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Reward Composers If You Value Art: Julian Burnside

Australia Quartet Image Credit: DeClassified Music (via WeekendNotes)
Graham Strahle
| June 20, 2018

Julian Burnside, the Melbourne barrister, human rights advocate and arts patron, has written two columns for Daily Review (May 10 and May 22) that every music and arts lover should read. All in the arts world will readily say that they value the arts in a general sense, but how much one supports the arts may be quite another matter.

The goal in supporting the arts, he suggests, is to “try to see the present generation properly rewarded for their work”. And that is what Burnside says supporting the arts really comes down to: recognising the great contribution that art makes to culture and human lives, but translating that recognition into adequately rewarding artists financially. Thinking only in lofty terms about the importance of art, he suggests, does nothing to actually help artists make a living.

The notion of the suffering artist is so familiar that one tends to presume this is their perennial lot. “Most creative artists struggle to make a living”, says Burnside. “But who will advance their cause?”

The answer he proposes is not the usual one of asking governments to step in and fill the breach. Rather it is up to individual arts lovers: he implores each of us to make it count via our pockets by simply getting out and seeing more concerts.

“Composers can only make a living if their work is played and people go along and listen to it,” he says. “The more people support the work of people whose work they like, the better will be the lives of creative artists.”

Burnside puts forward an interesting idea, that of groups of people combining to commission new works. Normally commissioning is undertaken by wealthy individuals or organisations who able to pay for the composer’s fee, but if a group combines to do this, the costs per individual can become feasible for ordinary citizens.

“Commission music if you get the chance: it’s not hard. If you aren’t up for the price of a commission, join together with some friends and commission a piece jointly. It is astonishingly satisfying, whether or not you like the music which is composed,” says Burnside.

“If music lovers go to hear the music of contemporary composers and commission work by composers whose music they like, the environment in which creative artists live will be … friendlier, less hostile.”

So for argument’s sake, if 20 people got together to commission a new 10 minute work, that would come to $250 each in the case of an emerging composer (at a rate of $500 per minute). More established composers would probably expect double that. And if, say, an orchestra or organisation were to agree to co-commission the new work, contributions per individual would be brought down significantly.

Collective giving is a new and growing area in arts philanthropy, say Wendy Scaife and Alexandra Williamson in The Conversation. Crowdfunding and giving circles have the appeal of bringing people together and connecting them in the arts, where traditional solo giving can be solitary experience, they contend.

Australia sits above Canada in terms of per capita private sector support for the arts, and roughly equal with England. The Bureau of Communications and Arts Research calculated that in 2013 Australians gave between AUD$11 and AUD$14 per capita, whereas Canadians gave AUD$5. Based on 2014–15 figures, England gave AUD$16 per capita Australia between AUD$11 and AUD$16. Figures are predicatively significantly higher in the United States: in 2013 per capita support for the humanities, arts and culture was AUD$46.

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