The excellence criterion

My phone started going berserk around 4 pm on Sunday, 20 September. A rapid-fire series of messages, tweets and emails piled up in my inboxes: George Brandis, until then minister for the arts, had been replaced in Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle. It was all anyone could talk about at a party later that evening. The following day, a number of media outlets carried articles about the delight of the arts sector at Brandis’s exit. ‘I think Brandis was a terrible arts minister,’ Nicole Beyer, co-convenor of ArtsPeak, told Fairfax. ‘I think history will show that clearly.’

It’s a rare achievement for such a reshuffle to make the news. For the average politician, the arts is generally considered to be a bit of a free kick. Most people like art and culture (even if many conservatives hate the idea of public funding), and the portfolio generates a guaranteed slate of positive media opportunities in the form of opening nights and festivals launches.

The Abbott government featured plenty of unpopular and under-performing frontbenchers, but only Brandis acquired a spoof conceptual art project – the George Brandis Live Arts Experience – and ended his two-year tenure as the most hated Australian arts minister in a generation.

What made him so unpopular? First, there were Brandis’s heavy-handed comments about visual artists boycotting the 2014 Sydney Biennale due to Transfield’s involvement; Brandis accused them of ‘blackballing’ a benefactor and of ‘vicious ingratitude’. Then, there were the significant cuts – more than $100 million worth – to arts and screen funding in the 2014 budget.

Brandis also angered with his penchant for patronage. He dispensed funding to favourites in circumstances of considerable opacity. For instance, despite big cuts to other programs, Brandis gave $1.15 million to the Australian World Orchestra, in two separate grants. Interestingly, Brandis’s key arts policy advisor (now Malcolm Turnbull’s key arts policy advisor), Michael Napthali, was a former board member of the Australian World Orchestra. In another instance, $1 million was given to the Australian Ballet School. On the board of the Australian Ballet School is Daniele Kemp, the high-profile wife of former Liberal arts minister Rod Kemp, a predecessor of George Brandis as arts minister. Mr Kemp is now the chair of the Institute of Public Affairs, a well-known right-wing lobby group.

Then there was the small matter of the unannounced $275,000 grant given to Melba Recordings, a boutique classical music label. Melba has a long and storied history in Australian arts funding, largely because the label secured itself $7.5 million in federal funding across a decade, despite negligible album sales and a tiny audience base. That Brandis gave Melba money without telling anyone – indeed, the grant was not even acknowledged by the label itself – was only revealed after I approached the Arts Ministry about the rumour of an unacknowledged grant.

Yet, the 2014 cuts and the Melba fiasco would have been mere marginalia if not for Brandis’s dramatic announcement on budget night 2015: $104.7 million would be taken from the Australia Council’s budget over the forward estimates to set up a new slush fund for distributing arts grants. Brandis called it the National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). ‘Oh no,’ one arts sector lobbyist exclaimed when I phoned that evening from the lobby of Parliament House. ‘He’s done it again.’

As the implications of the funding changes were unpacked by arts administrators, there was initial confusion, then bewilderment, followed by panic. Brandis had specifically protected funding for the major performing arts companies (MPACs), meaning that the austerity fell on the rest of the Australia Council’s funded programs. All told, the NPEA represented a funding cut of roughly 28 per cent of the Australia Council’s discretionary funding.

The Australia Council responded by cancelling a range of grant programs. Most disruptively, it called off a 400-organisation funding process for small-to-medium companies, all of which had been competing for a new six-year funding round – a longevity initiative the Australia Council had arrived at after its recent restructure.

Although already assessed, all the applications were thrown out and the funding round cancelled. Later, a new round of four-year funding with a much-reduced funding pool was advertised. In public briefings since, the Australia Council has advised that between fifty and ninety organisations can expect to lose their funding – that is, between a third and a half of the funded small-to-medium sector.

Needless to say, cuts of this nature will have a significant impact on those parts of the arts industry that rely on Australia Council funding. Smaller organisations have long been thought to represent the most vibrant and productive part of the funded arts sector. When Brandis was minister for the arts in the Howard government, he even secured extra funding for the small-to-medium sector, on the basis that these companies were more innovative. He used the opportunity to give a grandiloquent National Press Club address, insisting that the Liberal Party was the true friend of the arts in Australia.

Eight years later, Brandis launched a direct assault at this dense undergrowth, cutting the funding pool that supports independent theatres, contemporary dance troupes, Indigenous performing arts companies, small galleries, literary publishers and solo artists.

Where would the money go? Almost certainly, it was intended for the MPACs. One promiscuous rumour circulating in the arts industry was that the majority of the $105 million in NPEA funding had already been promised to large arts companies (informally, of course). Another rumour was that these promises included a large grant for Opera Australia. Some said $10 million.

