Now that the government has made further cuts to the arts, is it time for the arts to stand on their own two feet and govern themselves?
“In Australia, the arts employ more people than agriculture, construction or mining, and the creative industries generate $50 billion for the Australian economy.”
These are words from the National Association for the Visual Arts, petitioning Minister for the Arts Senator Mitch Fifield via change.org to support the arts in Australia.
“Independent artists and organisations are the backbone of arts in Australia, generating new ideas and new talent. Artists are the innovators of our nation,” the Association continues. “On May 13 this year, 50% of the previously supported small to medium arts companies did not receive funding as a result of the government’s cuts to the Australia Council.”
Since the current Federal Government has been in control of the national coffers, the funding that has kept many arts organisations alive has been withdrawn, leaving many of the more community-orientated companies struggling for survival, or closing their doors. In a Facebook post supporting the Association’s petition, WOMADelaide assert that 62 arts organisations have been defunded as a direct consequence of the Federal Government’s four-year, $72.8 million cut.
A question that has been posed to me recently by a friend is: “Are the funding cuts the best thing to happen to the arts community (albeit in the worst way)?”.
Let’s explore the current situation and unpack that statement. Bear with me while we set up some background.
Behind the scenes…
I have always looked at the performing arts as a body sport. Artists undertake years of training to fine-tune their bodies in order to practice an art form in public which is as demanding a physical application as any athlete is likely to endure. They then put a considerable amount of time and effort into rehearsing a piece of theatre (sometimes with singing and dancing involved which can triple the physical workload), and then put it on and sell tickets to fund their project and, hopefully, make enough money to pay the bills, the actors and themselves. It is unusual to make a lot of money out of a show that doesn’t have commercial backing (i.e., several million dollars in the budget to pay for everything before you have to take it out and show the public and, hopefully, make enough money to pay the bills, the actors and the investors). So why is an arts organisation so different from a sports club? Why shouldn’t the kids who go to tap-dance classes be as favourably funded as the young sports players who, if they turn professional, will have their clothes paid for, their gym membership taken care of and sometimes even have a new car provided to take them to and from their job?
Australia turns out world-class set and costume designers, lighting designers, film makers, animators, musicians, actors, singers, dancers. These recent funding cuts are making it increasingly difficult for our talented practitioners to get work.
The bottom end of the arts spectrum has always relied on funding from the Arts Council to feed the enormously successful creative pool Australia has built over many years. The Arts Council ensured that the not-for-profit side of the equation could get some seed funding to put a project into the marketplace and see if it worked.
Over the last thirty years I have watched amazingly courageous people set out to open up a creative place for many of our advantaged and disadvantaged artists, both visual and performing, to learn and to showcase their work.
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Fortunately artists, throughout time, have had to exist on virtually nothing to tell the stories of our communities and it looked like we were starting to revere our artists at last, instead of being content to see them starve in a garret. We saw government willing to fund new ideas, disadvantaged and marginalised communities, and opportunities for the artists to eat and to tell their stories. We still have a long way to go before we value the service of the protagonists as some of the Asian countries do, and value long-term, dedicated practitioners of the arts as living national treasures.
On the other hand, there are outstanding performing arts/film and TV schools in Australia now that provide world-class training in all aspects of the performing arts. Some are independent, and others receive government assistance. You no longer have to go overseas to get good training. Australia turns out world-class set and costume designers, lighting designers, film makers, animators, musicians, actors, singers, dancers. These recent funding cuts are making it increasingly difficult for our talented practitioners to get work. Unless they are really lucky or well-connected, they are left with little alternative to raising their own money to produce their own work. I must stress at this point that this is nothing out of the ordinary for a valued percentage of the creative people I know and work with. It is increasingly more challenging for an actor to get paid work. As it has ever been, the small budget available to most independent makers (film, TV or live theatre) is spent on hiring costs for space, equipment, costumes etc. This leaves little or nothing to pay for the actors and technicians. Community theatre has become the place for would-be actors to learn the basics, and film and TV schools rely on unpaid performers for their students to practice on. Visual artists display their works on the walls of cafés and pubs, relying on the proprietors to display their work for 10 percent of the sales.
