Artists and their Enemies
Russell Degnan

Last night I attended another of the Alfred Deakin Innovation lectures. Entitled, Imagination and the Audience, it focused on the role of the people pulling the purse strings: artistic directors, patrons, and in particular, the Australia Council. What I learnt was that artists have two great enemies, upon whom they are also entirely dependent: their audience and their patrons [1].

The audience are philistines, inherently conservative, disinterested, uneducated and opinionated on matters they don't undertand. Against that, they also know what they like, refuse to see things they don't, but can be won over through appropriate education, approaches and performances that actually challenge them. More importantly, without them to perceive the art once created it doesn't exist, at least in any way that matters. They are a contradiction that can't be done without.

Patrons, which in this day and age, often means the government, are equally essential because they provide the grease for their operational wheels. But they have their own pressures: from the philistines in the audience, from a wish that the animals they feed refrained from biting them, and because they have broader goals like public education or nation building. None of which are necessarily in the interests of the artist.

The duel themes of the talks were thus: how do you choose projects to be funded? And how do you garner an audience to support them?

Dr. Jean Battersby was refreshing in her assessment of the history and performance of the Australia Council. It has always had two underlying principles - a good summary of which can be found here. That it operates at arms length from the government, and that the assessment of grants comes from experts, the artists' peers. It shouldn't be, but apparently is, surprising that governments do want to pressure the council. The reverse side of being at arms length is the government is not compelled to defend you. The solution arrived at however is bureaucracy. The appalling title to the above link is symptomatic of an organisation that seems overcome with paranoia about its own position and decision making. The losers are artists, and the public, who get less art for their money.

The peer assessment is also problematic for two reasons. First, when it was created the Australia Council was intended to support art. The result of being an organisation by artists is that it has changed to supporting artists. They are not the same. In the latter the audience is marginalised and often ignored. Secondly, committees are not good at assessing the merit of potential works. The assessment process tends towards an average assessment, leaving high risk, potentially great works without support in favour of the bland. Any wonder that the audience turns their back.

The solution proferred by the speakers is to recognise that failure is inevitable when outcomes are uncertain, and that this fact should be recognised. I agree. However, during the questions section another point came out. Namely that often the only way to fund interesting works is to do it when you have effective "autocrat" status such as that given to a festival director.

This suggests another solution. Namely the complete scrapping of grants to individual artists through the council. I have mentioned before the importance of festivals for marginal artistic endeavors, particularly in geographically and economically isolated places. It makes sense for the Australia Council to stop funding individuals and instead fund places: festivals, theatres, halls and galleries. These institutions, attached to their audience and more diverse in output than individual grants could ever be, are much better placed to fund interesting and challenging art, to fulfill the role to educate, and to fill the myriad of niches that a diverse arts scene requires.

In many ways, the problem for artists is not funding. The Australia Countil gets $145 million a year. Barely $7 per Australia. That is incredibly low really, yet increases will not be forthcoming so long as the government and the public are the enemy. When they are, such funds are wasteful and pointless, pandering to elitist wankers. Yet Australians are, by and large, rich. They can afford far more, and on so many activities are willing to pay far more. The problem then, is not funding. It is marketing.

Hence the importance of places and events. Places and events are visible symbols. They are active connections to the audience. Used well, they let the audience take ownership of the art they contain, and more importantly, get that same audience to generate the momentum needed to grow.

By contrast, individual artists, on small budgets, only start with a small audience. Often in fact, only other artists. It is a conversation amongst themselves that never breaks out into something bigger.

Some artists, perhaps many, like that. But it does help their enemies,

[1] As an aside, there is a strict equivalence between these two groups and the bane of a computer programmer's existence: the user and the manager.

Passing Fancy 9th May, 2005 01:12:41   [#] 


Festivals for visual artists?
Hey Russ, I could see how this *might* work for the performing arts, but what about the visual arts?
Robert Merkel  10th May, 2005 23:53:22  

Commissions, Exhibitions
Well, most visual artists try and use exhibitions to display their work. Either by themselves or with others. So funding for galleries to commission work, or run a series of exhibitions, would be one way. Think of events like the Affordable Art Show - which I gather generated a lot of interest from people who normally don't go to commercial art galleries. Public art programs for councils, parks, and urban developments as well.

There are writers festivals as well, and you could subsiside local publishers. But again, writers never have funding problems, just marketing problems.

Similarly films - particularly short films - go onto festival circuits so funding film festivals to then commission special works, or even art-house cinemas or distributors to fund feature length films and guarantee time on screen. SBS and the ABC already fund a lot of television and film of course.

To reiterate though, the criteria for funding shouldn't be the quality of output, which is unknowable, subjective and ephemeral. I think a reasonable case can be made for saying that culture and the audience for it are one and the same. Hence, expanding one means expanding the other, and we know much more about promotion to audiences than the promotion of culture.

And I like festivals
Russ  11th May, 2005 01:58:17