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

 

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education, personal, Politics, Theatre

a letter to the monash vice chancellor, professor ed byrne

Dear Vice Chancellor Professor Ed Byrne,

I am writing to express my deep shock and sadness at the news that Monash may begin phasing out the Bachelor of Performing Arts as early as next year. I write to you as a graduate of the course. I wish to tell you about my experience of completing this degree, what I have done with my skills since graduating and what I have observed of the department’s growth in the last few years.

Back in 2005 I knew that I wanted to be a director and playwright, and I knew that Monash was the degree for me. I auditioned for no other programs and went into the BPA with complete confidence. I loved the way it was both academic and practical, and the way in which these components were not separated but intrinsically linked. As a nineteen-year-old aspiring theatre maker, I knew that I needed to ground myself in the heritage of my medium and look to where it was headed. This course provided me with all this and more. It introduced me to stage management, and being a theatre tech. By the end of my second year I had stage managed a professional production and was working at The Alexander Theatre, teching shows and maintaining gear (with much support and guidance from the wonderful staff on campus). These skills also enabled me to assist other directors and be in the room throughout their unique creative processes. In third year I assistant directed for Suzanne Chaundy, and it was based on the recommendations of Suzanne and the staff of the BPA that I was accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts Post-Graduate directing program straight from my degree along with another of my peers from the course, Cheyney Caddy.

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I want to tell you about the last eighteen-months of my career. In this time I have worked with Bell Shakespeare and Red Stitch as an assistant director. In these roles I found my ability to switch between the practical and the academic invaluable. For Bell Shakespeare in particular I was regularly called upon to read mountains of critical essays and distill them into something immediately applicable to the rehearsal room. I did this with ease thanks to Monash. I wrote essays for their program and for their subscribers about the historical context of the work and our process. I am currently directing a beautiful new work to be staged at Forty-Five Downstairs in November and December. I secured this job because of connections made through my under-graduate degree and the production has employed BPA students as stage managers. My career as a playwright has also leaped forward in the last eighteen-months. This year I was short-listed for the Edward Albee Scholarship and I am currently in the process of completing my Masters in Performance Writing at the Victorian College of the Arts. One of my plays, Insomnia Cat Came To Stay, directed by another Monash Graduate Danny Delahunty, has toured five cities, including being a part of the prestigious Brisbane International Arts Festival 2013. The literary manager of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Chris Mead, is also mentoring me in dramaturgy and script assessment. I write about and for theatre constantly.

I am artistic director of Quiet Little Fox and have also written for Attic Erratic, a company made up almost entirely of graduates from this degree including Danny Delahunty, Celeste Cody, Sarah Collins, Tom Pitts and Giuliano Ferla. None of these artists were in my year but I keep gravitating towards Graduates of the BPA because they throw themselves into all facets of theatre with such willingness. They move seamlessly between back stage and onstage. They work without ego and with total commitment to their art. They are truly inspiring artists and Melbourne is all the more vibrant for the work they do.

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But I do not say all this in order to claim that the graduates who are actively creating theatre are the only ones worth celebrating. One of the joys of this degree is the multitude of ways in which its alumni use their skills. I have met alumni who now teach theatre to intellectually disabled men and women, empowering them as individuals and as a collective voice. I have met outstanding drama teachers who use their degree every day to inspire and educated their students, and I have had the pleasure to work with equally outstanding stage managers and techs that have come through this course. The degree has turned out many impressive academics that are adding to the intellectual landscape of our industry and pushing practitioners to continue to strive for new ways to make sense of the world around us through art. These academics exemplify what is so unique about this course and why it is so worthy of preserving: they bring to academia an acute awareness of theatre as a live art form, not merely as a sub-species of literature (which is where so many other universities have placed such academics). Theatre is not just a place in which we preserve and marvel at beautiful old words on a page; it is always about the world around us and the audience in front of us, and that is a lesson I learnt from this wonderful degree.

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Since graduating, I’ve been able to watch the course evolve and change. For example, this year I was in the audience for an outstanding display of Butoh created by second year students under the guidance of renowned practitioners Helen Smith and Peter Fraser. It was a stunning display of everything this course is about: introducing students to a rich and vibrant global history of performance by intrinsically linking the theoretical and the practical. I have also been able to watch the course change from the inside as I have been brought in as a contractor twice to direct first year students. Most recently I directed twenty-two first years in a production of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and it is no exaggeration when I say that it was one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences I’ve had this year. Aside from the creation of the play itself, it was a chance to talk with a group of passionate, vibrant, and intelligent eighteen and nineteen-year-olds about theatre as protest over the course of the Twentieth Century, the events leading to the Holocaust, and why such protest plays are as crucial today as they were in 1938. We talked about the ease of referring to The Final Solution and World War II as ‘inevitable’; something that was always going to happen but how artists like Brecht never accepted this. Brecht tells us today what he told his countrymen in 1938: that this wasn’t a ‘disaster’, for that would speak of something tragic beyond human control, the Aryan Earthquake. It was a disgrace: human, shameful, ugly and stoppable. It was so exhilarating to talk through such things with these students, most of whom were fresh from high school, and to hear them make the links between that time and ours. At their final assessments, one after the other they told us why such work was still so crucial and how it changed not only their understanding of history, but also their understanding of their own voices in the current political system.

I never stopped being grateful for what this course gave me. Every day I use the skills and the theory that it instilled in me. It is deeply embedded in my artistic practice. I understand that this decision is being made on the basis of the university’s budget but I want to tell you that the closure of this course would leave a massive hole in both the academic and performance landscape of Australia’s theatre community. It would be the university’s loss. It would be Melbourne’s loss. It would be theatre’s loss, academia’s loss and Australia’s loss.

Thank you for your time and please re-consider your decision.

Regards, 
Fleur Kilpatrick

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My blog is currently not letting me add captions to these stunning photos but they are all from past Monash productions. Photography is by Sarah Walker, David Sheehey and myself.  

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