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Katharine Brisbane on The Arts and the Common Good

Here is her proposal for a new direction:

What if the not-for-profit status was removed from the equation? What if the Federal Government gave the Major Performing Arts Companies a handshake worth six years’ subsidy and told them to rethink their mission, restructure their company and invite investment? State theatres and opera houses could then become metropolitan theatres, available for hire; their maintenance the responsibility of their owner (the State Government). The state companies, now cashed up and relieved of maintenance pressure, could reconsider their work in an atmosphere of new possibility, healthy competition and the profit motive.

Then, what if a national theatre company—or workshop—was available? To select and examine texts, develop productions, run a short try-out season, perhaps a second one, and then put the shows up for auction? The necessary preparation done, they have the opportunity to become part of the major theatres repertoire or be publicly produced, either in the arts centres or the city theatres.

Similarly, why should the subsidised sector not apply their experience also to building a music theatre industry and benefit as an investor?  Music theatre generated 1.2 billion in Australia in 2013–14: investment is needed to take the leap forward. John Senczuk in his recent Platform Paper outlines the long and complex process needed to make a successful musical and proposes Perth as a city with the will and resources to accomplish this.

What would this mean for our ‘high art’? Would it mean a rush of popular overseas successes at the expense of local art? It’s a possibility for a while but with the revival of a risk-taking culture, new opportunities for collaboration, employment, and the development of work to greater fulfilment, together with new places in which to play, would not the whole landscape of work practice be transformed?

The key to this is the artistic director. The sign of a healthy theatre is an artistic director with an identifiable purpose, who is seen, heard and answerable to the company and the public, and is unquestionably the cornerstone of a collegiate organisation. Otherwise to all the members it becomes a job. Today the annual seasons too often look like the work of a committee allocating the budget: a classic or two, a star or two, a hit comedy or drama and a cautious exploration of some new or near-new local works.

What then would the Australia Council be doing in this scenario? Investing in innovation and quality at all levels: supporting the national theatre workshop, sustaining our tradition and community, and developing high-risk individual talent. Addressing artists’ needs by supporting them with travel and work projects, subsidising research, risk-taking and long-term development; answering needs other than major product.

1. A real industry. I believe that we have the potential for a profit-based performance industry of the highest quality.

At present we have large state theatre companies and national opera and ballet. And medium-level companies with their own theatres of varying capacity; and a repertoire individual to themselves. Our small public industry is largely excluded from the art .centres, their newer theatres are mostly limited by being attached to casino complexes; and the remaining JCW theatres are shabby. If a level of interchange and collaboration could be achieved in terms of long-term national investment, the resources would go much further.

 2. National development. I believe that we need a national theatre workshop dedicated to developing an Australian performance tradition and working with playwrights to bring the text, performance and design to its optimum before public performance.

Such a workshop, with its own residential facilities and theatre space away from the major city centres, could reduce the cost and intensity of rehearsal timetables and produce a finished blueprint for a designated company or the market. The present developmental programs are single purpose initiatives and have limited capacity to engage in long-run development. In the proposed environment it could in time grow its own studio audience.

3. Rethought venues.  I believe that it is now time for our performing arts centres to become metropolitan theatres, open for hire.

While they would still have their home in their arts centre, the state companies could also be free to choose other locations, and try out some of their work in smaller centres before expanding to their regular season. I believe the arts centres should become ‘second step’ houses, capable of expanding a work from a small theatre to a large one; one that has the resources to display the goods of which our playwrights, directors, choreographers and performers are capable. The brief should include participating in the work of the national workshop enterprise established to develop and tour the Australian repertoire.    

4. Refocussed Australia Council. I believe that the Australia Council should be redrafted to invest their money in talent, employment, assisting individual artists, funding innovation and advancing the interests of cultural continuity and self-examination. Supporting the national workshop would be one of its responsibilities.

In setting up the Australia Council there was little risk, or expectation outside normal industry practice; the vision was authentic but neither practical at the time nor nationally challenging. To date the Council’s history has been one of experiment and change in their management of the professional arts but of very little daring in the development of creative process.

5. Cultural leadership. I believe that our major artists should take their place at the head of the profession as advocates and spokesmen and women; should actively promote their industry’s practice and social value; and be retained by and identified with their particular arts organisation or company not through occasional appearances but for a year at a time.

Cate Blanchett set an example as both co-artistic director and star of the Sydney Theatre Company. An executive position is not required but a Board position should be, from which they could speak as an informed and eloquent representative of an important company and responsible profession.

6. Outside funding. I believe that the Australian performing arts have more than enough talent and vision to attract to their second-step development venture capital and the ethical investment sector.

Having been forced into a monetarist system by rising costs, our performance companies have learnt to exercise their talents in a commercial environment, have sought out investors, been judged by the quality, reach and price of their product. Their greatest asset, the one that has brought this about, is the innate value they offer both business and the nation—the unique talent of their artists. It is a gift that money cannot buy but can be awarded, and rewarded, if the conditions are right.

My proposals are not prescriptive, just ruminations on what could be possible, and aimed at making the most of all the initiatives already happening in our wide brown land, breaking down the frustrations that derive from uncertainty and the constraints imposed by a long held belief in the separation of art and commerce.

So, how to we begin?

First by facing the past and recognising that working harder on the same treadmill will not change the outcome. Nor can we go on asking Government to ‘do something’. The Australia Council has taken some giant steps to re-examine its processes and we shall see what comes of that. But it’s time the arts sector itself took charge of its past, present and future...

It's time to face the fact that Government will never be more generous and sponsors less problematic. It is time to put aside the inherited prejudice against ‘commercial’ theatre and see how it could be made good business practice. The secret lies not in supervising the purchase of materials but in the integrity of the creative team in sharing an understanding of the work they do: what is commodity and what is art. It is time for the fifty-year review Wesley Enoch has called for; to examine how we got into this mess; ask ourselves what our core aim really is; take a stand, speak truth to government, assert the right to be independent and go after it. (pp.54–60)

Katharine Brisbane, The Arts and the Common Good, Platform Papers no.43,