The way the performing arts is funded in Australia hasn’t changed since the 1990s, but the Australian cultural landscape has changed dramatically.
For a start – the population has increased by more than 50%, and now more than one in four Australians weren’t born here. Most significantly, that quarter of the population is now more likely to have been born in Asia than Europe.
Yet the select group of performing arts companies funded to represent our multiplying, diversifying population remains largely unchanged, and the art form segregations they uphold – ballet, opera, musical theatre, “canon” plays and orchestra – see the endurance of our colonial identity, at the cost of a livelihood for independent artists and a cultural economy that can captivate and reflect our population. The government seems to believe that the performing arts is a live history museum where the privileged and literate in colonial arts can nod knowingly from their seats – and so we are, for me, completely stunted as a creative, cultural nation.
A look at the state of things for arts funding in Australia might astonish you. It also offers a clear sight of the dominant attitudes and beliefs of our governing class.
In Australia in the 1990s, a bunch of performing arts companies linked up to be protected from collapse from the incoming tide of overseas works. There were about 23 of these companies at the time, there are now 28. They were named AMPAG companies; Australian Major Performing Arts Group. This was a good thing at the time, and was done to make sure Australian performing arts companies would survive so they could continue to take risks and carve our Australia’s authentic voice. AMPAG companies are now, ironically, famous for being risk averse.
Jump to the 2016/17 financial year (https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/about/annual-report-2016-17), and those 28 AMPAG companies received $109.2 million, while 590 small to medium organisations received $53.4 million. That’s two-thirds of funds to AMPAG, and one-third of funds to almost 600 companies – those lucky enough to get SOME funds. In 2018, the Australia Council received 5464 applications and approved 1064 (https://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/about/annual-report-2017-18).
So the money that does make it to these independent organisations are cut up into bite sized chunks, keeping them barely alive, and those who miss out are starving. Many are on death watch. This AMPAG system equates to preserving the privilege of the rich (and elite) and giving rations to the poor, just enough to keep them begging, but not enough with which to do anything meaningful, not enough to get above your station as a beggar. When you have to beg it makes you feel worthless. Yet the Australia Council for the Arts reported that across 2017 and 2018, 12% or 895 individual applications – $30.9 million worth – should have been supported on their merit, but were rejected due to lack of funds. What is this idea of ‘excellence’ we continue to holler, when such a huge proportion of our excellence is being stopped in its tracks?
These figures don’t even draw attention to the innumerable arts collectives and individual artists not established as an Organisation or Company – who have the opportunity to apply for $5,000 morsels for ‘professional development’ or ‘artist support’ to seed new projects, if they can afford the time to write the grants and have the skills to do so. Imagine the struggle of artists for whom English is not their first language, who live with disability, or whose practice is focussed in their regional or remote community. The argument goes that the small to medium sector gives independent artists place to mature as artists. I am currently an Associate Artist our local Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA) – which is a cherished honour. But this year the organisation has not been able to secure any funding to support new projects by its Associates. Instead I will make treasured use of the studio when its vacant, and develop my projects unpaid. This year I will apply for five different opportunities to gain $5,000 to support this work. I have already been sent rejection letters from three of these.
Audience figures continue to reveal the funding model’s lunacy – converse to the funding split, only one-third of the national audience attends AMPAG company’s works, and two- thirds of audience attend the other 590 (part-funded) independent companies works. Again, figures don’t account for all the audiences attending independent unfunded work in fringe festivals and fringe venues around the country.
Under the AMPAG regime, the majority of Australia’s performing arts is being actualised though self-funding, supplementary careers, partner’s wages or family support – limiting the breadth of representation in our performing arts to those who are privileged to be able to make these sacrifices. This, in turn, is reflected in the way Australia defines itself. In particular this means regional performing arts companies across Australia are not funded to exist.
Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) gets $6 million from Canberra and $6 million from the states – every year – because they’re AMPAG, that’s the deal – but MTC have a low per seat subsidy compared to others in the group. Meanwhile Opera Australia gets more that ALL the AMPAG theatre companies combined. Our local, critically acclaimed NORPA, known for creating home grown works of scale in site-specific locations, receives no organisational funding. It begs for money to begin each project, often missing out, stunting its growth, impact and ability to share regional voices crucial to any national conversation. Regional voices are not considered by our government to be worthy in the landscape of Australian performing arts. But we need those silenced voices heard desperately in Australia. We need to see and hear from those whose lived experience and artistic intelligence will define us as the culture that we are; the artist’s role is to reflect this back to us so we can recognise who we are, who our neighbours are and what our dreams are and futures might be.
Kate McDowell is a writer and performer from the Northern Rivers region of NSW and is running for the NSW Senate with The Together Party.