The draft guidelines of the NPEA were written, quite transparently, with the MPACs in mind, leaving plenty of wriggle room for the arts minister of the day to stack funding committees and distribute grants to favoured projects, perhaps in suitable marginal electorates. The implications were clear: the twenty-eight MPACs were going to benefit at the expense of the rest of the cultural sphere. Worse, the Australia Council itself would be considerably damaged, and much of the reform work of the previous two years wasted. As one industry insider told me in June, ‘this is [about] the majors needing more money’. Indeed, many artists now fear for the long-term survival of the Australia Council as an independent funding body. How long will it be before a future government notices there are two arts funding bodies – first the NPEA, now Catalyst – doing essentially the same thing?

Why would the MPACs need more funding? After all, they are already among the best-funded cultural organisations in the country. Opera Australia is the single largest recipient of Australia Council funding, receiving $20.5 million in 2014, plus another $4.2 million from the New South and Victorian governments. All up, Opera Australia receives more government funding than the 145 small-to-medium organisations put together.

But such an imbalance is par for the course in performing arts funding. This financial year, the twenty-eight MPACs will get $106 million. The 145 smaller ‘key organisations’ will get just $23.1 million. Despite this, the smaller companies collectively had double the total audience of the MPACs last year – 6.87 million, compared with 3.37 million.

Do the MPACs deserve extra funding? After all, some major companies are clearly failing. If audiences are down, as they are for mainstage opera, doesn’t that mean they are failing to deliver shows that audiences want to see?

The answer, we are told, is ‘excellence’.

The word itself (derived from the Latin for merit, worth or superiority) is innocuous enough. But while ‘excellence’ is a useful and elastic word – who amongst us can be against ‘excellent’ artworks or shows? – the meaning in an artistic context is hard to discern. Littered through government policy documents and scattered through ministers’ speeches, the word has become so common as to be almost meaningless, merely a synonym for ‘something I like’ or ‘really good’.

It’s not immediately apparent when ‘excellence’ became a synonym for the MPACs, but a rough date is 1999, the year that Helen Nugent handed down her review of the major companies for the Howard government. Nugent argued that the MPACs made ‘a disproportionate artistic, access and financial contribution to Australian life’ and therefore deserved guaranteed and secure public funding. A similar review of orchestras was held in 2005, led by former Qantas CEO James Strong, which made strikingly similar recommendations. The Howard years saw the rubric of excellence emerge as a kind of catch-all justification for increased public subsidy to large non-profit orchestras, opera companies and theatre companies. One prominent academic referred to it as ‘elite nurturing’.

But it should always have been obvious that justifying special treatment for the MPACs on the basis of the ‘disproportionate contribution’ was an absurd proposition on which to base federal cultural policy. The reason is that art is subjective. Does ‘excellence’ mean ‘of a very high standard’? A high standard of what? If the answer is ‘singing’, ‘painting’ or ‘making experimental video art’, then this is pretty much a tautology. As the old joke goes: I don’t know about art, but I know what I like. The NPEA did not even try to define ‘excellence’ in its draft guidelines.

Most would agree that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Dene Olding is an excellent violin player. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he always puts on excellent concerts. I happen to think that excellent reproductions of canonical works – of, say, Vivaldi or Brahms – can be pretty boring. So, for me, the Australian Chamber Orchestra or the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra playing classics is not what I personally call ‘excellent’. It’s what I call ‘dull’.

On the other hand, I happen to think that the sound recordings of Lawrence English are excellent. They are intellectually curious, and rigorous within the bounds that English sets for his work. They are technically demanding – the sort of thing that only a really skilled field recordist and producer like English can achieve, sometimes in challenging locations like Antarctica or Patagonia. And they are profoundly, artistically new. But that’s just me. I’m a bit of a wanker like that.

I also happen to think that much of the work of the PVI Collective, a ‘tactical media arts group’ from Perth, is excellent. PVI stages hybrid performance-hap­penings that skate a wicked border between flash mob, poor theatre and performance art. Some of their shows involve interrogating local public ordinances and inviting – or even coercing – audiences in promenade to push social and legal boundaries as part of their performance. PVI shows are, among other things, drily hilarious.

But it’s fair to predict that the field recordings of English or the performances of PVI are unlikely to be considered ‘excellent’ by politicians like Brandis. Sadly, the debate about the arts in this country remains fixated on the idea that only certain sorts of things can really be ‘high art’. These are, almost completely, the traditional forms of Western Europe – classical music, ballet, opera and theatre, as well as certain types of visual art (portrait and landscape painting) and, just maybe, the odd novel or film.

