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The art of independence

By Zane Trow - posted Thursday, 4 June 2009

Australian culture is in constant fear of its own independence. I’ve been researching the history of Australia’s arts centres, and it’s an interesting story of twisted power and imperial conditioning. Nearly every single arts centre in Australia is directly run by government.

Most arts centre staff are on standard bureaucratic contracts and if they even have Boards of Governors those Board members will be directly appointed by state or local governments or subject to the approval of one kind of government or another. This is also true of most regional galleries and of course the larger galleries like the National Gallery of Vicotria or the Art Gallery of New South Wales and other state galleries, and the National Gallery, although what I am specifically looking at now is the performing arts sector. Most of the larger buildings are what is known as “statutory authorities”, slightly to one side of but very much part of, the government. The vast majority of regional performing arts centres of all shapes and sizes are directly owned and run by the local government of their region.

It seems obvious to me that if you are part of a government it is going to be (not impossible but) very difficult for you to do anything that falls outside the policies of the day.


Consequently, responding quickly to shifts in contemporary or local culture - by programming particular artists, shows or exhibitions, or setting up new programs that might seek to examine new forms of emerging art or culture, or reaching out to wider audiences - will rely almost entirely on keeping the Minister or the Lord Mayor happy. Actual industry based skills and experience as an artistic director are a hindrance, not an advantage. Very, very few performing arts centres have an “artistic director”. They have “managers”.

These “civic arts centre” managers are totally swamped in administrivia. They spend hours of each day filling in forms and writing reports about everything from the window frames to the toilets. They have to attend an awful lot of meetings with other bureaucrats, many of whom are far more important than they are, paid far more than they are and who will therefore naturally assume that they “know” more than someone on a lower salary code. So anything presented to them about, say, a new programming initiative will be strategically ignored or forced to change irrevocably to comply with current policies.

Arts centre managers are also often locked into certain government competitive tendering policies and enterprise bargaining agreements, so very often the ability to hire the right people at the right time - quickly - for the right price (to do virtually anything) is, again, not impossible but complicated and difficult.

They are also often stuck with certain lines of fundraising and business development; they can’t run a marketing campaign that might be appropriate for a particular community or demographic because they are often stuck with council or government corporate design. Very often a certain source of funds will be out of reach because the Lord Mayor happens not to want to be associated with that corporation, business or philanthropic trust this week. All of this I know well from direct experience, I do not make this stuff up.

Perhaps most crucially the civic arts centres are never going to be seen as part of the community. They are at a governmental distance from community. However much they try and listen to “what the audience wants” or “the voice of your community”, unless it lines up with the Minister or Lord Mayor’s vision they are in serious trouble. And if they step out of line too far (they are “that mad arts centre manager” so they’ll get away with it for a while) they’ll just be re-structured out of existence.

When it comes to the performances and the art staged in these centres then, these “managers” don’t have a great deal of waged time left to think about it, and they don’t have much room to move in terms of form, style or genre. It gets increasingly easier just to take what’s on offer. And most of what’s on offer is what has been funded to tour by (yes you guessed it) government. So it has also been through a huge process of administrivia which has filtered out anything too interesting, difficult or challenging and has, through a process of natural bureaucratic selection, created a national touring circuit which takes the gong for one of the most boring in the world.


And we wonder why nobody in the regions goes to the theatre.

And the buildings themselves? Awful.

Designed by architects who have managed to keep the Minister or the Lord Mayor happy; the process of design selection has often been run by those more senior bureaucrats we mentioned earlier, and not by an artistic director or a curator or by the community that might end up using the building.

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About the Author

Zane Trow is currently the Chairman of Multimedia Arts Asia Pacific and has so far avoided Board Connect by travelling incognito and throwing away his mobile phone; but he doesn’t know how long he can hold out before he gets a late night visit from the art police. Trow is an Associate Professor of Performance Studies at QUT.

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