Andrew Bolt came out from his dark curtain yesterday to throw a little dart towards Cate Blanchett yesterday. “Cate Blanchett? To help pick the brains to guide us through the century? Spare me. Rudd is not picking people who’d give him ideas but who’d give him lustre.”

Blanchett, who was selected as the arts representative of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Steering Committee, has been reported in two mildly different ways by the media.

Reuters filed a story yesterday saying that the government had given her the posting as a “consolation prize” after not winning an Oscar. The BBC reported it as a way for the PM to “sprinkle the gathering with the glitter of Hollywood celebrity”.

For the media to question her intelligence is just a little bit naive. Is it because she’s a well dressed female actress that news outlets and commentators feel the need to assume that she is not an intelligent and shrewd advocate for the arts?

It is safe to say that in many ways she isn’t the most qualified person to represent the arts in Canberra during April – any number of academics, journalists, lobbyists, advocates or arts workers could be better placed. But surely her experience as an actor and director, her capacity to deal with the media and her sponsorship lobbying credentials place her in an advantageous position.

Just look at the company she has just taken over, the Sydney Theatre Company. Yesterday they posted yet another deficit of us much as $350,000 with subscriber numbers falling another 10%. This has been the steady trend while out-going artistic director Robyn Nevin has been at the helm. The company posted a similar loss last financial year as they continued to lose big chunks of their subscriber base.

The fact that a standard subscription costs $420 for six plays could go some way in explaining why they lost nearly 2,000 subscribers this year.

But the trend hasn’t spilled over to other government sponsored theatres in Australia. The Financial Review reported yesterday that Neil Armfield’s Company B has stayed steady and the Queensland Theatre Company has actually increased its subscriber base.

The board of the Sydney Theatre Company, headed up by documentary maker Ian Darling, recognised over the last eighteen months that something drastic needed to occur to stem the financial problems. Government funding from with the Australia Council was not likely to increase much and the NSW State Government had already provided quite a lot of direct and indirect funding through a heavily subsidised rent at their headquarters and through the building of the new Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay.

It left just one option open — the sponsorship dollar. What better way was there to increase the profile of the company than to appoint the high-flying couple of Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton? It was a smart financial move that will ensure that the company can continue to pay for its large budget theatre productions despite a falling subscriber base.

Commentators have been quick to condemn their appointment, but to be frank we do not know what the capacity of Blanchett and Upton as artistic directors is. What we do know is that their appointment has brought an extraordinary level of positive — and free — publicity to the arts in Sydney and internationally with Blanchett’s appointment at the 2020 conference.

Blanchett may be spreading herself a bit thin, with another baby on the way and various other commitments and appointments, but she has held similar appointments before and has already had two children without anyone really noticing. Her level of intelligence and her skills in arts advocacy cannot be easily dismissed. She is quickly bringing in dollars to solve the financial problems of the Sydney Theatre Company and now she is putting Australia’s cultural sector on the front page of newspapers. For an easily dismissed industry we aren’t just talking about “lustre”, we are talking about building blocks.

Peter Fray

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