Size Matters

RealTime-Performance Space Forum, April 8 2002

This forum was held April 8 before the release of the Report on the Examination of the Small-to-Medium Performing Arts Sector. For an early response to the Report, see “Size Matters: the Small-to-Medium Sector issue”, RealTime#49. The meeting was informally chaired by Keith Gallasch.

Introduction: No pot of gold

Keith Gallasch
Welcome to the 8th of these forums for artists about issues of practice and survival. I’d like to welcome Suzanne Donnelly, General Manager, Arts Development NSW Ministry for the Arts who’s going to brief us as much as she can within the limits of confidentiality about the Report from the Examination of the Small to Medium Performing Arts Sector which is a report to the Cultural Ministers Council (from the 10 federal and arts ministries in Australia). It would seem to be fundamentally a report about the viability of the small to medium sector of the performing arts. The enquiry happened very suddenly last year as some of you will be aware when you had to drop everything and prepare responses. Rumour has it that there’ll be no pot of gold at the end of this particular report. One of the reasons for holding this meeting is that the expression “no pot of gold” was becoming oddly recurrent.

Rupert Myer, the head of the Australian Contemporary Visual Arts Enquiry announced not too long ago in an interview in the Financial Review that there would be no pot of gold at the end of that particular enquiry. I went to a meeting with him and about 20 visual artists and administrators and he spoke about improved networking, about tax breaks for artists, about something like the dole for artists (but hassle free) as solutions for the problems of the sector. But despite considerable pressing from the gathering, he would not admit that the artform, in this case the contemporary visual arts, was in need of additional funding or that the development of the artform had been frozen by inadequate funding. He wasn’t interested in that. Then late last year in the Australian we heard similar noises emanating from the direction of the Small to Medium Performing Arts Enquiry—that there were not going to be any financial outcomes from this and “why should we expect any”?” It’s only a report. It’s not Nugent!” So suddenly there was quite a lot of sector concern about the point of the exercise.

It was interesting at the meeting that it was Brian Kennedy of all people, Director of the National Gallery of Australia who said if things are rotten in the laboratory, how can you expect the artform to develop. And he kept pushing Myer to acknowledge something was wrong. But every time the word ‘crisis’ was mentioned of, Myer would say ‘no, no, not that word’. Nobody wants to hear that word. But perhaps that might be worth thinking about.

I know some of you here believe that we are facing a crisis or that the arts, especially the small to medium sector, has been in crisis for at least a decade, maybe more, as artform funding seems to be frozen at a basic level. On the other hand, new government initiatives appear to be opportunistic or pragmatic, and are to do with regionalism and emerging artists, youth, community and Indigenous art, and multiculturalism—all very important in themselves but with no account of what’s happening in the overall artform practices themselves, wherever thy are located.

Given there’s not much information around about the enquiry, we thought we’d ask Suzanne Donnelly to talk about it. Are you actually on the Working Party?

Background: Cultural Ministers Council

Suzanne Donnelly
No. I was and then I went away last year and Kim Spinks replaced me. I’ve now drifted back into it. One thing I just want to preface the talk with is that the report hasn’t gone to the Cultural Ministers Council yet and it doesn’t go till May 1 when they meet. And so when Fiona asked me to come and speak I said, could you possibly put off the date of the meeting because I’m not going to be able to tell you a whole lot about the recommendations because it’s not a public document yet. It probably will be but…But Fiona thought that it would be a good idea for the community to get together to talk about it anyway. So I’m not being evasive. That’s just the way it is.

I don’t know how many people are aware of the Cultural Ministers Council and if most of you aren’t you won’t fail in your next funding submission…It’s not something that’s well known. You’re probably aware that around Australia there’s an arts minister or cultural minister who usually stands alone or sometimes has charge of another portfolio or could be the Premier, as is the case in NSW. And it used to be that once a year all the cultural ministers, including the 2 Federal ministers, would come together and have a meeting. This has been going on since about 1985. It would tend to be rotated and each state would host it. And each state would contribute to the setting the agenda. The Australia Council also attends, as does DCITA (Department of communications, information Technology & the Arts) but it’s mainly for the Ministers. Then there’s the Standing Committee of Cultural Ministers Council and then associated with the Standing Committee are a number of working groups. So the Small to Medium Report came from a working group of the Standing Committee of Cultural Ministers Council. And the main work is usually done at the officer level, the Standing Committee level or indeed at the working group level. And what happens is that usually the ministers come together. They don’t agree on many things—if anything—and then they go away and everyone says, well that was a waste of time, wasn’t it.

What’s happened over the past few years is that there’s been more energy put into Cultural Ministers Council and there have been some big agenda things happening—not necessarily in the performing arts area. For example, at the last Standing Committee meeting, which I attended a few weeks ago and is where you discuss the agenda that will go to the ministers in a month’s time, the sorts of things they were talking about were heritage collections. They’d been talking about these for a number of years, funding a number of studies. They talked about Small to Medium. They looked at Public Broadcasting. There’s a big move about advancing Reconciliation that’s come out of the Council of Australian Government. They also talked briefly about the Myer Enquiry into Contemporary Visual Arts. Not that that’s part of their brief but they wanted to discuss it. They also have a statistics working group which does a lot of research and is actually quite valuable when you’re trying to progress a case in terms of getting extra money or putting something forward.

All the states contribute to Cultural Ministers Council and it has a funding formula. It’s a nominal amount of money. The Commonwealth puts in half, the States put in the other half and because NSW is the largest state it tends to put in 28% of the funds. So they don’t have a huge kitty. There’s probably about half a million dollars at any one time. It can fluctuate and different studies may require different amounts of money. So that gives you a bit of an overview of CMC.

A new status for the arts

It’s an unusual situation because the arts hasn’t been, till recent years, very high on the political profile. It’s only been in the last 5 years or so that you’ve had a number of Premiers taking an interest in the arts and been willing to push it. That can sometimes be good and sometimes difficult. Sometimes not having the Premier means that the minister is more able to push the arts because they don’t have to worry about when there are fires in the state or worry about the hospital system or whatever. The other side to it is that having the Premier there means that he can elevate the arts.

So in terms of the decision about setting up the Small to Medium Sector report, what it came out of was, as you’d all be aware, was the Nugent Report. Now the Nugent Report was slightly different from other reports that had gone to Council and the reason was that it had come through the initiative of the Major Organisations Fund at the Australia Council. And it also happened to have a banker at the head of the Fund at the time, Helen Nugent, who went on to lead the enquiry. So it was quite an unusual thing. Nugent lobbied very hard. When she set up this report she wanted to have some money at the end of it. And she knew the right people to talk to. There was a lot of political stuff going on. So there was a lot of discussion about the Nugent Report and then there was no Cultural Ministers Council for about 2 years. Interestingly, the Commonwealth kept delaying the Council Meeting. It was clearly a delaying tactic because the Commonwealth weren’t prepared to engage in it until they were sure they had money to commit to it because they were quite behind Helen Nugent. When all the ministers came together in Sydney in May last year to finally talk about the Nugent Report, everything had been pretty well signed off. All that work about recommendations and agreeing to things had been a year of negotiations at officer level. So it was really a matter of most of the ministers signing off although there was a bit of grandstanding.

