Melba hits high Gee!

Post by , October 7th, 2014

Maria Vandamme, director of Melba Foundation/Melba Recordings, has written a very high-pitched defence of her millions of dollars of grants from Commonwealth Ministers.

So what’s to defend? Wouldn’t we all like to be in her happy position?

The upset started with a piece by Ben Eltham in ArtsHub. It began “Arts Minister George Brandis approved $275,000 in special funding to classical music label Melba Recordings without peer review or a competitive process.” The funding decision was made in April and was not publicly announced or reported.

Eltham explicitly or implicitly asserts that there was secrecy about this grant, a lack of a competitive process, and that the funding was achieved outside the normal funding processes for the arts, through direct lobbying of the Minister and bureaucracy by an organisation with strong connections to important Liberal Party figures. All this at a time when the Minister cut funding to the Australia Council.

Maria Vandamme

Maria Vandamme

Melba was previously funded from 2004 to 2012 and Eltham examines the 2012 audit for the Melba Foundation, published online, and concludes that the outcome in record sales has been minuscule. However, Eltham did not find the financial report of Melba Recordings, the private company supported by the Melba Foundation, that would provide information about record sales. A private company need not publish a financial report and Vandamme regards the sales information as commercial-in-confidence. The Foundation report gives some basis for speculation about company matters, but that is as far as it goes. It does give information about number of releases, distribution, reviews and so on. Melba Recordings’ first releases date from 2002.

The Department for the Arts responded to questions from Radio National about the decision-making process. It states that the Minister had met with Ms Vandamme as with many others, that it conducted an appraisal of the Melba application, that the award of the grant was published in the normal way in the Attorney-General’s Grants List ( and that it is a one-off grant to assist with completion of recording projects and development of a business plan.

A trip to the grants list is an enlightening experience: 539 arts and culture grants ranging from $292 million to $5,000. Most think the action is at the Australia Council. There is a story waiting to be told.

Among these grants Melba’s $275,000 is not especially significant in size; it is atypical but not unique in character.


There is history here.

Maria Vandamme set up the Melba Foundation as a conduit for public funding and private donations to Melba Recordings, her for-profit private company. She sought to build the status and influence of the Foundation by early enlisting the support of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland, Lady Potter. In her letter she mentions supporters “Sir Zelman Cowan, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Barry Humphries, Geoffrey Rush, Sir James Wolfensohn, Barry Tuckwell, Lady Marigold Southey, Jeanne Pratt, Victorian of the Year, and Dame Quentin Bryce, recently re-elected as our Patron-in-Chief”. Not all Liberal Party members: “Gough Whitlam is one of our patrons,” says Vandamme.

Vandamme attracted the support of these high status individuals with a vision: to produce very high quality recordings of eminent Australian classical musicians and to build a reputation for both artists and record company through an international marketing campaign at a level not then achieved by other Australian classical music record companies.

She states in the letter, written in response to the ArtsHub article, that in 2002 she took her scheme to the then Chair of the Australia Council, David Gonski. Presumably she was seeking support at around the level shortly afterwards achieved: $1 million/year. Gonski suggested she should approach the Minister directly.

Why would he do that? Answer: The Australia Council Annual Report for 2004 shows total expenditure on assistance to recording projects was $151,000 with a limit of $7,500 funding to any project. An application for $1m would have been, shall we say, outside the guidelines.

It could also be said that while Gonski’s recommendation is in other circumstances business as usual, it fitted a little awkwardly with his role as Chair of an arts funding authority placed officially by its legislation at arm’s length from government: i.e. the government was not permitted to instruct the Australia Council in its funding decisions. The principle is that arts projects are funded on their merits, not on the political or personal proclivities of the Minister. Gonski’s suggestion was not quite in the spirit of that principle. Indeed, he later made a speech to the Melba Foundation congratulating it on achieving government support and noting that the Government did not side-step the Australia Council since they could “give monies to whomever they choose”. Could we imply that he knew there was a principle at stake?

Vandamme went directly to the Government and in fairly short order there was a decision, said to have been made by then Treasurer Peter Costello, who was less than generous to the Australia Council, to provide funding of $1m per year for five years. This was to a company with little track record.

Other small companies had been producing recordings of our classical musicians for years and given the available resources, were doing it tough but making a great contribution. When the $5m in funding was announced, there was outrage in the music world. Why was this upstart organisation with fancy backers to be privileged with funding seven times the total given to all other Australian recording projects?

To add insult to injury, the supposedly arm’s-length Australia Council was lumbered with administering the grant. So somehow Costello was instructing the Australia Council to fund a particular entity. Presumably there was some legal tap-dancing to make that possible. Remember it was Costello who banned funded organisations from advocating the needs of their constituencies on pain of losing their government support. Perhaps not a man finely attuned to the niceties of life in a democracy.

When Labor took power, Peter Garrett became Arts Minister. He extended the Melba funding for three years, halving the amount to $500,000 a year. Then Simon Crean became Minister and terminated the funding. That is where things rested until in April, after a meeting with Vandamme, Brandis restored funding, now at $250,000 plus GST. Vandamme refers to this as “bridging” funding. Bridging to what? We do not yet know.


