The Arts Minister: carrying what message to whom?

Post by , July 2nd, 2014

I have picked up the following item from Jig’s Up.

In the Commonwealth budget, the government quarantined funding to the large companies, made big cuts to individual artists and small companies. Arts Minister George Brandis to The Australian On June 21: “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.”

Brandis said he sees himself as representing audiences, not just artists. “It’s been one of my constant themes in both my periods as Arts Minister that the one group of stakeholders always forgotten about in discussion of arts policy is the audiences or public who go to shows or galleries. They don’t have a voice unless it’s the Arts Minister because the Australia Council quite properly is concerned with the artists.”

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So the Minister wants to be a voice for the audience. What exactly could that mean?

The audience can of course speak very softly and still be heard loud and clear. It decides whether to turn up and buy a ticket. It says yes or no and attends, or not. After that, it’s adjectives all the way.

So what would this audience want the Minister to say on its behalf? “Give me more of what I want!”

The question then is “Who’s asking?” and therefore “What is it that you want?”

The Minister has decided this in advance. The audience for which he speaks is a “great” audience (“great” as in “big” or perhaps as in “this ‘great’ country of ours”?) that wants “to see quality drama, or music or dance…”

So he wants to be the voice for this particular sliver of the population. About other slivers we don’t know except for the apparently dispensable audience for individual artists because after all, those artists are responsible only to themselves and don’t care about them.

The context for the Minister’s comment was his protection of the funding for (confining ourselves to music) quality orchestral or operatic music. The “great” (big) audience in that case wants Tchaikowsky and La Boheme and you can tell that from the box office. So it gets its wish and the Minister’s voice is redundant. He only has to look after the supply side.

But there is a strong suspicion that the joy of serving that audience is approaching its use-by. It is part of the dilemma of classical music and it is being heavily played out in the US as audiences age and fall away and some orchestras fold. That repertoire is losing its attraction and does not interest the young in large enough numbers. (Not yet as big a problem here but then we have the ABC and government funding. The US hardly has classical music even on radio.)

So the Minister’s voice would be more useful, perhaps, if it supported a much smaller part of the great audience, a part which is asking orchestras and opera companies to open up the repertoire and experiment with presentation. Then that audience would hear music that interests it – and with persistence, there could be brighter future prospects for orchestras and opera.

Two issues with this. Firstly, that sort of programming is risky and needs more subsidy. Back to the supply side. Secondly, the incubators for this new repertoire are the individual artists such as composers and the small ensembles that perform their work. Of course, their art is viable as art right where it is. But this activity also serves as out-of-town try-outs for artists who may in due course also serve the big stages. A truly informed policy would not sideline it.

The Minister says individual artists are only responsible for themselves, as though they make no connection with audiences, other artists, or all bow down The Market. He may be surprised to know that they have an audience which probably is much more articulate about its musical wants than his preferred great audience. The artists would have a bigger audience if they had the means to go out and get one. Back to supply side.

Then there are all the other great audiences. As in, from the arena stage: “You’ve been just a great audience tonight and I love every last one of you!!!” Could be tens of thousands in a single venue in one night. Maybe that doesn’t need subsidy but as the Arts Minister for Australia, a democracy, a nod in its direction could be prudent.

Then there are the audiences for other great art music, also small scale: the musical audiences that would like the Minister to give voice to their desires to hear more and better jazz or electronic music or small music theatre or flamenco or sitar … Or audiences that came through the school system and want to know the things about music they were never taught. Definitely room for a voice there.

If or when the Minister is the voice for these audiences, to whom is he speaking? The musicians? What is he going to tell Michael Kieran Harvey or Elena Kats-Chernin or Joe Tawadros or Mike Nock on behalf not of himself, but the audience, that they need to hear?

For that matter, what does he need to tell the Melbourne Symphony or Opera Australia that they don’t know?

Probably from his position of advantage he would be best able to take a message to the Treasurer. So far, in the world as this government sees it, he hasn’t done too badly with that –which is to say, the damage could have been worse. It could also have been more equitably distributed. A familiar complaint elsewhere.

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