|theatre director Subramaniam Velayutham, Minister for the Arts Virginia Judge MP, actor/singer Tama Matheson|
at the Small to Medium Performing Arts Forum
courtesy of StreetCorner.com.au
Cynics considered Judge’s move as election-minded, agnostics prayed that there would be more to it than ‘improved networking’ (the funding bodies’ mantra of the decade as was sponsorship to the 1990s) and optimists hoped for small improvements, but doubted that the cold, hard reality of under-funding would even be broached. The palpable Carr legacy to the arts was very much bricks and mortar—CarriageWorks in the city and arts centres across Western Sydney—creating new niches for artists and bringing local government into play. Councils have shown increasing commitment to the arts and, in some cases, have provided artists with funds otherwise not available. However, the overall state of the small to medium sector in NSW remains parlous—whether state or federal, the last thing any politician appears to want to do is raise the standard of living for artists, despite the mountain of evidence of dire need from successive reports by arts economist David Throsby.
not so empty space
Minister Virginia Judge begins with a quote from The Empty Space, Peter Brook’s 1968 treatise on the state of modern theatre, in which the director addresses the importance and potential of the theatrical form. She links those in the room with Brook’s ideals mentioning “presence, immediacy and experiment” and tells us she’s passionate about this sector.
I am among the “leading representatives from the performing arts” invited to discuss challenges for the small to medium creative industries sector: “how to promote and expand the vital role that performance, dance and theatre plays in the community.” The organisers had to rearrange the venue in Parliament House when over 100 representatives from the sector from across the state accepted the minister’s invitation. The gesture is generally welcomed, breaking the long drought in dialogue between artists and the arts bureaucracy in NSW.
The Minister assures us that “investing in the cultural sector is a key part of the Keneally Government’s strategy to stimulate the economy and create vibrant, diverse communities.” She is keen to hear suggestions as to how the government can “support this sector to benefit the industry and the community as a whole.” “The forum will give small to medium performing arts organisations an opportunity to explore new ideas to empower the industry to expand its skills and audience base.” Sounds good.
This is the third in a series of Creative Industries forums. Others brought together practitioners working in the live music industry (with a focus on jazz) and in visual arts and artist-run spaces. Next up will be the film and screen sector (a new Arts NSW program, oddly inherited from Screen NSW) followed, importantly, by an all-in gathering of representatives to discuss the implications of the forums on government arts policy and strategies. Even better.
The Minister is proud that the recent abolition of the restrictive Places of Public Entertainment (PoPE) licenses has created more jobs and opportunities for musicians and performers. No disagreements on this one either.
Mary Darwell, Executive Director, Arts NSW (within Communities NSW) talks about creativity, sustainable business models and access as priorities. She mentions the Arts NSW booth at the recent Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) in Adelaide, promoting NSW artists. She tells us that structural changes in Arts NSW have been taking place over the last 18 months and that in the last six, the priorities have been Aboriginal arts and culture, opportunities for employment in the Creative Industries and how to reach diverse audiences.
The following statistics are shared. NSW is home to 37 percent of the nation’s creative workforce, accounting for five percent of the State’s workforce or 150,000 jobs for people working in film, music, design, publishing, advertising, architecture, visual arts, television, performing arts, radio and electronic gaming. 39 percent of all creative industry businesses are located in NSW, accounting for 27,000 or four percent of all businesses. The NSW Government’s $42 million Arts Funding Program supports 11 of our major performing arts companies, regional galleries and community-based organisations as well.
By now, we should have been impressed by the scale and largesse of NSW’s commitment to the arts, but as the struggling providers of “presence, immediacy and experiment” it offered little consolation. The empty space for small to medium sector artists is the one felt in the pocket.
where are the artists?
As well as the opportunity to be heard, the gathering was paid respect in the choice of keynote speaker, Sarah Miller, a great supporter and contributor to the sector in her work as former director of Performance Space, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) and now as Head of the School of Music and Drama in the Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong.
Miller argues that, given the problematic status of artists, their obligation to an increasing number of ‘stakeholders’ and a general lack of clarity about the ‘creative’ society being built for the future, “our governments need to develop clear and reasoned philosophies and strategies outlining just why they provide support for art and artists.” However, on looking at Arts NSW’s strategic plan, Miller “found not one word dedicated to artists of any kind; not one mention. Arts yes, communities yes. Programmes, yes. There’s even a bullet point that promotes advocacy for the arts and promises to improve sustainability for the arts, but nothing about supporting artists—the people who make the ART. Does anyone else find that extraordinary?”
