criticism, My own plays, Politics, Theatre

on arts funding, ‘idlers in art’, anger, survival and free tickets for media

I want to do something a bit different today. I want to respond to two things about money in the arts previously raised here and in the wider arts community.

Thing One: What arts funding looks like

This thought came out of Dave Lamb’s amazing letter to Mitchell Browne, which was posted on this blog back in September. The letter received a massive amount of interest and the comment section was fascinating (and include one very impressive conspiracy theorist). I am not going to re-hash why we need arts funding or what a tiny contribution taxpayers are required to make because Dave covered this beautifully. What I want to address is something that really intrigued me: in the comments I saw a lack of understanding about what arts funding actually consists of. It was expressed best by an American woman called Marie:

  • “Funding for the arts creates a false divide between “artists” and “everybody else”. He (Mitchell Browne) points out — correctly — that many, many people with ordinary day jobs are profoundly creative and artistic, but are unable to pursue those passions/interests/talents because the bulk of their time and energy goes to keeping food on the table. Then, compounding that frustration, a portion of their wages are confiscated to help support others who are fortunate enough to make their living doing what they love…. For a select group to set themselves apart as “artists”, and suggest that everyone else should limit their participation to the role of audience members, is highly offensive to the millions of gifted musicians, sculptors, playwrights, dancers, etc. whose circumstances require them to spend 50+ hours a week laying cement or staffing the local daycare centers.”

Marie responded very graciously when Dave and I wrote to her and much of what she talks about is discussed in the original letter but what comments like this one say to me is that there is a profound misconception about arts funding.

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Here in Australia there are a tiny handful of fellowships (very hard fought for and incredibly well deserved by those who get them) that will fund an individual in their work. This is what the Australia Council website has to say about them:

  • “These Fellowships are a major initiative to support the professional development of outstanding artists working across the sector and across Australia. Over five years between 2011/12 to 2015/16, the Australia Council will award 10 fellowships for emerging artists (each valued at $100,000) and 13 fellowships for early career artists (each valued at $60,000).  These Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowships will provide financial support for artists across all artforms to undertake a program of creative or professional development.” – Australia Council 

So we are talking only 23 people in the country across all artforms getting such support between 2011 and 2016. Their money is paid out over a two year period so emerging artists are on $30 000 a year and established artists are on $50 000. By comparison, the average Australian full-time wage is $74 724 a year before tax.

But this isn’t where the vast majority of funding goes. It goes either into companies or individual projects.

To use the Melbourne Theatre Company as an example of a funded arts organisation, last year 9.3% of their income came from government funding (both State and Federal). 71.5% came from ticket sales. The rest is philanthropic, hires and corporate. (This information can be found here and I also exchanged emails with someone from the company in person.)

So less than 10 percent of their income is from funding and more than 70 is derived from tickets. This means the company has to work incredibly hard to keep their subscriber base subscribing. They are constantly being held accountable for their programming decisions. They do not have a safety net of a substantial income separate from their sales. If people don’t buy, they don’t exist. This, of course can means that it is very difficult for them to take artistic risks. So a state theatre that had, say 20% funding, would be able to make twice as many risks and would be able to lower their ticket prices further. Both of which would be bloody good things.

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

It is also worth mentioning that having company funding means that you are unable to apply for project funding. Which isn’t such a big deal for companies like MTC but for little companies, such as MKA, which is staffed almost entirely by volunteers and now receives tri-annual funding, this is the difference between being able to pay the creatives vs. everyone fitting shows around their part-time catering jobs. This is the current situation for any company receiving Organisation Infrastructure Funding from VicArts. Most grants come with a clause that you cannot apply for them if you receive multi-year government funding. This means that small companies have to chose between getting funding which covers their insurance, flights and taxes or money they can put directly into their productions and artists. Still not looking much like the fantasy of artists living comfortably off the taxpayers.

As Dave said, to get individual project funding, artists must clearly establish why they need funding in order to make the project happen, demonstrate their capability to bring such a work to fruition, explain exactly how every dollar will be spent and, crucially, justify how this project will contribute to the artistic landscape and the Australian community.

