lower cost, independent theatre...we shall see.. I will be interested to see what attendance is like at both the Melbourne Int. Arts Festival and Melbourne Fringe Festival this year

Anonymous said...

keene taylor theatre project in fitzroy warehouse: PASS

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for that illuminating blart, Anon. I assume you saw the work of Paul English, Greg Stone, Dan Spielman, Chloe Armstrong, Jane Bayly, Malcolm Robertson, Patricia Kennedy, Helen Morse, Rob Menzies, Anni Finsterer et al with the KTTP, and were among the people clambering up to the rafters at the warehouse in the early days. Or maybe not, eh?

Anonymous said...

very early days, I drank a flavoured milk for dinner and spoke to a person at interval who was leaving because their bum was sore because they only got a cushion and not a proper theatre seat and I saw two hobos so out there beyond the edge of safety, beyond any safe place, two performers so out there in a space without nets that it completely shook my see the risks being taken. An almighty night where the dinner was sacrificed for a feast. Unforgettable.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Anonymous is bagging KTTP.
He means the Taylor-Keene thing gets a tick from you, whereas Jana gets a big boo.

So maybe it's Jana incognito...
In any case, I would ignore them and get back to your macrame.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anon, you're probably right, on reflection. Though there was a comment about Jana in the same tone that I deleted, which seemed gratuitous and a bit nasty. It would be better for conversation, on the whole, if people argued rather than did drive-by shoots...

Anonymous said...

Last time I checked, I could go see three or four shows at the theatre compared to one opera ticket, which is why I've yet to go to the opera. Well, that's not entirely true - I did go to the Opera For Peasants (ie, Opera in the Domain), but that was free, so it doesn't count. But as TT says, I think it will be interesting to see if there's any flow on effect from the lack of opera sales. Fingers crossed?

As for this "clambering up to the rafters at the warehouse" - surely there's some fire-hazard/OH&S problems with that? Perhaps the decrease in audience numbers can be blamed on workplace safety laws. (If only it were that trivial!)

Alison Croggon said...

Boy, I should so not post things late at night after a day's hard work (unlikely to be macrame, I've never been very interested in string). My comprehension skills are certainly at zero. What's your problem, Anon(s)? Jana and I are good friends, good enough to have some fun arguments, and I know she's too smart and bright to bother with anonymous snark.

EP, there has been some spill, from what I've heard, but it's mainly been from the first tier companies to the second tier.

Yeah, other Anon: that was Night, A Wall, Two Men, with Greg Stone and Malcolm Robertson. After all these years, still two of the most astounding performances I've ever seen.

Unknown said...

Sorry for taking a while to get to this but Jana is correct in picking me up on the use of the term "central planning". She's right. It was a clumsy use of phrase.

I was attempting to make a distinction between the arts as something highly centralised and "administered" and "managed" by government (the build an arts centre and pay to staff it approach) or as the decentralised product of the iniative of many people acting under their own steam. You actually can plan to facilitate the latter and Melbourne in the 90s did by creating or removing a whole series of regulations that allowed for that kind of activity to take place far more easily.

Apologies for the lack of clarity.