By Professor Peter Tregear
Any complete assessment of Australian arts and cultural policy needs to consider the effectiveness of the systems of funding that stem from it. Deciding what, and who, gets funded and what does not is, after all, where policy principle most conspicuously becomes practice. The Australia Council’s current review of its most lucrative funding program, the so-called ‘Major Performing Arts’ (or MPA) framework is thus of considerable interest to arts academics and practitioners alike.
Currently we find that traditional Western art music, such as symphonic music and opera dominate the program. Indeed 15 or so of the 28 current MPAs fall under this banner, Whereas once this fact may not have in itself generated much comment or criticism, the last half-century or more has witnessed dramatic changes in the forms, ways, and means Australians engage with music. It is now a common complaint from within the arts community that the very nature of the MPA system has allowed our major classical music organisations to avoid a truly rigorous engagement with this new reality.
Whether this is entirely true or fair, it does indeed seem timely to consider whether there should be new ways to approach such funding. For instance, might some of this government funding be directed, at least in part, towards creating and/or supporting more performing venues on our cities and towns, or could it be better targeted towards outputs and not just output providers?
It might also be useful to consider the history behind some of the traditional recipients of MPA funding. Both the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO), for instance, were originally founded as amateur organisations, the former in 1908 and the latter in 1906. It was the combined social and economic pressures of the depression, the introduction of the ‘talkies’, and the creation of the ABC, which led them to becoming fully professionalised in the early 1930s. While this is usually remembered as an entirely positive development for the arts in Australia, it nevertheless also saw the transformation of these ‘ground-up’ community-based cultural enterprises into ‘top down’ arms of the state. The impact of this shift of company culture was felt across a number of levels - one was that these orchestras immediately lost of most of their female (i.e. ‘amateur’) members, a state of affairs that took many decades, and equal rights legislation, to rectify. Concerns that it would also lead the MSO to be no longer willing or able to offer regular free public concerts led to the gift by Melbourne businessman Sidney Myer of a large parcel of shares in his eponymous department store to the University of Melbourne to protect such a capacity.
To be sure, the belief in a central role for orchestras in promoting ideals of cultural literacy and the kinds of sensibilities more generally that can help nurture a healthy society and democracy did carry over from the amateur to the professional entities, and helps explain why these orchestras found a natural home with the emergent public broadcaster, the ABC, which was similarly founded on a ‘public service’ ethos. However, both the act of professionalisation itself and the later decoupling of the state orchestras from the public broadcaster (as well as our politicians' diminishing confidence in the idea of public culture itself), has arguably also led to the eroding of this sense of community connectedness in these ensembles.
Their focus today seems more squarely directed by, and towards, the global music industry itself. OA and our professional orchestras alike bid for, and programme to attract, singers, players, soloists and conductors, worldwide. Names of global arts management companies like HarrisonParrot, Askonas Holt, Intermusica, and IMG may not be widely known on the streets of our capital cities, but they now dominate (and very significantly benefit from) the flow of this human capital and the state funding that supports it. Their sway over the Australian arts scene arguably distracts the attention of our MPAs away from a more fulsome engagement with immediate and local cultural and artistic contexts and concerns. There is little point in our orchestras and opera companies claiming to achieve the highest international standards, if, however, the communities they are based in end up having a diminishing interest in what they do.
A thriving amateur and semi-professional orchestra and operatic scene in any event still continues to exist across Australia to this day. But this level of cultural activity is rarely acknowledged in discussions around the funding environment for our major arts organisations. It needs to be. The alternative is a risk that our MPA funding system ends up supporting a view of culture and its relationship to the state, as well as modes of cultural production, that comes to be perceived - even within the arts community itself - as increasingly out-dated and irrelevant.
Let’s instead be bold and use the opportunity presented by the MPA review to encourage the kinds of conversations about the sorts of culture, and cultural practices, that befit Australia in the twenty-first century.
Melbourne-born, Peter Tregear completed a doctorate at Cambridge University, and was later appointed a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. He subsequently held academic posts in the UK and Australia and continues to work as a singer and conductor in both countries. From 2012–2015 he was Professor and Head of the ANU School of Music, Canberra and in 2016 he was appointed a Principal Fellow of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Peter is the author of several books, including the Platform Paper Enlightenment or Entitlement: Rethinking tertiary music education (2014) and writes regularly for the Australian Book Review and The Conversation.