Origins of the report

At that meeting, Mary Delahunty who was the Arts Minister in Victoria put forward a recommendation to say, okay, we’ve looked at the major performing arts sector, but we in Victoria are getting a lot of flack from our constituents about the rest of the arts—not just the small to medium performing arts sector but the whole of the rest of the arts. What about the visual arts, and so on? So they proposed that there should be further investigation into other areas of the arts. It was a fairly general position that was put forward. They didn’t have any terms of reference. They just wanted to float the idea. And there was a huge fight about who should be in it and how it should happen. In the end, they settled on looking at only the performing arts sector because there wasn’t much money to look at the whole arts sector and where do you start and ‘how do you do it and really, we’re not into doing it for years on end’. The Cultural Ministers really wanted to sign off on Nugent, thank you very much, and they didn’t want to do anything else. So it was agreed the focus would be on the Small to Medium Performing Arts Sector and there was some talk at that time that there may well be a Visual Arts Enquiry, so that kept the peace there. There was also a discussion at that meeting by the ministers that they really didn’t want to be seen to be committing to another huge amount of money as they had done with Nugent, that that was a very unusual situation, a one-off and they didn’t want to get caught up in it. So they spent a lot of time on the wording. They talked about an “examination” of the sector. NSW’s position, despite the cynicism of the meeting, was that we should do it because it’s really good to have some research on the sector, even if it comes up saying things that we may already know. There’s some hard data there and you need that in terms of arguing with Treasury. Even if the other states didn’t have a position or didn’t want to go along with it, we were quite happy to support it and the other states all agreed. Then it was a matter of getting DCITA to come on board and eventually they did.

Terms of reference

A working party was set up and officers were nominated to be on it and qw with any working party, it needed to be hosted by a state and, in this case, it was hosted by Western Australia. So the officers all met to define the terms of reference and they came up with the following: the role that the small to medium organisations play in the performing arts sector of Australia’s cultural life; the sector’s capacity for creative innovation, experimentation, research and development; the contribution of the sector to audiences, employment and training; the role of the sector in regional touring and access programs; the contribution of the sector to Australia’s international profile; the resourcing of the sector including models of working, management and governance issues and cost and revenue dynamics; and the relationship between levels of government and the sector including enhanced management of funding.

That last one is probably code for whether you should end up with a formula for funding like Nugent

So they were very broad terms of reference and there wasn’t a huge amount of money to spend on the study. There was a discussion on the best way to proceed and most of you here would have been at the other end of that. There were 2 studies done. One was done on quantitative research that was done by a group called Hydes Consulting where you would have been asked to fill in a whole lot of financial data. There was another one, a qualitative study done by Campion Decent whom a number of you may know. Those 2 report then fed into a bigger report and what’s happened now is that bigger report has gone to the working party who talked about it a lot. It went back, bits got re-written and it went back again. And now it’s going to Cultural Ministers Council and that’s where we’re up to now.

Valuable statistics

I attended the first meeting of the working party but then I went overseas last year and I wasn’t around. But what a number of us were trying to do was to get some research to underpin what we believed to be the case, to have the hard data. So it’s not going to be any surprise when the report comes out that certain statements about this being the R&D end of the sector, the creative end, the sector that contributes most to international profile, that does most of the regional touring—none of that is going to be a surprise. So you might think when you eventually get to read it, oh yeah, we all knew that. Tell us something else. Where’s the dollars? But that is in fact quite important because, if you’re dealing with hard headed Treasury officials, even if it doesn’t go any further than the CMC, from a NSW perspective, from my perspective when I have to sit and argue with Treasury officials all the time, it’s actually very good to have this information to hand.

What next?

It will go to CMC when they meet on 1 May in Melbourne and they’ll discuss it. Then there are recommendations that I can’t talk about. Then they’ll decide what they’re going to do with it. Again, with Nugent, it wasn’t Cultural Ministers’ Council that attached the dollars to it, that was all done at an officer level in terms of trying to negotiate it. That’s ultimately what needs to happen. The other problem is that each state needs to deal with its own jurisdiction. With Nugent, some of the states weren’t interested in coming on board and it was very last minute stuff. If there’s going to be a common approach to this, I think what will probably happen that there’ll be general things that the states and the commonwealth will look at in terms of what they can do together. The states will use the data themselves to try and progress the situation for their own companies.

Inter-government cooperation

I would hope that we can get a clearer discussion between the Australia Council and ourselves about how we do the funding so that you guys aren’t always putting applications in for projects and you get funding from us but not from the Australia Council or the other way around. Or that there’s an agreement that the states do the boring stuff and we fund all the buildings and stuff like that and the Australia Council can go off and fund all the glamorous international stuff. If there was an agreement like that it would certainly be useful but I’m not sure what will happen. Certainly I think there’s a will at this point to reach some negotiations about those things so that it’s clearer to groups and to funding agencies what will happen.

Nugent inroads

KG
So you think Nugent might have broken some ground?

SD
I think it did. And for all my personal scepticism at the time, I think it’s made a lot of inroads. It has entrenched that elite group up there, but I also see that there’s a way to use this. Whether or not the Nugent companies were just trying to be nice, they were very strong in advocating for the Small to Medium Sector, saying they need to have more resources. How that translates is another thing. Now, I do have pick up on one thing that Keith said about funding being static for a long time. In fact, in NSW funding has grown and we’re looking at more buildings.

KG
Certain kinds of funding has grown.

SD
Even if you look at Theatre or Dance budgets, they have grown. It probably hasn’t grown as much as people would like but compared to when I first came to the Ministry a few years ago, it was totally locked in. The Theatre budget was 99% locked in. You’d go to a meeting and think, what’s the point? Whereas now, they actually fund projects and certain companies have received increases in funding and other companies have come online. Some who only ever received project funding now receive operational funding. So I think that’s been a good spin-off and partly to do with the fact that we have an Arts Minister who’s also the Premier.

KG
I’m talking about an overall situation where the states across Australia are taking increased responsibility for projects and production whereas the Australia Council funds are very locked and people are still heavily dependant on the Australia Council so I wasn’t commenting so much on the states. But I’m sure we all look forward with excitement to the infrastructure developments in NSW that are happening at this very moment.

SD
So do I—especially in Western Sydney.

KG
How important is this report for the NSW Ministry?

SD
I think it’s really important. We got the NSW data pulled out and just to have that to argue the case for Everleigh (Carriage Works, now purchased by the NSW Government for performing arts use) and more work on Leichhardt (other buildings) has been really important. And we couldn’t have done that alone. We’re really small and we don’t have the resources to get that sort of research done. And I have to say, the NSW companies were very good in responding to the enquiry. So, well done. And we did have the most companies who were reviewed in it.

[Sue Donnelly left the meeting at this point.] [Keith asked those present to speak about key concerns.]

Chris Hudson (ERTH, part-time administrator)
I think that size is not really the issue at hand and we’re really dealing with conservatism. The funding scenarios we see around the country are heavily biased towards the traditional and the classic. If we look at companies, and I’m not wanting to single any of them out as not deserving of support, but if we look at companies who work in more traditional genres such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra or The Song Company, we see that there appears to be plenty of government and corporate support. And one could say that their product is popular and that’s part of the reason for their success. But if you look at a popular cultural product such as dance parties, they don’t need the subsidies of $50 per seat that opera requires to exist and I think that indicates a bias against youth popular culture. We could ask what would happen if dance parties were funded to that extent, what type of event would we see.

The baby boomer solution for this situation is resources that encourage youth to consume antiquated cultural product such as discounts for seats and promotional programs encouraging people to consume cultural product that is not their first choice.

In Adelaide I only recently found out about the Major Festival Initiative which is a great way for companies to get reasonable amounts of money for the commissioning of new Australian work. I thought it was interesting that the way I found out about this was via a crumb that came our way to develop a show. It hasn’t been secured as yet but on consideration of the MFI I thought it was interesting as an initiative funding program. There’s no guidelines for the application. No public avenues that I know of to approach this funding program and it basically, from what I could tell, by how much one can supplicate to the festival directors of Australia. So I don’t think it’s really size we’re dealing with here. I think it’s a lack of support for art that perceived as risky or unusual.

