Saturday, 14 May 2016

Australia, the Australia Council, and the Erosion of Cultural Rights

This week the Australia Council allocated more annual funding to small-to-medium arts organisations than ever before.

Yes, you heard right. In announcing $28 million to go to these organisations each year, it invested more, not less, in operational, multi-year funding than it had in recent years. This funding round saw more of a realignment of support than a reduction. Here are the figures:

To Key Orgs
Total Funding

It remains unclear, though, what other programs will be available to complement this multi-year funding, if any. In the past, a good variety have been available to organisations both with and without operational funding. It will be important to see how many of these, and indeed others available to individual artists, have been dissolved in order to reach this higher level of operational investment.

I think the frustrations of the last few days are, in some part, misdirected. It’s easy to blame the ‘Brandis Raid‘ of May 2015 – and indeed there’s a great deal that was very wrong about that action – but there's a bigger story. The results of this funding round also have much to do with the philosophical shift that emerged after a long consultation process with the arts and culture sector aimed at finding a new funding model for organisations. As part of the shift, the Australia Council set new strategic goals.

This recent round was the first time that organisations across all areas of practice were assessed at the same time, thus enabling a full national view. It was always possible, even likely, that there’d be a big shake-up. There was a similarly seismic shake-up following the 'Make it New' shift that found its resolution in late 2008. It's periodic. 

It was the view of the peer assessors – and let’s remember that arts peers, not government bureaucrats, make the decisions – that a raft of new organisations had better claims to multi-year funding than some others that had been supported for many years. The status quo was rejected. Organisations working in Indigenous arts, for example, have emerged with new, long-term support. So have many in regional areas. A third of the organisations funded are new to multi-year funding. There has been disappointment, but also delight.

Nevertheless, there is a serious money problem.
Circa's Il ritorno (Image: Damien Bredberg)
It’s abundantly clear that many of the organisations that were not successful in achieving multi-year funding were fully deserving of support. I’ve had off-the-record conversations with several of the peer assessors involved in this round, and they all related how heartbreaking - distressing - it was not to be able to fund to the level of displayed excellence. 

Let’s remember that it was this very predicament that motivated the federal government in its 2013-14 Federal Budget to provide an additional $75.3 million to the Australia Council over four years. It recognised that there was a crisis of ‘unfunded excellence’, deeply affecting the health of the sector, and did something about it.

Then things changed. The May 2014 Budget took most of that increase back, and then in the May 2015 Budget more funds were diverted to what is now called Catalyst, to be administered directly by the Ministry for the Arts. A terribly topsy-turvy time, and not at all good for the stability of the nation’s principal arts funding body and the artists it serves, and nor for trust in government.    

Let’s be blunt. The Australia Council is not allocated enough in the Federal Budget to properly achieve its mission. This is despite the fact that each year the creative industries make a $50 billion economic impact against an investment of $7 billion. The Australia Council’s budget is a tiny fraction of that investment, but is one of the principal drivers.

It’s difficult to understand the reluctance to more reasonably support arts and culture. More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to the AFL and NRL combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture, construction or even mining, and indeed contribute as much as 75% of the economic benefit of the mining sector.

The argument is regularly heard that the arts should pay for themselves. This misunderstands the reality of subsidy, because the fact is that there are very few areas of our society that are not subsidised.

Mining receives about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. Believe it or not, government subsidises the big four banks – among the most profitable in the world – to the tune of something towards $6 billion a year. Health, education, agriculture and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. So too, sport. The Australian Institute of Sport spent a record $310 million of public money on the London Olympics campaign, its worst result in 20 years. That cost taxpayers $10 million for each medal won.

Actually, culture is one of this nation’s least subsidised industries.

This deficit of support is also evident when there's talk of an innovative, clever nation or state, or an 'ideas boom'. In these discussions, strangely, our governments largely ignore arts and culture, the great engines of creative thinking. Neither major federal political party has an arts and culture policy of any note. It’s an attitude that makes no sense. 

So let’s get serious. Let’s not talk simply of restoring funds recently taken from the Australia Council. In Federal Budget terms that’s loose change. Let’s talk about doubling them. The Australia Council is one of the most efficient government bodies around. Why not let it do its work? 

