Size matters: the Small to Medium sector issues

Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter

This is the early response to the RealTime/Performance Space Size Matters forum. Click here for full transcipt.

We’d long been primed to expect ‘no pot of gold’ at the end of the Report into the Small-To-Medium Performing Arts Sector set up by the Cultural Ministers Council (10 state and federal arts ministries). Even so the report made for disappointing reading, thin on analysis, failing to recognise very real issues and proposing predictable solutions to a barely defined problem. Representatives of the Australia Council (Ben Strout, Executive Director Arts Development) and the NSW Ministry for the Arts (Kim Spinks, Project Manager, Theatre & Dance) who spoke at the recent SAMAG (Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group) forum in Sydney (Australia Council, May 27), guardedly welcomed the report. Each drew out the positives either in the report or by-products of it. Spinks spoke of the value of the data collected and how, for the first time, it allowed for some serious comparisons of arts strategies and spending within and across the states. Although sympathetic to artists’ expectations, Strout welcomed the report while pointing to a few of its problems: the unhelpfully large sample (when it comes to a thorough analysis) and the report’s claim that the sector was in surplus. He explained that this was partly the result of the project-based nature of the ‘small’ component of the sector and the requirement that they show a surplus in order to remain viable candidates for future funding. This often means, as we all know, that artists seriously under-pay themselves and are forced to stint on other project expenditure.

Fiona Winning, Artistic Director of Performance Space and the third member of the panel, expressed the feelings of the sector. Earlier she had described the report as akin to a misdiagnosis—“It’s as if we went to the doctor with lung cancer and were treated for bad breath.” Winning argued that in an era of quantitative rather than qualitative analysis it is very difficult to find the language with which to turn the argument for funds to issues of aesthetics and creativity. But, she said, a way had to be found and that the report had to be the starting point for improved funding.

The report clearly and repeatedly acknowledges that the small to medium sector is the source of innovation in the Australian performing arts. It stresses that the sector is seriously concerned about its capacity for continued research and development. However, since the report can’t quantify innovation, it throws in the towel and resolves in the direction of better business planning, “clarifying government expectations of the sector”, and improved inter-government communication, as the way out of what remains, in the document, an undefined problem. As audience and panel members recalled, in the 90s sponsorship was going to solve everything and look where that got us. Now, just when the sector needs a significant injection of funds, we get business plans and better communication. As important as these are, especially if a ‘whole government’ approach to the arts can be developed, they cannot deal with the diminishing capacity of the sector to be the nation’s creative laboratory.

For her assessment, Winning said she was drawing on the discussion at the May RealTime-Performance Space Forum, Size Matters, which focussed on the needs of the small to medium performing arts sector. Company representatives and individual artists spoke about the difficulty of conveying what they believe is a critical situation, at very short notice, to an inadequate questionnaire for the enquiry. It was revealed at the SAMAG forum that the compilers, adding insult to injury, had reported having to do a lot of “hand-holding” in talking artists in the ‘small’ category through their financial responses. In this context there are no surprises in the report. It seemed simply that the document was good in bits, that the statistics would be useful and that artists should start learning the pragmatic language of politics (as someone suggested). Perhaps we should call this the Arnold E Newman Report: What, me worry?

Our guest at the Size Matters forum was Sue Donnelly, General Manager, Arts Development NSW Ministry for the Arts, who explained the workings of the Cultural Ministers Council and the beginnings of the report in a call from then Victorian Arts Minister Mary Delahunty, responding to demands from her constituents for action for the majority of arts activity not covered by the outcomes of the Nugent Report.

Donnelly explained why there was no immediate source of new funds available and why the Small-To-Medium Report was different from Nugent. “All the states contribute to the Cultural Ministers Council… 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…The Nugent Report was slightly different from other reports that had gone to Council. 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 and who 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. …When all the ministers came together to finally talk about the Nugent Report, everything had been pretty well signed off.”

