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Arts battles: from COVID to the stigma of elitism

Quynh Tran via Unsplash
Graham Strahle
| November 21, 2020

Debate on public expenditure is always of course a healthy thing, but this does seem a cruel time to be hitting out at the arts. In South Australia, one local commentator was prompted by the State Government’s recent decision to drop the Adelaide 500 car race to ask why arts companies should be as heavily propped up by public funds as they are.

The Advertiser columnist David Penberthy rebuked the government for its decision to cancel race that attracts over 200,000 when, by comparison, “no one wants to go to the opera”.

“When was the last time you went to the State Opera? You’ve never been to the State Opera, have you?,” he asks. “I never have and probably never will. I’ve got stuff on that night, and all the other nights, too.”

It is paradoxical therefore, he suggests, that State Opera South Australia should be “largely underwritten by the taxpayers”, and that as a company it was “only made possible by an Act of Parliament in 1972”.

Penberthy softens his punch by adding: “I am certainly not advocating cuts to arts funding”. Nevertheless, his words still do come as a body blow, especially at a time when opera companies, orchestras and a whole range of other cultural institutions the world over are fighting for their very survival.

And it comes after many have been working assiduously over recent years to expand their audience base through more accessible programming, delivery and venue choice. For State Opera SA’s part, it has mounted productions in Victoria Square, the Adelaide Showground and even an indoor market (in Bowden) to this end. A tennis stadium was planned this year for one occasion but the production (of Carmina Burana) had to be cancelled due to Covid.

One might actually want to take pity on the company right now, because its production of Richard Mills’ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, coming after months of enforced inactivity, had to be cancelled after opening night due to the recent Adelaide outbreak.

It is worth remembering too that government subsidy for the arts in Australia has been in decline over the past ten years. Spending on the arts per capita has fallen by 4.9 per cent since 2007-2008, and expenditure as a percentage of GDP sits below the OECD average. These are figures from the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ Big Picture report of 2019.

Just as significant is how negative perceptions about the arts have tended to persist. The Australia Council has been tracking trends in public engagement with the arts since 2009, and its latest survey based on responses from nearly 9,000 Australian in 2019 were published recently. Creating Our Future: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey (August 2020) found that while 98% engage with the arts in some way through many different platforms of consumption, 29% of Australians believed “the arts are not really for people like me”.

This is up from 26% in 2016, and the Australia Council notes in its report that this is a continuing trend.

Wendy Were, Executive Director, Advocacy and Development at the Council, told The Sydney Morning Herald that she views these figures as showing up an inconsistency. On the one hand, arts are an embedded part of a majority of people’s lives, but on the other, there seem to be barriers that prevent them from personally identifying with the arts or pursuing them more actively.

“People are underestimating the degree to which they are engaged with the arts,” Were said. “I often talk about arts and culture being the Palmolive of the world, in that you’re soaking in it but you don’t know it.”

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do to try to remove barriers of entry and the stigma of elitism associated with the arts, and that may come down to the very language in which they are discussed, as the SMH story suggests.

But for the moment, just trying to survive is the priority, so that opera companies, orchestras, chamber groups and all the rest can be still here for another day.

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