Earlier this year, in a game-changing moment, the Canadian Federal Government doubled the budget of the Canada Council – the equivalent of the Australia Council – as part of an injection of $1.9 billion into arts and culture over five years. It was a "vote of confidence in the capacities of the arts to invigorate our economy and support social cohesion". It was the result of a long-term concerted effort. It's an effort we need to make.  

Let’s also talk about a National Lottery for Arts and Heritage. Such things can be huge sources of funds for governments, and could fund ten Catalyst programs, or similar programs devoted to the things that best express who we are or might want to be.

Let’s talk about STEAM rather than STEM. Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics should all be key parts of our education curriculum. Decades of research shows that artistic engagement nourishes all learning, so if we want an innovative, imaginative and well-rounded nation, let’s have one.

Let’s also talk about how a serious NBN could enable all Australians, wherever they live, to have access to the great cultural work our nation produces.

People have a right to arts and culture. It’s a right equal to political, social and economic rights, and it’s universal. All citizens have a right to engage with both cultural heritage and new artistic creation. They also have the right to engage in their own forms of creativity, to have access to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose or design. This universal cultural right is eroded whenever we fail to properly fund the arts organisations and artists who provide that access to the tools and the expressions.

Let’s have the conversation. Because if we don’t, and if we’re not careful, one day we’re going to wake up and realise that the books we read and the films and television we watch are all from overseas, that the songs we listen to are not in our voices, and that our stages are not telling our stories. Then we will ask, ‘when did this happen?’ On whose watch, we will wonder, did we decide that it didn’t matter?   

It’s on our watch.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Vale, Bob Ellis, an Australian Colossus.

Bob Ellis, one of the great, Protean figures of Australian cultural and political life, passed away on Sunday afternoon after battling a rare liver cancer. A magnificent fig has fallen.

Bob was never dull - he was hyperbole's bosom friend - and always wrote and behaved with the future and morality of his beloved nation at heart. He could compose a phrase like no other, making it sing like a thought never before sung, whether for a politician's speech, an essay, criticism, or a film or play. He was one of our great writers, a thinker, a contributor, a scoundrel, a provocateur, a melancholic warrior, a comrade. His roguery and relish marked him as an Australian Gore Vidal. Like no other, he inhabited the forests of politics, arts and culture equally. He was indisputably an Australian colossus.

Many years ago, I loved directing a workshop of one of his plays at Sydney Theatre Company. Ever since, like many others in my field, I mostly saw Bob in theatre foyers. The fellowship was enduring and I usually came away knocked-up and nourished by at least one outlandish claim. But this was his mode: he was one of our great mythologisers.

His books are pleasure gardens of insight, and I own them all. I was a daily reader of his blog. On Sunday night, Bob's son, Jack, posted Bob's school report on the blog. It is touching in its accurate simplicity.

A sad Sunday night. And so it goes...

Sunday, 3 April 2016

On Simon Stone's 'The Daughter'

I saw Simon Stone's debut feature film 'The Daughter' recently.

It's a terrific film, with an Ingmar Bergman-like tautness and a keen understanding of film form that makes for a deeply affecting experience.

The film is derived from Ibsen's 1884 play 'The Wild Duck', which also stimulated a stage production written and directed by Stone in 2011. That production has played a few places in Australia, as well as Amsterdam, Vienna, London, and at Oslo's Ibsen Festival.

Stone has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with Australian theatre, particularly in regard to his adaptations of plays by other authors. But it has not affected his now terrifically successful career in Europe. Last year his production of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman for Vienna's Burgtheater and Theater Basel earned him a best director award. In March this year, he staged Ibsen's Peer Gynt in Hamburg, while in July his take on Lorca's Yerma will open at London's Young Vic. In August, Stone will direct his debut opera, Die tote Stadt, in Basel - he is the in-house director at Theater Basel - followed soon after by Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande for the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Another opera will follow in late 2017 at the Salzburg Festival. That's a packed creative itinerary.

The film's setting in a contemporary Australian logging community feels like a nod to Norway, but still feels very much of this country. The language is authentically Australian, effortlessly so, and the film even manages to unmask some of the class issues of a nation that likes to tell itself that it doesn't have any.

The cinematography and production design are beautiful and precise - each with a coherent and purposeful language (rare in Australian film) - and Mark Bradshaw's score is one of the best I've heard. All of the performances are top notch, but Ewen Leslie, who played the same role in the stage version, sits at its blood heart. A privilege to watch him.