More about Nugent

Rosalind Crisp (choreographer, dancer, Omeo Studio)
It’s interesting the way Sue Donnelly drew attention to the Nugent Report entrenching the elitism of the MOB people. It’s like it’s even undermined the small to medium companies more in a way, because that elevated them even further, entrenched their position.

KG
Nugent was very focussed on a small group of companies—the state theatre companies, the Opera, the Ballet and a bunch of orchestras. Together, those companies lobbied and they created a business plan. It was very specific. A banker working with a number of business people. There wasn’t an artist in sight and it was targeted. But the small to medium enquiry, 280 companies! As someone said when it started, why not take a smaller sample and work really hard on that instead of something so diffuse. There are other shockers. The Visual Arts Enquiry, for instance, has no brief to really analyse the financial situation. They didn’t ask the submitting bodies to give a financial breakdown of their situation. So it’s all much more anecdotal.

But as Suzanne said, and as Chris has said, in the area we all work in, there’s incredible diversity. We did a book last year for the Australia Council on Contemporary Performance in Australia with companies ranging from ERTH to Circus Oz. Of the 70 companies in that book, 34 had already toured internationally and often quite extensively. The big companies can’t tour as easily as the more mobile small to medium ones that carry our reputation with them overseas. And this is not very well acknowledged. And this is a problem for the small to medium companies. They’re increasingly being talked about. There is this enquiry that your general public and people who support the arts just don’t know about. I think that’s a major problem.

Small plays large

Michelle Vickers
I’m the General Manager of Legs on the Wall and what I’m going to talk about is much more specific to the challenges that we face because of our size and our limited resources. I think that one of the biggest challenges we face is that we’re a small company that’s often trying to, and expected to, operate as a large company. Some of our shows are quite large scale and we’re often dealing with major festivals, major venues and I find in those situations, you need to be able to react with the kind of quick responses that those sectors expect. They want to talk to your production department but you don’t have any full time production staff. That’s kind of you and I find that in that situation your analysis of any risk becomes a key factor in the way you operate. You have to make an assessment about what are the most important projects for the company, what’s the most important activity and where you’re going to take a risk in resourcing something further than just on a project by project basis.

Ensemble, unpaid labour rise

Legs also suffers from not having a permanent ensemble any more. For years we had four artists and were generally creating shows with casts of 4-5 which meant that they were able to keep up a certain level of physical skill and also of physical language. Over a number of years, we’ve moved to a project based company and we did this for a number of reasons but primarily for financial ones. We just weren’t able to sustain that. And for years when Legs did have a permanent ensemble if we didn’t earn the money to pay the ensemble, they just didn’t get paid. And I think that in this sector it would be interesting to understand what the value of unpaid labour is and favours that are called upon, based on people’s personal relationships, and a lot of that contributes to the sector. A lot of that keeps the sector alive and apart from a company level and an individual level, it’s largely unrecognised.

Scarce space

Another key issue for Legs is space and we’re in an extremely fortunate position in that we have a permanent space that we share with Stalker. However, it’s a completely inadequate space and almost unusable at times for the work that we do. As many of you would know if you’ve worked in there as circus or physical theatre artists, the rigging capabilities are extremely limited. The floor is uneven so you can’t even do a straight tumble run down it if you wanted to. It’s an unsealed space so we’re often unprotected from the weather which can make it an unsafe space as well. I think that’s a key problem for a lot of the S and M sector. They’re aren’t many affordable options around, as people would know. And it’s great that the Ministry in NSW is working towards developing a couple of spaces at the moment to address that. But I think space is still going to be a major problem for a while yet.

No room for error

Generally one of the problems related to size is that you’re constantly working with limited resources and with financial constraints and you’re taking a great deal of at least artistic risk and often financial risk and there’s very little room for error. The small to medium sector is more likely to suffer greatly from something going wrong than the larger companies who have a stronger capacity to spread their risks over a great range of projects. So if you’re working on a project basis or if you’re in a small company each risk that you take is so important and any fallout could potentially put an entire company at risk. Just look at the number of companies who are suffering at the moment from the hikes in Public Liability insurance. Legs is okay at the moment but I know some companies are going to the wall because they can’t ride out those problems over a number of years.

Picking up on what Chris said earlier, the larger sector certainly benefits greatly from the risks our sector takes but our sector is largely unprotected from the pitfalls of that risk

KG
That’s something I hadn’t thought about, the extent of risk. And I hate to return to the word “crisis” because I don’t like to toss it around too lightly but a lot of companies are living on the edge.

One size fits all

Rosalind Crisp
It does seem that the expectations have changed. It’s probably as much as it was [early in legs history] when artists were prepared to work for nothing and now there are artists in there who aren’t and why should they. But it’s like Legs has hit this ceiling where it can’t kind of move into being a MOB member [a client of the Major Performing Arts Organisations of the Australia Council]. So it’s straddled there at this mid-way point and I think that’s a problem for a lot of organisations who have developed and matured but the resources haven’t been there to take them further so they’re still reconstructing themselves.

KG
It’s primitive. It’s like you said earlier about small companies operating as if they were large ones. If you’re touring internationally, you have enormous responsibility. It’s a big responsibility.

Rachael Swain (Artistic Director, Stalker/Marregeku Company)
We often talk about having to have a structure where we can go from really big to really small and we do that constantly throughout the year. We have to be able to be this huge and tour shows with 25 people and then go back to having 2 people part time to keep the office open.

KG
There’s a high burn out factor. People do it for the love of it but they get punished for it. This is one of the hard things to convince governments and enquiries to think about. As well Australia has an appalling record at dealing with ensembles. I remember the various government fantasies of the 80s about funding ensembles. They didn’t last because there was never enough money. Most ensembles we knew have long gone. The unpaid labour thing is something as well which is not very well documented. The Australian Bureau of Statistics did some research on it in 1997. It was phenomenal the amount of unpaid labour in the arts in this country.

Nigel Kellaway (Artistic Director, The opera Project)
I’m sure there are many people here who have to fill out their little form every 3 months. It’s been going on for years. I’ve been doing it for about 5 years now. They keep collecting information.

KG
Peter Costello says that voluntarism is good for you.

Project-based funding & viability

Kate Dennis
I work as the Business and Accounts Manager at Stalker. I also work as part time administrator at One Extra Dance Company and I’m an active member of Theatre Kantanka Theatre’s Board, so I feel I’ve got a bit to say. I really feel strongly about what Ros just mentioned about companies growing out of something kind of “family”. There’s something that brings the people together originally and the companies develop on the blood and the unpaid labour of the artists and core members. And then slowly but surely the companies wind up continuing to be small companies who are trying to operate on an international level. I see that constantly—everyone’s stretched beyond the resources of their projects.

When I submitted a number of responses to the enquiry, I mentioned issues of governance and sponsorship and time and space, none of which I’m going to address today. I personally fluctuate on what the burning issues are so I’ll speak about the thing that’s burning in me at the moment. I’m really looking from my perspective at the financial administration and management of the companies and keeping companies viable. I feel very strongly about the approach to funding bodies of a project by project basis. What we’re asked to do is apply for funds and submit budgets that are break-even. I think something has to shift there. We’re going to state and to federal government and we’re saying we’re doing such important work on a national and international basis and we’re trying to develop our artform but every bit of money you give us we’ve got to spend on that particular project.

