The Arts and the Common Good

Katharine Brisbane
Books, Cultural Policy
Sydney: Currency House, Platform Papers Issue #43, May 2015. 72 pp
ISBN13 978 0 9924890 4-5
Reviewed by , June 1st, 2015

Platform Papers are scholarly quarterly essays produced by Currency House Inc., a Sydney-based non-profit organisation, formed in 2001, which seeks to raise the level of public discourse about issues facing the arts today (see www. In this, Paper Number 43, Katherine Brisbane, theatre critic and historian, expresses her deep concerns about the current health of the leading performing arts companies in our country (the State theatre companies, Opera Australia, and the major orchestras). She thinks innovation and risk-taking have gradually been undermined by financial pressures. She writes: “…today, novelty, spectacular design, star actors in revisionist productions of familiar classics, are evidence of loss of energy and a flagging imagination” (p.32). Government subsidies only cover a small percentage of their costs, so they are increasingly dependent on corporate sponsorships and donations. This then has created a more pressing need for their performances to succeed at the box office and a reduction in costly preparation time. A managerial culture has permeated their boards in the face of these pressures. As also noted by Ralph Myers in his 2014 lecture titled: The Artistic Director: On the way to extinction?, there are too few artists selected for board positions and boards are avoiding selecting artistic directors who could be too challenging, because of the risk of alienating sponsors.

Katharine Brisbane. Photo by Adam Knott

Katharine Brisbane. Photo by Adam Knott

The pressure to please (the sponsors, the subsidisers, the audience, the press…), is counterproductive to innovation. Brisbane goes on: “we must learn to trust those who work in art development and give them some latitude”(p.42). Artists must feel free to fail and then try again, but nowadays the market has intruded to such an extent that the process of making art is not intrinsically valued, but rather only saleable products are valued. And ticket prices now are only within reach of the affluent. So “How does this fulfil the vision of interpreting Australians to themselves through art?” (p.51) asks the author.

I enjoyed her overview of the history of public responsibility for arts funding in Australia, beginning with the foundation of the Australia Council in 1967. One might imagine such a review of the past 40 years of arts funding could be dry reading, but quite the contrary; in her hands, it is very absorbing, as she explains our changing cultural landscape and teases out the various reasons for why we find ourselves in our current state. She was there, always passionately interested, and closely involved, not as a performer herself, but as theatre critic (The Australian from 1967-74), as Chair of the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference (1985-1990), as editor and writer of numerous articles and books on Australian theatre and literature, as publisher of Australian drama through Currency Press, and as an arts advocate. (Currency Press is Australia’s performing arts publisher which she and her late husband, Dr. Philip Parsons, established in 1971).

She sees one important reason for the current unhealthy state of play as being the deterioration in arts education since Colleges of Advanced Education were amalgamated with universities (under the Dawkins Plan in 1984). TAFES were closed, and leading arts academies were placed under university administration. This resulted in more time spent in lectures and far less in practical learning. Other problems that have emerged are the drop in literacy levels overall and the decline in the amount of music education in public schools. She also criticised the recent review of the National Curriculum where critical and creative thinking have been reduced to optional extras in an overcrowded curriculum. She explores many other reasons too which cannot all be covered in this review – suffice to say they make for excellent reading.

But I must mention some of her thought-provoking ruminations on what could be possible because, as she puts it: “working harder on the same treadmill will not change the outcome” (p.59), and “it’s time to face the fact that Government will never be more generous and sponsors less problematic” (p.60). She thinks it is now time to give up the inherited prejudice against working for profit in the arts field, as innovatory business practice can make a huge contribution to the arts in our society. She believes there is the potential for a profit–based industry of the highest quality, if there was more interchange and collaboration between the public commercial companies and the subsidised state companies. (Note: In the UK, the National Theatre and other UK subsidised companies are earning millions in royalties from hit shows they have developed with private entrepreneurs and transferred to West End, Broadway, and into cinemas. They attract private funding and find top talent).

Katharine Brisbane

Katharine Brisbane

She would like to see a national theatre workshop set up “dedicated to developing an Australian performance tradition and working with playwrights to bring the text, performance and design to its optimum before public performance”(p.56). It would be supported by the Australia Council. Another idea is that the performing arts venues could become metropolitan theatres open for hire, and available for smaller companies to use, to expand shows from their smaller theatres to the larger one. She suggests a refocussing of the Australia Council so it fosters development of the creative process by investing its money in talent, funding innovation and advancing the interests of cultural continuity and self-examination. With the 2015 budget, who knows what is going to happen to the Australia Council! She thinks the performance companies could seek venture capital and investors through the ethical investment sector. She would like to see our major artists becoming stronger advocates promoting the value of their industry and taking positions on the boards of the major companies. Lastly she writes that it is time the arts sector itself took charge of its present and future.

It certainly makes for thought-provoking reading and one hopes her paper will generate further discussion, especially in the light of the 2015 budget, where $104 million has been directed away from the Australia Council to a new body under the direct control of the Minister for the Arts!

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