The will of the creative artist will always shine through…Who knows what the future holds? We may even see the return of travelling players setting up their theatre off the back of a truck, working for food and a donation…more unfunded public art, graffiti, the visual voice of the people.
So, in essence, what’s the difference now that these cuts are in place? The state theatre companies and opera companies still have some funding, but even the established companies are fighting to maintain their place. That extra loss would be a real tragedy! Even the companies that were resourced previously have had to seek other means to top up the coffers to keep the doors open, turning to membership subscriptions, sponsorships, philanthropic support. Surely all that’s needed is for the administrative team to find more investors. Mmm, what have we got to offer these investors in return for their investment? The Telstra Stadium sounds great; what about the Optus Centre for the Performing and Visual Arts, where young creatives are given the opportunity to train? What about reinstating the fee-help for creative courses (cut because of the sharp practices by one or two training organisations, who saw a great way to make money out of a flawed system)? Fix it, don’t cut it! Healthy arts, healthy society. Squash the creativity and it will explode in violent and abusive ways. But the government will always find someone else to blame – the effect, not the cause.
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I am sick of the “slash-and-burn the arts sector, and buy more submarines” mentality! One less submarine in the forward estimates would have provided Medicare and the arts enough money to ensure the solid foundations that had been built over many years were not eroded in the space of a couple of years. We’ve plundered the earth of its riches and now we have to deal with the consequences. Don’t force art underground; it will not be a pretty rebellion.
In my experience…
I have put on several community-based projects with the help of a very generous and encouraging independent producer. He didn’t always get a good return on his investment, but he remained positive and supportive of the creative endeavours of a lot of young people starting out in their careers. A failure to make a profit didn’t make him withdraw his help – it spurred him on to encourage us to achieve a profit on our next endeavour.
I have travelled around the world with my partner crowd-funding, or self-funding, our original cabaret shows, always making sure we paid our support staff, whether we had money in the bank or not.
I have directed independent theatre shows that have been self/crowd-funded and kept alive with the box office receipts that barely covered the cost of touring it.
I have been part of a successful and very visible project devised by an ex-student, who then asked me to become a professional collaborator. The work established her as a major voice in the theatre community – she now lives and works in New York!
So, will cuts to funding decimate the arts? No, they will not. The will of the creative artist will always shine through. My favourite motto – “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it” – becomes even more pertinent. The arts will survive; there are so many stories to be told. Who knows what the future holds? We may even see the return of travelling players setting up their theatre off the back of a truck, working for food and a donation…travelling cinemas taking films to places denied the luxury of Gold Class, more unfunded public art, graffiti, the visual voice of the people.
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So, “are the funding cuts the best thing to happen to the arts community (albeit in the worst way)?”
I guess only time will tell, but I have a good feeling that my community of both visual and performing artists will not let a little lack of money curb their passion, or their enthusiasm. After all, there is always the true vision of the current government to expose! I guess crowd funding will just get busier.
Some of the arts organisations no longer funded are:
Arena Theatre (Melbourne)
Australian Design Centre (Sydney)
Australian Experimental Art Foundation (Adelaide)
Black Arm Band (Melbourne)
Brink Productions (Adelaide)
Canberra Contemporary Art Space (Canberra)
Centre for Contemporary Photography (Melbourne)
Contemporary Art Centre South Australia (Adelaide)
Cultural Partnerships Australia (Newcastle)
Express Media (Melbourne)
Force Majeure (Sydney)
KAGE Physical Theatre (Melbourne)
Legs on the Wall (Sydney)
Mosman Art Gallery (Sydney)
National Association for the Visual Arts (based in Sydney)
Next Wave Festival (Melbourne)
PACT Centre for emerging artists (Sydney)
Phillip Adams Ballet Lab (Melbourne)
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre (Melbourne)
Snuff Puppets (Melbourne)
Theatre Works (Melbourne)
Wangaratta Festival of Jazz (regional Victoria)