This year I spent a few months in regional Queensland, working on a funded project through La Boite. My role was to teach more than 80 fifteen-year-olds how to write plays. With these students as my collaborators, I wrote four plays in eight weeks, which the students then performed for their community. Among the participants were students who struggled with basic literacy levels, students with behavioural issues including verbal aggression and students who were completely disengaged from school. We created an opportunity for them to express themselves creatively and tell their own stories. They guided the process and were so proud of themselves. When people rail against taxpayer funded arts, this is the kind of work they are attacking.

And being part of a project like this doesn’t mean that I’m not working other jobs. Like almost every other artist I know, I am living below the poverty line and am constantly in search for that illusive flexible workplace that will permit me to run off to regional Queensland for eight weeks of theatre creation when the opportunity arises. Last year I worked for one of the most established and respected theatre companies in Australia, Bell Shakespeare and then, when that show had ended, I cleaned a bakery for $15 an hour cash in hand. This is about what I was getting paid thirteen years ago as a fifteen-year-old working in Pizza Hut when I lived rent-free in my parents’ house. Now I am an established artist and arts commenter with a Masters degree and rent to pay.

The perception of a community of artists comfortably living year in, year out on taxpayer money is very far from the truth. It is individual projects. It is horrible length gaps between commissions – too short for other employers to hire you and too long to live off what little savings you managed to acquire on the last show. It is working during the day and performing at night. It is immensely hard and the dilemma of how to balance of paid work and passion does not go away once you make art your main career and focus.

And we love it. Of course we do. On those days when we write plays with 80 teenagers or have people tearfully clutch our hands at the end of a performance to tell us how we changed something they thought unchangeable in their hearts we feel incredibly fortunate. But on other days, it can be difficult to feel fortunate. Those moments of pay off – both financial and emotional – are few and far between. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith told my class last year that being a writer is a constant battle between your ego and your self-doubt. You have to make sure that your ego just comes out on top or you’ll never pick up the pen. When this self-doubt is coupled with crippling poverty, the battle can feel pretty uneven. Not David and Goliath, for that is the story of a little guy who only needed to throw one stone; artists must build and throw that stone again and again in-between waitressing jobs.

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Thing Two: The Tickets

I want to give one other example of project funding, which will then lead into the other Thing I’ve want to re-examine.

The City They Burned received $10 000 from the city council. In practical terms, this knocked $10 off of the price of every ticket. In the Pre-Fringe season, this meant $24 a ticket compared to $34. That’s a big difference. It was also the little bit of financial cushioning we needed in order to be able to run a ‘pay as you feel’ night to ensure that no one was missing out on the work due to financial hardship.

Audience members saw the show without paying and, at the end, were asked to contribute what they could afford or what they thought the show was worth. The average ticket price that night was $19. Of course, some people paid much less than this, which was fine, but the interesting part of the experiment was that the people who would otherwise have received industry or media comps that night, decided to pay because the option was presented to them.

This leads me to the next point I want to re-examine. This was raised at a forum I hosted at Theatre Works, the ridiculously named Why Can’t We All Get Along Like We Did In Middle School: should critics get free tickets and, if they receive a comp, does that mean they are entering into a deal which states that a comp equals a review?

Plenty of artists have opinions on this, which is absolutely fair enough. As I’ve already stated in this article, making art is costly and hard. But. But. But I’ve seen over 80 shows this year and paid for perhaps 20 of them. (My running tally in my phone says I’ve paid for 14 but I expect that I forgot to record a few.)

Now, before you presume this makes me an arts writer who isn’t holding up my end of the bargain, let me assure you that any time I was given a ticket as an arts writer, I wrote something. This week I also emailed the artistic director of a theatre to ask about getting a media comp and, when I found out that the show was struggling a bit, instantly retracted my request and paid. The vast majority of my comps come from being someone’s plus one – someone working on or writing about the show/festival – or they come from the fact that I work three festivals a year, which gets me into most shows at Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne Comedy and Melbourne Fringe for free provided, I’m not taking the place of a paying audience member. You know how it works. You have received such comps too.

I am not writing this to end this discussion. I hope we continue to think about and discuss how we value and pay for our art and what the intellectual transaction is. But I think we all forget about our own free tickets when it comes to talking about critics.

