Rip It Up And Start Again: A Hypothetical New Beginning for Arts and Cultural Funding

by Jane

Today I spoke on a panel on arts funding with the Festival of Unpopular Culture.

 You know how everyone complains about how the Australia Council devotes most of its energies to major flagships and opera? And everyone else gets, well, chicken feed? And when you try to debate that you get this whole series of arguments about how opera’s a great art form and needs funding and whatever? Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have a conversation about what things could look like, rather than a defensive argument about what they’re like now?

Well, let’s pose a hypothetical. Let’s assume every Arts funding body in the nation got shut down, all the money got put into a big pot, we were rebuilding the entire funding system from scratch and every body had to reapply from one big cultural slush fund. What would we do?

The recent Australian Theatre Forum began with Postcards from the Future from a collection of artists and arts workers, and I decided to start my response to the hypothetical like that.  It wasn’t until I finished writing did I realise just how much of an ode to those three days this was. This is an idealistic version of a community and a nation I would like to be working in in ten years.

Dear Jane,

I am writing this as I prepare for my panel at the 2021 Festival of Unpopular Culture: The (Former) Festival State: The demise of a festival culture and the rise of independent arts practice in Adelaide.  Stan and Ianto, still running around in their cricket whites insisting that Ultimate Sports Game is a real sport, are amused by the irony of having such a discussion in a festival.  They’re not defunct, but they don’t weld the power they once did.  That goes for festivals as well.

After the 2011 FUCfunding panel and a rapid submission from all members of the arts community in attendance to the National Cultural Policy, all the arts funding bodies in the country sat up and listened. Australia went through a radical change where, just as prophesised, all funding structures – and the default allocations which exist there – were removed, and as a collective industry we worked towards a democratic system.

Today, our stages have 45% female writers (some people just can’t let go of Chekhov and Shakespeare, it seems), and 50% female directors.  Mirroring similar changes seen in visual arts, music, dance, film, and in the ever proliferating inter- and cross-arts sectors, our theatres are less white, less English speaking, less male, less old, more contemporary, more Australian, more queer, more community engaged, in more regional and remote areas, and with more people with a disability than ever before: on stage, behind the scenes, and in the audience. With the removal of funding structures, we now so rarely refer to “Indigenous art”, “disability art”, “community art”, and “children’s art.”  Now, we just call it “art”.  Some people and groups still choose to use these labels – the National Indigenous Theatre Company’s pretty big on it – and that’s okay to.

While a loss of funding structures opened the doors to a more equitable system, it also had the side effect of a lot of uncertainty for many.  But, this lead to artists creating work that is more sustainable than I can remember: work is more environmentally and economically conscious, and sector links are stronger, more supportive, and built on a basis of resource sharing.

When we stopped believing that, firstly, audiences were a homogenous group who could only be engaged by marketing (rather than programming), and secondly, that audiences and artists are different, we started to realise that, actually, artists and audiences are equal parts of the equation.

We’ve come to embrace the fact that not everything is going to be right for everyone.  But we’ve also come to embrace the fact that we need to create a language and a dialogue to bring the audience along for the ride with us.  Out have gone the wanky directors’ notes that profess, “this work is relevant” with nothing to back it up; in are long form essays and digitally distributed almanacs. This has become the work of both artists and arts writers, working together, placing work in a national, international, and historical context, looking back and looking forward, ever enhancing the possibilities of the work and the demands of the audience for us to push forward and find new limits.

Risk is embraced more freely, as something that can happen on the floor. Funding now appreciates that it is in the artistic nature for ideas to shift and change direction, and allows for more flexibility in how grants are accounted for: process is trusted in artists and organisations who have earned our trust.

Without the Australia Council telling people which companies are the most important because they get the most money, we get to tell people what art is important, why it is important, and why they should see it based on the art itself.  In return, artists ask for the voice of the audience, listening and responding to what they have to say.

This, along with the National Broadband Network, where artists and communities interact, and work and workshops are being streamed into schools and regional areas, has only served to increase audience numbers and box office takings.  As theatre is brought into our homes over the internet, we are more excited and demand more work to be brought into our physical presence, revitalising a national independent touring circuit, shows running for months on end as they weave their way across the country, through cities and into the regions.  Work goes where the audiences demand it and the artists choose to travel, ever in flux, not where Playing Australia has decreed it may play a year in advance.

This new system gave us the freedom to stop pretending that programming artistic seasons was made on “merit” or they came together by “coincidence”: taste has always ruled, but now it’s the taste of many, not of a few.  Fewer companies are operating on an Artistic Directorship model.  Instead, theatre companies and presenting houses have formed more naturally as collectives, groups of people working together with similar ideas.

These collectives increase the flow of artists between companies nationally and internationally. These collectives embrace people from all sectors of the artistic community and creative industries; “theatre” and the communication which surrounds it is appreciated as a true juncture between art forms – physical, visual, digital.  The larger companies are now a much stronger reflection of “excellence” – funding for all organisations is now subject to peer review, so they could hardly be anything less.

Companies with a focus on the artist and their independence and interdependence have made Australia the envy of the international arts world, everyone wants to work with us, and we engage their voice in our nation.

The Festival Centre’s still standing, looking out onto the renewed Adelaide Oval. Today, it’s rare you see work in the Space that wasn’t created for young audiences – the amount of work created for young people has exploded with their new found funding windfall, and everyone sees it – you just couldn’t bare to miss out.  Friday and Saturday nights are often spent in the Piano Bar – just one of dozens of music venues needed to keep up with the energy and vitality of Adelaide’s contemporary music scene and audiences.

We still see the Festival Theatre play a summer musical – Sondheim’s 2017 Tony winner should be a hoot this January – and alongside a strong season of local work, the Dunstan Playhouse is playing those standards of Polly Stenham and Lally Katz.  Just as “independent” is no longer a word to be sneered at, neither is “popular.”  It is on the same playing field as the rest of us, they have to work a little bit harder and be a little bit better for their box, and people move between these sectors with ease.

I went to the opera last night – a double bill of Nesha Jelk’s radical reworking of Strauss’ Daphne and a new work by Andy Packer – the performers wrecking havoc on Queen’s Theatre, a lynchpin in the national touring circuit and a year-round hub of South Australian work.  Opera’s still not really my thing, but it’s nice to see even such an old artform can find new stakes in 2021.  When we stopped companies using public funding for a $16 million Ring Cycle, we realised people can actually have interesting ideas if they’re not constrained by old thinking and old funding.

Anyway, must dash.  I can hear Lord Mayor Joshua Fanning wrapping up his speech on powerless figureheads, and my co-panellist, Minister for the Arts Jennifer Greer-Holmes, is tweeting for me to hurry up.

Send my love to everyone, can’t wait to you get here.