Talking up change

Keith Gallasch on the Doyle, Marr and Terracini lectures

What kind of future do the arts have in Australia? For a long time the focus has been on survival, and still is, but a new spirit is emerging which not only asks what kind of future but posits possible models, let alone new ways of looking at the arts. Important speeches in recent months from John Doyle (Andrew Olle Memorial Lecture), David Marr (Philip Parsons Lecture) and Lyndon Terracini (Rex Cramphorn Lecture) along with the Currency House Platform Papers and David Williamson’s published concern for the dumbing down of Australians’ cultural aspirations, have coincided with the Leading Voices program. That series of talks, presented by the Australian Council’s Community Partnerships and Market Development division includes speakers from the USA, UK and the Netherlands who ask us to look at audience engagement afresh and to reconsider funding models that inhibit arts participation.

John Doyle

Drama, whether on TV or in the theatre, is addressed by Doyle, Marr and Terracini. Doyle offers a grim account of the fate of television drama as part of a greater cultural degradation: “the ABC has been cut to the marrow and can no longer afford to do much drama, and commercial networks have decided drama is too flakey and expensive. Meanwhile our very fine drama schools are pumping out scores of new young actors each year and there is nothing for them to do…So our local content is reduced to game shows, dancing shows, lifestyle shows and talent quests all creaking under the weight of diminishing returns. Think of something mindless, rope in a couple of celebrities and there’s your show.”

In an inspired Roy Slaven moment, Doyle offered a brilliant alternative: “Big Brother is such a waste of an opportunity. The housemates live in a state of perpetual boredom, unless they’re pissed. Why not engage a house of really smart, gifted young people from various fields: scientists, engineers, mathematicians, builders, a Latin scholar, a poet etc and they have a problem to solve. With a shared incentive of a few million dollars they have to find a solution to Australia’s water problems in 10 weeks—there’s a show!”

More comprehensively, like some of us who look to Canada for models for sustainable and marketable innovation in the media, Doyle suggests a way forward: “Because historically the ABC has been the powerhouse for new ideas that are often taken up by the commercial networks, perhaps the time has come for those networks to subsidize the ABC. After all, the ABC has been the training and testing ground for the commercial networks for 50 years—it’s about time the situation was redressed. What I would propose is a tax deductible levy on pre-tax network profit of around 25% to 30% that is pooled exclusively for ABC Drama. In return, the networks get second viewing rights and the right to franchise any series, on a rotating basis that is deemed commercially viable. The fact is, it is only the ABC, by virtue of being unencumbered by what is popular, that is capable of taking risks. Why is there such a paucity of great locally made drama? Because the ABC isn’t doing it. The Americans would hate such a plan and see it as not being in the spirit of the Free Trade Agreement, but so what? This isn’t cheese or rice we’re talking about. It actually is Culture. A fully funded ABC Drama unit would be to the advantage of the commercial networks. The ABC could become Australia’s HBO.”

David Marr

David Marr focuses on the plight of theatre in Australia outside the mainstream, reinforcing the sad picture delivered by the Theatre Board commissioned Roberts’ report on triennially funded theatre companies who comprise, arguably, the engine room of Australian theatre. The speech is a must-read. Marr’s portrayal, like Doyle’s, is set in an oppressive political regime that impinges on our cultural life, guaranteeing money for the major arts institutions while neglecting the rest. As Marr sees it, “In John Howard’s Australia, libraries, museums, theatres and orchestras are on the same list as ports and roads and hospitals—traditional institutions, and necessary parts of the civic fabric. To understand what’s happened under Howard to the arts in general and theatre in particular—the odd mix of generosity and meanness, celebration and indifference, abuse and support—it’s best to keep in mind the lessons learnt in the kerfuffle over the [James Strong report on the symphony] orchestras: that the bedrock arts policy of the Howard Government is not support for the arts—it’s support for arts institutions. Big, traditional institutions.”