And because I’m interested in the running of the companies, I’m really concerned about how we can have surpluses on those project budgets—and I know it’s kind of a joke because we can never even fulfil the vision of the artists let alone have surpluses to run the company with or develop the people who work for the companies. Particularly the people who have come up through the companies and to have money left over for resources and infrastructure and getting off crap computers that are 10 years old. A lot of us have been working in the sector for 15, 20 years and we can’t give as much as we could when we were 20. There’s something about that whole business of applying for funding and not being able to ask for budgets where we’re allowed to put some money aside for cash reserves, and build up some security for our future.

Andrew Morrish
It’s the classic picture of the poverty trap. It’s the equivalent of the situation where every cent you get is committed…For me one of my fears is that this report will talk about how diverse, dynamic and successful this sector is which is lovely for us and acknowledgement is welcome. But what we’ve got is a diverse, creative, successful group of very poor people with no way to get out of that, no bridge being offered, no light at the end of the tunnel, just more and more of that.

KG
The whole concept of project has taken over. It doesn’t matter how far you are down the track, your work is still treated as a one-off project. Your track record doesn’t count, your body of work. We’ve heard so often recently about people being judged on their last project. What about the previous 10 years?

Michael Cohen (Artistic Director, Kantanka Theatre)
And the irony of this is that for some companies you can get more money by having that project existence than if you apply for a program. You’re actually safer being on that edge. It’s a savage irony actually.

Insecurely secure

Harley Stumm (Executive Producer, Urban Theatre Projects)
It’s complex. We just had our first commission from a major festival and our commission fee was almost as much as our triennial funding from the Australia Council we’ve had for the past few years. Okay, we get triennial funding from 2 funding bodies but being at the Performing Arts Market and hearing companies talking about developing work for international touring and contrasting it with UTP’s experience where we’re trying to make 3 or 4 shows a year, producing and presenting in Western Sydney, has made me think about the privileges and luxuries that we have compared to the ones who don’t have triennial funding, like Stalker and Strange Fruit and Kantanka. But also it makes you think about the advantages that those companies have. On the one hand we have the security of funding and permanent wages for 4 people, whereas we have responsibilities to our audiences and requirements to spread those resources not just into creating work but into producing and presenting it. When we do site-based community work, that means maintaining a database of audiences, keeping contact with communities, maintaining networks with our peers, with local government. Then I look at Strange Fruit and hear Roderick Poole say they’ve made 4 works in 8 years and I count up our 20 something in the same period. And I’m not slagging Strange Fruit but they’re in a position where they’ve got to keep making that work and keep touring it, or they don’t eat.

So in a way it’s a privilege for us to be able to create 3 works a year but then we put these under-developed works out there that are being judged against works that have been 2 years in development or works that have come from Belgium or France with huge resources put into them. I’m just thinking about how much we should be trying to produce. Should we be spending more time developing work? But then what happens if you want to make work in Western Sydney, which we’re committed to doing, where there is not a flexible black box theatre venue between Redfern and Kingswood. This means we make site-based work and we’re doing that because we’re interested in it, because urban geography is a key theme in our content but also out of necessity. So if you’re tying to make 3 or 4 shows a year, you’re putting stuff on in venues that have no history. Every dollar you spend in marketing has very few long term returns for the company. I understand Michelle’s problem with the Legs venue but at UTP we can’t develop any building capital or marketing capital or historical capital in a bigger sense. We’re always having to move around.

What, us viable?

Rachael Swain
One of the things that I get really concerned about from Nugent to this current enquiry and the kind of reality of our existence is that the recommendations and actions that came out of Nugent were very much based around financial viability, industry, better financial models and I think part of the nature of the beast in our part of the sector is that we’re not necessarily financially viable nor were we necessarily every intended t be that. And I know the last couple of big projects I’ve been involved with weren’t really viable. They had really long periods of research attached to them, long devising processes, they were about gaining new ground in terms of artform and cultural issues. I know some of our works are for community audiences, some are for particularly educated audiences, some are exploratory. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re about a cheap financial achievement and balance and roundness. It puts us in areas of risk and often that is dependent on individual’s choices and lifestyles. I know our company only exists because of the lifestyle choices of the freelancers that we work with and that we’re completely dependent on that.

People have chosen not to have children and mortgages and all kinds of things so that they can make this kind of work. I’m really concerned that there are going to be a whole lot of recommendations about how we can be more financially viable when that might not actually be in reality the nature of what we can be, the reality of what we can be if we choose to do what we do. That’s one of the concerns I have about the relationship between the report and our reality. I think for as long as we can possibly stand it, we shouldn’t become structurally funded. The management of our company might completely disagree with that but I think that staying project-based keeps us putting the money into the work. It keeps us desperate. It keeps us very unstable. It keeps us putting the money into the work and making the work the best it can be. I’ve had conversations about this with companies like NYID in Melbourne who see that for this scale, for this area of the sector that staying tight, staying flexible, staying project-based, staying responsive to the work that needs to be made is a kind of optimum position to be in. But it puts enormous stress on people—people leave.

Chris (ERTH)
But shouldn’t people be able to make the work they want to make and have children and earn a reasonable salary as well.

RS
They should. But at this time in this country …

Chris
It’s a 2-sided coin. In other sectors—even in industries like forestry or whatever, what is viability and what is sustainability? I think that people in the small companies like Stalker who are making new and exciting work, should be on a permanent wage and a reasonable wage.

RS
I don’t disagree with the “should” but I’m talking about what the reality is. It’s like it’s about society’s choice about paying for our level of enquiry and research. And in this country at this moment, it feels that the society doesn’t choose for us to be able to have a viable life and do that work.

Chris
Isn’t is worth talking about and to try and reach the goals we want to reach?

RS
Absolutely. But in terms of the focus of the work, that’s my feeling. For us it’s better to stay project-based which keeps it hard for us. And I think that the burning issues are always the fact that we never know if what we’ve got planned for the next month or 6 months is going to happen or not. So we’re all playing this waiting game of maybe we have to start waiting tables in the next moment…

KG
How long can you sustain that, though? You’re still young but it’s a pretty hard trot and it’s inequitable compared to lots of other arts cultures in other countries.

RS
It’s not sustainable.

Ros Crisp
It’s a Catch 22 because so many people give up, like Sue-Ellen Kohler, she gave up. It’s too hard. And that’s the fallout. People give up and that’s a huge loss.

Viability or sustainability?

Andrew Morrish
I think artmaking is always gut wrenching. By its very nature, it’s a hard thing to do. And if that’s confused with economic instability, you start to think that that’s part of the gig. Whereas in the past I’ve had conversations with people in The Australian Ballet (I don’t speak to people in the Australian Ballet these days) but all they talked about was how hard it was for The Australian Ballet with their limited budgets to do what they wanted to do.

There is an issue of ethics or morality which says, why can’t we be provided with in an adequate way so that we can get on with the struggle that’s artistic rather the struggle that’s just financial.

I don’t see it ever getting easy. Artmaking should be hard. It’s never going to be easy. And if it was, I for one wouldn’t be interested. But there’s an issue of sustainability. The real question is: how do you get enough support so that you can keep doing this thing which is hard to do? And I think there’s a distinction between viability which is kind of like a growth model and sustainability which is an ecological model which says I can keep doing this and I’m not having to destroy that much of the world in my attempt to do it.

Chris
That’s why I was interested in what you were saying, Kate, about not being able to show a surplus for projects and you just spend the money that you have because in any business models, there’s always a reserve. There’s always an amount that you put towards a reserve. It’s part of a sensible business plan.

