By Jake Amy and Hugh Heller
Following the postponement of Phantom, Opera Australia has been allocated $4 million from the Federal Government's COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund to help the company get back on its feet after its box office revenue was decimated by the pandemic. Whilst any cash injection into the arts is vitally important, Opera Australia have once again exercised their stranglehold on major arts funding which exposes a severe inequity in favour of centuries old European classical music over other artforms that are more representative of Australia’s modern population. As ticket prices for OA’s presentation of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ soar inaccessibly into the hundreds (a commercial music theatre hit written by a British billionaire), one can only hope that the latest funding trickles down to the artists who desperately need it.
Last year I chatted with Australian singer-songwriter Katie Noonan about arts funding and she described how major arts organisations continue to perpetuate white European ideologies. Katie thinks Australian arts funding should be spent supporting Australian artists and especially promoting music made by First Nations Australians.
For years I’ve been concerned about the funding construct that exists for the arts in Australia. I’m particularly concerned about the lack of focus on Australian content and a lack of focus of telling First Nations stories. I think COVID-19 has exposed one of the many problems of major performing arts organisations in Australia - a lot of these organisations employ more administrative staff than they do artists. I want to know that the artists who these arts companies rely on for their intellectual property and incredible world-class musicianship are the first priority of the company - not the CEO or the CFO - they’re important but they simply could not exist without the artists themselves.
I’ve been lucky enough to work at a taxpayer-funded festival. Basically, their core funding allowed them to exist as a company - pay their directors, basic staff and have an office. It’s hard to think that those people have probably continued their full salary while the artists whose work they rely on and benefit from are all struggling to feed their families during this pandemic.
I need to mention that I absolutely adore orchestras and opera. But I also love rock music, jazz music and punk music. I don’t believe one particular style of music is more important, more significant or more meaningful than any other. That being said, where funding is spent has exposed the severe inequity between classical and non-classical musicians. For me, a big band is just as important as an orchestra - the only difference between a big band and an orchestra is that the former is a newer artform and doesn’t have centuries of tradition behind it to legitimise its existence.
Today, we live in a capitalist society and a lot of Australia’s structures are copied from Europe. We have orchestras and operas because that’s what “civilised cultures” do. These ideas are centuries old. The reason we listen to Bach is because Bach is amazing, but we need to remember that the majority of the composers of opera and orchestral music are old, dead, white European men. If we keep supporting these types of artists then we’re not going to hear our own stories and sounds, nor see anything close to gender parity in our major music bodies.
We need to question how many people attend the opera? And what demographic? Is the level of federal investment justified? Is the opera still a relevant art form that needs to be subsidised to the level that it is, or do these funding constructs need to evolve with the times? Do funding constructs need to bring in more young blood genres like pop, rock, cabaret and jazz to rejuvenate, excite and inspire this music artform and to create more work for different people from different walks of life?
Also, if performing arts organisations are going to be funded by my taxpayer dollar, then I want to see and hear Australian stories. Idealistically, I want to see 50% of federal government funding supporting Australian-made content. This must include First Nations artists and include a plan for gender parity.
It goes without saying that artistic excellence should always be the primary deciding factor above all else, but unless you instil legislated quotas, I fear nothing will change.
Now is the time to show cultural leadership and advocacy that will have a long-term impact on our industry. This catastrophic pandemic has destroyed the livelihoods of so many brilliant artists, and what a better time to preserve and protect the intellectual property of our Australian stories and sounds than now.
For example, my own state’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra is federally funded to the tune of about 50%. If that beautiful orchestra with beautiful music played by beautiful musicians wants to continue to be subsidised that much, I think it’s only fair we see a fair portion of Australian stories and sounds in their repertoire.
I do applaud the federal government’s package - something is better than nothing of course, and we must give credit to Minister Paul Fletcher where it’s due - he listened to the sector and reacted. I just really hope it can trickle down to the artists who desperately need it.
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.