Valuing What Can Be Counted Can Count Against You

Artsjournal.com linked to an article on Australia’s Arts Hub which looks at how the philosophy of “arts as a business” has undermined the arts in that country. The overall theme seemed to be that so much which was perceived as a blessing ended up narrowing the ability to broadly pursue independent creative expression.

Katharine Brisbane writes:

The introduction of the Australian Business Number (ABN) turned artists into ‘small business owners’. No longer objects of patronage, they were free to trade in their own name, and their daily practices became the business activities of budding entrepreneurs.

In the years that followed, artists developed inter-disciplinary practices that merged the interpretive and authorial roles of actors, directors and writers in collaboration. However, as time went on, the adoption of corporate measures such as the key performance indicator (KPI) made funding agencies increasingly more of a hindrance than a help.

Brisbane’s piece summarizes the contents of papers which have come out since 2000. The comments on one of those papers, Art in a Cold Climate: Rethinking the Australia Council by Keith Gallasch contained some interesting insights.

In particular, Sue Beal who was part of Actors’ Equity union and a member of the Australian Council for the Arts’ (OzCo in her letter) Theatre Board back in 1984 expresses regret for some of the decisions she supported having seen the results. Essentially she says that the push to recognize the arts as an industry and OzCo’s desire to consolidate political and economic power under its umbrella placed the major arts organizations in the country in a position to align standards and funding to their benefit.

As an Actors Equity official with the best of intentions, I argued strongly for the recognition of the arts as an industry, believing that this would result in an improvement to artists’ conditions. Well, it did improve the conditions of some, but it also provided the arguments used by the majors in their never-ending demands for increased support from the Theatre Board. It also paved the way for the economic rationalists who soon moved in with their mantra, ‘If it can’t be counted, it has no value’.

Cash flows, attendance projections, sponsorship deals, business plans, burgeoning ‘infrastructure’, marketing consultants, accountants negotiating with accountants-all in the name of ‘best practice’, and often producing bigger deficits-this became the milieu of the majors. Vision, imagination, artistic risk, innovation, experiment, obsession became peripheral. The bottom line was deified. The worst possible skewing one could imagine.

What I found interesting was her belief that there was once an opportunity to shift this power dynamic which Beal had lobbied against and now regrets.

…Pat Galvin, the Secretary of the Department responsible for the arts, suggested to the OzCo that he could take over the funding of the majors and cocoon them in a corner of the department,…. Thus leaving the Council to pursue its real agenda. I shamefacedly confess that I was one of those who argued against this, in hindsight, visionary proposal. The OzCo came up with a thousand reasons why they shouldn’t be handed over. Of these the most honourable-and silly-was the belief that these companies would benefit from a critique of their work from an artistic perspective.

…If the OzCo lost the majors’ huge funding allocation, it would also lose the statutory administrative proportion that came with their funding. Council couldn’t countenance a reduction in staff and believed that it could control the majors. That’s always been nonsense. The Boards of the majors have consistently demonstrated that their political astuteness is infinitely superior to that of the OzCo. They have succeeded where the OzCo has consistently failed: while most of the majors have built direct, confidential and beneficial relations with Canberra, the OzCo has never been able to achieve what should have been its primary goal-decent money for the arts-but instead spent most of its energies trying to survive threats to its own existence.

There is obviously nothing to say that the Arts Council wouldn’t have ended up just as pressed to fend off threats to its own existence had this scheme come to fruition. Government often views arts funding as a zero sum situation so if the major organizations were receiving funding already, it is just as likely the existence of the council would be seen as unnecessary. Beal might instead be arguing that it was a mistake to place the majors within the direct purview of the department secretary because it allowed them to amass so much political influence.

While the arts in the US have fared no better in relation to the NEA, it is always interesting to see how government funding of arts and culture has fared in other countries.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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