Diminishing vision

Caitlin Newton-Broad
From my perspective, having spent 3 years in a small company (as former Artistic Director, PACT Youth Theatre), essentially 1 full-time staff member, 1 part-time staff member and about 350 volunteers and maybe 40-50 contracted artists paid at an abysmal rate sustained the life of the company. And I think a lot of companies here—and PACT is comparatively small on the scale of things—exist on a fairly similar model. That’s what surprises me all the time…The human resourcing is always so compressed and under stress. And I don’t think that necessarily is always a creative place to work from. I think it really produces a shrinking of our capacity to be intellectually engaged and to refresh ourselves creatively so that the work stays alive and so that you can think laterally to resolve things when they come up. I think when you work under that limited human resources conditions you’re in a reactive position—just like the poverty consciousness model. And it’s emotionally unsustainable. That reactive stuff is just so far away from what you dreamed that creative project or experience would be.

My interest is in how you write a report and answer, essentially, lots of the questions you can only respond to in anecdotal ways, or only use expressive terms to describe what you’re going through. And then you put dollar values to it. And it all seems quite reasonable. But I don’t know how the stuff that we’re feeding back can be digested and reported on adequately to reflect what’s happening. It would actually take a real strategist to put it into a framework that makes it saleable to the Treasury.

Anecdotal reporting

I just looked over the report that I wrote to the Small to Medium Sector Enquiry in the midst of a million projects, punching the stuff out and being hammered by various people in the youth arts sector saying, you have to make this the best report it can be. You have to make this the most convincing argument…And when you hear that the Nugent Report came out of people getting together in really in-depth meetings, coming up with a business plan together, as a collective of organisations—I think that would have been a really interesting way to maybe attack this report. As it is, we all did them on the fly. They’re anecdotal. It’s very hard to digest the information and make it readable in any way other than anecdotal. I think that’s a real problem for this area in terms of that relationship between economics and experience and the whole translation between the two.

It’s interesting to hear other companies speak about project funding and possibly one of those projects would eclipse the whole annual program of PACT, but people are still facing the same issues. And I can only respond emotionally and say it’s all a bit scary that we think we’re doing it hard at PACT and we know we have the tiny protection of a space, an identity, a miniature infrastructure. And you think, well that’s good but you’re just working so hard every moment of every day to keep it running. And you think, oh well, there might be a shift to another place. And you leave that organisation behind because you know that it’s never going to grow. So you might make a shift to another organisation that within its scale is suffering the same dilemmas. I think it’s about strategic reporting and the collection of hard data…I don’t know how you can put this anecdotal information into a powerful form, apart from having powerful friends and sit at powerful dinner parties.

KG
And those major organisation did form an association very quickly to fight their case.

Diversity versus strategy

Harley Stumm
And there are what 16 of them and they all do the same thing. There are flagship theatre companies, ballet, opera. They all run on basically the same model. They can actually all get together and do a strategic plan. There are 280 of us and look around the room, just the people here—Stalker, One Extra, Omeo, Urban Theatre Projects, Performance Space, RealTime, PACT, Kantanka, ERTH…. Okay, the work is probably most similar and that’s diverse enough but if you look at the structures—one company is touring internationally and doesn’t have triennial funding and this runs a venue and that one doesn’t…..There are so many differences. How would you do a business plan—

CNB
I have to say there has to be a way–

HS
–to work collectively.

CNB
—to digest the information. The questions we were asked were so vague. They were so broad, sweeping, I don’t know how you could make a sensible document based on the questions we were asked.

HS
Absolutely.

KG
And the process was so hurried. There wasn’t time for meetings like this. Regina Heilmann and Chris Murphy, you’ve just taken over as Artistic directors at PACT. It’s probably a little premature to ask for your thoughts…

Productivity versus poverty

Chris Murphy
A little, but I guess one thing that I would say is that just the amount of work that gets produced, that’s one thing that has astounded me looking at the history of PACT—the volume of work compared with the size of the resources. Also, I can comment from my experience with Kantanka over the years, on the unpaid labour and the energy and commitment and love that goes into the work that is so huge and that’s what sustains the companies. At PACT I see a similar scenario.

Regina Heilmann
What astounded me first coming into the job was, my God, how did Caitlin and Lucy Evans (Administrator) work under these conditions! But gee, the chairs don’t work, the computers don’t work. I thought, how on earth did they generate so much fantastic material over the years working in these conditions? I thought, I can’t…I had to go out, go for a walk. There’s no windows, no light in the room…But also it costs money to dream and take time. And I get the feeling that you’re constantly working on that kind of energy that goes ‘how much money can we ask for and will the other little foundations prop it up and…’

CNB
….being only as good as your last work and the terror of the whole thing collapsing.

Ros Crisp
I thought I might read some of the submission I sent. “The Omeo Dance Studio is committed to the development of an informed and critical culture of dance. It nurtures research and enquiry during ongoing practice and acknowledges risk and experimentation as essential for the development of new work. Omeo is the site of my practice and vision as a dance artist. In speaking about what it contributes it seems odd to give from this perspective when I set the studio up 5 years ago to serve in making my work as an artist. Now it does so much that one can look upon it and say this is an organisation and it contributes to Australia’s cultural life through supporting the making of new dance, experimentation, research, collaborations, emerging artist opportunities, mentorships, training, tours, international exchanges, a community of 50 peers and a database of 600. But hey, an organisation. This is an organisation by virtue of the fact that I have organised voluntarily the creation and production of my work, a space, a community, a venue, a phone line, a group of peers, relationships with funding bodies and critics. A small percentage of this has been funded activity. I live below the poverty line and have done so for all my life as an artist. I received a Fellowship from the Dance Board for 2000-2001 that has given me a taste of how the rest of the world lives. During this time I have used the financial security to facilitate more projects at the studio and to promote the work that has developed there with my company Stella b to venues overstate and overseas. The studio is no longer strictly “me” but it’s still inextricably linked to my work in major and minor ways. As a space for my ensemble to work in, through the young artists that art attracted there through the organic community that has evolved and now through the artistic community of peers that voluntarily manages Omeo Dance Incorporated.

“We have developed our skills as administrators, promoters and producers increasingly in conflict with our desires to simply do our work as artists. However, the net return from both endeavours is simply not enough to support a paid administrator and the prospect of queuing for one at the funding bodies is not encouraging. The growth of my work and the studio means that I’m now even more stressed than ever—artist, collaborator, choreographer, dancer/performer, publicist, producer, administrator, teacher, studio cleaner, mentor, caretaker, artistic adviser, board member, reporter to cultural ministers councils and last but not least, partner to another artist. All I can say is Help! The critical challenge is survival.” I’ll finish there. So, I don’t know how they dealt with that.

Harley
Put it in a basket labelled “another artist whinge”

Whose claim to fame?
Andrew Morrish
One of the things that interests me about Omeo is that it’s never been funded. Ros’s projects have been funded and she takes money out of the budget to pay for studio rent but as an organisation it’s never had any support. It’s been quoted as one of the 5 top dance producing organisations in the state. And I get a little bit annoyed when arts departments start promoting Omeo as an interesting and important asset for the state when it’s made no contribution to it. In a way that independence has been really important for Ros. The studio is paid for by people renting the space from us and the work that we put in for nothing doesn’t generate money to pay for anything but the rent and the costs that come with that space. So it’s interesting that all of a sudden it’s become an artifact, a contribution to a sector. It’s been appropriated by the bureaucracies in this way and held up as a shining example. The thing that strikes me about this sector is that we think everybody else is the success. We think we’re the only ones struggling and everybody else is doing so well compared to us. And this is a successful model but at what cost, and to what end? At what point did we volunteer to become part of a sector when in fact, the impulse was Ros responding to her own artistic needs. Organisations grow in these ways. You get some support but to get more you have to become more and more like that which is required to be like to get the support. There’s a shaping. We start trying to be strategic and fulfil perceived objectives of funding bodies. And there’s a whole heap of us rattling around in that world and being distracted from the artistic intention as a result. It’s a problematic thing.

