Wanted: Creative producers

For many individual artists and small companies working in performance, the time and energy they expend on self-producing is becoming increasingly exhausting, often threatening to drain their creativity. One solution, often raised but rarely discussed in depth, comes in the form of the ‘creative producer’, a kind of cultural angel of mercy.

On August 8 RealTime and Performance Space held the latest of our popular open forums for artists, this time to address the role of the producer in contemporary performance. Some 50 artists, curators, producers and venue managers listened to and talked with our guests. Rosemary Hinde is the director of Hirano, an agent and a producer of dance across Australia and Asia. Martin Thiele works as a producer in performance, film and new media. Harley Stumm, formerly with Urban Theatre Projects, is now working for Performing Lines. Amanda Card is the Executive Producer of One Extra Dance. Hinde and Thiele are based in Melbourne, Stumm and Card in Sydney. The session was hosted by RealTime’s Keith Gallasch and Performance Space Artistic Director Fiona Winning. What follows is drawn from the complete, transcript. See RealTime-Performance Space Forums on the left of our home page for other forums).

 

Agents, presenters, producers

You could say that all producers are creative, that they search out and nurture the creativity of others. But, of course, some producers are more creative than others, in particular those who don’t just pick up an already developed work but who are in there from the beginning, with the artists, helping to shape, fund and mount the work, sustaining the artists’ vision.

In the Australian performing arts, our image of the producer, let alone creative producer, is not very clear. There are agents: some look after artists and groups as individual entities, others harness a particular group of artists, like Strut ’n’ Fret (unfortunately unable to make it to the forum) in Brisbane who have effectively put together a stable of idiosyncratic, cutting-edge cabaret performers. Some double as agents and producers, alternating roles as the need arises. There are venues whose programming helps to shape a terrain for artists to work, ranging from the incubators, like Performance Space and PICA, to the Sydney Opera House where Philip Rolfe, Virginia Hyam at The Studio, and other staff will program seasons but also commission some work and follow its gestation and development through to the end. Then there’s Performing Lines. It picks up innovative work it thinks it can tour successfully and sometimes can be in there from the beginning as a producer with artists and projects it feels it can commit to. But its resources, and its brief, for this kind of activity are limited.

Is there something missing from the arts ecology at the moment—a group of independent producers who are not necessarily attached to venues and who are not agents but who work closely with a small group of artists and companies? The forum began to work towards establishing precisely what role the creative producer plays, who needs them and how funding models can accommodate them.

Amanda Card described the evolution of One Extra from an artistic director-driven company to a facilitator for choreographers and dancers to mount works with Card herself as executive producer. The move was in part responsive to local needs: “the bottom had fallen out of the company structure…It was also generational. A lot of people were coming out of companies and wanting to create their own work but there wasn’t a model [and] not enough time to spend in the studio creating the work [while being] administrators, marketers, financiers, whatever.” Card said that One Extra provides those services where possible and as early as possible in the development of new work.

Rosemary Hinde has run Hirano Productions for 15 years: “I do 3 things. I function as an agent. I represent companies with existing productions and tour them within the Asian regions on a tour-by-tour basis. I produce collaborations and co-productions with international partners from Asia—and that’s a big part of my work. Also, where it’s possible, I present Asian companies in Australia—mostly in the areas of dance and physical performance… Artists’ interests, it seems to me, have traditionally been represented and safeguarded by managements and agents. Their role is to represent the artists rather than that being part of the producer’s role.” Hinde thinks that the label “producer” has been widely adopted, but without addressing what the role entails: “Ten years ago when you dealt with Australian arts companies, they had general managers and artistic directors. Now they all have executive producers.”

 

Inhibiting structures

Both Hinde and Thiele spoke of the problems presented by traditional company structures. Thiele described company producers expending more energy on servicing boards of management than on their creative role, a condition he’s worked on overcoming in his own practice. Hinde put a case for reviewing company structures: “Traditionally, within a funded and not-for-profit context, funding has been driven through the core unit of the company with its general manager and artistic director or executive producer. Historically, that’s been the basic unit and model of arts funding in Australia. Now, I’m actually not sure that that is any more the most economically productive way of deploying funding because it seems to me—and I work with companies. I tour companies that have exactly those structures—that what you’re effectively doing when you fund things that way is to duplicate roles…A company that does 2 seasons a year, it seems to me, doesn’t need a marketing manager. But maybe 6 companies who are grouped together with a complementary set of skills, in the way a festival works with specialist managers who come together and work as a team that service each of those individual companies, might be a better way of looking at it. Performing Lines is definitely one model. Arts Admin in London is also a model that supports companies over time.”

