infrastructure & the health of the organism

keith gallasch

THIS IS ONE OF FIVE ARTICLES (THE OTHERS FOCUS ON PACT, SPARK, PLAYWRITING FOR COMMUNITIES AND A TRANSGLOBAL PERFORMANCE PROJECT) ABOUT THE INFRASTRUCTURES, SELF-GENERATED AND STATE CONTROLLED, THAT THAT SUSTAIN THE ARTS, OR SOMETIMES FAIL THEM (IF INSUFFICIENTLY FUNDED OR PLANNED); THE INFRASTRUCTURES THAT ARE NEEDED BUT DON’T EXIST; OR NEW ONES THAT FULFIL GOVERNMENT POLICIES BUT ARE PERHAPS NOT REALLY ABOUT ART. INCLUDED ARE ARTICLES ABOUT A PLAYWRIGHT, ADELAIDE’S STEPHEN HOUSE, EFFECTIVELY WORKING WITHIN AND BEYOND THE USUAL SYSTEMS OF SUPPORT; A HIGHLY MOTIVATED AND NETWORKED GENERATION OF YOUNG PERFORMERS AND CURATORS ASSOCIATED WITH SYDNEY’S PACT THEATRE; YOUTH ARTS QUEENSLAND’S MENTORSHIP PROGRAM, SPARK; AND A CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE PROJECT MAKING INTERNATIONAL CONNECTIONS AROUND ISSUES OF SOCIAL SUSTAINABILITY.

At a time when all the organs of society, private and public, are feeling vulnerable to the ill effects of the global economic downturn, Australian artists might be justified in already feeling off colour. In the wake of the Henson affair, the National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA) met with 10 artists in Melbourne threatened with censorship enacted not by governments but largely by anxious, self-censoring galleries, councils and other institutions. The under-nourished independent dance sector in NSW has appeared to be on the verge of tentative recovery in recent years, but the results of Arts NSW funding decisions for 2009 have been devastating. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has bluntly rejected the NSW Government proposal to jointly fund the job-generating renovation of the ageing and workplace unsafe Sydney Opera House. He also failed to include the arts in the federal government’s economy-improving infrastructure package. In a country without a cultural policy, let alone a Charter of Human Rights, with ambivalent federal government leadership in the arts and rapidly mutating federal and state government arts policies, artists might be feeling not just queasy but justifiably paranoid.

In this climate, the overall health of a complex arts ecology is difficult to assess. Parts of it are currently thriving as networks grow, of their own accord or with government stimulus, allowing artists to find new niches, resources, partners and the audiences that fuel them. Arts laboratories of all kinds are multiplying and artist run initiatives (ARIs) appear to be on the rise again, assisted in part by targeted funding. In 2008 Peter Garrett announced $6.6m to be spent over four years on young and emerging artists in a wide range of commercial and arts areas. However, in terms of salaries and long-term career prospects, the well-ness of individual artists (working on their own or in groups or companies) looks little improved, if at all, with non-arts multi-skilling filling the gaps in the arts ecology. And many young emerging artists might be wondering what will happen to them once they pass 30; will all the accumulated experiences, advice and business plan skills suffice in the strictly limited terrain of established art where funding has grown so little over so long?

creative industries innovation centre

In recent years, as reported in RealTime, many artists have turned to the universities to bridge such gaps and to further their knowledge and expertise with creative doctorates. Creative Industries schools have been pragmatic about jobs and expanding our notion of what comprises art. Another dimension is the $17 million Creative Industries Innovation Centre, to be hosted by University of Technology Sydney (UTS), launched on February 17 by Federal Government Innovation Minister, Senator Kim Carr and Arts Minister, Peter Garrett. The centre is one of six Innovation Centres funded under the Government’s $271 million Enterprise Connect initiative. Other centres focus on sectors such as clean-energy, mining and remote enterprises. Carr said the UTS Creative Industries Innovation Centre “will give eligible firms access to a free business review, followed up with matching funding of up to $20,000 to implement changes identified.” Garrett said, “This initiative delivers on the Government’s election commitments in Fresh Ideas for the Arts and New Directions for the Arts to establish a centre and to facilitate the development of creative industries in Australia.” The centre’s press release claims that “Each year the centre will provide up to 300 business reviews, 50 incubation services, and assist 2,000 businesses through workshops, seminars and networking opportunities” (www.enterpriseconnect.gov.au). How much artists will benefit from this will depend on the definition of art within the creative industries model and the extent to which the centre sees the arts as just so many businesses.

infrastructure vs superstructure

The prevailing funding model has arts companies functioning in terms of their business plans, building elaborate managerial superstructures on very small creative bases. Over the last decade self-improvement has been the vaunted model for subsidised arts organisations including those in the small to medium sector. Healthy regimes entail improved diet (foraging for more diverse resources), vigorous exercise (training courses, business plans, benchmarks) and team sports (partnerships, mentorings, networking and competition). Companies build elaborate, classic management structures—sometimes unnecessary (and, across the sector, duplicative) superstructures. Alert to this, the Theatre Board of the Australia Council has lifted some of the creativity-inhibiting burden of self-improvement from the shoulders of smaller groups and companies through its Managing and Producing Services (MAPS) scheme (“The middle way: light infrastructure”, RT87, p21). In this model, producers carry much of the weight of management and promotion for the funded companies they take on. MAPS is a collaborative effort between the Australia Council and State Governments, with NSW being a late but welcome addition.

