Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack on cuts to arts funding in Australia and the significance of art and culture in our lives. By Karen Middleton.

Belvoir’s Eamon Flack on why the arts matter

Belvoir’s Eamon Flack.
Belvoir’s Eamon Flack.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Karen Middleton I thought we could start with the dirtiest word in the arts, and that’s “money”. We saw federal arts funding cuts via the Australia Council – I think $100 million or so disappeared after the 2015 budget. Some of that was restored, but we still saw a diminution in arts funding. How do you think the arts sector handled those cuts?

Eamon Flack It depends which part of the arts community you’re talking about, I think. Those cuts were applied to the Australia Council – they came out of nowhere – and a group of companies were ring-fenced from those cuts. They’re called the Major Performing Arts Companies, and Belvoir is one of those 28 companies. And those 28 companies, as a group, in the immediate aftermath of that blow didn’t speak out. I was working for one – I wasn’t the artistic director at that point – and there was a decision made among those companies at a pretty high level not to speak out and I think that that was a mistake. Those companies lobbied behind the scenes very well, very effectively in the end, but publicly I think we were seen to abandon a lot of our peers.

In the theatre sector especially, the division between major companies and small companies is rubbish. Everybody works together; we’re nothing without anyone else. And I think that the feeling of abandonment was really damaging to our companies’ reputations and with our relationships to the smaller companies. I wish it hadn’t happened.

KM Why did it happen? Why did those bigger groups decide not to speak out?

EF I don’t quite know the answer.

KM Has that had a lasting impact on relationships in your part of the sector?

EF Maybe in the last couple of months there’s a sense that perhaps there’s been some restoration of trust. That is somewhat the result of some of those funds being restored. But also in the last round of announcements of the effects of those cuts, the major companies did speak out on behalf of the smaller companies. But the damage remains to be seen, and that’s sort of the scariest thing in some ways.

KM To what do you attribute the partial restoration? Was that lobbying on behalf of the arts community or did the federal government think maybe we’ve not handled this well?

EF It was definitely lobbying on the part of the arts community, I think. Without a doubt. There was a change of minister and the new minister came in and I think did a very good political job of re-establishing relations with a lot of arts organisations, and seemingly managed the internal machinations of restoring quite a bit of that funding to the Australia Council as an independent agency. But not all of the funding went back, and what hasn’t been talked about effectively yet is the fact that those cuts set us back a decade and we were a decade behind as it was culturally in this country, and so it’s not really a victory in some ways.

KM Were you automatically forced into a position where you had to think about whether a show was complying with government desires or running counter to them?

EF We didn’t at Belvoir, because we were part of these 28 organisations … but we did because we’re nothing without the other organisations, and I mean that very much literally. Suddenly there was a sense that there was some kind of unarticulated official policy about what constituted art in this country, and what didn’t. And I don’t think that’s what [then arts minister] Senator Brandis intended, but it was a consequence of that decision.

KM What role should government have in funding the arts? Should we assume that government has an obligation to fund them? Or should we say they should turn to the private sector? Where is the balance?

EF It depends whether the government wants to have a self-respecting modern democracy or not. And if you don’t, then sure, get out of arts funding, give away the public good, by all means. But if you want to remain a self-respecting, national democracy, then you fund the arts. It’s very simple. That’s been the case since the ideas of states were invented. From the very, very earliest – I’m talking thousands and thousands of years ago – that nexus doesn’t break. I think the role of government is to develop good policy, and to support the independent agencies, and then have the expertise to listen to that agency and support that agency so it can properly deliver an ambitious, robust vision of the country, which includes everybody.

KM In Australia, the sector is becoming increasingly reliant on philanthropic donations. Do you think that trajectory is inevitable?

EF No, I think there’s nothing inevitable about any of these questions. To accept that government will get out of publicly funding the arts, and philanthropy will take over is to accept that art is for some people and not everybody. But also, there is already a massive shift towards how much private money needs to be raised.

I’m going to give a lot of examples from Belvoir, because that is what I know best, but last year for the first time the amount of private support that we raised equalled the amount of public funding that we received, which is to say 20 per cent, which is also to say $2 million. It’s a huge sum of money. And that is a result of an ongoing funding squeeze. It’s also because costs grow. It’s also because if you want nowadays to do anything artistically ambitious, you need to find special support outside of your regular activities.

KM And how much of that money has strings attached? Does it have strings attached as government money may,
or not?

EF No, it’s oddly freer. I have to go to more lunches, which sounds like a mild price to pay, but it does change the sense of who you’re doing it for. You’ve got to be careful to keep thinking about that.

KM Are there models overseas that you would look to for public funding in the Australian arts sector as examples where we could improve?

EF As soon as you start talking about funding in Europe and the UK you feel like you’re going to lose an argument in the arts in Australia, but there is no doubt that the higher levels of funding in the United Kingdom mean that the arts are much more a part of the fabric of that country’s life. They’re much more a part of that country’s international reputation. It also means that the arts in the UK are much more representative of the country than they are here, and I mean that demographically.

KM So maybe there’s a difference in where we see the arts in our communities?

EF I expect so. It’s interesting, because Australians are massive arts-goers.

KM We keep seeing those surveys about art galleries and sport contests...

EF It’s huge.

KM So let’s go to the broad question. What role do you think the arts have in this country?

EF I was just upstairs before, I had 15 minutes to kill and I just went and stared very closely at a painting and I was looking at the brushstrokes and thinking how much technique and craft goes into that – and we love that. As soon as someone plays a chord on a piano, something happens to us. So there’s that. The sheer human achievement of some clarity and form. That’s the thing that everyone hungers for in art.

The second thing I think is – it’s a very modern function, but it’s also a very ancient function – to create a sense of imagined community among people who don’t know each other. As soon as a large enough group of people gather there’s going to be enough variety and fear and threat of ideas for there to be danger. And one of the ways, one of the techniques that humans invented to overcome that, was the technique of story, story above everything in many ways, and of image. In a country like Australia where there has been massive migration over the last decade, the notion of how to create an emerging and changing and dynamic story is, I think, increasingly, a very hot political issue. That problem oughtn’t be solved by politics alone or by legislation. It’s solved by the collective understanding that we can arrive at. It can be solved by the sum total of all artistic and cultural undertakings, and I think that’s a really crucial function, the sense of imagined community. So there’s a social function in there, which I think is absolutely essential.

Then I think there’s a third function: W. E. H. Stanner, a great anthropologist in the Northern Territory, would talk about the “jollifying humdrum” of Yolngu life and how much art existed in Yolngu life, and I do think one of the fundamental purposes of the arts is to provide some sense of enjoyment, of pleasure, of structuring the time and shape of our lives. There’s a deep philosophical purpose. No society ever lives without those things.


This is an edited transcript from A Month of Saturdays at the National Gallery of Australia. This week: Mick Dodson, AM, at the National Museum of Australia, 2pm, September 30.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2017 as "The deal of the art".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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