Archive | March, 2012

Funding Art in Australia – An interview with Donald Horne

29 Mar

First published in The Tribune Winter Reading Issue (No 2388)7 August 1985

Professor Donald Home has been chairperson of the Australia Council, the Commonwealth arts support body, for over six months. Recently, he talked to Mark Roberts about the way the arts are supported in Australia, as well as discussing some of the problems he has already encountered in the council, and his hopes for the future.

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In What Price Culture? David Throsby and Glenn Withers point out that, based on 1981 census figures, more people were employed by the arts than were employed by mining and agriculture — a point you also made in your inaugural address as chairperson. How important do you see economic considerations, such as potential for employment, tourism, and so on. being in determines the direction of the government’s arts policy in the future?

Whether people like it or not, I think it’s pretty obvious that manufacturing, as the principal dynamic in society, is no longer working. In purely economic terms, we have to look towards labor-intensive service industries, otherwise the economic plight will simply get worse.

Now, it happens that the arts are an extensive industry. Art and entertainment add up to a couple of billion dollars worth of activity each year, and if you add to that the information industries you can add a few more billion dollars. I can’t be exact, but I’m talking about industries which are worth several billion dollars.

When one adds to this the fact that the arts are not only an economic multiplier, but also a social and cultural multiplier in an economy in which jobs are becoming even less and less interesting, it can make more sense to implement arts support schemes than it does in periods when the work ethic seems to be operating at its full volume.

We should be looking at ways to provide unemployed people — and employed people — with other views of life rather than just the economic.

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Since you’ve become chairperson of the Australia Council, there seems to have been a greater level of debate within the arts community over the role the council plays in funding, and to an extent, determining what art is produced in Australia. Do you think this level of debate is a healthy sign?

Well, there has always been a number of debates, there’s nothing new about it, actually. Naturally, if the resources are scarce, and they’re allotted one way, the people who didn’t get what they wanted will have criticisms. That is a perfectly necessary and essential feature of any government arts support policy.

At the same time, it is essential that there should be diversity in any system of support for the arts. In other words, the Australia Council, the Australian Film Commission, and the state arts agencies and others are essential. You don’t want to have just one centralised, bureaucratic art support scheme.

Some of the particular debates that have have arisen have been, first of all, the fact that the Theatre Board recommended (and the council accepted its recommendation), that there should be a ceiling placed on the money given to the major theatre companies. The idea behind this was that some of the extra money could be diverted to minor theatre companies. This seems to me to be a perfectly defensible position.

I think it would be wrong if all the funds of the Australia Council went to just a few companies. That would really be setting up a kind of state monopoly.

It is important that minor companies should be encouraged — partly because they might be more innovative or they might introduce things that the major companies wouldn’t introduce: but also because, as major companies decline, minor companies come up. So. in this way. the council is maintaining the market a bit.

Then there is a second controversy; and that is the question of the Australian Opera. Here, the council’s policy is that the Australian Opera should be maintained as a national organisation fulltime. However, the Australian Opera had asked for an extra million dollars in subsidy, and the council simply couldn’t find an extra million dollars.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that, at present, a quarter of the council’s total grants go to two companies, the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet. In fact, the Australian Opera, along with the accompanying orchestra, actually obtains more in grants than the Literature Board and the Visual Arts Board combined.

So the council felt that it couldn’t be expected to provide more money for the Australian Opera. However, it has put up a scheme where the council would provide the base support for the opera while the states would make contributions depending on the amount of time the opera spends performing in particular states.

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In your inaugural address, you talked about the Canadian and British models of government arts support bodies in relation to the development of the Australia Council. In the last Fringe Network Newsletter there is an article by Michael Volkerling, the head of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, where he discusses the importance of regional groups to the overall decision making process of the New Zealand Council. Do you think that the Australia Council could learn from the New Zealand experience in helping to overcome claims of “state bias”?

We already have it in Australia; we have the state support agencies. We have a better model than New Zealand, we have federation — just as in the US there is a federal body and there are state branches. The diversity is built into our model already.

I certainly believe that there should be continual and growing co-operation in certain ways between the Australia Council and the states. But, overall. I think we already have that.

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On the figures for state government support for the arts — certain states contribute more to funding arts in their state than others. Do you feel that this is putting pressure on the Australia Council to subsidise those states where the state governments aren’t funding arts to the same degree as other states?

I don’t think the council is making up any lost funding. The council funds most where there are the most applications. So far as I’m aware, in the past it has not had a policy of trying to build up areas irrespective of where the applications come from.

If you are speaking specifically about NSW, it happens that NSW, for reasons that have nothing to do with the state government, generates a lot of funding applications. It would seem that a lot of artists and writers live in NSW.

The area the council is particularly concerned with is Queensland where the number of applications is disproportionately low. If you compare Queensland with South Australia there is a very big difference in the proportion of applications.