Rachael Swain
Whenever they have these Celebrate Australia things—I don’t know if any of you have been involved in them, they’ve had them in Japan and Indonesia and we’ve been dragged into them a number of times—they’re basically always the small to medium companies that get put into those things because we’re interesting, we communicate in places where other languages are spoken because we use visual and physical languages to tell stories. They’re not the MOF [Major organisation fund] companies. When Australia wants to hold up the flag and say this is what we are, it’s our work that goes on display.

Michelle Vickers
And often you’re already on tour internationally so, it’s usually the companies that are in that region that find themselves in these showcases.

AM
The other part of that is that I find it completely distressing when paid consultants ring up Ros to get the data which she contributes for nothing. I’m not allowed to speak to them but if I was, I’d say if it’s that important, could you donate your salary to Ros while she does your work for you. This report is supposed to have cost $63,000 and a couple of people have done very well from it. It’s not us. This is just a personal little thing but it’s indicative of something bigger.

A small dance company tries to fit

Amanda Card (Executive Producer, One Extra Dance)
Since 1996 the model for One Extra has changed. It was a directive of the Board as a response really to people like Ros and all the independent artists working in Sydney. These artists, independents and small companies have always done everything. The artistic director, the person making the work has always been the accountant, the office manager and multiple things. There was a stage where One Extra had 5 people in the office—2 co-artistic directors, a publicist, a general manager and an office manager. That was in the days when “small” companies were actually quite large. There were 4 or 5 in Sydney, a few in Melbourne. Those companies have been decimated over the last 10 years and the independent sector is just people making work under their own steam.

So One Extra sounds a bit like PACT. It’s basically me full-time and Kate 2 days a week. We provide a producer model for independent dance theatre artists. The reason it’s dance theatre I guess is that’s my curatorial bent and also it’s the history of the company. Kai Tai Chan 1976 to 1992 and Julie-Anne Long and Graeme Watson for the interim between 1992-96. Janet Robertson had the company from 1996-2000 and she worked with a variety of artists. I tried to bring it back to the idea of working with a group of artists working in a dance theatre mode and as wide as I can push that model.

But I think what I find frustrating are 2 major things. The biggest thing for our company is the disparity between the NSW Ministry and the Australia Council. The Ministry understands why we exist in this mode. The Australia Council has a real problem with a producer model. What the Council seems to be doing in the dance area at least is that they have a finite amount of money and every 3 years they re-fashion it to make it respond to what they think the community is in need of. And it’s usually a bit like the law. It actually runs up behind what is actually happening. So as soon as something start to become familiar, they change their program to try and catch up with what’s really happening. So they’ve just recently done a change, a Special Programs grant which is a reintroduction of a yearly grant. So you could be triennial in dance or project funded. Or you could be a yearly triennial, which I find really interesting. So they brought it back in but they didn’t bring any more money to the coffers. They took money out of New Work and put it into Special Programs.

So then you apply differently and the model you apply for is one that we were unsuccessful with last year for various reasons. The question they asked was what do I do, what is my reason for being there? And so this year I’m doing exactly what you’re talking about—looking at how they structure what they do and trying to formulate what we do to fit so that they can understand what we’re trying to do. And I’ve just had a meeting, well it was a collective meeting, with Karilyn Brown from Audience Marketing and Development (Australia Council). What they’re doing is taking each sector and looking at it and at the moment, they’re looking at dance. So over the next 3 years they’re going to look at dance and try to work out what to do with dance to make the structures work. What they’ve come up with now is that perhaps a producer model might be quite a good one. But when I had the conversation with Karilyn it was all about the producer model to take things overseas and I felt a bit like the people in the Northern Territory—I went to an Ausdance thing in NT recently—and they were saying to us people in other states, look we can’t even get up to where you are. We don’t have any infrastructure at all. And what Karilyn Brown was talking about was taking companies like Bangarra and ADT and Ballet Lab overseas. But there’s a whole lot of people doing stuff here that don’t have any structural relationship and One Extra is struggling to keep those people working.

At One Extra we try and have a relationship with an artist. So an artist might come in and work with someone else, then they might produce a small solo work and then in a larger work and we try to have them flowing through. But we have drop them off all the time. People are dropping off. Kate Champion’s in this position at the moment, being employed for 6 weeks of this year.

Kate Champion (choreographer-dancer, Artistic Director Force Majeure)
And I’m very successful.

The innovation trap

Amanda
Everyone else thinks Kate’s doing real well and it’s great but she’s employed for 6 weeks of a whole year. So I’m trying to find ways to keep those people functioning and producing work. One of the other things I find really frustrating is that when we apply for funding from the Australia Council, we’re asked as a small sector organisation—we’re still project funded—to deal with the word “innovation” all the time. We have to be innovative. And yet triennially funded companies in the Dance sector are not asked to respond to that word. They’re asked to respond to the notion of development of audiences, long term strategy and so on. So the people with less money are expected to do the innovation while those with more resources—and in dance that’s the people with the solidly booked 6-8 dancers employed for 12 months of the year… It seems to me to be an odd relationship that we’re asked to be innovative but we make a project for $60,000 and we’ve got to employ 5 people and have 6 weeks rehearsal once the choreographer can start working with their people. And of course, with 6 weeks to develop and rehearse, we have under-developed work. But all the independents that we work with are expected to produce this innovative work, this new and exciting work, without any of the aerials and the videos and the…..They’re just people on stage most of the time and we beg, borrow and steal anything we can find to make the production values slightly better. But they’re always working in a situation where they can’t guarantee they’ll produce this incredible innovation.

Fiona Winning (Artistic director, Performance Space)
And then you have to do all the other stuff as well. You have to find an audience. You have to manage your company well.

AC
That’s the easy part. I think One Extra’s is a really good model. A model that works…It would be great to have a model where you could have someone who could work with someone like Ros Crisp and wouldn’t have any relationship to the creation of the work but would actually help you get to that point where you don’t have to do all that administrative stuff. Some kind of centralised place perhaps. This happens overseas all the time. Here we don’t be able to come to terms with the changing models that are out there.

With dance it’s really difficult. In the case of a show like Traffic (Stella B) it was incredibly innovative in terms of someone watching a lot of dance. But you get someone who comes in from outside of that, I can’t see that they’d necessarily see that. There’s not a lot of wheels and whistles there.

Producer-centred funding

Rosalind Crisp
I think there’s a suspicion about what One Extra does and that’s why it’s hard to make a shift. I know what you’re saying. In Europe there is that model. There are lots of theatres and lots of producers who will curate what they want and support it really well. But here, there’s a suspicion. I’m not quite sure why that is.

Kate Champion
Maybe it was the shift from when Kai Tai Chan set it up. It kept the same name but went from one thing to the other. There’s a sentimentality there.