Like so many terms of policy discourse, the word ‘excellence’ is in truth a code word for a certain set of funding priorities. Excellence, in the context of Australian arts funding, means the performance of the Western canon by performing arts companies. You can be as technically proficient at ambient electronica or partici­pative performance art as you like, but for the blue bloods who throng the foyers of Hamer Hall or the Sydney Opera House, you will never be ‘excellent’. Excellence is the Sydney Theatre Company doing Tennessee Williams, or Opera Australia performing Richard Wagner … again. Next year, according to one recent repertoire analysis of their published programs, the most performed artist in Australian symphony orchestras will be … Ludwig van Beethoven.

The result is that the current funding paradigm favours the dead, the white and the male over the living, the not-white and the female. It favours the old over the new. As noted above, Opera Australia receives nearly as much federal funding as all 145 of the so-called ‘key organisations’ put together. Classical music accounts for 98 per cent of federal music funding, according to an Arts Queensland report. Australia’s symphony orchestras receive a public subsidy of $88 per seat, while smaller companies receive around $3.50. Meanwhile, art forms and media with wide popular appeal, such as books and interactive games, are almost ignored. There is no company devoted to the artistic canon of Africa, or China, or the Islamic world. There is no company that funds, on an ongoing basis, a substantial number of salaried poets, or performance artists, or jazz musicians. Support for companies making experimental dance, or for hybrid performance, or art based around the internet, or the lived experience of multiculturalism, is almost non-existent.

There has never been a convincing policy justification for these arbitrary differences. Perhaps there can’t be. A century after Duchamp’s urinal, can a government really pretend that some art is better, or more worthy, or more artistically merit­orious, than others?

Right about now is the normal time in a conversation that I am accused of being a philistine. Surely, you observe, I just don’t get it. There must be something wrong, or at least ignorant, about someone insufficiently cultured to appreciate the surpassing genius of Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, or Shakespeare.

My answer: guilty as charged. If a group of funded companies endlessly replaying the same collection of works has become the test of a cultured mind and an aesthetic imagination, then I fail it. Like a lot of artists, I find orthodoxy stultifying. The canon is indeed great, but it is surely not the only sort of art we should perform, attend or fund. The performance of classic works is something nearly all art and music lovers enjoy, but it cannot be the be-all and end-all of cultural expression.

New art is a fact that surrounds us all, every day, from the street art on our buildings to the torrent of online creativity we gleefully consume. New work is the only way art forms can sustain themselves. If they don’t make new work, then they will eventually solidify, stiffen and die. Arguably, this is what has happened to opera.

Over the years, I’ve got to know a number of musicians playing principal instruments in major orchestras. Most are highly skilled, frustrated artists, many of whom treat their orchestral duties as a day job to subsidise their real art. There are plenty of orchestral musicians working at the highest level who also compose or play in their own contemporary classical ensembles, and who find the straitjacket of the classical canon constraining, if not infuriating. Far from scholastic automatons, they are closet radicals, with diverse and rich musical interests and tastes. They love the classical canon, of course. But many are just as critical of the leadership and direction of the MPACs as I am – perhaps more so.

Just how moribund that leadership has become is revealed in the fascinating discussion paper of the government’s latest opera review, released by Helen Nugent this September. Even she has come to question whether some of the MPACs deserve that description any longer.

Nugent’s discussion paper contains some amazing revelations, most notably about the solvency of the companies involved. Opera Queensland and Opera Australia are both on funding life support, receiving their annual grants early to keep the wolf from the door. Opera Queensland has run up nearly $3 million in losses since 2007. Opera Australia is $2 million in deficit. Both companies have negative net assets.

Looking at the audience numbers, it’s easy to see why. Opera in Australia is in a slow death spiral – the figures look worryingly like the circulations of daily newspapers. In the last five years, main-stage opera audiences have fallen by 28 per cent, from 312,012 in 2009 to 226,157 in 2014. The opera companies have responded by retrenching staff, putting on fewer shows and trying to contain costs. But this just makes it harder to win new audiences, which opera critically needs. No new Australian opera has been produced for the main-stage since Brett Dean’s Bliss.

When the founders of Opera Australia created the company in the 1950s, they fully intended the new company to foster and develop a distinctively antipodean repertoire of Australian operatic work. Australian composers would, it was hoped, write works for the company. In due course, the better works would be accepted into the local canon and provide the basis for an Australian oeuvre.

This hasn’t come to pass. In a melancholy admission during his 2011 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini lamented that not a single Australian opera had entered the local repertoire. Not Batavia, not Lola Montez and certainly not Bliss.

