the middle way: light infrastructure

sophie travers: the maps scheme for
independent theatre & dance

Men of Steel

Men of Steel

Men of Steel


I spoke with John Baylis, Director of the Theatre Board at the Australia Council about the background to the initiative. He said, “In 2006 I began a discussion within the Theatre Board and with the wider sector about new approaches to theatre funding. Under the name Make It New a number of papers were circulated and forums held, culminating in changes this year to our funding strategies. The aim is to generate more dynamism in the theatre sector by encouraging more connectedness between independent groups, larger producing companies and the broader presenting infrastructure, and by creating new pathways for fresh companies to emerge. One strategy has been to support independent producers directly, and we ran a pilot project two years ago which offered $50,000 per annum for two years to four successful applicants: Marguerite Pepper Productions, Strut & Fret, Keep Breathing and Arts Projects Australia.”

The aim for MAPS is simple, Baylis says, “Artists get the support to plan a future without having to create their own administrative and producing platform. It is one of a number of strategies that we have started in order to create a middle way for artists, a place between the freedom but terrible uncertainties of project-to-project existence, and the relative security but deadening administrative burden of funded small company life. The new funds last year presented a once-in-a-decade opportunity to think about new infrastructure—light infrastructure.”

Baylis went on to explain how research into international models influenced the creation of the brief for MAPS. “Arts Admin in London is the logical reference point and I had a good conversation with co-founder Judith Knight. She expressed doubts about whether Arts Admin could serve as a model for anything, emphasising that it is the passions and idiosyncrasies of the individual producers involved that determine success, not the structure itself. Jennifer McLachlan—Director of Dance at the Australia Council and my partner on this project—also brought her experience of the mixed fortunes of arts councils’ attempts to set up such structures in the UK, so we had a good sense of the risks involved. We based our final brief on a 2005 Scottish Arts Council tender.”

The Australia Council tender issued in early 2008 was won by Strut & Fret for Victoria, Performing Lines for Western Australia and a new partnership between Metro Arts and Brisbane Powerhouse for Queensland. The tender requested that producers provide a vision and list of artists whom they would support. Baylis underlines: “A basic principle of MAPS was that the producers choose the artists. We believed that producers must be passionately committed to the artists they work with, and it would not be useful for funding bodies to dictate who those artists should be. The producers themselves need to be empowered, so it was important not to conceive MAPS as a mere ‘service’ to artists, but rather as the foundation for an equal creative partnership between producer and artist.”

At the time of writing, all three organisations are yet to announce the artists they will support. In each state the set-up is different and dependent not only upon the existing independent theatre and dance culture but also upon the nature of the producers. Each has the potential to make a profound impact upon the local scene as Baylis outlines it. “The MAPS have a three-year commitment from their funding partners. They are not conceived as incubators that will produce perfectly formed micro-businesses free of subsidy. Those that work could become part of the funded theatre and dance infrastructure for the next decade and beyond.”

Strut & Fret are based in Queensland but have had a Melbourne office with five staff for the last two years. They define themselves as “a vibrant young company that produces and manages events, theatrical productions, performers and venues with a unique ‘catch-your-breath’ style.” Producer Scott Maidment says, “We are excited that this initiative both allows us to continue to work with a diverse range of performing artists we have supported over the previous 10 years, and also allows us to develop exciting new relationships with dance artists and companies who we haven’t previously worked with. Strut & Fret support a range of artistic visions and develop a wide scope of opportunities for artists. We want to create and develop futures for independent artists and continue to broaden their exposure to new audiences nationally and internationally.”

In Western Australia, the Sydney-based, but nationally funded, producers Performing Lines won the tender. Performing Lines “works from concept to production and touring. It works with artists at every stage of their careers, from emerging artists to internationally recognised names—and in many cases, plays a critical role in artists’ development. It produces or tours works presented at all levels of the Australian performing arts industry—from the contemporary arts venues comprising the Mobile States consortium to regional venues large and small, to flagship venues such as Sydney Opera House, and to all the major Australian festivals.” General Manager, Wendy Blacklock says of MAPS, ”The structure is under the umbrella of Performing Lines until it can become completely independent. This may take several years but in the interim Performing Lines manages the funds from all areas, contracts and payrolls, covers insurances, deals with superannuation, audits and acquittals, thus leaving the producers free to concentrate on improving the standard of the work, and having time to familarise themselves with national and international networks, funding possibilities and opportunities. I have put in place WA Producer Fiona de Garis and will be choosing an Associate Producer further down the track. Our brief is to choose an equal number of theatre and dance companies/independent artists, so the Associate may very well be a dance person.”

In Queensland MAPS will be jointly managed by Metro Arts, a multi-arts venue and “centre for independent practice”, and Brisbane Powerhouse, a mid-size performing arts venue. Liz Burcham, Chief Executive Officer of Metro Arts described how the project is a logical extension of the organisation’s Biz Arts Makers program and how the partnership with Powerhouse naturally complements their services to artists. Burcham says, “We want to work closer and more collaboratively with artists to enable Queensland based independent artists to be better structured to access markets and opportunities internationally and nationally. A producer will be recruited to work between the two organisations and more funding will be sought to increase that person’s opportunities to travel and extend the scope of the brief over time.”

While there are high hopes for the project and negotiations with other States and Territories continue, John Baylis cites a sobering list of potential pitfalls, including, “artists’ unrealistic expectations on what are very lean infrastructures; producers mistaking their role as creative partner for that of an artistic director; artists receiving only project-by-project support, when the real need is long-term planning and commitment; producer burnout; an unthinking imperative to grow, in the mistaken belief that to stay small is to stagnate; funding body complacency that a few MAPS entities around the country has ‘solved’ the small-to-medium infrastructure issue; and the needs of the producing organisation becoming more of a driver than the original aim—supporting artists better.”

Baylis’ describes MAPS as, “an experiment” and like all good chemistry the results are bound to be highly unpredictable.

For more on MAPS as it develops in each State: www.performinglines.org.au;
strutnfret.com; www.metroarts.com.au

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 21

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008