RC
Maybe because we have that history of doing what Legs or Stalker or I’ve done where there’s been this tiny family or community thing that was free and so you kind of feel…

Andrew Morrish
I know when I was on the Victorian Dance Assessment Panel, which I was for 3 years while they still had one, we were very suspicious of that sort of (model) because we used to say, it’s a hidden tier of funding. As the funding body, we were worried that people would start and invent their own funding bodies. So Dancehouse would say give us this money and we’ll decide how to spend it. We’d get really nervous about that. We’d say, where is your accountability? Our accountability is clear—applications come in and we assess them all. That was one of the concerns that I noticed when things got tight. We’d say, oh they’ve got their own little funding tier and got really nervous about that. I think the time for a producer model is ripe. And there’s got to be a way to articulate that. But the curatorial focus would be what’s necessary.

RC
The problem is also that there isn’t the money. So it’s going from one area into something else. It’s not coming from elsewhere. So you’re in competition with me then for funding. That’s the situation.

AC
Also this new producer model, this idea of shift will not be given any more money.

An unsustainable situation: exploitation

Anna Messariti
My own position is very personal and I wouldn’t like to be considered just as representing the view of Playworks. For the last 9 years I’ve been working as an artistic director of small to medium sized organisations in 2 states and prior to that I worked at the Australia Council as the Creative Development project officer (Theatre Board) and the views that I hold are a reflection on all of those years of work and what I perceive has happened and I suppose my preoccupations at the moment are more to do with big picture things rather than the situation of the particular company that I work for.

I perceive the situation that we have at the moment in the sector as being totally unsustainable on every level. I suppose the level at which it affects me the most is that I find it ethically unsustainable because I feel that the only way we can survive and continue to exist within the sector is to be complacent about an ethos of exploitation of everybody that works in the area from the least experienced artist to the most experienced, from the volunteer to the highest paid amongst us. At all levels, the situation is really quite appalling, irrespective of the fact that sometimes it’s interesting and often rewarding and maybe good fun at times, it is at the same time totally immoral and the state and federal governments are complicit in this.

I recently went to a strategic planning meeting of a national organisation which was run by a consultant whose rate of pay was [considerable]. This person’s background was in marketing and he did a lot of consultancy work for state arts funding bodies, for DCITA; I don’t know what involvement he had with the Australia Council. He basically described arts funding at this point in time as being a 2-headed monster. At one head of the monster was the Australia Council and at the other head was the discretionary funds of the minister. And he said, though he didn’t produce the facts to back it up, that in the last financial year the discretionary funds of the ministers exceeded the amount of money that the Australia Council has to fund the whole of the arts, and that this would be the first time this had happened since the inception of the Australia Council. And I felt really alarmed by that because I thought if what he’s saying is true, we don’t know it, we don’t realise it and what we’re actually witnessing here is the complete disintegration of the arm’s length principle as we know it.

Funding for political gain

He then proceeded to tell us that there would be no more increases in funding in this sector. That the outcome of the Small-To-Medium Report would be nothing. We wouldn’t get any more money. It wasn’t an enquiry but a report. I mean, we’ve heard this everywhere. That the trend we are seeing at state and federal level at the moment is for all ministers to take the view that they’re no longer interested in arts funding for its own sake. They’re interested in arts funding that is directly tied to political gain. And so if they can see a voter outcome, political benefit in supporting the arts, this is basically where we may see increases. He referred to it as the Ra Ra money which was regional and rural money, ie where the political interest is at the moment and that’s what we should all be striving for.

In that situation where you’re actually trying to plan the future for another struggling small to medium sized organisation as a voluntary board member who already works for another under-resourced organisation that has to manage its own voluntary board and the vicious cycle of exploitation that goes on, I felt really quite desperate. I thought I’ve seen enough in the arts in the last 10 years I’ve been working in it that the minute we start to compromise the artistic integrity of what we believe in and what we do, and start to pander to all these sorts of political agendas, we’re lost, the work is lost. There’s no point in trying to work in it any more because it’s a completely cynical exercise.

Funding from ignorance

I don’t really know what the solution is. I feel that since 1997 when the restructuring of the Australia Council took place and we saw large committees and boards turned into smaller and smaller funds which have now been reinvented as Boards again, we saw a conflict of interest policy developed which basically means that nobody who’s involved in work at any level or who knows anyone or has any kind of relationship with anybody on any level can actually sit at a table and make a decision. And we have seen a situation where there used to be subjective but often passionate and interesting discussion about the way that the arts got made in this country. That’s what we used to have and it may have had its problems but I wonder if what has replaced it, this incredibly sterile numerical model which is very much applications- based. And anyone who’s ever worked for a funding body knows how easy it is to manipulate that system if you’re strategic about it. And “strategic” is a word we’ll probably hear a lot more of when the results of the Small-To-Medium Report are published. I suppose I just feel as though without even realising it, many of us are complicit in a culture of exploitation and dishonesty that we’re not even aware of—and we have no choice about it.

I came out of the meeting where there was talk about the Ra Ra money and the 2-headed monster feeling really angry about this, that it’s degenerated to this point and most of us don’t even realise it. But now I feel quite frightened by it and I think we need to come together more and express our discontent. But instead of directing it at the funding bodies whom I perceive to be completely powerless, I think we need to be directing it towards ministers, towards politicians. I think we need to bypass that whole level and go direct to the people who do have the power to do actually something about it.

The NSW: the international trap

The only other thing I’d like to say is to do with relates to NSW in particular. I’ve worked in other states and I work for a national organisation at the moment. The one thing I’m aware of in NSW that I think affects us all in a different way from any other state is that in NSW, every organisation and every artist who’s subsidised at any level is expected to be catering to a kind of national agenda. NSW has that reputation of being the international city. We’re expected to be international in the way that we operate. We’re expected to have that kind of leadership. But if you actually compare the infrastructure and the level of support that people get to work in NSW, if you compare it to what’s going on in every other state it’s just unbelievable. If I could be absolutely honest about this, when I read the report in The Australian a few weeks ago about the investment in buildings in NSW, I thought oh, that’s really great— but it’s 10 years too late. The roof of the Performance Space has been falling down for a decade. I remember Sarah Miller in 1991 talking about the buckets collecting water and the fact that the building could have been bought… I remember all of that, all the planning around it. I feel the crisis has existed for a decade and finally something is being done about it. We don’t know exactly what but something is being done. Whereas in Queensland they’ve invested in an infrastructure that’s much bigger than the arts sector that exists there but over a decade you might actually see that whole community and population grow into it. And I feel as though the whole country needs to be at that level at the moment because what we have is a situation where the thing that will disappear in this continual exploitation of artists and arts workers is experience and wisdom in the field and in that sense all that will happen is that we’ll all go backwards or we’ll just become incredibly mediocre.

What to do?

KG
I think a lot of us are feeling the same. It’s interesting with the craft organisations in NSW and with the NAVA (the National Association of Visual Artists) fighting to make that enquiry work, they’ve certainly gone straight to ministers. In fact, NAVA got so angry after the meeting with Rupert Myer that I attended that it immediately put a figure on how much they needed. They’d never done that. And the next day in The Australian they said we want an extra $15 million a year for the visual arts. I thought that was great. It gives people something to fight about. You actually put a value to it. This happens in all other fields like marine biologists working on projects say this is what the area needs for the next 10 years. In the arts we’re very loath to do these kinds of things. So, Anna, those words could be fightin’ words. And perhaps tonight we should decide what we want we think we should do, if anything.

Fiona Winning
That’s one of the reasons why we decided to proceed with the forum tonight even though it was going to be before the report came out. It’s because there’s got to be a way…In my folder, I had completely forgotten about this, in Victoria, about 40 small companies got together to respond to the enquiry and for all of the reasons that we know, we didn’t do that in NSW. So maybe this is the time to be mobilising to have some sort of response. And I agree, talking directly to ministers.