Australia has many more pressing troubles than the viability of its opera sector. Indeed, on any sensible level of policy, it might be better if opera were allowed to die. The funds could be reinvested into new, different and possibly more excellent artistic experiments.

You could argue, and some do, that what matters is ultimately what the people want. The problem with that – from a high art perspective – is that the people do not want that much high art. A truly audience-based approach to funding would eschew funding of arts companies altogether, and instead issue a voucher to eligible citizens to consume whatever art they pleased. It’s a telling commentary on the true priorities of the party of free enterprise that consumption subsidies of this type have played almost no part in Liberal Party cultural policy.

You could also argue, as Brandis tried to, that art is its own reward: that there should be no external validation of funding art beyond the lustre of the artistic moment itself. Culture should simply shine forth, transcendent and resplendent, from its white cubic cathedrals for the enjoyment of all.

Indeed, that might be what the NPEA fund was ultimately about: patronage, pure and simple. It has been notable that Brandis’s successor, Mitch Fifield, has not backed away from a ministry-managed arts funding body. There appears to be genuine belief in the Coalition party room that arts ministers should get to decide where to sprinkle the funding.

So perhaps ‘excellence’ means something after all. It means privilege: the privilege of a wealthy and influential elite to manage the allocation of cultural dollars. What really matters is not the ‘great audiences’ or the broader general public, but rather the interests and inclinations of a small elite of well-bred and influential individuals. On this reading, the rhetoric of great audiences transformed by the canon is just a half-hearted veil for the perks and medallions of class interest.

Australia’s MPACs are supposedly helmed by artists and impresarios, but their governing boards are composed of the upper crust of Australia’s corporate headquarters. They are figures such as David Gonski, chair of the Sydney Theatre Company and a close friend of the new prime minister; David Mortimer, the pluto­cratic company director chairing Opera Australia; and Simon Mordant, the merch­ant banker who chairs the Museum of Contemporary Art, sits on the board of the ABC and was Australia’s Commissioner to the 2015 Venice Biennale.

The boards of Australia’s major arts institutions truly justify the use of an often-abused term: ‘elites’. The figures atop these organisations sit astride the commanding heights of Australian corporate, government and media life. They can and do speak to senior ministers and indeed prime ministers – and, as the Melba case study shows, this sort of access can deliver patronage and funding security. Those same boards have also discouraged their artistic directors from making bold statements against the funding changes. I have spoken to many artists working in the MPACs who will not speak publicly about arts policy, for fear of career repercussions.

Once we start using a class analysis of the MPACs, everything falls into place. Australia’s major arts companies are old, rich, white and European. They are highly connected and can command huge reserves of physical, social and cultural capital. They are also good lobbyers.

The close correlation between people of means, wealth and influence and the people responsible for running the MPACs is the single best explanation for the current shape of Australian cultural policy. It’s why a tiny record label from Melbourne can command millions in federal funding. It’s why a small subset of European art forms – a marvellous collection, but a minority interest – can assert dominance over 98 per cent of the funded cultural expression of the nation – and assert that this is the true order of things.

Ultimately, it’s also why George Brandis is no longer minister for the arts. The enemies Brandis made among these elites must have been a determining factor in Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to move him on.

When I first penned this essay, Tony Abbott was still prime minister and the agile new era of Malcolm Turnbull had not yet begun. Months after the accession of Mitch Fifield to the Arts portfolio, Brandis may be gone, but most of the damage he did remains.

Catalyst is essentially the NPEA with a different name. Instead of championing ‘excellence’, the hot ticket is now ‘innovation’. A little bit of money has been returned to the Australia Council, and the guidelines for Catalyst have been massaged – but there is still a rival funding body, still little clarity on the point of this new body, and still no funding for individuals artists. Critically, the majority of the funding cut from the Australia Council has not been reinstated.

The result is that most of the worst aspects of Brandis’s excellence adventure are now locked in. Large institutions and the MPACs are still likely to vacuum up the lion’s share of Catalyst’s grant pool. The Australia Council is shedding staff and reducing its grant pools to small organisations and to individual artists. The upcoming four-year organisations round is still expected to be a bloodbath, with many small companies losing their funding.

The irony of the changes in the nimble new world of Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘ideas boom’ could not be more pronounced. On any analysis, the small, the marginal and the experimental are the most vibrant and interesting parts of our contemporary culture. While Turnbull lauds the value of risk-taking in science and technology, in contemporary culture we see a return to the safe and the staid. At the same time Turnbull is watering the flowers in the tech sector, Fifield is selling off the nursery in the arts.


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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is National Affairs Correspondent for New Matilda, a lecturer at Deakin University and an arts journalist. His most recent book, When the Goal Posts Move, is about the arts funding crisis.

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