Thursday, October 18, 2007

Arts Funding: Creators second fiddle

Arts commentator Marcus Westbury had an interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 18 October 2007 (the link to it is above).
His article made me think about how we fund creativity in Australia. Like Marcus says, we actually give more to "cover bands" than we do to original artists.
Let me give you some facts. When we start comparing contributions from different creators to Australia’s cultural life and development we can see creators, and authors in particular, are undervalued. We can see this through government funding.
In Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts funds artists and creators with grants and operational money. For instance, the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council dispensed $78,182,476 to the performing arts in the period 2005-06.
Opera does especially well from Major Performing Arts Board funding. Opera Australia and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received over $14.5 million dollars between them.
If you like opera, that’s terrific! If you don’t, you might wonder why anyone would spend $14.5 million on an artform that engages with very few people, either as performers and audiences. It’s not as if the funding supports Australian composers and librettists writing operas. The works performed in Opera Australia’s October 2006 season were from the composers Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi, Janacek, and Handel. Dead European composers.
Of course the Major Performing Arts Board’s funding of opera also supports Australian singers and musicians and that is undeniably a good thing. The funds made available to Opera Australia provide living wages for musicians and singers, in fact around 1300 of them.
There is no way I would take funding away from these dedicated performers. Yet I can’t help but dwell on the fact that in the same period Opera Australia and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra received their $14.5 million, the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts dispensed a mere $4,526,308 in grants and funding to writers and organisations supporting writers. While this included seven fellowships of $40,000 and one Emeritus Fellowship of $50,000, it wasn’t exactly employment for authors. The allocation of funding in this way forces me to ask why is it that singers and musicians can receive a living wage from government funding yet the same is not true for authors. What I can’t understand is what makes the performance of a Verdi or Handel opera worth more than the writing of a book. That’s the logical conclusion you must reach regarding the funding of arts in Australia. Through the allocation of money in this way, the performance of opera works by dead European composers is valued more than the authorship of original Australian books.
This sounds like a whinge, but my argument is based on sound free-market facts. Despite its reputation as an artform appreciated by the high and mighty, opera is not a popular artform. In fact, very few people at all go to opera performances – only 294,000 in 2004. That’s a little more than 0.01% of the Australian population. It isn’t what I’d call successful market penetration by a vibrant, living cultural form.
And does opera make money? Not at all. It is highly subsidised. It doesn’t even make money on the recordings or televised broadcasts of performances.
Australian literature on the other hand earns around $100 million a year in Australian sales, even when it is claimed to be “in decline”. Why? Because Australians continue to read Australian books in significant numbers. According to BookData figures released through Books Alive, 35,230,246 trade books were sold in Australia in the first nine months of 2006 (that’s about 1.75 books for every Australian). Over 65% of those books are produced in Australia by Australians. That’s much greater economic success and market penetration than opera can claim. At the same time the ABS reports that there were 556,000 Australians who were involved in writing. That’s almost double the number of punters who rock up to the Opera House to sip champagne between arias.
So why is it then that 1300 performers and musicians can be paid a living wage and yet so few authors receive such compensation? Because we are not assessing government support for the arts in free market terms, that’s why. Why do we have this aberration in government policy? Surely not because MPs and Ministers like to hang out at “first” nights of an artform that reached its use-by date in the nineteenth century?
Regrettably, that may be exactly the reason, given the massive corporate sponsorship for opera from the likes of Exxon Mobil, IBM, Australia Post, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. But with this sort of corporate support, why does opera need government funding at all? If corporate Australia is so desperate to see another soprano warbling Wagner while mingling with Ministers, surely they can pay totally for the privilege.
Of course the soprano should still be paid a living wage. I’m not belittling the artistry involved in performing opera. I’m simply trying to value it in terms of its place in Australian culture.
I believe a strong argument can be mounted that only art forms that lead to the creation of new Australian works should be funded by the taxpayer.
All opera can claim in recent years is the creation of the Lindy Chamberlain opera and Batavia neither of which were mainstream successes as, say, Kate Grenville’s book The Secret River has been. On this basis, opera would be a big loser.
If opera’s funding was assessed according to this criterion, it would probably be about equal to its market size and its cultural significance; this is, not very much. The funding for literature on the other hand would be altered considerably, and more authors would be able to be paid a living wage.
So why isn’t literature getting this sort of funding? Is the truth that, as a nation, we believe dead European composers are more deserving of the money we allocate for the arts than living Australian authors? Are we still accepting a cultural cringe where we cannot accept living Australian creators are as good as if not better than dead European ones?
Or is our arts funding simply fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t follow free market principles?
Whatever, we undervalue authors.
Much of this material appeared in Australian Author, December 2006. Copyright © 2006 Australian Society of Authors/Jeremy Fisher.

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