The fact that the Small-To-Medium enquiry had been conceived without financial imperatives was news to some. This lead to a discussion about what the current challenges were, for example the splitting and multiplying of current funding sources, each with their own criteria, means of funding and less and less application of the arm’s length principle. Anna Messariti (Playworks) spoke of attending a recent meeting where the current ‘funding formula’ was described as “a 2-headed monster, with the Australia Council at one head and the Minister’s discretionary funds at the other.” The speaker (a highly paid consultant) went on to suggest that last year the latter exceeded the former. Chris Hudson (Erth) talked about this issue in relation to the Major Festivals Initiative: “There are no guidelines for the application. No public avenues that I know of to approach this funding program and, basically, from what I can tell, it has to do with how much one can supplicate to the festival directors of Australia.”

Another issue raised was the phenomenon of small companies needing to operate as if they were large companies in their dealings with international festivals and promoters. This schizoid behaviour affects a large part of the sector. In 2001 RealTime edited and produced In Repertoire, A Guide to Australian Contemporary Performance, a booklet for the Audience & Market Development Division of the Australia Council for international distribution. Of the 70 mostly small companies documented, half had already toured internationally and often extensively. Mobile small to medium companies carry Australia’s reputation, character and innovations with them overseas. This is acknowledged by the report but is not enough to warrant additional support.

Some speakers saw a major problem for the sector in the way funding is constructed. Companies are tied to break-even project funding which doesn’t allow for long term artistic and business planning and, critically, any protection against fallout from risky ventures. There was a sense that the sector was constantly being encouraged to be sound but not given the means. Kate Dennis (Theatre Kantanka) said, “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.” Chris Hudson added provocatively, “I don’t think it’s really size we’re dealing with here. I think we’re dealing with conservatism…a lack of support for art perceived as risky or unusual.”

There was also a widespread feeling that as funds remained largely static and were heavily competed for, artists and companies were being judged not on their body of work but on the success or not of their last show. The concept of the project has taken over. It doesn’t matter how far you are down the track, the work is still treated as a one-off. “And the irony of this”, said Michael Cohen (Theatre Kantanka) “is that for some companies you can get more money by having that project existence than if you apply for program funding. You’re actually safer being on that edge. It’s a savage irony actually.”

The discrepancy between state and federal funding criteria was an issue for many companies present. Amanda Card from One Extra Dance described the dilemma of 2 totally different responses to the producer-model under which her company currently operates: “The thing 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. 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—are not.”

Other issues raised about the impact of limited funds included artists leaving the sector (Rosalind Crisp: ”People give up. It’s too hard. And that’s a huge loss”); life below the poverty line (prominent artists in the room admitted to living like this all their lives); the exploitation of artists (Anna Messariti: “The situation is now critical and the further exploitation of artists and artworkers in this sector is ethically unsustainable”); the erosion of vision (Caitlin Newton-Broad: “a shrinking of our capacity to be intellectually engaged and to be refresh ourselves creatively”); and the wholesale demise of permanent ensembles in the sector (Michelle Vickers, Legs on the Wall: “For years the company had 4 artists and was 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.” Now the company hires from project to project.)

Rosalind Crisp read from Omeo Dance Studio’s submission to the enquiry describing the personnel in this largely non-funded organisation as having “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.” She went on to say, “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.”

At the end of the RealTime-Performance Space forum, it was felt that while the huge aesthetic, political and geographical diversity of the sector gravitated against forming a lobby group, nonetheless pockets of activity, an email list and further open discussions could be used to find ways to apply pressure to governments to recognise the deleterious struggle that belies the apparent successes of Australia’s innovators in performance. The subsequent release of the report makes this all the more urgent.

See also full transcript of the RealTime-Performance Space forum Size Matters. The Report to Ministers on the Examination of the Small-To-Medium Performing Arts Sector can be downloaded from the DCITA website: www.dcita.gov.au/cmc/stand.html [link expired]

RealTime issue #49 June-July 2002 pg. 8

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

1 June 2002