Winning (he)arts & minds
How perceptions of profitability can lead to a drought in arts funding.
This story starts, as you’d expect, with someone being angry on Facebook. It was 2016, which feels like forever ago (but maybe that’s the Millennial burn-out talking), when I came across this rant about the lack of performing arts space in the proposed redevelopment for the Australian National University’s Union Court. ANU had an Arts Centre on campus, a space which had supported the university’s theatre society, the motley of annual college revues and a range of interhall productions for many years. The Arts Centre was set to be torn down and rebuilt into a swimming pool. Unsurprisingly, the planned destruction of this beloved cultural space became a flashpoint of anger for many.
The #SaveTheArts campaign was launched in March that year and fought for theatre space in the redevelopment, Technically, it succeeded. Wander around the shiny new Kambri Precinct and you’ll find the Cultural Centre, a large, echoing building reminiscent of the Canberra Theatre just down the road. It’s an impressive space. It would be even more impressive if students could actually use it.
Three years after #SaveTheArts was launched, Julia Faragher wrote in Woroni that student societies would not be able to afford the cost of renting the new theatre spaces. While the National University Theatre Society (NUTS) has been subsidised, anyone else seeking to use the Drama Theatre would have to pay $8,400 per week for that privilege. It became apparent that the power was, once again, out of the hands of the people.
This constant drive to generate profit is strangling the artistic sphere.
However, extraneous venue hire costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Australian universities are spiralling into a performing arts drought; funding for the arts has been steadily dropping over the past decade, putting further pressure on universities to prioritise areas which yield greater profit. In 2018, Liberal senator Simon Birmingham rejected eleven Australian Research Council (ARC) grants totaling $4.2 million, tweeting that he was “pretty sure most Australian taxpayers preferred their funding to be used for research other than spending $223,000 on projects like “Post orientalist arts of the Strait of Gibraltar.” It is this fundamental undermining of the arts, both at social and academic levels, which Flinders’ University’s Julian Meyrick argues is a sign of the country’s continuing commitment to a specifically profit-driven mentality.
This constant drive to generate profit is strangling the artistic sphere. Even in the media that we consume, creativity and experimentation are undermined – when was the last time you saw an original film that wasn’t a remake or a sequel? It’s not as if new artistic endeavors aren’t profitable – Jordan Peele’s Us raked in $70 million in the United States on its opening weekend – but there’s always a risk that they won’t be. The irony of this profit-driven mentality is that it pushes for entrepreneurialism and all its dare-devil attributes but is terrified of risk.
British sociologist Anthony Giddens notes that concerns regarding risk are a distinctly modern concept; in the premodern era, unfortunate outcomes were blamed on the gods, or nature, rather than the individual. It was with the advent of Western industrialism that we started thinking about what we could do to prevent certain undesired outcomes. What developed through the 19th and 20th centuries was risk society: a social structure which is unerringly stuck with its head in the future and its body in the present. While there are advantages to this way of thinking, such as vaccines, there’s also a massive amount of discourse that follows. In the case of the arts, risk society restricts freedom of experimentation as it fears failure.
There’s no easy way to say that we’re killing our darlings.
It’s this risk society that prevented Simon Birmingham from granting funds to the ARC. It’s risk society that limits the accessibility of theatre spaces at ANU. And it is risk society that’s slowly running the arts out of universities altogether.
There’s no easy way to say that we’re killing our darlings. The funds that could have gone to various arts programs are probably out there now in STEM, solving real, concrete problems that affect the daily lives of thousands. Maybe Birmingham is right, and Australians would prefer their tax dollars being funneled into more proactive areas. But when I hear that, I remember when I was assistant director for a university production last year. I remember the frustration and miscommunication that came from working with a group of strangers, and how I learnt to work with that. I remember suggesting something to an actor and having them actually listen to me, and how good that felt. I remember how the risk paid off, though it wasn’t the outcome I anticipated or even wanted – it was what I needed.
This story ends, as you’d expect, with someone being angry on Facebook. It’s me this time, reaching through the depths of your newsfeed and waving a bloody big flag over a problem that a lot of other people have been angry about, too. Yes, this article will probably end up as another voice in the wind, saying something you just don’t have the energy to care about – but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.