The Australia Council’s announcement in April that some 49 arts organisations around Australia were to lose four-year funding came as a shock to many. Two that were unsuccessful were Ensemble Offspring and The Song Company, being two of the country’s most well respected and high achieving music groups. Arts budgets are especially tight right now, but with the added difficulty of trying to survive under COVID-19 restrictions, it makes times exceedingly tough right now.
In the first of two articles, we asked Claire Edwardes, Artistic Director of Ensemble Offspring, about how the group is dealing with the present circumstances.
What does it mean for Ensemble Offspring to be moving from four-year to one-year funding as a result of the Australia Council funding decision, and what are your thoughts as regards its decision?
We should have known these things are lotteries. The decision by the panel not to include Ensemble Offspring as one of the successful companies in the latest Four Year Australia Council round came as quite a shock. We had been supported in this mode of deeper investment for several cycles and had been receiving positive feedback on all of our programs. We had been punching above our weight and really giving them their bang for buck in terms of the amount of activity we produced versus our funded amount. Many people have made the comment ‘what else do you have to do?’ to get the funding – we champion female composers, First Nations composers, emerging artists and all sorts of collaborators – and of course it is a question I have also asked myself many times. Understandably they want to give new companies a go and that is important but it is a broken system when the long term government investment in a company such as ours is extinguished in that single moment of reading the word ‘declined’. The term ‘unfunded excellence’ which has been bandied about since the days of Brandis, is where the issue really lies – the term shouldn’t even exist but it does. When there is not enough money to go around it is not just art music that suffers – it is youth theatre (ATYP), experimental music (Liquid Architecture) and culturally diverse experimental theatre (UTP) – all these companies had all been funded previously and I’m sure we all had convincing strategic plans. It is this art at the risky end of the spectrum which absolutely requires government subsidy to make it viable. We don’t present tried and true classics of the genre but rather we all push artistic boundaries and risk taking projects which aren’t always so easy to get financial audience support for. This is how the culture of a country develops and moves into the future and in my view that is what government funding is there for. We cannot and must not forget this.
But I think it is also important to make the point that I wouldn’t really term the new situation for us as ‘moving from four year to one year funding’ because as we all know the annual funding rounds are extremely competitive and the likelihood of being funded every year in this capacity is low. Further, the cap for annual funding is $100,000 so even if we were to have the luck of being successful in the annual rounds, the drop in dollars would still be huge. So the building up of infrastructure which came with the Australia Council’s prior long term investment in Ensemble Offspring now needs to be stripped back and we once again return to the model we had for so many years, as an entity where the presentation of music project to project is prioritised above infrastructure and planning. It is the sad reality of making art in a desert-like funding environment such as we have now – that pro bono time from the most passionate of those involved in the company becomes key to the continuation of that company.
How have things changed for Ensemble Offspring as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
2020 was to be our 25th birthday celebration year so it was of course disappointing to have to cancel the bulk of it in late March when the COVID shutdowns came in. Many of our projects from this year will now be presented in 2021 and indeed we have been keeping very busy with new and existing digital initiatives. These include composer workshops at ANU (which are completely virtual now), our Ngarra-Burria First Nations Composers Program (which is virtual until the last quarter of the year we hope) and some new digital initiatives including our Lone Hemispheres solo project launching online soon. We will also be presenting our original trio program Birdsong at Dusk as part of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Sydney satellite series on 27 May (book here) and we will all get together online as part of the Hibernation Festival on International Make Music Day (21 June) sounding our brand new musical ‘care boxes’, which have been sent to us by composers from around Australia and the world.
Can you tell us about your own Zoom concerts and how they are going?
I came up with the idea early on in COVID-19 shutdowns to present solo concerts on Zoom from my front room. This was inspired by a young colleague Ryley Gillen who had asked me to present an artist concert for the donors to the Shoalhaven Youth Orchestra – to what was an audience of about 10 – and it was really fun chatting to them between pieces and hearing them clap after I finished a work. I know a lot of people struggle with the Facebook Live thing of finishing a piece and hearing silence. The comments on the screen are great and the interaction that it can provide is really important. I am now about to launch my fifth Zoom concert (including that very first one presented by Ryley in March) on 24 May. Basically people secure their place by transferring the $50 ticket price directly into my bank account. I share the Zoom link with them along with the program notes a few days prior and I cap the audience number at around 20 so we can have intimacy and everyone can chat before, during and after. Some people keep their video off and that is totally fine too if they want to remain anonymous and just listen. Lots of people ask questions – and the best bit is that I don’t have to take my marimba into nine pieces, load it into the car, set it up at the other end and do it all again to get it back to my place. Not having to do that is pure joy for me and means I can really focus on the music. I have presented several world premieres as part of my series which I was meant to premiere at the Bowral Autumn Music Festival – these were works by Andrew Ford and Ella Macens written for me. For what will be my final Studio Zoom Concert for a while on 24 May I’ll have a world premiere by London composer Christopher Fox who will be joining us for the show, so that is very exciting!