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The ABC’s worst enemy

Dear Editors
Regarding the slashing of the ABC's Radio Drama budget, it's time to be brutally frank and say that this action is the work of cynics or fools. And they're not all politicians. Consider the following: The ABC once had a Radio Features department. I wrote radio features, thereby learning how to use radio to tell a story, as well as working with professional actors for the first time. This activity was cut over eight years ago. The ABC used to commission writers to translate foreign plays. I did this, thereby coming into contact with, and learning from, some great foreign theatre and radio plays. I couldn't have written my best theatre work without this apprenticeship. This activity was stopped about seven years ago. The ABC used to encourage long radio plays on big issues. I wrote one with Peter Garrett, called Outlanders. It won an Australian Writers' Guild AWGIE for best radio play. A few years previously, Michael Cove won for his play The Robe.

The ABC has put an end to all Australian drama over 60 minutes long. Both of these plays would have been ineligible for broadcast. I learned my writing craft from the opportunities the ABC gave me. But over the last 10 years, funding cuts have caused the ABC to end or curtail every production outlet that formed my skills as a playwright or radio writer. I am lucky. I learned my craft before Armageddon. What about new writers? The sad fact is, we don't need vicious politicians any more. Like a house-trained poodle, the ABC does it to itself. For example, five years ago I put to the ABC that they should seriously consider marketing radio plays as a sellable series of audio tapes, much the way that the BBC did with both radio plays and the interminable Talking Books that clog up the average ABC Store. It was “too hard.” Now, Radio Drama's budget has been slashed, no doubt because it doesn't pay its way. But were they ever helped to pay their way through the promoting of Australian writers and their work? It's also been known within the ABC that the FM “Fine Music” boffins have intensely disliked any “spoken word” programs like plays or experimental sound-pieces. Given a dreadful budget situation, the ABC ends up turning on itself. It's widely agreed in the general community that ABC TV is stagnating. The rot is only disguised by comparison with the irredeemably bad commercial stations. But what's less well-known is that the ABC once trained the future stage, film and radio writers of this country. It also used to enculturate its listening audience with a diverse range of fictions and documentaries. The experience I've outlined above suggests that audiences and artists alike should realise how bad the situation has become, and protest accordingly.

Timothy Daly, Sydney Playwright, dramaturg

The MCA and the elite

The saga of the Museum of Contemporary Art's (MCA) future seems to have . The winning designs (by the one team) for either a new building or a new building partially encasing the old 30s government-department-deco building (the old Maritime Services Board Building at West Circular Quay) are unimpressive. The eagerness of Lord Mayor Frank Sartor and others to banish the MCA to some other site, the low regard the Premier has for the gallery's collection and the public's fear of even more damage to Circular Quay, have stalemated progress. The MCA's Director, Liz-Anne McGregor, emailed MCA supporters about the Sydney Morning Herald's “unbalanced reporting” and urged protest, declaring that “All the public briefings [about the new designs] so far have been positive.” Detailing the issues, she writes: “The MCA's mission is to bring the work of living artists to a wider audience. It's not just for specialists. People drop in here now in their lunch hour which is what we want to encourage. Moving us to a site where people have to make a special journey would reinforce the message that art is only for the elite.” ( Eds.)

Dear Editor
I am sending you my reply to the list-serve notice of Liz-Anne McGregor's call 'to all MCA supporters' as a “specialist”—a group that was sadly maligned in her email, and composes a reasonable section of the intellectual, academic, and art community. It has always seemed a shame to me that the MCA's principal mission—at least under Liz-Anne's directorship—has been to bring art “to a wider audience.” And she is prepared, in her role as Director, to publish her preference for attracting 'lunch hour' visitors instead of determined art seekers. And thinks that the message that 'art is only for the elite' is a bad thing. In the first place talk about elites in terms of an overview of Australian society is a misnomer. Even a casual, or anecdotal, glance at recent Australian history will tell that a consolidated cultural elite still doesn't exist here—even if there is a sort of exclusive caste slowly forming (around capital and poor taste probably). Where is that group of people–wealthy or no—who are prepared to voice their constant and vociferous disdain for second rate cultural production? Or a publishing infrastructure that addresses itself in a high-minded way to a high-minded audience? Or an integrated institutional infrastructure—that consistently presents work of a high calibre (don't forget Opera, Ballet, Theatre, Orchestral, and Chamber Music)? Or a small set of critics who occupy a solid ground and have a real determining sway over broader cultural opinion making? Or an intelligentsia who have the ear of Government? Or a Government with an ear for that matter? They don't exist. Meanwhile an institution like the MCA could, theoretically, act like a beacon for agressive cultural aggregation. The formation of an elite, if you will. Or at least founder the site of a forward looking cultural consensus. By it's very nature Contemporary Art as we have come to understand it since the mid-19th century has been produced as a deliberate counter-point to Bourgeois taste (maybe the terms broad, conventional, conservative, traditional should be thrown in). And its leading critics and advocates (since Ruskin and Baudelaire) have taken this in stride. It is exactly at the point that Art becomes lunchtime fare for besuited strollers that it dies in a sense. The Museum as Boulevard is a 'nauseating' concept indeed. So I see no good reason for necessarily keeping the MCA at the Quay. (And governance issues as to what might appear in its place are another separate argument altogether. That can probably left in the hands of the heritage architects). In fact we need to ask, what service is done for Art when its specific and often elegant language has to be wreaked for an illiterate audience? And what can be learned from that illiterate audience by artists, curators, and writers? Nothing much. And this is the audience that proliferates at Circular quay, and seems to be held dearest in the minds-eye of the MCA and its collaborators. I would rather see and read arguments for the necessity of the existence of a high-culture in Australia for its own sake. (With a reminder to Bob Carr that the Manets he loves in the Louvre in Paris were once the stuff that caused a stir. They were Contemporary Art). In the last 10 years, governments and the arts “industry” have been gripped by museum and gallery building (even contemporary art houses). Convinced that edifices to culture are concrete proof of their dedication to it. But this has in fact been a deleterious affect—built on ideas about artefacts, and collections, and paintings on walls, a sort of safe-house mentality. When in fact art is more than all of those things and now comprises a range of more ephemeral moments and objects that can exist without million dollar architectural structures. And if every dollar that was poured into concrete had been given to existing institutions, and artists, writers, and curators themselves, I would suggest a whole lot more would have percolated. Art builds audiences over long periods of timeÑthere is no quick fix here. So putting them at the forefront of cultural debate is useless. I frequently attend concerts by composers like Schoenberg, Debussy, Berlioz, Weber (when they are played at all) that receive tepid responsesÑparticularly from the corporate and subscriber section of the audiences. Their response always indicates they thinck this non-canonical work is a little bit difficult or risky. For fuck's sake they've only had a hundred yearsÑthe whole of the 20th century – to get used to it. Go figure! Forget the building. Forget the mass audience. Argue forcefully for “multi”-culturalism to rightfully include an elite, to commensurate “high”-culturalism. Bludgeon government with the fact that it is their moral obligation to support the expansion and telling of national narratives. One of which happens to be Contemporary Art attended by Contemporary Art Audiences.

The Sydney Morning Herald isn't the problem, it's a symptom. The skewing of the MCA-debate is the problem. Give me a public transport nightmare trek across town to see some daring art in the quiet-white of a well designed gallery/exhibiton space, rather than a salt-air and espresso experience (that includes dumb architecture and dumber programming) anyday. More to the point I would rather get my art from a nest of intelligent white mice than a dumb White Elephant.

Simon Rees, Sydney

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 8

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1 June 2001