The case for the major performing arts framework

Tim Walter (Mark), Paul Blackwell (Bob), and Eugenia Fragos (Fran) in the global premiere of Andrew Bovell’s new play Things I Know To Be True Photograph: Shane ReidYaron Lifschitz is partly right. He is asking the right question but focussing on the wrong answer. There has been a lot of upheaval and distrust in the Arts sector being born of disappointment, marginalisation and divides across financial, social, art form and art funding lines. But tearing down a structure that is proven to work does not help anyone and, in a whole of sector sense, would be very damaging.

How do we cope with an uncertain future? The available road maps offer few navigational certainties and the sense of danger and fragility has intensified. This question is not limited to the arts. They are being asked in business, in schools, in health networks and, while the terms ‘agility’ and ‘innovation’ have carriage, how do we collectively advance our future beyond this?

Can we lower our guards and interrogate value beyond our own viewpoints and interests? If we want a stronger future we have to. Yaron refers to dangerous questions, but is it a greater danger not to ask them? He outlines how ingenuity and risk taking has built Circa to where it is today and proffers the idea of opening up the MPA ‘fund’ for contestability.

Circa’s story is exciting and inspirational and the company has been rewarded for success with Catalyst project funding, international touring funding, three year national touring status and four year Australia Council funding. Is this support enough for them to survive? Probably. Is it enough for them to thrive? Maybe. Could they do more with more support? Absolutely.

Risk is part of the Arts’ ‘toolkit’. It’s wrapped within a bag of uncertainty and instability, but increasing the level of risk for the whole sector is not the answer.

The MPA Framework is a story told in 28 parts and of course there have been successes and challenges. To make sense of the challenges we must separate the issues. What does the MPA framework offer, do we have the right mix of companies, what is missing in the framework and how is it optimised for the sector and public good.

The boom bust rollercoaster of the large performing arts organisations in the 90s strained political support, overwhelmed contestable grant programs and undermined the sector as a whole. It is a warning of the disarray and chaos that can prevail.

The stability created in the MPA framework should not be confused with complacency. The MPAs also rely heavily on earned income and work to balance this need with access and market failure. Predictable funding certainty enables greater capacity to leverage and to plan. This learning further affirmed by the insights from the six year community art funding initiative also informed the Australia Council’s plan for its six year funding program for the small to medium sector. It has been proved again through the National Touring Status initiative, where efficiencies and additional leveraging were possible because it provided companies with multiyear funding certainty.

The MPA Framework currently consists of 28 individual tripartite agreements negotiated between Federal and State government and the companies. They each incorporate specific KPIs. There is no central or singular fund. There are mechanisms available to governments to remove companies, just as there are to add new companies. Given the growth of Australia’s arts and cultural environment over the last 20 years why aren’t there new companies? There is no magic around the number 28.

That the MPAs were not cut last year is a credit to this framework that limits individual governments’ capacity to make quick political or fiscal cuts. In the wake of change elsewhere, this framework offers structural assets and soft infrastructure for the sector that we must continually work to optimise. The defunding of an MPA company will not guarantee a release of those funds to the sector.

The 2015 MPA group turnover was just over half a billion dollars, leveraging on average $2 for every public dollar invested. Some MPAs’ government levels of investment hover at around 10% of total turnover, others closer to 50%, and in some instances the value of rent or payroll paid by the company back to the state is about the same value as the state investment in the company.

The MPAs’ main focus is to perform and engage within Australia – onstage and through performance broadcasts as well as education programs and workshops, but many also engage in strategic international activities.

For example State Theatre Company of South Australia’s co- production with UK’s Frantic Assembly Things I Know To Be True has just completed a UK season with virtually all performances having sold out and eliciting standing ovations. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Present is previewing on Broadway in two weeks’ time with a full season running until mid-March and Bangarra debuted at one of the world’s most renowned dance festivals, Fall for Dance, in that same city earlier this year. Sydney Symphony Orchestra has forged incredibly important strategic cultural diplomatic ties in China, while earlier this year, West Australian Symphony Orchestra was the first Australian major performing arts company to tour to the United Arab Emirates, and Australia’s first representation at the prestigious Beijing Music Festival.

Many of the MPA companies such as Musica Viva and Malthouse work with smaller arts organisations in the creation and performance of their work. It’s core business. They, along with many other MPAs are also mentoring emerging artists and providing fellowships, residencies and attachments. Belvoir is working with a number of smaller performing arts companies to enable them to present larger scale work; the Queensland Symphony’s partnership with the Camerata of St John’s began with the provision of studio space and is developing into other practical operational support. Blue Roo gained greater stability in their own funding following collaborations with Opera Queensland and the New Breed showcase performed last week supporting emerging choreographers was facilitated and funded by the Sydney Dance Company with critical philanthropic support. This is support that these individual artists would struggle to access and leverage on their own.

Every MPA has multiple stories of working with artists and creatives from outside their ‘walls’, commissioning new work and providing professional opportunities and development for talented artists as well as drawing close their creative vibrancy and insight. In 2015 the MPAs employed 10,900 artists, creatives and arts workers – a growth of 47 % since 2012 with wages consistently making up around 58% of total expenditure. A significantly greater proportion of MPA earnings are spent on artists and creatives than the sums received from government. For example, Sydney Theatre Company’s 2015 annual report states “146% of base funding is spent on actors’ and creatives’ wages”.

Building audiences is something the MPAs are doing well. As the Live Performing Arts Ticketing Survey for 2015 demonstrates, MPAs’ increased ticket sales went against the downward trend experienced across the sector as a whole. But the sector’s needs and value should not be reduced to raw numbers alone.

The MPAs offer soft infrastructure, establish art form bases, ongoing presence in the market, ensure capacity for set building, props, space, facilitation, as well as their people. In turn they need to draw close to the incredible creative talent and experimentation from the broader sector. This symbiosis is essential.

Certainty and capacity improve outcomes. The collective impact of the MPAs is inarguably valuable. They are not there to compete with the rest of the sector but nor can they stand alone. They are part of one very complex and diverse performing arts sector.

The frustration, anger and disappointment triggered by the disruptions to arts funding are now matched with despondency. As Yaron says ‘it is hard to hope’. Governments say there is no more money but it’s simply not true. Governments find funds for things they want to do and for industries they want to support. The question we must ask is why not the Arts?

Greater long-term stable government investment for creative, dynamic performing arts companies and artists linked to high expectations would facilitate a multitude of valuable public good.

The pie is too small and increased government investment, as well as other forms of creative enterprise, can not only facilitate additional activity in the arts for their own value, they can activate collaboration across economic and social challenges delivering better outcomes for Australia. Public policies can advance or hinder such growth.

However, the political will and capacity waivers, the times are volatile, politicians are more fragile than agile. Joining the dots between creativity and innovation and the arts still has a way to go and we must work with what we have, maximising the impact of government support and earned income. Collectively, we nurture the art forms, our artists and our future.

No question is too dangerous. It’s how we choose to explore the answers that can make or break us. Evolution rather than revolution offers us the capacity to build trust, insight and innovation in the sector and to carry forward our artists, audiences and supporters.

Read Yaron Lifschitz’s original article in the Daily Review

The case for the major performing arts framework
John Irving, Chair – Australian Major Performing Arts Group

This article was originally published on the AMPAG website.

Image: Tim Walter, Paul Blackwell and Eugenia Fragos feature in Things I Know To Be True – photo by Shane Reid