Richard Letts. George Brandis’ hobby.

Jul 25, 2015

George Brandis’s day job is as Commonwealth Attorney-General. He is also Arts Minister, which on the evidence he treats as a sort of hobby. He has been responsible now for two annual arts budgets. In the 2014 budget, there was a cut to arts funding but he quarantined from the cut the 28 major performing arts organisations funded through the Australia Council; these are the main orchestras, opera companies, theatre companies, dance/ballet companies, Musica Viva and Circus Oz. They were quarantined again in 2015, not from an overall funding cut to the arts, but from a raid by Brandis himself on the funds of the Australia Council.

Brandis took about $26 million a year for the next four years and transferred it to his own Ministry. The result over the two years is that about half of the funds available to all other grantees – the small to medium sized organisations and the individual artists – has been taken from the Australia Council. It could set Australian arts back decades.

Under the Australia Council legislation, the Arts Minister can instruct the Council in matters of policy, just as he can his own Ministry. The Council must now prepare an annual Corporate Plan which must be approved by the Minister and has been so approved by Brandis. Given this high level of control, why would the Minister feel the need to transfer funds out of the Australia Council to his Ministry? The most obvious answer is that at the Ministry, he can decide, grant by grant, who will or will not be funded. He is prevented by legislation from instructing the Australia Council on individual grants – the “arm’s-length principle”. Perhaps a secondary advantage is that he can dictate policy at the Ministry without having to contend with informed argument as he might at the Australia Council.

In the course of a Senate Estimates hearing on May 27, the Minister was asked whether he found the decisions coming from the Australia Council to be problematical. He implied that he did, that its interests were rather narrow, but was unable to give examples. In fact, he has made no considered, defensible policy statement about the purpose of the transfer of funds. Even if he had identified matters with which he is dissatisfied, the Australia Council, as he should know, is right now after years of planning introducing a new regime which is intended to widen its scope. A rational response would be to wait to see the outcomes and then seek to improve them further.

However, there was one statement from Senator Brandis in that Estimates hearing that gives the game away, in part at least.  “We want to spend more on developing our arts companies, which is why we have created this new fund.” He means the 28 major companies. The statement is consistent with his actions. He has quarantined them from cuts. He has defined three directions for the use of the new Ministry funds, one of which is to support the major companies in additional touring, and the second is to support companies in seeking private support – and it is the large companies that have fund-raising staff that can best take advantage of that program. (The remaining funds, for “strategic projects”, can go to SMEs.) Of the $26 million available each year, only $20 million will be spent on the programs so far named. For the other $6 million, apart from funds needed for administration, we could conjecture that additional support will be provided to implement the recommendations of the Minister’s review of the major opera companies, to report later this year.

Also on May 27, Senator Brandis said: “But let us not forget that the major performing arts companies are the heart and soul of the performing arts sector in this country. They are the big employers of artists and arts workers. They are the people who undertake most of the touring, including the regional touring, as well as the international touring.

“They are the people who provide the performances that the great [?] audiences of Australia enjoy. As I have always said, one of my misgivings about the exclusive peer-to-peer funding model is: who represents the audience around the table? The minister, being the responsible officer in charge of taxpayers’ money, has to be the voice for audiences. What are the shows, what are the performances, what are the concerts that the audiences go to? Primarily, they go to the performances of the major performing arts companies, whether it be drama, music, opera, ballet, dance or whatever art form it may be. It is very important to remember that their interests, and therefore the interests of the great audiences and the arts public of Australia, have been protected…”

I certainly agree that the orchestras and opera companies are the economic engine of the classical music sector. They are the major source of organised employment that gives some rationality to a young person’s decision to invest years of their lives in training as classical musicians. They account for a large if unknown percentage of paid attendances for classical music. But Live Performance Australia’s data show that including Musica Viva, they account for 7.7% of ticket sales, as against 42.5% for contemporary music, even though the latter probably omits attendances at small venues.

But is not the Minister’s perception of himself as the hero-defender of the audience a little peculiar? It’s as though he has been musing one day on what possible useful role he might play in the arts portfolio and suddenly realised that among the Australia Council’s expert artist-peers there are no (inexpert) representative of the audience. Presto – Ministerial relevance! Does he think that the companies do not consider what is popular with audiences? Why then is there hardly an Opera Australia year without a long season of La Bohéme? The audience speaks softly but it carries a big stick – it buys tickets or it doesn’t.

Minister Brandis to The Australian on June 21, 2014, when he first announced his crusade for the audience: “Frankly I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences that want to see quality drama, or music or dance, than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves.” * (Now he has announced that his new fund will not give grants to individual artists.)

This is an astounding statement from an Arts Minister.  Of course, the individual artist must give him- or herself to their own process. But does the Minister think that individual artists have no concern for the views of the organisations that may put their work before the public, or the public reception?

But this Minister seems to have no interest in the creation of art, no sense that we are in a time of great artistic flux and invention. He likes the safety of the heritage, culled over centuries. The transfer of funds seems to be about indulging the Minister’s personal artistic preferences and values.

What we need the Minister to do is understand the entire ecology. We need to build audiences not only for the performing arts canon, but the arts of our time and place. The individual artists and small companies are the incubators, the risk-takers, the innovators, a training ground. Even the major companies acknowledge this. An informed arts minister finds ways to support audience building, perhaps for crowd-pleasers but especially for the art that finds the way forward.

This is a summary of part of the following submission:

*When a playwright sits amongst an audience and shifts their eyes sideways to take in an expression of submission, when a playwright hears the laughter or feels the transition of reality from auditorium to stage, a transition that happens in a mutual seduction of artists and audiences – that is the moment when a playwright succumbs to the love-affair of a writing life – a love affair with that amorphous, sometimes frustrating, occasionally disappointing and often inspiring lover: the audience.

We don’t talk about our lover very often. We think of ourselves as more interesting. The audience encourages this by fanning the flames of our self-importance. And in the full swing of our egocentric flourishes, we sometimes forget them – but we do so at our peril. Everything we are, everything we want, everything we need and everything we aspire to is in their hands.

–           Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, writing coincidentally in the Daily Review, July 24.

Dr Richard Letts is Director of the Music Trust. In the 1980s he was Director of the Music Board of the Australia Council. He was founder and CEO of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and is a past President of the International Music Council.

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