Miller goes on to argue for “locating artists and practitioners at the heart of arts policy development and recognising that the relationships between government and company, funding body and artist is a partnership—not a master/slave or an employer/employee relationship. It means informed, committed, staff supported within the bureaucracies to grow policy development and arts funding programmes in a sustained and bipartisan fashion.” If this could be achieved, it means that “...the development of the sector, the role of the arts and culture in society and so on, will have a completely different complexion, particularly if artists and theatre makers of all kinds are invited to sit at the table when developing policy—which is arguably what the Minister is doing by setting up this forum today.”
Miller says that from this, “a whole lot of other things follow: we can recognise that people need spaces to live and work in; we can identify career pathways, and support artists and companies to develop, mature and flourish. We need artists AND we need infrastructure. It’s a symbiotic relationship—not an either/or one—working through—as Performance Space Director Daniel Brine has identified—both the ‘what “we” need’ (the infrastructure map) and the ‘what “I” need’ (the artist’s map).” But this kind of progress will need artist input—“With an effective advocacy network you can make the case for improved funding.”
Miller acknowledges areas of improvement which Arts NSW should more energetically embrace: “The development of regional, national and international touring circuits have seen small to medium companies flourish in a range of arenas, and Arts NSW should not shy away from supporting such initiatives on the basis of some misplaced parochialism.” She also calls on Sydney Festival to create more opportunities for NSW artists and companies (this should be extended to the Sydney Opera House’s New-York-out-of-town VIVID Festival). In this vein, Miller concludes with extolling the virtues of collaboration and partnerships across the state.
We are then mustered for Breakout Sessions in which groups of 12-15 representatives are consigned to corners of the room with butcher’s paper (always a depressing prospect) to come up with quick responses to a basic agenda.
One hour is allocated to this discussion. A colleague whispers: “How do you convey desperation in an hour?” And, of course, you don’t. Nor do you get even close to the complex needs of a sector that has been denied real recognition and equitable treatment for so long. The groups assembled represent a wide range of creative endeavours and scales of operation. Dancers seemed under-represented. Nevertheless, there was a sense that the gathering was in basic agreement on the answers to the three key questions put to them by the Minister:
1. What have been the successes of the small to medium performing arts sector to date and what can we learn from them?
2. What are your long-term aspirations for the sector?
3. What do you regard as immediate priorities?
The breakout groups proudly declare the sector’s capacity, against the odds, for survival: the ability to remain robust and flexible and, of necessity, multi-skilled. They point out that the sector invests in research and the development of talent in the way large organisations will not, and fuels the festival circuit and new arts centres thus improving infrastructure. Significantly, the bulk of work touring overseas is from this sector. The elimination of the PoPE venue licence restrictions is seen as a particular success.
The NSW Government has long been preoccupied with what goes on in the arts within its borders and is rightly proud of its regional arts infrastructure. It has, however, lacked the national and international vision of some other states. Some participants argue for the government to build on the international potential of its artists and companies. Quick turnaround funding is proposed (and has now been implemented; see below) to allow for immediate response to invitations from overseas festivals and other opportunities.
Also suggested is the commissioning of a report on the economic impact of the arts in NSW, incorporating information on working conditions and professional development. These include the need to urgently address the supply of training facilities, especially for dance, circus and physical theatre, and assistance for artists in professional development and with ‘brokerage.’
Infrastructure needs are seen as including how the small to medium performing arts sector connects with others, with a desire for a closer relationship with the education sector to enable more access for artists to young audiences. Similarly the position of the sector in the relationship between Arts NSW and local government is seen as needing clarification, as are connections between various development and touring schemes.
Some of the points raised address fundamentals for the sector. Because its work is often engaged with experiment, long development time is crucial and this needs to be understood when funding decisions are being made. More difficult in an era of accountability, benchmarking and KPIs is the development of a culture of risk aversion and a concomitant fear of failure. What happens then to “presence, immediacy and experiment”?
Even more fundamental is the survival of the artist. It’s argued by forum participants that NSW government and artists should lobby the Federal Government for a recalibration of the unemployment benefit system to acknowledge the value and work of independent artists. This was hoped for in 2009, but Arts Minister Peter Garrett altogether sidestepped the opportunity with further investment in emerging artists funds—welcome in some respects, but always leaving the question begging: emerging into what?
Urgent need is again expressed for space: affordable, flexible for rehearsal, development and production. Venues like CarriageWorks and those in Western Sydney are significant improvements, as are the Queen Street Studio and like schemes, but still do not meet the real need.
Participants feel that it’s not just the amount of space but its effective use, management and distribution among artists. Suggestions included the establishment of a database, brokerage on behalf of artists, a think-tank about needs and opportunities, and a rethink about how current venues are used.
