The art of adaption: Keeping the arts afloat in stormy economic times

17 10 2009

Image: Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig

It seems that the arts are flourishing in the midst of these gloomy economic times. In a very interesting article published in today’s Age, Raymond Gill looks at the reasons behind the booming arts scene, and attributes it to programming decisions which have favoured ‘safe’, populist productions featuring stars who have household name recognition. Not surprisingly, this combination has proven to be extremely successful. Hello, Salvador Dali.

It’s not uncommon to hear voiced the opinion that populist programming is somehow a sell-out, and that it causes a dumbing-down of the arts which alienates loyal audiences who have a preference for more challenging productions or exhibitions. But in the absence of indexed government subsidies, what are arts companies to do to keep the lights on? Why wouldn’t you stage a Gilbert and Sullivan show starring perennial favourites Anthony Warlow and Lisa McCune if it will guarantee bums on seats, and allow you to subsidise the production of more challenging, less popular works?

Then there’s the question of access and diversifying audiences. Art galleries, live theatre and dance venues, and orchestral and operatic performance spaces can be terrifying and intimidating places. Who amongst you hasn’t been in the position of wishing the plush red carpet would open up beneath your feet and swallow you whole, to divert the disapproving glares from those around you as you attempt to suppress a coughing fit, or quieten an overly jingly-jangly piece of jewellery in the midst of a monologue? Even though I’ve been an enthusiastic audience member  for all things arty for decades, many are the times that I’ve cursed my choice of clattery stiletto at an opening in a cavernous, hushed white cube, or wished I’d rethought my second-act choice of snack – the enticing chocolate-sodden almonds mocking me from inside an impossibly crackly cellophane bag.

How much worse must it be for people who have little or no exposure to the arts? Arts education in the Australian government school sector has all but disappeared. Unless they’re lucky enough to grow up in a household where they’ve been immersed in the arts from a very young age, it’s likely that kids of the future will have little if anything to do with the high arts. Until relatively recently most school students studied music, art and theatre at some point during their education. Whether you loved it or hated it at the time, this exposure introduces people to the lexicon – gives them a passport and permission to partake in the arts if they wish. Without some grounding or background in the arts, it’s not even that people will find performances or exhibitions incomprehensible… they won’t even know to look for them in the first place.

And so we have Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig performing on Broadway to sell-out crowds in ‘A Steady Rain’. Although the production has only attracted lukewarm reviews, you’d have more chance of being invited to the Obama’s for morning tea than you would have of securing a ticket.

If the promise of seeing James Bond and Wolverine performing in the flesh entices people into the theatre who would otherwise rather watch paint dry than see a live theatrical performance, then surely that must be a good thing. Particularly if some of them enjoy themselves so much that they become converts for life. Or even if they just become receptive to the idea of the arts as an accessible and enjoyable past-time.

(Image: Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman at the curtain call for ‘A Steady Rain’. By Evan Agostini, AP, via


Obamania: Looking after the arts end of town

5 03 2009

So, the party’s over. Balloons – deflated. Champagne – what’s left is flat and lukewarm.

As for your memories of last night? Last night. Euphoria and ecstasy. Now tempered by the unforgiving light of day. Snoring, morning-after death-breath and crusty detritus of sleep deposited at the corner of eyes that last night looked so enticing. Destiny, that mesmerising vixen, was at the steering wheel. And now she’s left you, standing at the side of the road, future unknown.

Ah, Obama. Recipient of the most poisoned chalice in recent history. And yet? He ploughs on. Most importantly, he’s looking after the arts. 

As part of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) have been handed $50m in funding to distribute to not-for-profit arts bodies. Democratic Congressman David Obey, bless him, sponsored the bill, saying: “There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment—or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”  Artists treated as ordinary citizens with a right to enjoy a reasonable standard of living? Unheard of.

This despite the objections of Senator Tom Coburn, who sought to prevent funding distribution to: “wasteful and non-stimulative” projects, including museums, theatres and art centres, and “any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool”. Dude obviously hasn’t been attending the right casinos or aquariums. Or swimming pools, for that matter. Stimulation right out the wazoo, if you know where to look.

And if ever you were in any doubt that the best guy won – Arizona Senator and failed Presidential candidate, John McCain, described the NEA funding as “hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary spending that will not do anything to stimulate the economy”. Can you see Alaska from your house, Senator McCain?