Major Performing Arts ‘Club’ May Open its Doors to Competition

Opera Australia’s Magic Flute, 2012 Image Credit: Branco Gaica
Graham Strahle
| November 7, 2018

The MPA Framework review, currently underway, is shaping up as the biggest enquiry into Australia’s performing arts since the National Opera Review. It is considering the framework whereby public funds are managed and distributed among the 28 Major Performing Arts (MPA) companies, and a Consultation Paper is calling for views on ways of improving this MPA Framework by 26 November.

See here on how to do this. Input is invited from anybody, and all interested arts practitioners and organisations, large or small, should seriously consider adding their say. A reminder too that two more public forums remain in this consultation process before cultural ministers look at implementing any changes to the Framework in early 2019: Sydney on 13 November at the Museum of Sydney, and Darwin on 14 November at Arts NT Conference Room.

As we’ve written earlier, the changes being contemplated could introduce some sort competitive process to membership of the MPA group of companies, which has remained almost static since the Framework began in 2001. Individual companies could be admitted or evicted according to an agreed set of performance criteria, although how this would work is one of the key aspects of discussions. The Consultation Paper poses the possibility that these criteria might assess artistic quality, financial sustainability and contribution to arts ecology; and it suggests that such an assessment process could be “informed by an element of peer advice” and conducted at “arm’s length from government or otherwise”.

The current MPA Framework confers unique benefits on its member companies in that they are given almost guaranteed core funding through no peer review or tender process. And their slice of the pie is huge: of a total $177 million that the Australia Council distributed in 2016-17, $109 million or 62 per cent of that went to these 28 companies. That is seen by many as unfair on small-to-medium sector companies that have to fight tooth and nail to receive funding.

It might seem paradoxical, therefore, that the Discussion Paper addresses ways of “strengthening” the MPA Framework. But what it actually means by this is introducing “practical mechanisms for varying the cohort and/or funding levels in response to changing circumstances”.

Doing so would make MPA membership open to competition, not a birthright. This might in turn break up its status as an ‘elite club’ that somehow holds a monopoly on high artistic endeavour.

The Australia Council’s chairman Sam Walsh has made it clear that he wants to see membership of the MPA group become a contestable process. However, he told The Financial Review that this would need to be done slowly, and with clear ground rules, so companies can adapt to the new status quo. “Any move to a contestable process has to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” he said. “It needs to be clear how people might improve or lose their position, and they need a lengthy time to adjust to that.”

A more permeable boundary between MPA and non-MPA companies would help overcome the rigid divide which presently exists in Australia’s arts scene and lessen the distrust it has engendered. Any improvement, though, would ultimately come down to what defines and differentiates these two categories. As things stand, to qualify for MPA membership a company must tick all the boxes demonstrating leadership in the arts and earn a non-grant income of $1.6 million. Clearly, if a competitive process were to be introduced, it would need to develop a more sophisticated and transparent set of measures.

But would it end Australia’s class system in the arts? The Discussion Paper takes it as an unquestioned premise that the MPA Framework should be retained, so a divide in some shape or form looks set to continue. That assumption might need to be questioned though, as Esther Anatolitis, executive director of National Association for the Visual Arts‎ and deputy chair of Contemporary Arts Precincts, has suggested.

She told Arts Hub: “The consultation around the Major Performing Arts companies asks us to consider what would ‘strengthen’ the MPA Framework – and the discussion paper offers many starting points for responding to that question, such as industry expectations, accountability, performance assessment, notice periods and consequences for poor performance, and how MPAs are defined.”

“The real question, however, is much bigger, and it extends well beyond the MPA Framework: it’s about the future of the arts in Australia.”

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