Blanche d’Alpuget turned to me from across the theatre aisle in disbelief. At the end of the performance of Tartuffe, the director, Don Mamouney, announced the disbanding of Canberra’s short lived revival of the Fortune Theatre Company. Earlier that day the Arts Development Board sub committee discussed with Mamouney its likely recommendation that there would be no funding for the company in 1988. This intention had not even been discussed or brought to the complete Arts Development Board. Hence, Blanche, as a member of a different sub committee, had no idea about such a recommendation.

Whether it was the alcohol, or a feeling of betrayal or vanity, Mamouney stepped forward after the actors took their bow. He boldly announced that it was to be the final performance of the company. So it was news to the actors, stage crew, the audience and even members of the funding body who were present. There was an underlying assumption that the funding body was the benefactor that was supposed to look after the company. It was seen as derelict in its duty. This moment draws into light a key point about the relationship between the arts and public funding.

The funding body was blamed for the failure of The Fortune Theatre Company. Fortune was in financial difficulties which made it impossible to maintain its initial commitments and obligations. The Arts Development Board sub committee recommended a withdrawal of support for the 1988 program of activity. However, Fortune was unable to continue its commitment to the second half of its funded 1987 program. Funding bodies can become excuses for failure when individuals and organizations have not adequately taken responsibility for their own producership.

ARTS AS WELFARE

Artists and arts organizations are “clients” in much the same way as welfare recipients are clients. So this makes the arts a problem for a benevolent state. The result can be arts attuned to the dictates and criteria of its financial master, the state. It reinforces the “welfare” similarity basis of arts funding. Artists as victims and the welfare basis of funding perpetuate the relationship between the State’s funding authorities and the artists. Yet, both critics and advocates of the State system of arts funding still ascribe a “leadership” role for the state in arts practices. Therefore, in the typical logic of a crude Marxist ideology, there is an assumption that by gaining control of the state instrumentality for funding the arts, some kind of arts ideal will be implemented; cultural policies articulated; and best arts practices resulting. But this thinking is seriously flawed.

PEER ASSESSMENT?

The key component of this argument is that “peer assessment” ensures arms length funding decisions. This should result in fair and reasonable allocations. “Peer assessment” is supposed to prevent political nepotism. It should provide a sounding board and representation for artists and groups applying for funds. It sounds good. But the problem is clear. The process is essentially “peer assessment” for the State agenda. It is not for the arts. Peer assessment is not to ensure best arts practices. It is an insurance for purposes of accountability. Semantic justification is more significant than actual achievement in the arts. But to provide this justification, it is crucial to achieve the necessary intellectual framework or architecture. This provides a means to measure and prioritize various competing arts activities and programs. Artists and arts advocates are then co-opted into the process whereby this measurement takes place.

SOUNDING VERY DEMOCRATIC

Now this all sounds very democratic. But there is a very definite flaw in this peer assessment and input strategy. Co-opted artists and cultural advocates become components of a state apparatus coming to exhibit loyalty to a new group. To function effectively, such groups maintain a level of confidentiality and bonding so as to protect the integrity of the group. Being effective in such group structures is no easy task. The skills necessary for achievement within the cohesive structures of group dynamics are of a very highly developed nature. Those more likely to exhibit such skills are lobbyists and social or issue activists, public relations people, psychologists, lawyers, those in management positions etc. The reforming individual, artist or idealist is heard to be complaining of an inability to achieve things.

We often used to hear:

  • “Why does it have to be so bureaucratic?”
    or
  • “I’m not happy with some of the decisions but I can’t see any alternative,”
    or
  • “I feel powerless to do much. But I feel it’s better to be in there trying and putting forward an alternative view.”

DECEPTIVE PROCESS OF ARTS FUNDING

Members, whether artists or bureaucrats, become peers in a different sense to how it is normally understood. When co-opted to a funding body, one’s peers now become other members of this group. So when we are speaking about “peer assessment” we are speaking about a deceptive process. “Peer assessment” now applies to that assessment which takes place within the context, new demands, objectives and dynamics of this new group: That group being the instrument of the State’s funding apparatus.

One is NOT a peer of the arts. In effect, one becomes split with different loyalties. In reality, funding decision making only needs to be responsive to the demands and criteria of the State’s apparatus. Provided care is taken within this framework, the assessor’s integrity is covered and one’s responsibilities are discharged. The careful construction of minutes of all the group’s deliberations and the matching of proposals to the constructed criteria are the two essential safeguards on one’s accountability. With threats of lawsuits and unpleasant media coverage or ministerial inquiry abounding, such procedures become very important.

In this context, applicants for financial support from the State’s funding apparatus are certainly not viewed as peers. They are viewed as clients; sometimes assuming the role as a problem.

