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Australia Council Forum – Adrian Collette, Opera Australia

Speeches and Opinions
Oct 31, 2007


I imagine the challenges facing the Australia Council in future (and, very likely, the present) are identical to the broad challenges facing all of us working in the arts. That’s presumptuous of me, actually. What I know a little about is the performance of opera and the potential audience for opera. By extension, that could resonate as knowledge of the challenges facing the Major Performing Arts companies, as we are designated. That is where my expertise ends, and I am very aware that the Australia Council must nourish a more diverse and layered arts ecology.

But – the central challenge we face every day of our working life is how to develop our art form (in my case, opera) and how to make it accessible to as broad an audience as possible – broad as in number, and broad as in wide-ranging. Simple really. Address yourself to these two goals, organisationally, and you will do some long-term good. I take it for granted that The Australia Council, or more particularly the part of it I deal with, the MPAB, is also motivated by these goals.

My sense is that most of the MPAB companies are now in pretty good financial shape – the work begun by the Nugent Inquiry has been seen through in the last budget round, as has the work of the Strong Inquiry into orchestras. All of us may have the odd quibble about this or that detail, this or that assumption which informs our funding (and God spare me from another third party review!), but, broadly speaking, our major performing arts companies are in sustainable shape the urgency of our battle for mere survival has been assuaged. So the question about what we do with all this investment in art and infrastructure has never been timelier.

This is where the MPAB (and, I would guess, OzCo as a whole) could play a vital leadership role over the next five years. I would go further: to be useful, now that it and we have done so much hard work to stabilise our companies, the MPAB must take a leadership role across the industry. The simple question might be: ‘How do we leverage our considerable investment in our performing arts companies so that we deepen their skills and broaden their reach into our community?’

There are three main barriers to access: geographical, financial and intellectual. On this question of access, here are just two areas that OA is currently thinking about  – and the Australia Council could lead the way on both.

This year, as part of our summer season, we direct relayed our last performance of La traviata from the Opera and Ballet Theatre of the SOH on to a large screen on the forecourt. This cost $150k – and we were able to afford to do it because we were enjoying a very successful summer season. It cost another 10k, only, to direct relay the performance to Federation Square in Melbourne via satellite link. I would be the first to say that I underestimated the impact of this event. I had expected a pleasant diversion on a balmy night in Sydney for a few thousand people. Yes, it was a live relay, but it wasn’t the real thing – it wasn’t ‘live’, as I think of it, with flesh and blood artists, in the theatre. Or so I thought! When I felt the response of our outdoor audience – the sheer intensity of its rapt attention – I had to revise my sense of what ‘live’ can be. Through the use of digital technology, The Metropolitan Opera is now direct relaying its performances, ‘live’, to cinemas across the States and, indeed, the World. (Fortunately for us, not in our time zone!) On one weekend alone, they effectively doubled their annual audience for live opera – it was cheap ($15 a ticket) and it was live! What they addressed was something we struggle with in our very expensive art form – they lowered the cost of experimentation. For $15 you could risk a night or afternoon at the opera, just to see whether you might like it.

We are now talking to the ABC and a number of other organisations about expanding our reach with live relays – quite literally leveraging our very substantial investment in our art form to reach double, if not triple our audience at a fraction of the cost. This is a virtue in itself, but it’s also just a smart thing to do if we are receiving $millions in tax payer support. Now what could the MPAB and government do with this notion across our industry? With a relatively small investment it could transform general participation in live performance.

How we exploit new media will be critical over the next five years – and I doubt any arts company currently has anything like the expertise they need in this area: on distribution, on exploitation of rights, etc. The MPAB could play a major role here for the industry, in fostering the necessary knowledge that otherwise spins the heads of practical performance companies. In the jargon of business, the MPAB could add a lot of value to our very considerable investment in our companies.

The broader access issue is about education. The issue here is not simply about audience development (we companies have become very skilled at marketing our performances on the whole) but about development of our audience. With those working in the arts, there sometimes appears to be what amounts to ‘…a great existential doubt, far worse than any political anxiety as to whether a particular government cares for the arts: does anyone care? We ask. Can we expect them to care if the national education system and the mass media do not play their respective parts in transmitting the great inherited cultural traditions?’

We need the national education institutions and the media on side if we are to broaden participation in the arts. The Australia Council needs to play an effective, advocacy role in this. Here is a somewhat extreme statement, quoted from a recent book by John Tusa, who has been for ten years the very successful CEO of The Barbican:

‘The arts stand naked and without defence in a world where what cannot be measured is not valued; where what cannot be predicted will not be risked; where what cannot be controlled will not be permitted; where whatever cannot deliver a forecast outcome is not undertaken; where what does not belong to all will be allowed to none.’

Extreme maybe…but there is a powerful resonnance to it (along with a message about how inappropriate are many of the restrictive and clumsy measures that we employ to measure our progress – K.P.I’s, ‘key deliverables,’ and the like.) What concerns me most is actually the last statement: ‘where what does not belong to all will be allowed to none.’ The purpose of education is not simply to broaden our audience; it is to deepen our connection to our audience and to increase our sphere of influence.  And importantly, I strongly believe that ‘education’ is not simply about young people – it is about encouraging a vital relationship with eager minds wherever we can make the encounter.

We have wonderful resources in our companies – of practical skills and imaginative talent – and each of us undertakes educational activities, though largely around the margins of our other activity. Again the Australia Council, in the face of our ‘existential doubt’, could lead the way in creating a broader cultural setting for the appreciation of our work through education. It could assist us in attracting new audiences through new distribution channels and be a vigorous advocate of our work in these areas, including across government.

I would stress that this is not just about how many people we reach; it is about the quality of our conversing – not just about audience development, but about the development of our audience!