Sarah Miller’s suggestion is taken up that a peak body for NSW performing arts would give the small to medium sector a united voice and opportunities for conversation and sharing knowledge. Above all, concern for individual artists is strongly expressed, reliant as they are on auspicing companies, organisations, producers and venues to secure funding in NSW.
getting to the point
These responses to the set questions are delivered politely by the team leaders from each group. At one point someone asks me, “Are they speaking your language?”
Finally, there is a refreshing break in the pattern as Grant O’Neill from Legs on the Wall sums up for his group the range of successes—expansion, growth, resilience, partnerships, improved focus, support from local government (regional centres especially)—“very few (of which) have to do with any policy instigated by Arts NSW.”
He goes on to add a list of ‘disasters’, under which category his group identifies a range of misfires by Arts NSW, namely: the recent funding restructure, the way it deals with applications, the nature of its announcements (“not remotely acceptable”), absence of known methodology, barriers to communication (nobody authorised to speak), lack of any understanding—especially of the independent arts sector. O’Neill finishes with a creative flourish, returning to the Minister’s reference to The Empty Space, but as miscommunication.
And finally, Nick Marchand, formerly artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company and now director of the British Council in Australia, eloquently sums up his group’s discussions. Judging by the approving murmurs, he and Grant O’Neill get closest to the feelings in the room. Among the sector’s successes Marchand lists resilience, innovation, collaboration, touring, “ensuring its own longevity outside of Arts NSW,” providing opportunities for artists—emerging, transitional and established—and “creating the bedrock of arts culture.”
Marchand’s group argues the need for government to recognise and acknowledge the individual artist within the system. One size does not fit all. Focusing, like O’Neill, on the absence of dialogue, he tells us that Arts NSW representatives are not approachable: “When you speak to someone on the phone, you need to speak to people who have authority to speak.” Dialogue between state and federal governments is similarly problematic. This group believes Arts NSW should be driving business development and, crucially, opening dialogue between sectors, infrastructure organisations and artists.
are we really talking?
For a first meeting between the small to medium performing arts sector and Arts Minister Judge this was less a conversation than an opportunity for the minister to listen and the sector to have a voice with which to express its mutual, on-going concerns. Critically, Sarah Miller’s keynote address drew attention to the ‘artist’ as the missing agent in Arts NSW policy and to the need to address in a balanced way the relationship between infrastructure and the individual. Much that followed in the responses to the Minister’s set of questions pivots around this issue of the role and place of the artist in our culture, whether individually or in companies.
In a letter (April 30) to forum participants, Minister Judge suggests that “The need for affordable and accessible performance space was the strongest issue that emerged.” As well as reminding us of the reform (PoPE) regulations, Judge writes that the Renew Newcastle model might extend across NSW and that she has asked her department “to examine further options for affordable rehearsal spaces within its current property portfolio as well as exploring other practical options.”
Judge sees networking and advocacy as the second major issue of the forum. She advises the sector to “get together on a more regular basis to share ideas and resources and to represent shared interests to the Government.” She also acknowledges “that there needs to be better communication between the Government and the sector.”
On the position of artists, Judge writes, “I am looking at ways Arts NSW can better engage with artists and arts organisations, in particular improving the Arts Funding Program and support mechanisms for individual artists.”
On May 5, Judge sent out an email announcing “a Quick Response project category which will be offered four times a year to assist individuals and organisations who need to apply outside the annual funding cycle. There will be a six-week turnaround for applications to the Quick Response Category and closing dates are 2 August 2010, 1 November 2010, 7 February 2011 and 2 May 2011. The inclusion of this new funding category is a direct response to issues raised in the three forums that I have hosted for the industry at Parliament House.”
For Project Funding, individual artists in NSW have to find an organisation willing to auspice their grant; it’s not always an easy task to find like-mindedness and it’s quite competitive. The Quick Response application does not appear to require auspicing (although it’s not absolutely clear on the final page who should sign the form). It looks like a breakthrough for artists and a more realistic government attitude to the realities of responding to the marketplace. Mind you, Quick Response funding will presumably be money re-allocated from Annual and Project Funding, which raises the issue again of overall funding levels. As Sarah Miller quipped in her keynote address, “Maybe for the next forum we could invite the Treasurer along as well.”
Just what “improving the Arts Funding Program and support mechanisms for individual artists” will add up to is difficult to imagine in economically challenged NSW and with the limited vision of Arts NSW, but with an election coming we must take Sarah Miller’s prompting seriously. Is it time for small to medium sector artists to act collectively, to stake a claim in the state’s cultural future, the one they themselves are building? Arts Minister Virginia Judge has listened, acted and promises further conversation and action. Let’s define that action with her—the empty space between government and the arts just might begin to fill.
Small to Medium Performing Arts Forum, Parliament House, March 19
First published in RT Online, May 10
RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. web
© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org