December 01, 2015

Submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the Arts.

Filed under: 2015,Archive,Commentary

Dear Senators

I have been a theatre reviewer for national publications, including The National Times, The Australian Financial Review and currently The Australian, since 1985.

My comments refer particularly to theatre funding in Australia but inferences can be made across all of the performing arts.

I am profoundly concerned by the recent changes to arts funding announced in the 2015 Budget by Senator Brandis : both in the reduction of allocation to the Australia Council and the siphoning of as much as $ 124m to a separate undefined “Excellence” fund (NPEA).

Let me begin by saying that I have covered theatre, cabaret, dance, circus, music and opera extensively in my writing career, I have also worked more than 25 years in the tertiary education sector as a Drama teacher and administrator at Flinders University, in a department which was the first stand-alone Drama department established anywhere in Australia.

I would say categorically that the present calibre, range and ambition of the performing arts in Australia is as commendable and noteworthy as at any time in my reviewing career. The originality, conviction and skills shown by artists in this country is inspirational. Most young artists in the present arts milieu have had extensive and specialist training in their particular vocation, they are better educated and more skilled than most previous generations. They are also at least as idealistic and committed to their art as any of their predecessors in the past 50 years.

Quite simply, in 2015, this country has a large range of artists who are, by any reckoning, at national and international standard. Considering their training and credentials, they are among the poorest paid and resourced workers in Australia. And yet they devote their utmost and provide an enormous imaginative boost to our cultural life.
They challenge, inform, entertain and delight us. They make our experience as individuals and as a community fun, they enrich us and remind us of our essential humanity. This, is surely worth an allocation of our public wealth, our much talked about taxpayers funds. These are Australia’s artists – their energy, optimism, invention and sense of adventure is a precious resource and, like the current NASA expedition to Pluto, they reflect the very best of our human aspiration and curiosity.

When I consider the prospects for so many of my gifted former students and other younger artists who are presently working in Australia I am gravely concerned. The investment in the arts at both state and federal levels has declined alarmingly, with of course the usual complaint that there are no funds. Considering the almost daily revelation of waste and reckless over-funding in so many areas of public spending, it is clear that the issue is one of priorities and not of means.

If we take the parallel instance of sports funding and sports development we find a useful model. In all sports it is recognised that youth development, generational change and the constant nurturing of potential is crucial – whether in AFL, cricket, rugby, netball or swimming. Development through institutes of sport and regional programs is an essential part of creating a winning sporting culture. It is axiomatic – and anyone who suggested that they could be dismantled would be ridiculed for not knowing the first principle of a successful sports program, whether for the Olympics or the draft programs for AFL or Rugby League.

The same notion applies, even more crucially in the arts. Emerging Artists need opportunities to develop and acquire skills, competence and equally importantly, confidence – to explore, take risks and think creatively and innovatively. These principles apply equally in business or science- and they are attributes that have long characterised Australia’s accomplishments both here and internationally.

The damage caused by cutting Australia Council funding is already devastating with the cancellation of the June round of funding and a general uncertainty in the six year funding programs. This is a serious blow and one which undermines momentum, security and morale – all toxic effects on the imaginative and creative frame of mind essential to the making of worthwhile art.

The funds removed to support “Excellence” represent an egregious view of the way good art comes into being. It is nonsense to think that any system will always pick winners. Success comes from effort, risk and often failure. The American director and theatre writer Harold Clurman once said -“People say why are there so many flops in the theatre ? – and I say that we need flops in the theatre because that is the manure from which the successes come. It is the hardest thing to make good theatre. People say why is theatre mediocre ? – and I say the theatre is mediocre when the country is mediocre.”

Right now we face the very real prospect that our arts will become mediocre. The removal of money to be used to nurture new work, new ideas, and maintain activity will bring down the development of the arts in ways which could be evident for the next thirty years. It is dangerously short-sighted to allow these arbitrary cuts, and not to recognise, like any healthy ecosystem, that the arts flourish when they are a large, diverse, actively fermenting community. Look at our sports success – it is not an accident, it is the result of diverse planning. To allow the arts to develop in a similar way (but for a fraction of the public cost) is an obviously sensible notion.

When I consider the outstanding theatre artists in Australia – names like Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, David Williamson, Robin Nevin, Hugo Weaving, Neil Armfield, Gale Edwards, Joanna Murray-Smith, and paragraphs more – what they all have in common is that began in small, now defunct companies, they were all part of the winding road of development and the maturing of talent. Belvoir began as an actors’ collective, Williamson came out of the unruly Pram Factory project. Company leaders at MTC, STC, State Theatre of SA, Australia Opera and dozens more – all came through apprenticeships and mentoring of some kind. To remove funding for that vital level of emergent developmental activity is ruinous and, I have to say, wilfully foolish.

The peer selection process for the Australia Council has served us well for 40 years. Any move to alter that should be seriously reflected on. The total absence of negotiation, discussion, and explanation in the actions taken by Senator Brandis is unacceptable and reflects a contempt for the creative community of this country.

I strongly urge the Inquiry to condemn the removal of funds and the damage caused to the Australia Council. There is always room for change and improvement but it is not achieved in this atmosphere of dictatorial whim.
The impact of these changes will be felt throughout the small to medium arts organisations and especially, our most precious future talents – young and emerging artists.
This is a grave situation facing artists in a country which has hitherto had an enviable reputation in international cultural circles – as the frequent success of Australian companies in prestigious international festivals amply demonstrates. This is no time to needlessly wreck our arts industries – or to make this proud, creative country an international laughing stock.

Murray Bramwell
Theatre reviewer for The Australian

Adjunct Associate Professor in Drama, Flinders University

July 17, 2015.

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