Branding Brandis

The second in a series of monthly feature articles for Partial Durations.

Musicians have a way of getting to the bottom of things, such as when the 2015 budget papers announced that $104.7m would be taken from the Australia Council for the Arts (OzCo) to be redistributed from a National Programme for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA) within George Brandis’ ministry. While Brandis and News Corp columnists were busy driving a wedge between the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) companies and “grant-dependent tax sucklings” (the small to medium sector), Ensemble Offspring’s Claire Edwardes was meeting with Brandis’ arts adviser Michael Napthali. The meeting confirmed the community’s worst fears: The Minister would have the final say in funding decisions, individuals would not be funded, and the Programme would be open to AMPAG companies with ringfenced support from OzCo.

It all turned out to be true. Yesterday the Ministry for the Arts released Draft Guidelines for the NPEA. Sure enough, the final decision rests with the Minister and the Program will be skewed towards established organisations. Brandis’ NPEA pulls the ladder up on the next generation of composers and performers. Last month I wrote about the career-long process of securing philanthropic support as a composer or small ensemble. With its focus on applicants’ reputation, expertise, and established audience and private partnerships, the NPEA does not provide the entry-level experiences composers need to prove their worth to a donor. The programs jeopardised by the funding changes, including OzCo’s individual project grants, creation of new work grants, and development programs like Artstart, all provide these capacity-building opportunities. Surprisingly, with only $20m of funding announced for a “maximum” of four years, some $24.7m of arts funding remains unaccounted for. Someone prudently left the “-me” from “programme” on the sidewalk as well.

It is all well and good debating the utility of Brandis’ changes, but arts cuts are rarely utilitarian decisions. Or perhaps more correctly, arts funding is always ideological in the first place. There are important economic arguments to be made for the arts (they employ more people than the mining sector, artists make significant, taxable returns on public investment, and so on), but choosing to spend money on art instead of fighter jets requires a certain amount of willpower. Brandis and Napthali keep reminding us that the only thing keeping the vanishingly-small arts budget afloat is their belief in art’s value as an end in itself.

But are the arts really served well by Brandis’ brand of cultural conservatism? His public views on art may have changed over time, but Brandis’ brand is out of date. His wedge politics now risk losing support for the arts rather than fostering them. Even if Brandis is able to prosecute his case at home, how will the international arts community react to Brandis’ brand of heritage arts?

Populist Brandis

In the senate estimates hearing of 27 May, Brandis rehearsed his argument that the “great audiences of Australia” prefer performances by AMPAG companies to the offerings of the small to medium sector. It did not take long for the arts community to debunk this brand of elitist populism. Marcus Westbury dug around in some annual reports and found that MPA audiences were subsided at around $40 a seat. This is a level of government support that small to mediums could only dream of, as supported by the statistics posted to Westbury’s #fundedlikeamajor hashtag. I retraced some of Westbury’s steps and found that though AMPAG companies generated only 16% of ticket sales in 2012, they received almost 60% of Australia Council funding.[1]

It is also patently false to argue that that the Australia Council is a closed club handing out money to friends. While around 60% of Australia Council funding is ringfenced for the majors (and so mostly for the heritage arts), the rest of the funding goes to a staggering range of arts projects and developments. Of the individual musicians funded so far in 2015, I found an almost equal split between contemporary classical musicians on the one hand and jazz, popular, and world music on the other. Considering that most contemporary classical musicians lead double lives in pit orchestras and classical music ensembles, this portion of funding is also a significant investment in the heritage arts. In fact, whichever way you look at them, the Australia Council’s figures point towards a heavy bias towards the heritage arts. When Brandis says that we should fund the art that the “great Australian audiences” attend, he evidently does not mean “Australia’s large audiences,” but “Australia’s excellent audiences.” Not “great” audiences, but “great” audiences.

Excellent Brandis

Brandis has long advocated art as an end in itself rather than a means to utilitarian, social, or critical ends. In his 2013 address as opposition spokesperson for the arts, Brandis used the notion of artistic excellence to drive a wedge between the Labor party and the arts community. Excellence was to be “the central value of cultural policy under a Coalition Government.” He did not define this excellence, but was keen to distance it from the label of elitism: “In truth, the identification of the celebration of excellence with the defence of elitism is both self-limiting and ignorant.” Here Brandis was pre-empting legions of straw-theorists ready to rail against his conservative artistic values. However, as Martin McKenzie Murray recently pointed out, the culture wars of the 1980s are less relevant today than Brandis thinks.

