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A SUSTAINABLE ARTS SECTOR

Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw

Platform Paper 15

What Will It Take?

Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw

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Sustainability in the arts is about much more than money. It suggests a willingness to learn and a commitment to the long-term. While in economic terms it means sustained success in competition, publiclyfunded arts define success as producing something society values. This essay looks at the pillars of sustainability: a stable income, a supportive infrastructure and vibrant creativity. Wherever governments support the arts, the demand for money outstrips the supply. This paper looks at how government agencies in Australia and Britain are beginning to complement traditional methods of subsidy with more multi-dimensional approaches to the achievement of artistic, financial and organisational sustainability. The time is right, the authors suggest, for Australia to get creative in its quest for a more sustainable arts sector. They propose the establishment of a public-private endowment fund that would support risk and innovation, long-term projects and their evaluation, and promote the value of the arts to Australia and Australians.

 

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About the Author

Cathy Hunt is a founder of Positive Solutions in Brisbane and recently led a team investigating sustainability in Indigenous arts centres in far north Queensland.

In the arts, sustainability has so far tended to concentrate on individual companies or an individual artist’s practice rather than on the sector as a whole. In the commercial sector, it is more common to talk about the ‘viability’ of a business or organisation. In commercial creative businesses, sustainability is about finding ways to maintain or exceed current performance levels, so that profits can be distributed to investors and ploughed back into product development, in order to achieve an advantage in the marketplace 

 

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Responses to Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw's A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take?

Richard Letts is the Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia and President of the International Music Council. He has earned a living as a musician and headed a number of non-profit organisations here and in the USA. In a previous century he was Director of the Music Board of the Australia Council.

The recent census shows a quite striking decline from 2001 to 2006 in the number of people declaring their main occupation to be in one of the main art forms: for instance, actors, dancers and related professionals are down by 20%, singers by 25%, instrumentalists by 11%, and visual arts and crafts professionals by 18%. This brings to an end an upward trend of at least four decades duration.1

Why is this? It could simply be true that employment in these art forms, whether by self or others, has actually declined. That could be connected to a decline in funding, the effects of technologies, or to a wasting patience with life in the garret.

Or perhaps it reveals not so much a change in occupation as in attitude. What if in the past people gave 'artist' as their main occupation, when actually it was not their primary source of income, but the way in which they wanted to be known? I'm a musician. Oh yeah, I drive a taxi to make some money, but I'm really a musician.

And what if, now, fewer people are identifying themselves as artists, because they think that being an artist has lost its cachet-that society or governments are doubtful about the value of the arts? This is totally speculative, of course.2

Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw's A Sustainable Arts Sector gives an excellent round-up of strategies by which arts organizations can reconsider and develop their business operations. The authors also recognise that most subsidised arts organizations are flat chat simply keeping their doors open and have neither the time nor the resources to stand back and reconsider their ways of operating. They need respite care, some special one-off assistance to take this step. The recently departed government's reviews of the major performing arts sector and of the orchestras proposed that various survival problems could be ameliorated were the organizations able to build better management. Hunt and Shaw's prescriptions fit comfortably with what already has been government practice here and, as they observe, in Britain.

Of course, arts organizations should operate as efficiently as possible and achieve maximal financial self-reliance. The public purse should not be called upon to prop up poor management.

But what if, after your organization has been McKinseyed and is as taut and 'vibrant' as a violin e-string, you still need subsidy? If you are an orchestra, an opera company, a theatre or dance company putting large numbers on stage, you are an organization with nineteenth-century labour dependency trying to operate in the twenty-first century. Even though you may play to full houses, you cannot cover your costs from box office. If you are a small company presenting high-risk innovative art, you also will not meet your costs from box office, unless you reduce them in the time-honoured fashion by not paying your artists.

So how can we call your operations 'sustainable'? Your management expertise may reduce your trading deficit, but you survive only for as long as the subsidies are there, whether from governments or private sources.

While Hunt and Shaw's sustainability paper is admirable in many ways, it falls in with the Zeitgeist in proposing a business solution to what is not, at base, a business problem.

The issue is ultimately about values. At some point in the paper, the authors give a scenario in which government 'cannot' afford to meet arts organizations' increased costs arising from inflation. The proposition is fallacious. In the greater scheme of things, the amount of funds is minute. Of course, a government is able to meet those costs. The issue is one of values and resolve.