What happens to the art?
One of the things that I think I’ll talk about is the art. Let’s go back to the art and what is at stake at the moment. To me, in these 6 week projects where many independent artists are meant to self-produce, create an innovative work and then find an audience and blah blah blah, it seems that we are in an impossible situation and that we probably need to be talking about some really radical re-thinking about the way we make work in this country. Every international festival we go to, we all get depressed because we can’t make work like that because, you know, in Belgium….you know, they don’t show a work-in-progress until they’ve been working for 3 months!

I feel a little like Russell Dumas in saying that all we do is look to other places at the moment because we’re so fucked. So let’s try to think about what is going to make it better. And I’d suggest another set of discussions is needed. Because the conditions we’re working under are pathetic. I think people are achieving astounding results given those conditions. But I had a lot of trouble coming to terms with my job when I first started here because here we are with triennial funding from the New Media Arts Board and we have one broken down projector that has to be serviced every 6 weeks. I had a computer that operated at one sentence a fortnight. I mean some of that has changed and some of that has been upgraded but nevertheless in terms of making new media work, it’s a joke. We can’t afford to hire the stuff for a month to show it in the galleries because that means the artists get nothing. So you’re forever weighing up these variously stupid equations between paying for the work and paying for the infrastructure of the equipment.

So the lack of technology, the lack of time to make work, the dismantling of ensembles so we can’t experiment on any sort of ongoing basis and this absolute demand for people to be able to do everything, whether they’re the self-producing artist, or the director of the Performance Space who’s still learning how to do some aspects of her job. Going back to Chris’s opening comments, because of the conditions that we’ve been talking about, I know that I make decisions in my job that are extremely conservative. I find myself looking at something that is a good idea and looking at how we make that good idea work and unless there’s something like a 60% chance of being able to do it, we can’t invest staff resources to try it. So it means that on a producing level and on an artistic level, we’re actually diminishing our visions constantly. And I know that we have to be pragmatic as well.

Unnatural attrition

But I actually think we’ve got to the position where we’ve diminished our vision so seriously that we’re not going to be able to compete internationally any more. Looking at the work that comes out of this space, several years ago the Performance Space director could have said well there’s this many international tours of works from this space. There haven’t been any for a number of years. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a reflection of the work. There’s been good work but not as good as that fucking Belgian work! One of the contributing factors to that has been the gradual attrition of artists and producers and administrators and good people in this area of work is enormous. We need to be arguing that we have people with skills to make good art and with the conditions necessary to make good art, it will be done. It is being done. It’s just that the good art is only being made under awful conditions generally and we are being diminished by this not just personally but culturally on a much broader level.

I was heartened by the Roger Wilkins (Director General of Arts, NSW) interview in RealTime (#48) because it seemed like he might respond to those issues and I don’t know if we can argue strongly onto a national ministerial level, but it seems we do have to be talking about the diminution of ideas.

Despite my depressing rave, a lot of good art is still coming out of Australia and a lot of it is going overseas. It’s just getting harder and harder to make and the visions are being seriously diminished all the time. Actually at the Performing Arts Market—I don’t know if this is any guide—the international delegates were making noises about the work not being as impressive as in other years. Now whether that’s to do with the choice of work, I don’t know.

Rachael
I think they always say that.

Supply & demand

KG
The thing is everyone works their arses off. Artists put out terrific work. Governments can be complacent. The booklets we’ve done for the Australia Council, we’ve done 5 of them now, show an astonishing range of work and a lot of it has travelled. Now it might be touring on the sweat and love of the performers but that still looks really good on paper and as Rachael said, it’s the small to medium companies that are doing these international tours, not the state theatre companies.

Caitlin Newton-Broad
One thing I’d like to say as devil’s advocate is that the small to medium companies don’t necessarily get good audiences in Australia. So, in fact, you still need that groundswell of support from audiences in your own country. And really, I don’t feel like we as a field do so well on an audience level. But it really depends on what perhaps you mean by audience.

KG
The Australia Council’s Audience and Market Development promote this work very well overseas. There seems to be no equivalent work on the ground in this country. Although there’s a growing number of producers, touring networks are still not strong.

Clare Grant
There’s a system of distribution they can plug into overseas. There aren’t the systems here.

KG
Terry Cutler (former Chair, Australia Council) spoke about cluster studies. They’re all the go now. You work out the distribution of the arts and where it is and what’s resourcing it and how many funding directions are supporting it and how it can help itself. DCITA actually funded one for several million dollars in the new media area to see how digital arts and new media is working in Australia. As Suzanne Donnelly has said, in this area there are not enough statistics to know what ‘s happening. And yet, the whole Australia Council direction shifted towards the Saatchi & Saatchi demand side. It was almost like we’ve created all this product, supply if you like, but it’s not getting taken up, so now let’s look at demand, the audiences. They went about it in a funny way and I suppose the Saatchi Report will soon be forgotten, but perhaps not now that Cutler’s gone. But it’s like nobody wants to really invest additional funds in basic artform activity, the supply side.

What to do? Part II

Michael Cohen
Instead of trying to form a national coalition which sounds very grand but is probably unachievable, is there room for something like happened in Victoria which happened before the Small to Medium Performing Arts report was undertaken. I think they got together and made recommendations to the people who put together the report as to what the guidelines should be. Given that NSW is the most populous in terms of companies represented in the report, is there not space? Of course, it’s another voluntary job for someone to organise it, but is there room for an umbrella lobby group. Is it just an email noticeboard. Is there room for that among a disparate group of NSW performing arts companies?

KG
If we do something like that it’s important that the NSW sector talks to the Victorian sector and so on. It might not need to be huge. We don’t want to form an incorporated association.

FW
It might not need to represent everybody either. It’s a lot of work to make sure that all the performing arts companies are represented. Maybe it’s a sectoral thing within the Small to Medium companies.

MC
What about an organisation like SAMAG?

Jan Irvine
SAMAG (Sydney Arts Management advisory Group) doesn’t have the resources. I was actually just thinking about that and whether there could be some funding available through the Ministry or whatever. Being time-poor, how much time can you really devote to getting lobbying strategies together. I don’t want to use the word consultant because it has such terrible connotations…but I’m just thinking whether someone could be funded to drive a lobby group even for a period.

MC
Even the Carriageworks at Wilson Street is an example of a pretty disparate group of people who got together and in a kind of very ad hoc way wrote letters and sent emails. I’m sure that wasn’t what pushed it over the line but we can only hope it contributed some impact. I don’t agree that art is created out of desperation, or that we should accept that. I really disagree with that. Now, I’m not putting my hand up to run a lobby group, but I’m wondering if there’s not space for that.

Harley Stumm
That’s an example, and the buildings in Western Sydney and what’s been happening here at Performance Space. The most effective kind of lobbying is the companies who have some common interest working really hard on it. Rather than everyone feeling they have to sign up. Maybe some kind of strategic plan to assist in identifying goals and opportunities. What Wilkins said in RT was about good policy being a mix of opportunism and forward thinking. It’s political speak, okay, but it’s true. You know what you want and when you see an opening for one of the things you want, that’s when you push for it. Even though it might actually be your second highest priority, there might be that time when that’s the chance to get it. I think we need to be more strategic and I don’t have any objection to that word.

KG
A smaller group of companies working in Contemporary Performance challenging the outcomes of this report when it’s released could be quite strong. Especially if we can find some allies interstate.

HS
And there might be time when Railway Street and Griffin and Sidetrack and other companies who aren’t represented here where we should be working on the broad front with them. But there would be times when we have common interests and times when we’d be in competition.

FW
We can start with the people in this room as the network to be contacted about coming together.

8 April 2002
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