Academies and indeed publics are not strictly divided into conservative art-lovers and Marxist cultural theorists. Today, Brandis and the French Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou could have a productive conversation about Wagner, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen, or the metaphysics of artistic truths. The infamous George Brandis Live Art Experience perfectly illustrates the changing face of the humanities. Superimposing Brandis’ face onto influential works of art is funny because everyone involved recognises the original art works. They may even like them. In short, the right does not have a monopoly on the heritage arts. Brandis may find, as he spreads his ministerial wings in an ambitious international touring program, that he has painted too narrow a picture of excellence.

Touring Brandis

International audiences are more adventurous than our AMPAG companies, as discussed by Alexander O’Sullivan in an earlier blog post. While I believe that classic works should be performed at the highest level in Australia, surely the last thing a European audience wants to hear from an ensemble travelling across the world is the same repertoire on offer next door. Our colleagues overseas can be unsettlingly au fait with Australian art. Nobody has ever asked me “What’s the Shakespeare like down there?”, but they have asked “Have you read Voss?” When Brandis read bush poetry in the senate, he could have been swotting up to meet the Serbian musicologist who gave me a half-hour lecture on the history and regional variations of Waltzing Matilda. International audiences may expect more from us than we are ready to give them.

Writing in Gramophone Magazine, Geoffrey Norris had good reason to question the value of the ten international orchestras, including the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who made their debut at the BBC Proms last year (of course, not supported by the NPEA, but I can imagine it is a taste of more to come). We can be confident that when we hear the MSO perform Strauss, Elgar, Britten, and Berlioz in Australia, we are hearing a performance at the highest level. But does this mean that we should play the same works at the Proms? As a critic, I know a backhanded compliment when I read one, and Erica Jeal’s “prize” to the MSO for coming “the furthest” is one of them. What really distinguished the MSO at the Proms? A faster tempo? A bassier bass? If we are going to tour an Australian orchestra, we should at least feature an Australian work. It is telling that while most Australian audiences wouldn’t even know who Percy Grainger was, Jeal found the Grainger encore “cliché.”

Questions remain around Brandis’ plans for international touring and the close relationship he is developing between the NPEA and DFAT. As former Director of the Music Board Dick Letts wrote for The Music Trust: “The Australia Council has a track record in this area. But despite the priority it gives to international projection, appears to be peripheral to these negotiations with DFAT. Why?”

 What to do?

This depends on who you are. In all cases we must refuse Brandis and News Corp’s wedge and get on with advocating for the arts sector as a whole. The composer Liam Flenady realised this very early on in the saga, arguing that

Our first line of argument should be both defensive, and militant. We should say straight up that while the government is committed to spending 9 billion dollars on new warships, 10 billion dollars on fossil fuel subsidies each year, and eight billion dollars on torturing refugees, then arts funding should in no way be under the axe. We should not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of arguing for a bigger slice of the pie for arts at the expense of other (legitimate) parts of the pie (e.g. healthcare, education, welfare, foreign aid, etc). We should demand a bigger pie for everything that is good for ordinary Australians. That means reducing expenditure on destructive endeavours and increasing taxation on the wealthiest in Australia.

AMPAG companies should refuse Brandis’ blinkered view of excellence and find ways of working with individual artists and the small to medium sector to ensure that an unbridgeable gap does not open up between emerging and experienced performers. Nobody is born an excellent violinist or composer. Composers need diverse experiences working with ensembles to hone their craft. The vast majority of these opportunities will dry up under the new funding arrangements. We risk losing a generation of excellent composers and performers if they do not have access to funding for new commissions and chamber music performances.

The board of the Australia Council should stick to their guns. They shouldn’t resign, because I can’t imagine anything worse than Andrew Bolt in charge of the Australia Council. But when AMPAG companies start getting millions of dollars in funding from the Ministry for the Arts, I wouldn’t blame them if they started chipping away at their end.

Finally, Brandis really should give back the money. He’s fundamentally misunderstood how the arts sector works and has relied on poorly-formulated wedge tactics to scuttle any chance of gaining the support of the wider arts-going public. He doesn’t look like a brave culture warrior, just an avuncular conservative pawning the country’s artistic future for another production of Turandot.

[1] The Australia Council recorded 3.6m attendees to performances, workshops, or events by Major Performing Arts companies in 2012. The number of concert attendees was closer to 3.2m. MPA companies actually sold 2.6m tickets (though this includes international touring). That year, Live Performance Australia recorded almost 16.3m tickets sold Australia-wide. In other words, MPA companies commanded almost 15.95% of ticket sales to live performances in 2012. This number is generous, as the LPA only receives data on MPA companies from the Australia Council. The rest of their data is made up from major ticketing companies. They recognize that small to medium companies and individual artists are under-represented because they often ticket shows themselves or use a service not included in their survey. According to the Australia Council’s summaries, MPA companies received 59.14% of Australia Council funding in 2011–12 and 56.35% in 2012–13.

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