Elsewhere in the ecology, at federal and state levels, there’s been a culling of companies in the performing arts. For example, eleven presumably unhealthy theatre companies were removed from Theatre Board triennial funding and replaced by an eager new eleven for whom there had been, to date, no growth in government funding to the Australia Council sufficient to take them in. So, the Theatre Board giveth and taketh away while enriching the ecology with MAPS and its likes.

riding policy shifts

The impact of the rapidly changing policy landscape was sharply felt with Arts NSW’s short-notice adoption of new policies in 2008 and the ridiculously short time for funding applicants to assimilate them. Early in 2009 the Director of Funding Reform sent letters to applicants who, if rejected and curious to know why, later found that they had failed to gain points for audience access and participation, or regional reach or financial sustainability. The new instruments of assessment were presumably bluntly applied by small panels over several days without, it seems, Arts NSW staff involvement save for prepared State of the Arts artform reports. There had been talk in 2008 of the new panels being cross-artform; some in this odd bunch turned out to be so, but with no apparent rationale—they were Performance; Capital Expenditure; Western Sydney; History, Literature, Music and Community Partnerships; Visual Arts and Museums. In performance, there was only one dance peer. That can’t be peer assessment in any serious sense—where’s the sharing of information and opinions, the debate, the testing of knowledge? As for cross-artform, where was the artform paper on hybrid arts and multidisciplinary practices currently so widespread and embodied in Performance Space, CarriageWorks and RealTime and the artists they represent?

For the first time in its 15 years, RealTime was not funded by Arts NSW, despite the magazine’s huge print run, considerable reach, its positioning of the arts in NSW in a national and international context, and despite its steady financial growth and lean operation with a staff of three. RealTime makes widely accessible the considerable innovations occurring in the arts and promotes established and emerging innovators. Most of what you read in RealTime you will not find in newspapers or on television or radio, and yet we cover significant artists, some playing or exhibiting to small audiences but changing the very nature of artforms, others reaching big audiences, crossing borders and oceans, if often unsung in the press. If you live in Western Sydney or in regional NSW, RealTime in print or online gives you access to the greater world of art you are part of as artist or audience. We see our role as infrastructural, sustaining a sense of community through providing information, overviews, criticism and debate.

dance drama

When we heard that independent dance artists applying through Performance Space all had their applications rejected (rules require individual artists to apply for funding for their projects through program grant organisations), we suspected that the reformed Arts NSW had failed to address dance in terms of viability and infrastructure. What about the dance artists who could not, in the first place, secure the interest of an organisation like Performance Space to auspice them? What information was provided in the State of the Arts material for the Performance panel? What are Performance Space, CarriageWorks, Ausdance NSW and Critical Path without a functioning body of dancers and works? In one funding round the fragile independent dance ecology had been dealt a harsh blow, potentially reducing the already limited volume of dance in NSW and its need for continuity and development. It was disturbing to see established artists of the calibre of Tess de Quincey, Martin del Amo and Shaun Parker not funded by Arts NSW for 2009. Fortunately some of the rejected dance artists have since been funded by the Australia Council’s Dance Board. Arts NSW has been let off the hook. However, usually relying on funding from both state and federal governments, the dance artists will go into production on meagre budgets—hardly a satisfactory outcome.

reforming the reforms

A discussion paper was released by Arts NSW a few weeks ago (Arts NSW—Arts Funding Program: Issues for 2010 Funding Round, March 2009) inviting comment. It reveals awareness of the shortcomings the first round of ‘funding reform’, including the challenge for dance artists to secure auspicing. Three of the papers “identified issues” are: “auspicing and individual artists”, “improvements that could be made to the Arts Funding Program structure, guidelines and application forms”, and “(c)hanges to administration and assessment processes, including the involvement of Arts NSW staff in these processes.”

With regard to assessment, it is clear to me that the odd artform makeup of the panels needs to be seriously addressed, as does the notion of a peer if, as was the case for the 2009 round, it’s reduced to a solo or narrow range of judgement. Why staff were not involved in providing active rather than written artform overviews is a mystery: presumably part of the reform process, to distance them from decision-making. Of course they should not vote and should not offer opinions on the quality of the work being discussed but their role in advising on ecology and infrastructure is vital so that panels don’t operate in a cultural vacuum, a foundationless infrastructure.

