May 20th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Morrison's budget jive lacks inherent harmony

CANBERRA OBSERVED Does budget do heavy lifting or is it "Labor lite"?

NEW ZEALAND Porn poll shows strong majority supports default opt-out policy to protect kids online

FRANCE Emmanuel Macron: a president without a political base

YOUNG POLITICAL ACTIVIST TRAINING (YPAT) Seven-day intensive course without equal in Australia

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Taiwan to go full steam ahead with submarines

RURAL AFFAIRS Murray Goulburn closures an omen of an industry in crisis

CLIMATE SCIENCE Temperature hasn't risen in 20 years: latest data

QUEENSLAND ENERGY 50 per cent renewables target: Is it credible?

LITERATURE Inexplicable: the ongoing appeal of H.P. Lovecraft

LITERATURE The gentle giant: Samuel Johnson

MUSIC Promissory notes: the public funding siphon

CINEMA Going in Style: Old dogs turned rookie robbers


BOOK REVIEW An abstemious revolutionary

BOOK REVIEW Soviet-era thriller revels in details

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Promissory notes: the public funding siphon

by David James

News Weekly, May 20, 2017

One of the greatest challenges in arts funding, including music funding, is to remember a principle that would seem to be breathtakingly obvious, yet is all too often forgotten. The point of arts funding is to invest in the people who create the art: the artists and the others who support the art.

In Australia, that is all too often forgotten. As local theatre producer Wolf Heidecker, who was the youngest manager of a German opera house, points out, in Germany, Austria and Switzerland the theatre companies are required to get only 20 per cent of the revenue themselves from ticket sales.

The reason is that it is almost always the case that 80 per cent of the costs are allocated to the people, while 20 per cent goes to the physical infrastructure: rents, props, costumes and so on. So it was decided that the money for the arts should ensure that the artists and support people be able to make a living.

In Australia, the ratios are different. Typically, at least half the revenue is expected to come from ticket sales. That has two consequences: one, it means that the artists nearly always struggle to make a living; second, it means that the companies are extremely risk averse. They cannot afford to put on shows that are not certain to make good returns, which inevitably results in them putting on the same old predictable and familiar events.

To make matters worse, many arts companies have business people on their boards. A little reflection reveals that business and art have very little in common and allowing business people to have managerial control is asking for trouble.

In art, the main purpose is to pursue the unique and to keep changing. In business, the task is to find what works in the marketplace and then to keep repeating it. So, letting business people have control has the same effect as the lack of funding for the artists. It creates an extremely risk-averse culture with little attempt to fund new work.

Nearly all arts enterprises in Australia, including the large theatre, ballet and opera companies, rely on funding for survival. The only exception is musicals, many of which are independently profitable.


As Heidecker explains, what happened with German conductor Markus Stenz, who was hired in 1998 to be chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, is an inevitable outcome of having a wrongheaded approach to funding.

When Stenz arrived, he concluded that the MSO was not up to world standard, largely because the repertoire of works being played was too small as they were the ones that would sell.

For six months, he worked to bring the orchestra up to a standard where they could compete with others in the world. Then he introduced new and more difficult work. But the business people on the board of management did not like this because it meant the orchestra could not generate the required 50-60 per cent of the income needed.

Eventually, Stenz left early, making sure to explain to German audiences that Australia was musically and culturally backward.

In America, the situation differs. Government funding is negligible, but there is much more community funding and, because of tax deductions, more money from benefactors. In Australia, tax incentives for the arts have long been abolished.

Infrasructure ... for whom?

The result is that there is plenty of first-class physical infrastructure for the arts in Australia, some great theatres and venues; and many make a good living from being arts bureaucrats, which results in some very dubious priorities. As Heidecker comments, artists who become bureaucrats quickly forget their past lives and start treating their former peers shabbily.

Repeatedly, there is something missing: artists and practitioners able to make a living. The money goes to everyone except those who matter the most: the creators.

There is perhaps an argument that government funding of the arts is inherently problematic. Certainly it introduces an element of politics into the arts that can be harmful. Aesthetic endeavour and political ideologies are strange bedfellows, to say the least. Increasingly, we are seeing arts justified by minority politics, for example.

But if there was a concentration on supporting the creators who produce, hopefully, high-quality or original work, then there is a greater chance that the system of funding would make some sense. At the moment, it does not.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm