Touring Overseas - An Impossible Dream?

Australian audiences have become very used to our major performing arts companies receiving rave reviews overseas. That international response has become part of our national creative identity, affirming we can cut it on the world’s mainstages—whether orchestral, dance, opera, circus or theatre.

Touring Overseas - An Impossible Dream?

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But international touring is not easy for performing arts companies, especially in the current economic circumstances when overseas currencies and economic conditions are struggling or weak, and the value of the Australian dollar is high.

Regardless of the state of national or global economics, major performing arts companies are expected to tour as part of their brief to engage with audiences around the country. Some of the larger companies are expected to tour internationally, as a condition of their funding agreements. This highlights their importance to the nation in ‘soft diplomacy’. Creative Australia, the country’s recently released national cultural policy, emphasises the importance of our engagement overseas, especially in Asia—and a major vehicle for such engagement is often one of the MPA companies.

The National Touring Framework (April 2012)[1] stated:

' … some Australian companies may find overseas interest slowing due to falling demand in international markets, or because overseas buyers are subject to funding and revenue cuts. Similarly, the high dollar is making Australian products less competitive in global markets, exacerbating the loss of international demand due to economic recession and public sector contraction.'

And the companies themselves have the evidence. Recently the Sydney Symphony had to abandon its planned European tour after it became clear that the levels of fees that could be achieved in the current economic environment were inadequate.

As reported in The Australian (3 April 2013), ‘large-scale overseas tours—the 100-strong SSO tour was to cost $500,000 in flights and freight alone—rely on venue fees to offset costs. The orchestra's 2010 tour of Japan and South Korea was “cost-neutral” in that venue fees covered touring costs’.

According to the Sydney Symphony’s Managing Director, Rory Jeffes, ‘As planning progressed, it became clear that the logistical and financial hurdles to be overcome were insurmountable in the current economic climate and it would not be in the best interests of any of the parties concerned to proceed with the tour.’

Circus Oz has toured to all over the world, most recently and most frequently to the US and Europe. As in other industries, the strong Australian dollar has made it difficult to negotiate the performance fees required to take the show on international tours. This has meant that the company has had to make an increased investment in international touring to maintain a presence. Despite that, Circus Oz believes it’s of critical importance that it continues international touring—building its profile and making sure its uniquely Australian identity is showcased to an international audience. It also allows the company to maintain already established relationships and to keep Australian cultural achievements in international sightlines.

For trade and international relations, cultural ties are an enduring and effective way to build networks in both the public and private sectors. International touring reinforces Australia’s standing as a stable, sophisticated and creative nation with a diverse culture. It also promotes more positive images of our multicultural community, improves market access for Australian cultural exports and promotes Australian tourism and education. Yet opportunities are lost because of a lack of a cohesive cross-portfolio government vision for international touring programs.

Minimal funding is tagged for overseas touring. In fact, the Australia Council has approximately $8 million for international touring which is expected to support touring needs and aspirations across all art forms as well as help support our country’s efforts to develop our cultural image within countries of high diplomatic and economic importance.

Scant funds from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are available. Generally, the cultural diplomacy branch funds are woefully inadequate compared to other developed nations. The Australia International Cultural Council (a quango of DFAT) provided $470 000 last year (eroded from $500 000 in 2010) to support international touring with an upper limit of $40 000 for a grant. Clearly this is insufficient to tour anything but the smallest touring parties. Musica Viva is regularly funded, running its tours as part of DFAT’s Fine Music Touring Program. But it does this on a shoestring—in 2011 Musica Viva’s $100 000 from DFAT resulted in six Australian groups touring to 10 countries, presenting 28 concerts and 18 workshops. The multiplier benefit that the nation derives from such a small investment is immense.

Occasional funding is provided for one-off exploratory projects, often with no follow-up funding. Belvoir and the Sydney Theatre Company travelled to India in June 2012 funded by DFAT, to investigate possibilities of artist exchange. However, no further funding has been made available to take up opportunities established during the visit. Belvoir has been negotiating overseas tours this year, including Wild Duck touring in May to Vienna and Amsterdam. However, other tours are unlikely go ahead without support.

Belvoir’s experience not only highlights the need for adequate funds to be committed up front, but also for a more flexible government response.

It also highlights the consistency and follow-up planning needed for building successful relationships. DFAT targets its ‘priority countries’ which vary from year to year, a policy that creates logistical problems for long-term touring arrangements. While refreshing its priority countries annually may suit the government’s diplomatic objectives, darting into countries on a one-off basis with no follow-up will not result in long-term relationships for major performing arts companies. Without those relationships, developing tours into the future is almost impossible.

Yet the Federal Government has agreed Australia should develop its cultural footprint in Asia. Asia is a complex and diverse environment. To engage in cultural exchange requires new resources to support cultural collaboration and experimentation over a period of time. A reallocation of current funds is an inadequate and piecemeal response.

The Australia in the Asian Century white paper, released last year, highlighted various pathways to deeper engagement so that ‘Australia will have stronger, deeper and broader cultural links with Asian nations’. They include:

Encourage cultural and arts communities in Australia to become fully part of the region through two-way collaboration and partnership arrangements, including through training and capacity building.

Re-examine government activities that support artists to achieve success in Asia and promote Australia as a culturally vibrant and open country, including through the Government’s consideration of the Review of the Australia Council.

Revamp the Australian International Cultural Council to better coordinate our support for cultural and artistic organisations to enhance promotion of Australia as a culturally vibrant and open country.

Strengthen cultural diplomacy and exchange to build trust, understanding and confidence in our cultural, political, security and economic relationships.

None of these pathways are possible without adequate resourcing. Australia needs an increased cultural export fund to enable Australia to better respond to international opportunities, undertake more significant cultural diplomacy and further position itself as a creative and exciting partner for innovative investment projects.

[1] Prepared by Rick Heath and Harley Stumm for the Australia Council for the Arts

Image: Circus Oz NYC 2012 Luke Taylor

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