The audience I saw the film with were clearly gripped, with some, I sensed, experiencing this story of family and secrets as a reflection of their own. Gasps towards the end, and tears. A wonderful experience.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

On Visiting Parents

Last week I visited my parents at The Entrance, on the Central Coast, about an hour north of Sydney. We holidayed here every year when I was a kid, and I sometimes even got the last week off school to do so. My parents always said that when they retired they’d move here, and that’s what they did. When I visit now, I arrive as a ten year old, excited at being back in a place of childhood delight, my muscles and synapses defying time.

The choc-dipped ice cream, probably deficient in dairy, is still to be found, though the price is not, with 40c transformed to $4.50. The pelicans are still fed, but now it’s a daily 3pm tourist attraction. The jetty where I used to fish is untouched, though now seems so much smaller, just like the bream. The Housie Hall is now one of those Base Warehouses, where quality is an apparition and everything is cheaper than you’d imagine.

This year is different. My parents are living in a new place, closer to the water. When I scan the rooms, I see furniture in three worlds at once: in this new address, in their first coastal house, and in the ghost of our family home in Maitland.

But that chair never used to be near that table. That wall hanging, which I never really liked, should be to the left of the table, not the right. And why that new fruit bowl?

“Where’s the brown bookcase?”, I enquire, affecting calm.

"Oh, we gave it away. It was too heavy to move and it was old.”

Too heavy? Isn’t that what removalists are for? Don’t you remember that it was MY bookcase, the first I ever owned. Why the fuck didn’t you ask me about it?

I don't actually say those things, because the adult subsumes the boy. I now realise that after decades of unbroken neglect I no longer have rights over the bookcase, any more than I have rights over the presence of a fruit bowl. Physical ownership is now a memory, just like the books the bookcase once cherished, books now lost to student days, though still written, if shakily, in my thinking and feeling. Other books live in a new home, where I live, where they stare at me from new shelves, some grumbling at not being read, some waving at me with their pages, reminders of love and loss.

You can never truly own a book, only the paper it's printed on. Nor can we pin the past to a wall, like a tortured butterfly, demanding it remain in an eternal present. To do so is to mistrust the future, and that is a crime.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Andrew Bolt's Fear

Andrew Bolt’s first published work was written when he was 13.

It was a poem published in Quadrant, called 'Fear':
The jeering, gloating ring of youths
Closed in around a solitary boy,
Teasing and taunting him
Because he was black.

The boy staggered from a blow;
The yells grew louder,
Humiliating and bewildering the boy.
The colour of his skin was a cause
For ridicule.
I wanted to help him
But fear sealed my mouth,
Held me back.
And soon I was yelling with the rest.
Andrew Bolt

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On completing Brisbane Festival

An arts festival is an opportunity for artists and audiences to take risks. It’s a chance to experience new forms and new ideas and to lift our gaze beyond the everyday.

The arts enable us to walk in the shoes of another for a short while, to experience a different kind of exhilaration or disturbance or reflection or joy, and it has always been my simple hope that those experiences might make us more empathetic, more generous, more valuing of things outside our daily selves.

Brisbane Festival is part of that huge ongoing human project, and it gives me hope that making a difference is possible.

This year’s Festival, my first, tied together work from five continents and many, many hundreds of artists, all of whom had something to say. These voices spoke powerfully across the city, sharing with us views and experiences of the world that were both challenging and refreshing. Sometimes our securities were shaken, and often our hearts went out.

I found myself particularly affected by the powerful presence of artists who carry with them an experience of the world that is not mine, but which has enlarged mine and, I believe, made me a better person. I can only trust that others have felt similarly.

As the world becomes smaller and more connected, and the value of creativity and sharing becomes clearer, I hope that Brisbane Festival will reverberate with increasing depth and consequence.

The Festival staff and volunteers have been extraordinary. It has inspired me to see how much they’ve all have cared: the insanely long hours, the utter belief in the work, the clear desire to get it right, the generous disposition to artists and audiences. Truly amazing. I thank them all.

I’m longing to get on to the next edition.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Holding the Man: The Three Champions of Australia's Greatest Love Story

Last week, before a preview screening in Brisbane of the film version of Holding the Man, I joined writer Tommy Murphy for a public talk about how the story came to be, first as memoir, then as theatre, and now as film.