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Now, to state the obvious, I could never afford to pay for 80 shows a year. I am acutely aware that I am very, very fortunate to be the recipient of these tickets. Having access to this amount and variety of art helps broaden my awareness of what is happening in my industry, my understanding of what art is capable of and illuminates in a very immediate and practical way what does/does not work on stage. It benefits my art and my arts writing. Every time we put ‘artists passes free’ on a festival show or send someone we respect a comp, we aren’t only boosting our audience numbers or promoting ourselves, we are making an investment in the intellectual complexity and artistic wealth of our fellow makers.

And we are too generous. I’m all for artists at the very least asking for a donation from their fellow makers at festival time. I also think it is acceptable to offer reviewers only the one ticket, rather than two. But I do wonder, when we give so many of our tickets away to each other, why do we bitch about giving them to the people who may spend hours writing about it? And even if they don’t write about this show, they may write about the next one with an enhanced awareness of our artistic journey.

The City They Burned generated over 10 000 words of critical response (not including my own conversation with Cameron Woodhead) and the majority of these came from unpaid reviewers. I’ll always champion these people. I’ll always support “so-and-so with their blog that barely anyone reads anyway” because most of our best arts writers started as that so-and-so. And because I believe we need them. We want our arts writers to benefit like we do from seeing as much art as possible. We want their responses to deepen and complexify (not a word but I’m into it). I’m willing to invest in their artistic understanding, just as my fellow artists invest in mine.

Sarah’s photography can be found here. 

On a personal note: I’m heading to South Australia for a few months to save money whilst writing a new play. If you are reading this from Adelaide, yell out! I’d love to build more of a network in my home town and I am also planning on running a series of forums on criticism, gender and new writing there before Fringe takes over the city. 

Standard
Guest Blogger, Politics, Theatre

a letter to mitchell browne, ‘why should artists at work fund idlers at art?’

I’m so happy to bring you this letter. One of my favourite artistic collaborators, Dave Lamb, has written this beautiful, eloquent, generous and immensely clever response to Mitchell Browne’s Syndey Morning Herald article ‘WHY SHOULD ARTISTS AT WORK FUND IDLERS AT ART?’ Enjoy and, if you happen to know Mitchell, please pass this on. Dave wants to hang out. 

 

Hi Mitchell

My name is Dave, and I’m an artist. We’ve never met, although you assume an awful lot about my lifestyle.

Last week I read your opinion piece on the Sydney Morning Herald website, along with the comments it generated. I must admit, I originally felt a lot of the ire that was expressed there, but I realise it’s not fair or productive to respond with scorn or sarcasm – that would only serve to distance our positions further, and one of the chief goals of the arts is, in my opinion, to bring different perspectives of life closer together in an attempt to create mutual understanding.

I respond in that spirit, not to criticise or correct you but hopefully to further our understanding of each other. Most importantly, I don’t want you to feel that all I’m saying is “you don’t understand art” – that would be unfair, narrow-minded and probably quite offensive to you. My hope is that this response reaches you and that you read with an open mind, and possibly come to a different understanding of the potential and importance of the arts to our society.

Your central point – that $200 million funding for the Australia Council is in effect a robbery of hard-working taxpayers to fund the laziness of artists – seems to me to have 3 elements: firstly, that tax revenue would be better used if spent directly by the taxpayer; secondly, that artists take advantage of funding to be lazy and self indulgent; and finally, that funding the arts in general is a waste – that the people paying the taxes should be able to choose to pay or not, in whatever amount and for whatever work they deem worthwhile.

I agree that all government expenditure warrants scrutiny, and I understand that it’s easiest to complain about funding for the things that you don’t believe benefit you – I personally don’t believe that as much funding should go to the defence force, or to religious counselling in schools, or diesel fuel subsidies for mining corporations, but there are cases to be made for the programs and business models that receive that funding.

If we were able to choose where our tax revenue went, the very real possibility is that some things that were crucial to our society (roads and public transport, or maybe health and education, or perhaps defence) would receive far less funding than they need, because people don’t use them every day, or don’t recognise the flow-on benefits that such funded services provide. We live in a pluralistic society, which generally means that we accept the unique perspective and needs of every person that lives within our borders. Pluralism is about more than just race or religion or creed, it’s an understanding that even though I don’t particularly like or value the things that some other people do, our society and government operates to give as many people as possible the freedom and ability to live in the way they choose.

