Business and arts leaders pose creative ways to boost WA culture and the economy but Mark Naglazas finds it is a fraught path to success.
The arts and business communities have long been locked in a marriage of convenience. The impoverished bride is happy to walk down the aisle with any almost suitor with desire for a bit of culture so long as they have deep pockets; the cashed-up groom, on the other hand, is elevated in everyone’s eyes by the class act at their side.
The two communities engaged in a public courting ritual at the Hyatt on Tuesday morning (or, more accurately, a round of speed dating) during a breakfast hosted by Business News and ScreenWest and presided over by the Marriage Broker-in-Chief, Culture and Arts Minister David Templeman.
Interestingly, the minister and other members of the creative community on the panel did not focus on their need for money but came out fighting, reminding their cousins in the business sector they are a major contributor to the Australian economy, especially when it comes to attracting tourists. It was more of a case of you need us more that we need you.
“We know that visitors to Australia now are more likely to engage with arts and culture than they are to visit wineries, casinos or even attend sporting events. We need to maximise that opportunity,” said Mr Templeman, suggesting that it is now high time for Western Australia to shift its economic focus from the resources to creativity.
Mr Templeman’s call to arms was following by a similarly stirring speech from Ben Elton, who reiterated the minister’s point that the creative sector should not be regarded as a penurious relative always shaking the begging bowl but a dynamic part of a booming global industry.
“The creative arts are clearly a money-making proposition,” Elton said. “If we can get a successful (creative) industry – and we are a long way from being there – in the long run the benefits won’t just be cultural. They will be financial.”
Naturally, Elton’s focus was on film and television, which he believes presents enormous opportunities in the age of streaming. Companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who will soon launch their own streaming services, are craving content, the comedy legend said, so it is not a question of benevolence on the part of investors but a chance to make big bucks.
Elton, however, is not so naïve as to believe Western Australia can compete on the global stage without government intervention. “It has to be hand-in-hand with public investment and a public initiative to support Australian arts. Without infrastructure – and infrastructure is very expensive – we are not going to get business to join hands (with us),” said Elton, who threw his weight behind the long-standing fight for a movie studio.
Chamber of Arts and Culture WA executive director Shelagah Magadza kept the rhetoric to a minimum and drilled down on the impossibility of forging a relationship between arts and business without up-to-the-minute data and a sound strategy that considers the arts in a broader educational, social and economic context.
Ms Magadza likened the current situation trying to swing a Datsun 120Y engine into an electric vehicle. “We need a long-term plan in which it’s clearly articulated what needs to happen – where the investment and skills development need to go for artists who want to take advantage of the opportunities that people like Ben (Elton) are creating in the state,” she said.
Interestingly, Tuesday’s breakfast confab about the relationship between business and the arts was taking place on the same morning that The Australian’s fearless, highly respected Victoria Laurie published a piece about the dangers of the business world climbing into bed with the arts.
Laurie zeroed in on the practice of stacking the boards of arts organisations with people who have no direct experience of working in that particular art, causing as much of a problem if it was the other way around, that is, practitioner-heavy boards.
Laurie sought comment from former Australia Council chairwoman and Musica Viva board member Margaret Seares, who cautions against adopting the American model of appointing wealthy donors to boards.
“If you’re putting money into something, what power and leverage should that give you? It’s a debate we haven’t had but it needs to be discussed. For any company to have no one on the board with an arts background, or one lone voice, is as dangerous as having only arts practitioners,” Professor Seares was quoted as saying.
Laurie’s piece is a continuation of her investigation of the ugly situation at Black Swan State Theatre Company, in which the board, headed by high-profile philanthropist Nicola Forrest, removed the company’s executive Natalie Jenkins and replaced her with a recently-appointed board member with no performing arts industry experience.
Among those who’ve also expressed concern about the abrupt exit of Ms Jenkins is Black Swan’s founding patron Janet Holmes à Court. “I’m extremely disappointed that Black Swan seems to be turning out to be the sort of company that Andrew Ross and myself and Duncan Ord and the others who were involved in founding in 1991 did not have in mind,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
So it was disappointing that Mrs Holmes à Court did not attend the State of the Arts in Business event, where she had originally been billed to appear on the panel. In doing so, she avoided any awkward encounter with Minderoo CEO Andrew Hagger, who was there in place of Mrs Forrest.
Still it was hard not to contain an ironic smile when Mr Hagger said that “when you have partners working together that’s when you get great outcomes” while our ears are still ringing with the news that Ms Jenkins, one of the State’s most experienced and respected arts administrators, had been moved on after falling out with a board headed by a major private sector funder.
There was a buzz in the Hyatt Ballroom during and after breakfast – the arts crowd certainly comes alive in the presence of money. Much of that discussion was focused on the benefits and needs for the two communities to work together and less about the issues raised by those relationships, such as the freedom of arts companies to criticise industries from which they’re benefiting.
The backbeat, of course, is the overall decline of government funding for the arts. Organisations such as ScreenWest (now reconstituted as a not-for-profit) are on the hunt for private investment so in the future that marriage of convenience will take on air of urgency. Minister Templeman may have to get out his shotgun.