The Shared Pursuit of Excellence

​Now that the election is done and dusted, and the 2014 season launches of the country’s major performing arts companies roll out, it’s a good time to shed a little more light on the breadth and depth of artistic activity that the major performing arts companies are involved in both on and off stage.

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The Shared Pursuit of Excellence

The Minister for the Arts, Senator the Hon. George Brandis, outlined his vision for the arts before the election as being based on six principles: excellence, integrity, artistic freedom, self-confidence, sustainability and accessibility.

One would be hard pressed to find a professional performing arts company that did not espouse—and often demonstrate—excellence.

For the 28 major companies, the pursuit of excellence—and their support of excellence—is a core value. It informs their collaborations with small, medium, major and international artists and arts companies as well as the ongoing mentoring and development of new artists and creators. It requires risk and innovation—it shapes how they develop artistic and creative talent.

It is an endless and restless pursuit that is not simply considered at year’s end but across every season, at every show, in every rehearsal. Their ongoing quest for excellence is also a powerful contributor to the development of their artistic vibrancy assessment tools.The companies are critically acclaimed and regularly recognised through a range of creative awards and reviews. For example, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has been called ‘… probably the finest string ensemble on the planet’ (The Telegraph (UK), 2012).

And Bangarra’s Blak this year: ‘It's at once immediate and timeless, contemporary and traditional. Spine-tingling moments like these are part of what makes Bangarra's performances unique’ (The Age, 6 May 2013

Malthouse’s Wunderkammer: ‘Original, frightening and staggeringly beautiful, it will have you on the edge of your seat until the final curtain’ (Crikey, 22 Aug 2013). And WA Opera’sDon Giovanni: ‘ThisDon Giovanni is simply too good to miss’ (The West Australian, 18 July 2013).

The Majors have a mandate to produce high quality and diverse performing arts that embrace contemporary and classic work from here and abroad, to nurture and develop the artform, artists and audiences while tracking a financially stable path.

Last year the Majors employed over 8400 people including 4600 artists and the numbers will be similar again this year. The volume of the work they produce and present provides significant employment opportunities for technicians, artists, arts managers and crafts people.

Queensland Theatre Company’s artistic director, Wesley Enoch, has deliberately doubled the number of actors employed in next year’s season, to build up the number of career opportunities for actors.

While our mainstage seasons are very visible there is much going on behind the scenes, in the research and develop of new work, support and encouragement of emerging artist as well as creating the space in which artists might ‘collide’ and build new collaborations.

New Works

With around 6000 performances and school workshops a year the Majors average some 228 shows a week. In duration that’s equivalent to two television stations running content 24 hours a day across the seven days of a week.

2012 included 160 new works, over two-thirds of which were Australian, as well as 130 other existing and re-imagined Australian works performed.

New works ranged from Queensland Symphony’s world premiere of Ecstatic Visions—Double Concerto for Trumpet and Clarinet by Australian composer Matthew Dewey, performed by James Morrison and Julian Bliss, to John Doyle’s new playVere, a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company South Australia. There’s the physically dynamic new Bangarra productionBlak, and the sell-out world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s first Australian full-length work,Cinderella, created with The Australian Ballet featuring surrealism-inspired sets and costumes.The Majors are an invaluable engine room for Australian creativity, expression, performance and storytelling.

Reaching Audiences Telling Stories

AMPAG Touring Map

Over 3.2 million people attended the Majors’ live performances in 2012. In addition, half a million school children took part in education programs and thousands of others in the community went to workshops, master classes and lessons.

Engagement is personal—it’s eyeball to eyeball. It plays a significant role in the enrichment of our communities, and the sharing and encouragement of stories, ideas and inspiration. Each year over 8 million people tune in to recorded performances broadcast on radio and television or screened in cinemas and more again online.

But statistics are anonymous and amorphous. Burrowing into the specifics reveals the human dynamic that sits behind each number.

For example:

  • this year’s new stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel Secret River created a deeper understanding of the impact of white settlement on Indigenous people
  • the broader perspective David Williamson is currently offering through his new playRupertis timely given this year’s hot debate about Rupert Murdoch’s influence on Australian public life
  • the engagement lead by Circus Oz helped heal a community torn apart by the devastation of the Victoria bushfires
  • the galvanising orchestral performances of regional schools brought together and mentored by many of our orchestras opening the window on our future musicians
  • the young dancers nearing completion of their elite training grow exponentially as they are closely mentored and perform alongside the seasoned principals during the Australian Ballet’s regional tour.

All the major companies run extensive education programs, taking workshops and performances into schools and communities, not just in the major cities but also in regional and remote areas. Many have deep routes into Indigenous communities—for example, Bangarra has established 'Rekindling', a youth program designed to inspire and develop the next generation of storytellers and Bell Shakespeare runs programs in Tennant Creek and Ali Kurung in the Northern Territory.

Others support schools that would otherwise have little access to mainstage theatre. Belvoir, for example, brings theatre to students in western Sydney and regional New South Wales—many of whom have never seen live performance or even travelled into the city.

The 4ARTS Performing Arts Education Festival is a joint project by Black Swan Theatre, the West Australian Ballet, the West Australian Opera and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. In its second year WA’s four major performing arts companies came together to provide two days of free performances and workshops for students all under one roof.

Excellence is not the exclusive domain of any one type or size of company, nor is it achieved through formulaic processes. By providing a critical level of activity and capacity which underpin their development of skills and access, the Majors are a major contributor to the soft infrastructure for the whole performing arts sector.

Funding and Support

They are funded through a combination of philanthropy, sponsorship, ticket sales and a mix of state and federal base funding. Base funding from government along with philanthropic support recognises that market forces alone will not generate sufficient returns to guarantee investment in new and innovative works.

As not-for-profits, these companies return any surplus to their pursuit of artistic excellence and audience development.

It may come as a surprise that opera box offices compare favourably to box office for Australian films. Add to this the state and national opera companies’ work in schools and free concerts, and it’s apparent that engagement is strong and valued.

This combined funding model ensures excellence is reliable and visible across art forms and across the country. It provides operational security that enables companies to develop both soft and hard infrastructure. It increases the companies’ ability to plan and develop initiatives as well as coordinate artistic collaboration two to three years out.

With this comes significant responsibility to multiply and leverage that support for the benefit of the Australian community and the performing arts sector. The Majors must back excellence and contribute to and nurture the capacity of the sector as a whole.

That is why AMPAG welcomed the increased allocation of funds to the Australia Council to support unfunded excellence.

Support for the arts—their intrinsic value as well as their secondary yet vital impact on civil well-being, education standards, creativity and national identity—necessitates ongoing advocacy and commitment from the arts, its agencies and government representatives.

As Senator Brandis said, ‘A thriving and healthy arts sector is an intrinsically good thing, which needs no justification other than the good which it itself brings to a decent, sophisticated and liberal society.’

Listening to the Majors’ artistic directors as they articulate what’s in store for 2014 is exciting.

Through their talk of a project that’s been in the pipeline for years and only now secured, or the serendipity that led to the idea and the collaboration, we’re privy for a moment to the creative excellence and anticipation that is housed within each 2014 season.

As you explore the seasons linked below it’s helpful to remember that these offerings represent the pinnacle of much creative activity. 2014 will be a very active and inspiring year on and off the mainstage.

Members' 2014 Seasons

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