While sympathetic to the individuals who have lost their jobs, (as per Crikey’s story, “Kevin Rudd’s efficiency dividend hits the Australia Council“) something has to give at the OZCO.

From the experience of those who have to deal with the Theatre Fund, increasingly the place seems to be run as though it is some kind of high-end management consultancy.

During the current Making It New (Mao would be proud) round of funding for the small to medium triennially funded companies, we were asked to create absurdly detailed three-year business plans (fancy writing up a cash-flow budget for 2011 anyone?), while being urged to “Imagine it is year one”(!), “Imagine what would happen if you could start again(!!). “Think outside the square”(This WAS said!!!)

Seriously, this exercise tied everyone up in knots for six months. This is for companies who have usually two to three full-time employees, casual artists and office support. And who are driving the arts in this country. Creating new works, employing the young and innovative, filling up the major festivals with the most critically acclaimed of local works, in demand overseas in the way that none of the majors are. On top of that, they have been drafting these massive business plans and grant documents which virtually all people acknowledge is 80% wasted effort. And let us not get started on the mid-year reviews and silly acquittal processes that these grants entail.

It is nuts. Particularly because there is no evidence that the preparation of detailed business plans creates vibrant sustainable companies. None at all. The most interesting recent research out of the UK suggests that the one factor successful arts companies have in common is their ability to take advantage of an unforeseen opportunity.

In other words, the stuff that has not been planned… Sure a detailed business plan works for some, but not for all. Mao also said Let a Million Flowers Bloom…

An insider at the Council recently told me that there was no way they would really take inri consideration those very detailed forward budgets, but it was a terrific exercise for us to do them. This can only be the statement of someone who has a wee bit more time on their hands than the general managers and artistic directors that I know.

ADs and GMs in Melbourne and Sydney (and I’m sure everywhere else) are pretty much unanimous in finding the process a massive distraction, but most are saying that they will keep quiet until the results of this round are known. The Council has hinted that two or three companies are to be taken out and shot this round so everyone has their brown trousers on.

If this cost cutting measure results in a few less folks dreaming up plans for the sector, that would be OK by us. Yes we must be accountable for the money. And yes a small amount of the work is a bit esoteric and self indulgent. But where is the evidence that we have been cashing the cheques and slipping of for a few quiet Pinot Grigios with Jeffrey Smart in Tuscany?

Audience numbers, box office, touring, and sponsorship are way up. The sector is an incredible success story of efficiency and entrepreneurship. The Council could do with streamling the grant process and getting out of the way so that all this activity can continue.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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