For some people, that includes the arts.

polyglot theatre

SOUND OF DRAWING, Polyglot Theatre, 2014, Sarah Walker

The purpose of government funding for the arts isn’t solely to pay an individual artist. Funding is often used to subsidise ticket prices for national arts events – exhibitions, festivals and companies – ensuring that access to art forms across a wide range of disciplines isn’t restricted just to those who can afford it. It means that participation in art, creatively or receptively, is possible for people from all backgrounds and sectors in our community, and sends a message that we encourage representations of lives other than our own – Pluralism. The existence of government funding for the arts is a statement that art is important to the development of a society beyond its current understanding of itself.

The $200 million funding is distributed to both individual artists and companies across myriad art forms for several purposes. In some cases, the funding is used to develop and present a piece or series of works in an artists’ discipline, in others it is used to fund further training in a particular field or form. In all cases, the recipient must have proved both a level of skill and capability in their practice that shows they are pursuing this art form as a career, as well as a plan detailing how they will use the funds to contribute something to the society that has paid for it.

Funding isn’t just handed out to whoever is standing in line with an idea – grants are given to artists who have already invested their own time and money in educating themselves and expanding both the skills of their craft and their knowledge of arts history and practice to understand where they fit and what they can contribute. For many artists, years have been spent working several different part-time jobs so that they can afford weekly classes and workshops. Crucially, the time spent on these unpaid creative endeavours is not the same as engaging in a hobby or playing for enjoyment. For a career artist, it is work.

The impression of the artist being idle is an old one, and if any artistic career looks easy than it’s a testament to the skill of the artist. The audience should only see the finished result. They shouldn’t see the pain, the uncertainty, the regret, the self-loathing, the incessant questioning and reassessment and screaming silently “What the hell am I doing this for?”

As an actor, particularly while performing in schools as an aid to English education (yes, that gets funded too, but out of the education budget rather than the Australia Council) one of the most common questions I am asked is “How do you remember all those lines?” The answer, invariably, is “Hard Work”, but the audience isn’t there for the hours of rehearsal and forgetting and paraphrasing, they only see the lines being remembered. Hopefully.

Often, we will pay for the hard work ourselves, either because we want to showcase our talents or because we believe so strongly in the work that we want to give it to an audience. But some works require financial backing beyond the capacity of a part-time cafe job. That’s where funding comes in.

Rehearsal photography, COMPLEXITY OF BELONGING, Chunky Move, MTC, Melbourne Festival and Falk Richter, 2014, Sarah Walker

Rehearsal photography, COMPLEXITY OF BELONGING, Chunky Move, MTC, Melbourne Festival and Falk Richter, 2014, Sarah Walker

The potential end result of funding individual arts projects is that individuals and companies receive both awareness among the audience and income from the presentation of the work, both of which afford them the opportunity to create more and different work supported by their own financial resources and a connected audience base that has the potential to grow by the expansion of access and awareness.

The intent, just as in any other instance of government funding, is that from an initial investment a company is able to grow to the point of self-sufficiency, generating employment for more artists, which in turn generates future tax revenue for the government that exceeds the initial investment – tax revenue on both the income from and audience and the wages paid to artists. The investment is intended to ultimately create ongoing return.

Funding for individual artists serves a similar purpose. The artist receives the grant to assist them in activities to further their skills and develop new networks. Think of it in the same way as a commonwealth supported trade apprenticeship – by providing support for an artist to undertake classes, workshops, creative development or exploration of form, the funding assists the artist in developing skills and networks that further their career prospects and employment potential, leading to more work that converts back into tax revenue for the government.

And now, some perspective on that $200 Million you’re worried about Mitchell. It equates to less than $9 for each Australian citizen. Of course, not all Australians pay taxes. Statistics from the 2009-10 financial year indicated that 55% of adult Australians paid tax – that’s around 7.15 million people. So the $200 million in funding for the arts is around $28 for each taxpayer.