For Daniel Brine, the Arts NSW funding results for dance were presumably not a great welcome to his new position as director of Performance Space. He’s particularly curious about how the artform sector papers were written: “It was made clear to us that they were information only papers and not in any way about assessing, but there’s a really interesting question about whether the papers are trying to set policy and direction or are for information only—which is a difficult matter in itself. And there wasn’t an information paper about hybrid work, and that in itself is very telling.” Brine thinks that, given Arts NSW’s interest in being as transparent as possible, the papers in the future would ideally become publicly available.

seeking clarity

Brine also thinks that “Arts NSW needs to say more about why they see their intended policy benefits as important. They talk about supporting ‘industry professional development’, fine, but they need to say what it is. Is it investing in leaders in the future or artists so they can manage themselves?” He points out that the discussion paper reveals that there is some admission of not adequately getting the access and participation criteria right. The paper acknowledges that “A range of locational, organisational or programming related factors may impact on audience participation, such as: Whether an organisation is producing or presenting new or challenging work or…popular or more traditional works.” You’d have thought that this would have been automatically taken into account for the 2009 assessments, but a technocratic application of criteria meant that it wasn’t, not least for small innovative dance ventures playing to small audiences and with minimal income and reserves.

Daniel Brine has no problem with a funding body setting policy directions, “but these are used for assessment, so they’ve got to be clear, otherwise there’s confusion.” In particular, he thinks that there needs to be clarification around auspicing. For instance, for the audience development criterion: “whose frame of reference will be used, the artist or the auspicing organisation?

The application for 2009 was in terms of ‘us’, Performance Space. We might have missed the opportunity to present a broader understanding of audience development, in particular from the point of view of the artist.

It’s clearly one of the teething problems that come with completing new application forms, answering questions not seen before. I think the situation will become clearer and there will be less room for different interpretations as Arts NSW redraft their guidelines.”.”

Given that the funded auspiced artists become part of Performance Space’s program, I ask Brine if it puts the organisation in a double bind when some works are funded others not. He says. “It means in essence the funders are choosing our program, both funders, Arts NSW and the Australia Council. When the decisions come in we look at our program and say this will fall, this is in. We can’t prioritise. But that’s a decision Performance Space has made. We could have half the staff, we could pump some of that money into our program, announce we’re not going to auspice, that we’re going to buy into programming in a very different way. This would have big repercussions throughout the sector, and there’d be less program. We’ll continue with the old model, but it’s a real challenge.”

expanding the asian connection

A producer complained to me recently that Australia’s international arts festivals have failed to consistently engage with Asian culture, despite there being no shortage of creative encounters between Australian and Asian artists springing from Asialink residencies and the likes of the Asialink-Australia Council Neon Rising Japan Dance Exchange, a significant two-year collaborative, cross-cultural choreographic program (2006-07).

The one Australian festival committed to Asian performance is the Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia, now in its third year. In a new development Rosemary Hinde, director of Hirano, an agent and a producer of dance across Australia and Asia, is now working for Asialink and has been appointed Artistic Counsel for the Kenneth Myer Asian Theatre Series at Melbourne’s Arts Centre. Perhaps a series will provide a less pressured and more enduring approach to integrating Asian art into Australian life and the opportunity to see more challenging work.

structuring asian-australia collaborations

Time_Place_Space has been resurrected to address the Asian-Australian connection. For over five years this Australia Council initiative brought artists from around the country to work with each other and local and international facilitators to explore the potentials of cross-artform engagement. New projects, collaborations and hybrid arts creations sprang with consistency from this two-week annual laboratory. Now, after several years, it’s back, the model mutating towards ever new hybrids—collaborations between Australian and Asian artists. Daniel Brine says, “the Australia Council is keen for TPS to have a life in Asia.” And if the proposed model gets under way, the host organisation for the first expanded version will be Performance Space.

The most recent incarnation, held in Brisbane earlier this year, juxtaposed a meeting between potential Time_Place_Space partners from governments, universities and other agencies across Asia and a TPS laboratory they could witness at work. Australian artists worked with facilitators Arahmaiani Feisal (Indonesia), Tang Fu Kuen (Singapore), Shigeaki Iwai (Japan), and Margie Medlin and Constantine Koukias (both Australia).

Brine says that although the new TPS will service fewer Australian artists each year than the original and that partner expectations will doubtless play a determining role in the evolution of the new laboratory, he’s optimistic about the potential for hybrid practices and Asian partners to join the curatorium. TPS in its new incarnation will build creative and infrastructural bridges between Asia and Australia in very distinctive and innovative ways.

infrastructure hard & soft

In the next edition of RealTime there’ll be more about arts infrastructure issues, with a look at former Performance Space director Fiona Winning’s Rex Cramphorn Lecture, a frank, thoughtful and fair account of the challenges faced by herself, her Board of Directors, staff and artists in the transition from the old Performance Space to the new one at CarriageWorks. She addresses “the often problematic relationships between hard and soft infrastructures—hard being the buildings and equipment and soft being the organisations—the people who work within them creating various patterns of activity” (March 2, Seymour Centre, University of Sydney). And you’ll be able to read about the background, passions and plans of Performance Space’s new director, Daniel Brine, an Australian who worked in England for over a decade principally with the Live Art Development Agency in London.

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 18

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

1 April 2009
Close

Join our e-dition list

Sign up for free online e-ditions offering occasional reviews and commentary and curated selections from and response to the RealTime archive 1994-2017.