The result is that “Canberra has left the fate of the little theatre companies to the states. And those Labor governments are not responding. In John Howard’s Australia, the little companies have no political friends. The fate of these companies presents intractable difficulties for the theatre industry and for the Australia Council. The Roberts report predicting catastrophe is already 2 years old. Later this year when all the cultural ministers of the States, territories and Commonwealth meet again, it will be discussed again. No one is holding out much hope.”

Nor is everything well with the major companies—more and more plays are programmed with small casts and conservative choices are aimed to guarantee audiences, risk is occasional, and most actors survive on little. Marr also reports that the major companies also suffer the impact of “an ideological obsession [which] has seen the Howard government claw back millions from its arts grants. Again, the rot began with Keating. He introduced the idea that to make the bureaucracy leaner and meaner, its funding should be shaved by a percent or so every year. This strategy comes with the Orwellian name of the ‘efficiency dividend’. Howard made the situation much worse about the time the Nugent money started pouring through, by applying the ‘efficiency dividend’ not just to the administrative budget of the Australia Council but to all its grants—including grants to theatre companies, big and little. Over 4 years it clawed back $10 million from the major arts companies.” Marr reports that the Australia Council and the performing arts industry have consistently argued against the efficiency dividend and its mockery of CPI adjusted grants with the result that “in the May budget Canberra effectively exempted the major companies from the ‘efficiency dividend’—though only the major companies and only for the next 3 years.”

As in health, education and research in all sectors, the failure to develop policy and long-term strategies for development means, says Marr, that “Successful as Nugent has been politically, there’s now a danger of the arts drifting back into the old cycle that was supposed to be broken forever: crisis, report, rescue, flat lining, then back to crisis again.”

Equally problematic is Labor’s failure to develop a coherent long-term arts policy. MP Peter Garrett has requested submissions so that Labor will have some 8 months to formulate policy instead of in the rush up to an election. Unfortunately we had to rush in our submissions by November 30 this year. Much will depend on Garrett’s capacity to consult and whether or not he’ll have any clout: as Marr reminds us, “he’s not even part of the Shadow Cabinet.” We live in hope, although it’s no secret Garrett is in search of “budget neutral” recommendations!

David Marr believes, that those in power “want the arts to reflect well on the government. The ground rules are that they don’t want the arts getting up their noses; they don’t want to be embarrassed; and they want the arts minister to look good.” That means looking after the highly visible mainstream companies, and it also means censorship, direct or oblique, with Marr citing the cases of the Playing Australia rejection of funding applications for the tours of Ros Horin’s much sought-after Through the Wire about incarcerated refugees (22 regional centres wanted it), and Version 1.0’s Wages of Spin, a damning account of the political and media management of the war in Iraq. The Australia Council funded the Escape from Woomera computer game and Hannie Rayson’s Two Brothers really did get up those political noses, a condition doubtless exacerbated by predictable right wing media outrage. The political response, as Marr reports, was alarming in its extremity. So much for the “trust us” promise concerning the sedition laws of the Anti-Terrorism Bill with politicians so easily offended by art.

Marr concludes with a simple request for more money: “Expensive as they are, the arts need more money—not for the sake of the companies, certainly not for the bureaucrats, and not only for the sake of the artists. For our sake. To release this country’s imagination by mining the creativity that’s there, waiting to be discovered. In its private soul searching late last year, the Australia Council gave a figure that would transform the arts in this country: another $40 million a year. It’s peanuts. It’s a few miles of freeway. But there’s no limit to where it could take us all.”

But Marr’s speech deals with much more than money: it’s about who gets the money, how it is delivered and with what constraints. Each of these issues needs to be addressed otherwise new money, if ever gained, will go the way it usually does.