Maria Vandamme is not at fault in seeking Government funding nor in enlisting upper-crust supporters to help her to get through the Ministerial door. That is the right of every citizen.

Here are some of the statements she makes in her (unpublished) letter of response to ArtsHub.

None of the money Melba has received from government – not a single cent – has been given at the expense of any other Australian arts organisation or individual. Such monies were not diverted from the Australia Council. Every cent, every dollar was in addition to funding already conferred on the arts sector through the Australia Council. No-one lost out.

Vandamme cannot know that. The Australia Council did not lose out but its budget is only a part of the arts budget.

$1m a year was added to the Australia Council budget to pay Melba’s grant. It could have been added to fund a recording project that gave $1m a year to the best applicant. The government can give a general instruction of that sort. The recipient might have been Melba if Melba’s project stood up to scrutiny by knowledgeable music industry people rather than an arts-amateur Minister.

Neither Melba nor the Minister were acting improperly, writes Vandamme. Many arts organizations have been and continue to be directly funded by the government. Melba is not a unique case. Australia’s leading orchestras and opera companies, the ABC and ANAM are all directly funded without recourse to the Australia Council and not, as a consequence, subject to peer assessment.

The orchestras and opera companies are in fact funded through the Australia Council. But yes, there is direct funding to a number of institutions which are not peer-assessed – for instance the ABC, ANAM, National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia, Screen Australia, Australian Ballet School, Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and others. These are public institutions, not small private companies.

Melba had a vision of creating a record label that matched and exceeded the long-standing international criteria for excellence to which no Australian classical music label had hitherto aspired… Indeed, Gramophone, the world’s most respected classical review magazine, acclaimed Melba’s recording of Wagner’s The Ring as “the best sounding cycle on the market to date, bar none” and hailed another of our recordings as “a magnificent release [and] a truly revelatory one, not least in highlighting the outstanding work being done by this distinguished Australian label.”

There are reviews of this sort that attest to an achievement of high quality that is praiseworthy. But to say that only Melba had this aspiration is mere conjecture and probably a nonsense.

Where, one might legitimately ask, were longer-established Australian labels when it came to capturing and preserving on disc an historic high-watermark in our cultural history: the first ever complete staging of The Ring in Australia? Why did those labels, with years of substantial government funding behind them, not step up to the plate and record The Ring? And would they have done so to the same universally admired standard that Melba did?

There is only one label with years of substantial government funding, now well behind it: ABC Classics, which for some years has had to survive without subsidy.

In 2004, the first year of Melba’s $1m/year funding, the total budget of the Music Board was $4.19m. From that, it had to meet an enormous range of needs and possibilities and make some fair and judicious division of funds among them. To assign one quarter of the funds to recording projects would have been irrational; to assign them to one record company would have been suicidal. In those circumstances, the allegedly missing aspiration could have seemed quite fanciful.

Last year, the Australia Council funded six record labels, maximum grant $50,000, total budget $253,000, the same in total as has been given to Melba.

But Vandamme writes: It is the peculiar priorities and confined criteria of Australia Council programs – lacking the flexibility or will to consider the scale and intent of our operations and poorly designed to accommodate them– that has barred Melba from the convention of peer assessment. Melba has never sought to sidestep such a process. If the failure of the Australia Council’s funding programmes to accommodate the Melba proposition compelled us to directly approach government for support, is that a cause for complaint? Really?…

Despite Melba’s success we are treated as a football by misinformed political opportunists pursuing a parochial agenda that is as debilitating as it is demeaning to the whole of Australia’s vibrant classical music scene.

Gee willickers!


This is gruesomely entertaining.

But are there some useful questions or lessons here?

• Melba did not accept the status quo. It made its case to Ministers and won. Think outside the box.

• But it did not win in such a way as to change the status quo, the obstacles it was trying to outflank.

It may have demonstrated that arts funding at the present level is simply insufficient to achieve outcomes of international excellence. A few Ministers agreed, implicitly and probably unwittingly. Unfortunately, because the whole project has been supported as a sort of aberration rather than a test case, no-one is putting that argument.

• Why should an entity such as this with such a large proportion of its funding coming from the public purse be able to claim commercial-in-confidence on its sales outcomes? Why is that in the public interest? How is it even commercially advantageous?

• There is an argument for direct national government funding of cultural institutions that it owns. But what is the argument for establishing an arm’s length arts funding authority which makes its decisions through peer assessment (or indeed, by other fair and credible processes) and also having a grants budget directly allocated to grantees by the Minister with no public invitation to apply nor published criteria or procedures to decide upon grants and grantees?

• The reputations of Ministers who have supported Melba have been diminished. Why? It would seem that they have been seen as bypassing fair practice to favour an organisation on the basis of its carefully nurtured connections with people of privilege and/or political status.

• In the event, most of the opprobrium has been directed to the organisation. But it did nothing wrong other than not play the game by the rules accepted as unavoidable by the rest of the arts sector. Or most of it.

And the Ministers acted within their accepted legal prerogatives so they did nothing “wrong” either.

• But perhaps this does raise the question: what should we expect in and of an Arts Minister? Has anyone asked that general question? Has anyone answered it?

That might be the topic for another blog.


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