It was lovely to be with Tommy, such a crucial figure in how this story has reached a wider audience, and to reflect on what is now a 20-year history adorning the 15-year relationship between Timothy Conigrave and the man he called his husband, John Caleo.

Tim was an actor and playwright, but his final form was memoir. Following John’s death on Australia Day 1992, Tim was determined to write a book about his lover. In an interview with James Waites for a National Library oral history project on HIV/AIDS in Australia, Tim says
‘The only thing I have to live for is these two things that I am writing, which I’d like to finish both of. One’s a play that involves stuff about AIDS but it’s not really about AIDS, and the other one is the book that I’d like to write about my lover and I, which I’ve started.’ 
The interview itself is quite extraordinary. Over almost three hours, recorded at his home in Sydney on 13 January 1993, Tim tells stories of his life, his time with John, and his current health. Many of these stories are clearly well rehearsed, probably told at hearty dinner parties, and many are in a form similar to how they’d eventually arrive in the book.

Two weeks before this interview, Tim met the first of several people who have been crucial to how this story came into the world, and to how it has endured. At a New Year’s Eve party in Melbourne’s St Kilda in 1992, Tim met Sophie Cunningham.   

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Hansel and Gretel in Brisbane

What a fabulous night.

I'm just back from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, a student production at the Queensland Conservatorium, directed by Michael Gow and conducted by Johannes Fritzsch. How blessed these students are to be working on this glorious score with two great artists. And the design by recent NIDA grad Charles Davis is worthy of any opera house. Great to see the Con devoting significant resources to what must be a priceless learning experience for the students involved, in the pit and on the stage. 

I love this opera. I've known every note for 25 years, and it's a score that keeps on giving. It's a miraculous synthesis of German folkiness and Wagnerian complexity. Humperdinck was a student of Wagner's - he assisted at the premiere of Parsifal, and even wrote a bar or two for a tricky scene transition. Hansel and Gretel, completed in 1893, with a libretto by his sister who urged on the project, is full of Wagner - the climaxes, leitmotifs, and thick chromaticisms. Richard Strauss conducted the premiere in Weimar, then Mahler conducted the Hamburg premiere in the following year. Not bad. Within a year of its premiere, the opera had been performed in more than 70 theatres.

The dramatic construction is immaculate. It flows beautifully, while allowing for some great set pieces. But it's an incredibly difficult sing - the father in this story needs to be pretty much Wotan - and it doesn't give up.

This production delivers. Sure, student singers cannot ever be expected to deliver the full goods with a score like this, but they do a mighty job, singing their hearts out across a big orchestra, and clearly relishing every moment. This story of hunger, kidnapping, cannibalism and witch burning seems right up their alley.

Go see it. You have until Friday.

Friday, 31 July 2015

On the Occasion of La Boite's 90th Birthday

Today is the 90th birthday of La Boite Theatre Company, making it, perhaps, Australia’s oldest continuously running theatre company. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s big birthday bash.

On this day in 1925, the first show was staged: a one-night season of A. A. Milne’s comedy The Dover Road at the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street. The following day The Brisbane Courier raved:
“Nothing was left to chance. The cast was admirably chosen, and the large audience was held by the splendid acting for two hours and three-quarters. The players, one and all, rose to the occasion, and satisfied the sceptics that the repertory movement in Brisbane has come to stay; it will grow from strength to strength; it will enlarge the communal mind, and prove a great and joyous power in our cultural life.” 
I love that last stretch: “it will enlarge the communal mind and prove a great and joyous power in our cultural life.”

It’s quite confronting to lead a theatre company, as I did La Boite between the end of 2008 and the middle of 2014. What do I really believe in? What do I think is good theatre? Who will I champion? What changes need to be made? How can I best enlarge the communal mind?

It’s a phrase that sticks.

I’m honoured to be part of the huge La Boite clan, and particularly of its family of artistic directors. I hope I played a useful part, as many have, in enabling the company to enlarge the communal mind.

Long may she continue to be "a great and joyous power in our cultural life”, a theatre that invigorates our minds, stirs our emotions and inspires our better natures, a theatre that enthrals, enlivens and entertains, a theatre of daring, dash, and distinction.