For some people that’s still a lot of money, and I understand that it might seem like there’s no return for them, so what does their $28 get them? Reporting from the last 6 years shows funding being distributed to professional theatre companies around Australia, which subsidises ticket prices for the audience; to art galleries to facilitate free entry; to tours of performances and festivals to regional Australia, ensuring arts access is not restricted to major urban areas. It has facilitated new work from musicians – both classical and contemporary; from writers – both literature and performance; from actors, dancers, visual artists, jewellers, sculptors, circuses and more. All of this work was available to Australian audiences in return for that $28 of their tax revenue. And if they chose to engage, they would walk away with so much more.

Quantifying the effect the arts has on society is always a difficult prospect. Statistically, in a study performed by the Australia Council in 2010, 53% of Australians engage in the arts as an audience, and a further 40% also actively participate in creating art. That’s around 9.2 Million artists engaging in theatre, music, literature, visual art, dance, craft and more and 12 Million receiving that art.

In financial terms, ABS data from 2009-10 shows that the cultural and creative sectors provided a Gross Value Add of $86 Billion to the Australian economy, outstripping the contribution of both retail and education, and more than doubling the contribution of Agriculture, Forestry and Mining at $29 Billion. As a point of comparison, the mining industry alone received $492 Million in government subsidies in 2012-13, along with generous tax concessions.

But art is intended for more than financial gain – Phil Scott wrote (also in response to your piece, Mitchell) that “Art sees society through an individual and questioning perspective”. He echoes the opinion of Shakespeare, who thought the purpose of theatre “both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere a mirror up to nature.” I agree with them both, but frame it a little differently.

I think the power of great art is not that it tells us who we are, but that it allows us to recognise elements of ourselves – emotional states, or behaviours, or hopes and dreams and fears – in other people. If we are told that we are a certain thing, either good or bad, we can listen and agree (or not), but remain largely unaffected. But in seeing elements of ourselves within a fiction or a representation – either on stage, or within a piece of music, or in the form of a sculpture or twist of a brushstroke – we have a very real chance of understanding that aspect of ourselves by recognising it and describing it in our own terms.

This is, I believe, a far more powerful and instructive form of self-reflection – nobody has told you “You are this thing”, you haven’t needed to be defensive or react to them to protect your idea of yourself, but you’ve come to understand something about yourself by observing. And once we acknowledge that we can understand more about ourselves, we acknowledge that we have the ability to change if we choose. And once we acknowledge we have that choice, then we become very aware of the effects of the choices we make. And then we can extend our understanding towards others, observing their choices and the effects they have. And, potentially, we find it easier to accept things in others we have previously just reacted to.

The writer, Dave Lamb, in a promotional image for Pop Up Playground and the MSO's PAPER ORCHESTRA, Sarah Walker

The writer, Dave Lamb, in a promotional image for Pop Up Playground and the MSO’s PAPER ORCHESTRA, Sarah Walker

Do you see what I’m trying to say, Mitchell? Art gives us the opportunity to observe and understand both ourselves and others without threat or fear. Good art tells us something we didn’t already know, and great art helps us understand the things we already did. It shows us who we are, asks us if we accept ourselves in that way, and gives us the power to change if we choose. The very best art will tell us not just who we are, but who everyone is, and will allow us to accept and understand not just what makes us different but what makes us unalterably the same.

I hope you choose to engage with the art available to you as a result of government funding Mitchell. I hope you take a chance with your spare time and surprise yourself. If you’re ever in Melbourne and looking to fill an evening, I’d love to take you to a show that was funded by an Arts Council Grant and sit and talk about it afterwards. If you’re here during the Fringe or International Arts Festivals, I can make a week’s worth of recommendations – I’ll even pay for the tickets, it’s the least I can do.

Art offers us opinions and perspectives other than our own. Art offers us choices. But the first choice has to be ours. I hope you make that choice Mitchell, I hope you discover the other worlds that are there for you, and I hope it inspires you and your talented tradie mates to share your stories with the rest of us – I bet you could teach us a thing or two, and I hope I get to learn them.

Yours faithfully and artistically,

Dave Lamb

Dave is a Melbourne-based actor who is currently appearing in The City They Burned. He tweets at @davenlamb and, if you want to see him doing something utterly ridiculous… He calls this evidence that you shouldn’t take him too seriously. My deepest thanks to Dave for this wonderful letter. 

More of Sarah Walker’s amazing photography can be found here

 

Standard