There was further discussion about artists not needing to build their own stand-alone company structures or, certainly, elaborate ones. It was suggested that more than ever before there are various structures to tap into and make good use of—Performance Space, the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne City Council (which has its own Creative Producer in Stephen Richardson), Hirano, One Extra, Performing Lines, and agents who do also act as producers, like Marguerite Pepper and Strut’n’Fret. However some inhibiting factors were described. Rosemary Hinde pointed to the growth of arts centres “which lock up an enormous amount of resources…are hard to access and don’t work with potential national and state partners.”

Anne-Louise Rentell described the Illawara Performing Arts Centre as addressing the producing role for local artists. Rentell is Performing Arts Facilitator in Wollongong, a position created by the NSW Ministry for the Arts to facilitate professional performing arts in the Illawarra region. She describes her role as “a semi-producer.” The centre is well-resourced, programs big companies, has “2 great venues”, so, says Rentell, “we’re ripe to actually provide opportunities for development and to produce local work from the ground up.” In this model the centre provides staff and facilties, but the funding for artistic content is sought from the state and federal governments and, if touring, through Playing Australia. Perhaps then, as with Melbourne City Council, local government could focus on funding creative producers.

 

Creative status

However, some speakers thought that attitudes to producers would need to change as well as the organisational and funding structures already discussed. Both Martin Thiele and Harley Stumm spoke of the importance of the producer in areas superficially not part of the creative process. Thiele said, “I think a creative producer provides consensual, logistical compliance, financial and technical support to a project or at least oversees those particular elements of a project. I think in [performing] arts, film and television, which are the 3 mediums I’ve worked in over the last 12 months, the producing element is essential.” Stumm commented, “I think a lot of the things that are often seen as ‘dry’ management tasks (budgets, schedules and so on), they’re just a different discourse about the creative process. A budget is a plan for the distribution of resources. So, you can’t do all that work without having a really clear idea of the vision for making that work of art.”

Thiele’s concern is that the performing arts needs independent producers, but that they have no status: “Historically, artists have taken responsibility for self-producing and I think that within the arts support infrastructure there’s still an assumption that artists will take that responsibility. And I think that’s something we need to address because, generally speaking, independent creative producers have very little status within the arts. Within the film industry it’s acknowledged that such support is core and essential. So a producer is acknowledged alongside a writer and a director and, in terms of the budgeting structuring, is what you call “above the line.” So it’s acknowledged that the role the producer plays is a core part of actually creating an artwork, a film.

 

Another model

Fiona Winning introduced “another model—one of my fantasies—that might sit alongside a series of other models such as [the local government one]. This is of an independent producer with a very lean machine/office. They work with a cluster of artists in quite intense relationships over a number of years to create their vision, whether it be to develop a work, make a new work, to get that on somewhere, to get it toured either nationally or internationally.”

Sophie Travers, director of Critical Path (a NSW dance workshop and masterclass program at Drill Hall, Rushcutters Bay), who has had extensive experience working in the UK, was asked to describe the work of Arts Admin. She said it’s a successful, government subsidised team of producers each working long-term with a particular group of innovative artists on projects, programming time out for artists to do research or take sabbaticals, working across artforms, and offering artist bursaries. Travers described Arts Admin as “pretty much your dream model. I think it’s really interesting that the model is held up around the world and in the UK itself and yet it doesn’t exist anywhere else. So even in the UK everyone acknowledges that that is the model but nobody can replicate it.”

Travers added that, “Each producer has a range of companies that they’re responsible for. But they also have a different skill set. So every time they introduce somebody new, they bring in different cultural networks or different sponsorship. So they’ve evolved with the times, but they’ve kept that one-producer-for-one-group-of-artists. And they really range. Some of them are like an individual who makes one work every five years to companies like DV8. They work across performing arts, visual arts. They pick up projects and put them down again.”

 

Devolution

Arts Admin, along with Performing Lines and the Mobile States group (a consortium which includes Performance Space, PICA and other spaces around Australia touring innovative performance), are examples of organisations managing devolved funds. The discussion focused on the advantages of this model where a network of independent producers could, with creative verve, lean management, on-the-ground know how, and direct contact with artists, choose the artists they want to work with and develop long term growth in the performing arts. Over post-forum drinks, participants felt that the time had come to research producer models like Arts Admin, to look at the particular needs of Australian artists and to reconsider current company structures and funding models. No small task, but worth the venture given the urgent needs of artists and the the presence of individuals in the arts community capable of becoming committed creative producers.

See also Wanted: Creative Producers – FULL TRANSCRIPT

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 40

© Virginia Baxter & Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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