Lyndon Terracini

Lyndon Terracini’s Rex Cramphorn lecture concurs with growing sentiment in the western world concerning the way that art is thought about and acted on in bureaucracies as not only inappropriate but effectively keeping art at a distance from the lives of most people. Terracini doesn’t have the space to detail how this might be reversed, but John Holden does in Capturing Cultural Capital: How culture has become a tool of government policy, an essay published by Demos, an independent UK thinktank (“a greenhouse for new ideas which can improve the quality of our lives) and which can be downloaded from www.demos.co.uk. Holden is speaking in Australia as part of the Leading Voices program and we will be looking at how his proposals relate to the arts in Australia in a forthcoming edition of RealTime. Jerry Yoshitomi, another speaker in the program, recently addressed the ways in which people engage with and actually experience the arts, but in a much more mainstream context (see p40). John Holden wants us to move beyond the restrictive business models that limit government evaluation of the arts to audience numbers and other statistics. He thinks we must focus on “the affective element of the cultural experience” and issues of public value, including addressing the arts in terms of support in the long-term. Holden argues for inclusiveness: “rather than being an add-on, existing in its own space, culture is seen as an integral and essential part of civil society.”

Given his experience of developing art in regional communities through engaging town councils culturally and financially in his Queensland Music Festival, Terracini turns away from what he calls the “fashionable” attack on the Australia Council to pursue inclusiveness with a passion, demanding state and local government support for the bottom-up emergence of grassroots work, amateur or professional, art rooted in a sense of place and community and telling Australia stories. He argues that “we have a top down bureaucratic system of arts and cultural methodology and unless that is reversed we will continue to agonise about the state of the profession to which many of us have given the best years of our lives.” He sees the state government art bureaucracies (the recently purged Arts Queensland aside) as out of touch with grassroots arts and innovation both in terms of limited awareness and dated application and assessment procedures.

Terracini can only outline what he has in mind, and it’s a problematic sketch involving a disagreeable metaphor: “a new structure of cultural creativity, a cultural pyramid which would have a major impact on the way we work within our cultural and artistic communities.” Without the details, the structure reads like the cultural pyramid we know only too well. Our cultural ecology only looks like a pyramid because it is a reflection of the top-down distribution and exercising of power. Our arts ecology is a more complex system of co-existence and mutualism that doesn’t have to be imagined as hierarchical.

One of the arguments that the Roberts’ report didn’t overplay was that the triennially funded theatre companies are a significant breeding ground for the talent that fuels the major companies. Many small companies in and of themselves are unique cultural phenomena who do not aspire to be big but are not short on impact. A pyramid model ratifies old values: excellence at the top and a trickle up effect with talent emerging from the many below. We know that the best work that travels overseas, representing our culture and portraying its idiosyncrasies, rarely comes from the top of the pyramid. Robyn Archer has put to rest the mythic status of the mainstream (Platform Papers, No 5, The Myth of the Mainstream, Currency House, Sydney, 2004).

My quarrel with Terracini’s imagery aside (and the weariness of having to deal yet again with “Australian stories”, what about the heaps of art that doesn’t ‘tell’?), his lecture is another valuable addition, along with those of Marr and Doyle, to a re-estimation of Australian culture. David Throsby’s forthcoming call for an Australian cultural policy in the Platform Papers series should take the debate to another level. For the first time in many years, the number of voices calling for serious acknowledgment of art’s importance (including John Carey’s questioning of it in What Good Are The Arts?) is multiplying. Their quest is not just about funding, but about access, participation, innovation, the nature of the art experience, how we talk about it, and defeating inhibitive government agendas.

John Doyle, The Andrew Olle Media Lecture 2005, Oct 7; David Marr, “Theatre Under Howard”, The 9th Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture on the Performing Arts, Seymour Centre, Oct 9 (PDF available from www.currencyhouse.org.au); Lyndon Terracini, The Culture of Place: Making Australian Theatre, Rex Cramphorn Lecture, NIDA Theatre, Nov 7

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 2

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

1 December 2005