For the first time in the council’s history I think, they’re showing a concern about this unevenness and it’s having a special inquiry which will involve, among other things, an internal examination. We’ll be trying to work why it is that the proportion of Queensland applications is so low and what can be done about it.

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Ted Hopkins, in his paper Deconstruct the Australia Council, discusses what he sees as the limitation of the way the council is structured into various art form based boards. He suggests that these boards are symbols of idealised “pure” art forms. I am also personally aware of a number of cases where people have been told that their submissions don’t fall within the boundaries of one board, and to take it to another board, where the same thing happens again. (It seems that it happens most often between the Literature and Visual Arts Boards.) Do you think there are many problems in the current board set-up?

I think that there are problems in having a board structure, though I don’t agree that the Council is doing anything particularly odd in this. They are just the normal divisions, and all divisions are somewhat arbitrary.

What should offset that is co-operation between boards and a certain firmness in inter-arts considerations. I don’t think we could just abolish the boards and have everybody sitting around on some inter-arts committee looking at all the applications because arts are inter-related. It would be much worse than the present system.

The present system has limitations and I’m sure that members of the council are interested to hear criticisms of those limitations.

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At the recent Conference on Culture, the Arts, Media and Radical Politics, there was some discussion of the difficulty young artists and artists from minority groups have in getting to know about how the council works, and how to use the council. Do you think this is a major problem — that once someone knows how to “write” submissions, they have a definite advantage?

I think this is a major problem and we’re making Queensland a kind of paradigm case of that. Once we’ve investigated Queensland fully, I think we’ll have a lot more to say about it.

There’s another problem, of course, and that is that you could spend the whole budget on “missionary” activity. There is a limit — and whether the council is spending the right amount on this or not is a matter for debate.

Sidetrack Theatre presenting LOCO to workers at the Chullora railway workshop in Sydney during the mid 1980's. The project was funded jointly by the Theatre and Community Arts Boards.

Well, yes, that is always a difficulty in any period of reform. In some ways the Community Arts Board, or the Community Centres, when initiating programs, should be, as it were, a kind of vanguard.

I think there are times when what is described as interference is essential because people simply don’t know the alternatives. They don’t know what is available. Then comes the time when, if things are generated, you perhaps have to be more concerned with the community’s initiatives.

The big new development, I hope, would be in community groups — not only local government but also, for instance, in joint funding arrangements in, say. Aboriginal communities, or areas of great unemployment. ■

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God and Landscapes: Andrew Lansdown: Between Glances & Rhyll McMaster: On My Empty Feet

20 Mar

Between Glances by Andrew Lansdown, William Heinemann Australia 1993 and On My Empty Feet by Rhyll McMaster, William Heinemann Australia. First published in Overland 135, Winter 1994.

                                                 

There is a simple delicacy to many of the poems in Andrew Lansdown’s sixth col­lection of poetry, Between Glances. Lans­down moves slowly through the landscape bringing a spiritual intensity to bear on the objects of everyday life. Many of his best poems grow out of a single image. In ‘Tea Chest’, for example, a robin drinking water out of a dis­carded tea chest is captured in the centre of the poem:

The late afternoon light

duplicates the bird’s shape darkly

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in the still water as it stoops

to drink.

The poem is, in fact, almost a fable. Lansdown is suggesting that nature can transform a func­tional object which is perceived to have outlived its usefulness to an object of beauty and of a different functionality:

Truly, this moment, that tea chest

bears a cargo more precious than any

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it carried long ago from India or Ceylon.

The title poem of the collection, ‘Between Glances’, operates on a similar level. The poet has been watching a single autumn leaf on a liquidambar tree all day:

I glance

down at my work then out

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again, only to find it gone.

Gone between glances. If only

I had known that last wave

was a goodbye, a farewell,

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I would not have looked away.

While the transient nature of beauty obviously lies at the heart of this poem, ‘Between Glances’ can also be read as a fable where the falling leaf represents human mortality. Above all else Lansdown is a religious poet and, in the context of the rest of the collection, these ‘fables’ take on a distinct spiritual dimension.

Between Glances contains a number of more obviously religious poems. There is an uneven-ness to these poems which I feel is probably almost inevitable. Religious poetry is difficult to write and like many poets Lansdown does occa­sionally fall into cliche. However, Between Glances contains some of the best religious poetry I have read for some time.

For most of the collection Lansdown is content to write about his children and the natural land­scape, but in the last section there are a number of poems which grew out of a trip to Sydney. These poems lack some of the spiritual intensity which runs through the rest of the book, but I feel that they actually balance the more overtly religious nature poems.

After the softness of Lansdown’s poetry Rhyll McMaster’s third collection, On My Empty Feet, seems positively hard-edged. In the opening poem, ‘Figure in the Landscape’, we have a view of the landscape very different from Lansdown’s images of transient beauty:

Sheep lie down in the wind,

trees tremble their roots

in underground runnels.