THE PRODUCERSHIP ALTERNATIVE

An alternative plausible basis for public funding of the arts lies in reversing the client relationship with the state. This needs to involve:

  1. A greater emphasis placed on the discipline of “PRODUCERSHIP”, as distinct from artistic direction, management or administration
  1. The welfare basis for funding needs to be revised, where possible, in favour of INFRASTRUCTURE SUPPORT.

While such a strategy does not preclude direct Government initiated arts in welfare programs it structurally removes key areas of decision making and assessment of artistic plausibility from the State instrumentality. PRODUCERSHIP directly links decision making with the responsibility for achievement and progress.

HOW IT MIGHT WORK

Now it is not always so clear as to just what constitutes producership or a producer. And this is where the arts need to spend time on definition. David O. Selznick, the famed producer of “Gone With The Wind” said in 1957: “My conception of the producer’s role is that it is similar to being the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor oversees every detail and interprets as he sees fit. I am a perfectionist. My sights are set high. But I’ve found that most people have to be forced into raising their sights.”

The most significant point of the Producer’s role is that of responsibility from beginning to end. It involves seeing the product or service in multifarious terms and being aware of influential factors from both within the realm of the work and from external forces. Some might also point to the producer’s educative and advocacy roles. Recent developments suggest a movement in this direction (eg. a move to triennial funding) though essentially, companies are still recipients of grants rather than contractors receiving payment for producership and with the rise of festivals and organizations responsible for producing them.

POWER WITHOUT RESPONSIBILITY

While ideologists from both the left and the right will lament a degree of loss in state control over the arts, can it really be argued that state appointed committees are in a better position to judge the potential of an arts product or service than a dedicated and professional producer with a vested interest in its success? The responsibility of the state appointed committee to the project is virtually completed once a funding recommendation is made. Provided correct procedures have been followed, that’s it! Responsibility is finished. It’s a case of political power without responsibility to the arts.

Over a period of decades, thousands of hit and miss funding decisions have been made by these state appointed committees, while boasting some of the best artists as members. While no doubt there have been many successes, the net result has been to restrict the relationship between funded artist and the state to one of benevolent subservience.

INFRASTRUCTURE FUNDING

To better utilize the peer assessment process from within the art forms, what is needed is a greater degree of INFRASTRUCTURE funding rather than direct arts funding. A strong infrastructure has its own built-in peer assessment procedures based on professional and art form needs. In by-passing this through direct “project” funding, government instrumentalities undermine and subvert the very things they claim to support. It results in funding for failure. For instance, a mediocre writer with a strong flair for sociological semantics may prepare a funding application which appeals to the categories and terms of reference for the funding body. Should a grant be made to this writer? It is easier to lobby a funding sub committee for some financial remuneration than it is to influence a publisher or producer to accept one’s work.

TENDERING PROCESS

Ideally, the State would serve cultural and artistic needs best by avoiding any direct arts funding at all. This would circumvent the difficult area of deciding what is art or culture worthy of support. By directing funding into INFRASTRUCTURAL DEVELOPMENT and needs, the quality of arts products and services are determined by dynamics from within the producership process itself. States need to set clearly defined areas of intervention and support within the arts (remembering that only a relatively small section of arts activity is actually supported by the state). Once having done this, tenders could be called from prospective PRODUCERS for programs of arts development. This would include significant budgets for the costing and payments necessary for arts activity. However, decision making and follow-through would be the responsibility of the various Producership organizations.

There is much to be gained by firstly accepting the principle of a change from the Welfare style base. Why not focus on professional engagement and so reversing the beggar benefactor relationship?

NEW DYNAMICS WITHIN ARTFORMS

New relationships require internal change within the arts as to how artistic activity, products and services were organized and structured. Old models of organization, including the very concept and nature of a theatre company, might need to be re-evaluated. More flexible producership ranging across media and utilizing the technology of greater communication and flexibility might well enable more focus on artistic creation and less on maintaining power structures within rival units.

While such consideration is beyond the scope of this debate, it should be recognized that unless power and responsibility for the future of arts practices are taken into the hands of the arts themselves, such power will continue to be usurped by interested others with semantic dexterity and vested interests in controlling the state’s mechanism of financial distribution. The inherent caution, conservatism and the sublimating of artistic concerns to other community or cultural concerns that accompany such organization are guarantied to keep the publicly funded arts in a subservient and welfare relationship to the state.

PROFESSIONAL CONCENTRATION ON PRODUCERSHIP

To blame the State for failure of an arts program is only buying into the subservience of the arts to State instrumentalities: reinforcing the “victim” perception and arts funding as welfare. What is required is a professional concentration on new “PRODUCERSHIP” and reorganization within the arts. Strength lies in the power to negotiate with the state and to control the resources to bring arts products and services to fruition.

 

Joe Woodward The bulk of this article was written in 1994 and published in Theatre Australia. Unfortunately, much of it is still relevant. Joe Woodward was Chair of the Performing Arts Committee of the Arts Development Board (ACT), the Territory’s funding body for the arts, in 1988/89.