And this is the case also for the larger funding issues. The difference between a little subsidy and a little less subsidy, a difference that good management can make, will not change the mind of a government that does not believe that arts subsidy delivers a public good-or enough public good. The issue is not whether we give attention to being more effective managers-of course, we can and should do that-but that we think that that will resolve the problems of sustainability. It won't. We still have to get funds from government. We can say 'Hey, look, we cleaned up our act. We don't need as much subsidy to survive.' So then we get less subsidy and are still vulnerable. (And what we really needed was a bit more, to bankroll that stuff that you really, really can't do from box office, the risky stuff, the larger scale stuff-the things that truly sustainable 'arts' sectors like the pop-music industry, the musical-theatre industry more or less, airport-novel publishers, art auction houses, wouldn't touch with a 40-foot pole.)

As a tactic, we in the arts adopt the language and concepts of those we seek to persuade. Then we slowly fall in with our own propaganda and forget where we came from. Remember the horror when people started referring to the arts as an industry in order to give it an appearance of economic credibility? Now there are probably some younger readers who have never thought of it as anything else.

We do have to find ways to reassert the value of the arts. Art for art's sake. (Well, art for the spirit's sake, and I speak as an atheist.) Somehow, we have accepted that this is a hopelessly fey, indulgent and old-fashioned construct. Well, is it? I would assert that it is much closer to the core than art for the sake of business or the economy. Arguments for the arts as sleek and up-to-the-minute businesses are intrinsically flawed if the businesses are not profitable.

A society in which people claim to be artists even while earning their living as taxi drivers is headed in the right direction.

PS. I acknowledge the excellent arts Future Fund proposal which, however, could benefit from some scenario planning to consider possible effects on other funding.

1 Annotated statistics can be found in the Music in Australia Knowledge Base on the Music Council of Australia website, at www.mca.org.au (accessed 20 February 2008). 
2 Setting aside this little riff, those are remarkable figures and demanding of real analysis. What is going on here?

Di Yerbury was CEO of the Australia Council between 1984 and 198, and Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University from 1987 until 200.

Let's put our hands together for those enlightened universities which see it as part of their mission to be arts and cultural centres for both their own communities and for the general public. Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw's title asks A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take? Well, these universities are already showing how the higher education sector can make its own contribution to the sustainability of the arts.

Both NIDA, the country's first and best-known theatre school, and the Australia Ensemble, one of our finest chamber music groups, are resident at the University of New South Wales, and have been generously nurtured by that university since their foundation in 1963 and 1980 respectively.

Melbourne Theatre Company, the longest established professional theatre company in the country, is actually a department of the University of Melbourne. (Incidentally, there's an added incentive for the university's own staff to swell the audiences: since MTC plays are an in-house product of the university, subscriptions are regarded as an in-house benefit for tax purposes, so staff can elect to pay for them through salary sacrifice, thus discounting the cost of tickets.)

Several campuses are home to performing arts venues: witness Monash's Alexander Theatre, where the Bell Shakespeare Company, amongst others, tours regularly, and its Robert Blackwood Concert Hall, which seats 1600 and can accommodate a full symphony orchestra. Brisbane's professional arts venues include the Queensland University of Technology's cultural precinct, with its popular Gardens Theatre.

The Perth International Festival, the oldest international festival of its kind in the southern hemisphere, was founded at the University of Western Australia in 1953; and, as part of that Festival, both UWA and Edith Cowan University host the outdoor LotteryWest Festival Films program. ECU does so in a lakeside setting on its picturesque Joondalup Pines campus, with free BBQ facilities for families. The screens also light up under the stars at UWA's Somerville Auditorium.

Partnerships between arts organizations and educational institutions can take many forms. Starting with the support of the Australia Council's first Partnership Grant, the coupling of the creative talents of Kim Carpenter's Theatre of Image with Macquarie University's technological capacity, made possible the innovative multi-media component of many ToI productions between 1996 and 2005, including two which won Helpmann Awards for Best Presentation for Children.

The two national Cinderella Collections reports in the 1990s highlighted the value of university museums and collections to Australia's distributed movable heritage. By far the most numerous in terms of category (and generally the best cared-for), are the art collections and galleries. A lot of such campus-based galleries and museums welcome school groups with guided tours and age-appropriate educational kits. Some (like Macquarie University's) collaborate with regional and other galleries to tour special exhibitions or lend artworks. And coming back to the University of Melbourne: not only does it host splendid art exhibitions, but also the unique Grainger Museum, with its copious evidence of the creative life of the celebrated composer-pianist.

Over the decades, many sculptors have found it difficult to find not only patrons but also appropriate public spaces in which to exhibit their works. In 1992, sculptor Errol Davis proposed an imaginative solution in Sydney's northern suburbs, when he craftily congratulated me on hosting Australia's best sculpture park on Macquarie's spacious, leafy campus. Perplexed, I asked: 'But where are all the sculptures?' He swiftly responded: 'Now that's where we come in …'

The result, with Errol as Curator, is now indeed Australia's leading Sculpture Park and a glorious environment which has encouraged other vice-chancellors to consider similar approaches. In recent years, the University of Western Sydney's arts calendar has included the annual UWS Acquisitive Sculpture Award and Exhibition, with major works by significant Australian artists displayed in the lovely lakeside setting of the Campbelltown campus.