Cattle pour milkily across

a world of occurrence.

Whereas Lansdown was content to sit back and watch the robin drink out of the old tea chest, McMaster places herself very firmly in the poem:

I am the figure in the landscape

which does not live

unless I move.

On My Empty Feet is divided into three sec­tions. The tone of the first section is set by ‘Figure in the Landscape’, which is one of the strongest poems in the collection. Many of the poems in this section explore the relationship of  the poet to both her external physical environment and her internal mental state.

The second section revolves around a sequence of poems called ‘My Mother and I Become Victims of a Stroke’. In ‘Residues’ McMaster records the way her mother was affected by a stroke:

Her brain is stripped

to its inessentials.

She’s disposed of the gears.

Her mind is full of old shoes

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that don’t fit.

In ‘The Mirror’, the mother’s illness forces the daughter to confront their relationship:

I look into the mirror of my life

and see my mother

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She glares back at me

warningly.

She says, “I’m bitterly disappointed.”

In the final section McMaster recalls her childhood, effectively going back to a time before her mother’s stroke. Balancing the pain in the poems in the second section, the poems here are nostalgic and safe, as in ‘Our Street’:

There I am, aged six, striking home from

school.

I stop to gloat at the crack that grows the

ferns.

At silent number eight the privet hedge

rampages down the side.

On My Empty Feet is a powerful collection. Its strength lies not only in the individual poems but also in the careful way the collection is structured. My one complaint with McMaster is the length of time between collections. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for her fourth.

Tumbling and Balancing – Susan Johnson’s A Big Life

14 Mar

Susan Johnson: A Big Life, Macmillan Australia. Published in Overland 135, Winter 1994.

In many respects, The Big Life is Susan John­son’s ‘big novel’. Published by Macmillan in Australia, it was picked up by Faber in the UK and the US and received some enthusiastic early reviews. While Johnson has established a reputation as one of the more interesting emerg­ing novelists with her first two novels, The Big Life represents a number of important depar­tures for her. It is, for example, her first novel where the central character is male and where most of the novel is set outside Australia.

The novel’s main character, Billy Hayes, is an Australian tumbler who works the variety stages of England during the 1930s and 40s. A Big Life opens with his birth during World War I. The youngest of six children, Billy spends the first few years of his life without his father, who left for the war before his wife knew she was preg­nant. Billy’s mother Sapphire Hayes runs a happy, loving house full of laughter. She feels Billy to be special, if a little fragile: “Out in the open this baby needed all her comfort, for there was something too tender about him”.

Just before Billy turns five his father returns and takes an instant dislike to the son he didn’t realise he had. This dislike grows to hatred when Billy meets the young Chinese acrobat Reg Tsang. Eventually Billy’s father sells him to a tumbling act returning to England. His ‘big life’ really begins on the ship on the way to England. He becomes part of ‘The Wallabies’ with Veron Rome and Connie Connor (who are also his legal guardians). Later he meets and marries Bubbles Drake and leaves ‘The Wallabies’ to set up his own act with Reg Tsang. After the war Billy pro­duces The Hope Show’, briefly capturing the imagination of a war-weary nation. Just as his career appears to have reached its climax, however, Bubbles sues for divorce and for the first time in his life Billy has to deal with failure.

There is a naive simplicity to Billy’s character which is both endearing and infuriating. He has no sense of direction but, like the tumbler he is, always seems to land on his feet. But while Billy may be able to balance perfectly on stage, in real life he is too self-obsessed to consider the feel­ings of those around him. So while he obviously loves Bubbles, he is incapable of reconciling his own desires and ambitions with hers. He is con­tinually demanding more of her and when she finally lets go he overbalances.

In his search for ‘the big life’ Billy lives the life of an exile. At one point he asks, “How had he ended up so far away? Only economics, politics, or disaster were supposed to force people into exile: no one willingly chose it, or at least not ordinary men like himself.” But Billy isn’t really in control of his life: he leaves Australia because his father sells him and he stays in England because nobody arranges for him to return to Australia. Bubbles organises his domestic life and his agent organises his professional life. Billy’s passivity has effectively made him as much of an exile as any refugee.

The impact of A Big Life lies not in the narra­tive of Billy muddling through his life, but in the strength of Johnson’s writing. There is an economy of style which perhaps owes some­thing to her journalistic background. But it is a deceptive economy for, as the narrative pro­gresses, the complexities are building up under the surface. In the same way that Billy can keep tumbling while a depression and a world war unfold around him, the reader can easily find they are being seduced by the carefully under­stated descriptions so that the border between stage and reality begins to blur.

A Big Life is certainly an impressive novel but it is not without flaws. I found Billy’s character to be a little too unsympathetic and, towards the end, I didn’t really care what happened to him. As a result the novel lost some of its impact in the final chapters. Nevertheless, The Big Life is a major achievement which should serve to further enhance Susan Johnson’s reputation.