About last week … May 7-13

Last week there was only one story …

Berlin has a population of about 3.5 million. Its three opera companies – Deutsche Oper Belin, Deutsche Staatsoper and Komische Oper – are funded quite well by the city. In 2014/2015 the combined subsidy was €123,481,000. (The German Government throws the Staatsoper a bit extra as well.) At today’s exchange rate that is $191,628,000. Yes – not that far off $200 million. For the opera companies alone. No wonder Barrie Kosky, Intendant of the Komische since 2012, isn’t interested in coming home to Australia.

I am very aware it can be a mug’s game trying to compare one place with another when it comes to culture. There are significant historical and social differences in play. Nevertheless, there are clues as to how a country – or city – values the arts when one looks at the amount of money it is prepared to spend to support it.

Obviously I’ve been thinking about this in light of last week’s funding announcement by the Australia Council, in which more than 60 previously funded small- to medium-sized organisations lost their annual support. The OzCo isn’t the only source of funding for Australian arts organisations but for many companies it is a crucial component, giving a solid base for multi-year planning in a way that project grants, sponsorship and philanthropy, no matter how necessary, cannot.

Puncture images Pru#1D47648
A dancer flies in Puncture, a production between Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects and VOX – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for the 2015 Sydney Festival. Photo: Prudence Upton

While it’s true that no organisation can necessarily expect to receive government funding forever and that newer organisations have a right to expect they have a chance of getting support, the derisory amount of government funding for the arts means there has been a brutal throwing overboard of fine artists to make way for the new. What kind of mad thinking is that? That Force Majeure, Legs on the Wall, Brink Productions, KAGE Physical Theatre, Theatre Works and Slingsby among many more have been abandoned. And then, with the hideous logic that seems to prevail in such circumstances, if they go under without this funding it will prove they weren’t good enough to get it in the first place.

The OzCo has an annual $28 million to allocate to the small- to medium-sized sector over the next four years and has divvied that up between 128 organisations. About half the applicants (262 in total) were unsuccessful. Overall the OzCo has a budget of a bit less than $200 million a year. Yes, the same amount three opera companies share in Berlin (population 3.5 million). Over the past couple of years money has been given to the OzCo and then taken away – never a recipe for stability and certainty. Overall there is a bit more federal government funding for it to disburse. But while every dollar is precious to a small organisation (the larger ones are shielded from cuts – at the moment) the amount is, as I say, derisory.

As has been noted by many, the economic impact of the creative industries is far greater than the investment – read David Berthold’s excellent analysis on his blog Carving in Snow – even if artists shrink from putting hard numbers on their work. Nevertheless, these figures have to be hauled out: if politicians fail to understand the intrinsic value of art itself to a society then the economic argument must be brought into play.

Let’s remember that according to a Deloitte Economics study released when the Sydney Opera House celebrated its 40th anniversary, the Opera House contributed $775 million annually to the Australian economy. By the way, let’s also remember that 60 years ago this year, then NSW premier Joe Cahill called a committee to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …” That was leadership, at a time when there were quite a few people who thought the last thing Australia needed was an opera house.

Ah, leadership. In his commentary, Limelight editor Clive Paget writes that the arts needs champions. Indeed so. Wesley Enoch, quoted in a Limelight piece by Maxim Boon, gets trenchantly to the point when he says: “This is not the week the Arts died in this country. This is a week we will look back on and say it was the week we found our voice. It is the week we stepped up not down.”

A great deal has been written over the past few days, including Alison Croggon’s valuable longer-view piece for The Monthly. (It would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it, how much money has evaporated in the process of chopping and changing the funding process.) There was a strong and important statement from CAST – the Confederation of State Theatre Companies – that stressed the interconnectedness of the arts ecology and offered tangible backing: “Funding cuts at any level of the arts sector have a dramatic flow on effect throughout the industry – from independent artists to the major performing arts companies. In this sudden climate of uncertainty and upheaval amongst the sector, CAST is committed to supporting artists and small to medium companies to help sustain their future and that of Australia’s vibrant cultural landscape.”

AMPAG, the Australian Major Performing Arts Group, said: “Key small and medium arts organisations should not just rise and fall as projects allow. We value their capacity to keep their doors open, to experiment and develop new works to nurture artists and to facilitate collaborations over the longer term.” It also noted that many leaders in the major organisations emerged from the smaller ones. It didn’t specifically offer practical assistance to those smaller organisations. It needs to. If the larger arts organisations fail to help the smaller ones they laud so highly, how can they expect others to care?

As Enoch says, it’s time to step up. The majors have clout. They need to use it. And so do we all.

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