Regional universities play a particularly vital role in their local communities. But they can't do it all on their own. The University of Southern Queensland collaborates with far-sighted community and corporate stakeholders to enhance the region's cultural, creative and artistic life with a range of lively activities and events for all ages. USQ Artworx's annual offerings include the Shakespeare in the Park Festival, the West-Star Motors Twilight Series, the Breez Finance Children's Festival, the Ergon Energy USQ Big Band, an Opera Season and the Summer and Winter Arts Retreats.

What a contribution all these tertiary institutions are making! It's one to which this arts lover responds with warm applause. Long may such benefaction continue, however straitened the times in which the higher-education sector lives!

Nick Hill teaches Arts Management & Media and Communications in the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne.

First, I want to congratulate Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw on an excellent think piece. The thoughtfulness and nuance of their essay is laudable and their interrogation provokes valid reflection on the artist's role at the very centre of the 'arts ecology'. At the recent Malthouse Theatre launch of the essay an issue that was raised which I think worthy of further consideration. Dance critic Hilary Crampton's metaphor of the arts operating as an 'ecological system'-the metaphor is, in fact, now in widespread use1-may be simply but usefully extended to recognise that for ecologies to survive something needs to die; the regeneration is a product of decay.

This must and should be the case with the arts: some organizations, some art, indeed some artists, may simply wander off into the twilight; others should be ushered more speedily from the stage; controversially, perhaps some of the monoliths of culture should be abandoned to the vagaries of the free market. Seemingly this would allow for nascent talent to access the light flowing through the canopy. Even if they too fail, they will at least have been given the opportunity to bloom, pollinate and produce works of a high order. Currently, a degree of stasis prevails, often bolstered by rampant managerial-ism in some of the more established companies-but it is not only at the door of the arts sector that blame for this can be laid. In the current climate of arts funding as it obtains in Australia, there is much to suggest that opportunities to address these problems are being willingly taken up.

Let me turn to a related issue, the practice of tacitly adopting the nomenclature of climate change, the word 'sustainability'. I'm as guilty as anyone of applying 'sustainability' to the arts. But now might be the time to stop, for I'm not sure it's any longer helpful to slip around on the coat tails of the environmentalists. Although Jon Hawkes' 'fourth-pillar' argument is strong, in my recent experience the arts-indeed, culture generally-are still treated as a poor cousin in the wider discussions of sustainability, effectively below the salt as far as the policy makers are concerned.2 The bailiwick of the climate change advocates is well established and has already been integrated into the corporate codicils without, sadly, much more than a cursory glance towards the arts.

In the arts environment, however, there is an unlimited stock of creativity, unlike the black gold of the fossil fuels or the failures indicated by the darker arts of the economic rationalist. One would hope that art and creative practice might flourish in a climate of risk and difficulty, as has so often been the case with the arts in times of adversity. Thus, the idea of 'arts sustainability', an expression so overwrought now as to have become almost meaningless, might be replaced with imagery of sustenance and support. Hunt and Shaw's argument needs to recognise that arts organizations must present a clearly defined and occasionally radical profile, rather than hope to benefit vicariously from whatever crumbs might fall from the sustainability table.

I have argued elsewhere that the support and vitality of the arts is at heart an issue of patronage. This refers not simply to the mechanical largesse of funding bodies, often coupled with an awkward, implicit subservience, but also points to the fact that the arts are a positive result of the extended patronage environment from which they emerge and to which they still very much belong. Thus, patronage might include, for instance, the educational opportunities available to the artist; the choices audiences (and critics) may make; the style, taste and enthusiasm of publics, and the very visceral needs of communities-let alone those of the public/private mix of philanthropists, arts bureaucracies or corporate sponsors. In a gentler sense, this points to the wider aegis under which the arts might flourish.

Thus, although the extremely complicated model that incorporates patronage has multiple strands of influence and effect, it nevertheless positions the artist or arts experience, as Hunt and Shaw emphasise, firmly at the very centre of what will always be a labyrinthine debate. Whether this results in a Future Fund for the Arts remains to be seen, but having a language that negotiates the new working practices of arts organizations in relation to their funders will go some way to ensuring a vital and dynamic future for the arts sector.

1 See Keith Gallasch's Art in a Cold Climate: Rethinking the Australia Council, Platform Papers No. 6 (Sydney: Currency House, 2004). 2 See Hawkes' Fourth Pillar of Sustainability: Culture's Essential Role in Public Planning (Melbourne: Cultural Development Network & Common Ground, 2001).