Queensland’s new Arts Minister Ros Bates has had a bumpy ride in her first six months in the position, as we’ve chronicled previously. Bates has sacked the deputy director-general of Arts Queensland, and then had to break the bad news of $12 million in cuts to arts grants. Most recently, she made headlines by criticising the commission of a $1 million sculpture by high-profile New Zealand contemporary artist Michael Parekowhai, labelling it an “appalling waste” of money.

In one respect Bates can be commended: she is following through on a Liberal-National Party election promise to establish a “superstar fund”. The fund will support major Queensland performing arts organisations to “develop a major local production featuring an internationally known artist or artists”. According to the Liberal-National Party election platform:

“The fund is aimed at our significant arts organisations to develop productions which will be exclusive to Queensland and draw audiences from across Australia and internationally.”

The aim of the fund, the guidelines of which are on the Arts Queensland website, is to leverage the fame of an “internationally renowned performing or screen based artist or artists with a high profile internationally and in Australia”.

I’m guessing Bates has something like the Sydney Theatre Company’s successful production of Uncle Vanya in mind. There’s a sound commercial logic to the idea. Cultural industries and art markets are dominated by the “economics of superstars”, an idea first put forward by economist Sherwin Rosen in the 1980s. Big-name stars sell tickets, and the development of a production featuring them undoubtedly has a better chance of touring to foreign acclaim than a production lacking any name recognition amongst key cast or creatives.

But delve into the fund guidelines a little bit and all sorts of questions start to emerge. The most pressing is: can Arts Queensland afford superstars? These grants are capped at $300,000 — hardly a fortune, even in Australian dollars. When Kanye West played the Big Day Out this year he reportedly charged $1 million for each appearance. Of course, big-name theatre actors or operatic sopranos charge less than this, but it’s hardly going to be cheap to lure a Phillip Seymour Hoffman to the Queensland Theatre Company, or an Anna Nebtrenko to Opera Queensland.

Even if the money is good, will the superstars be available?  Top talents are notoriously picky about who they work with, and when. Most have full calendars stretching years ahead, and generally reside in the northern hemisphere. One of the reasons the Australian outdoor music festival circuit has grown so rapidly is that its summer timetable coincides with the northern winter, giving it access to top talent that may not necessarily be available in other artforms.

Genuine superstars are rare, which is why they are so valuable. The precious gifts of name recognition and a box office track record are given to few artists singly, let alone in combination. But the presence of a superstar is no guarantee of the artistic or commercial success of the production they appear in. Superstar scarcity also poses big problems for producers. Because stars are generally scarcer than producers or presenters, their value is often bid up well above their true value to the box office.

Hollywood is the paradigm example of superstar culture. Most Hollywood films — and this is increasingly true of Australian productions — need to secure a name actor before they are green lit. That doesn’t make them any less risky, from a financial point of view. Arthur de Vany, the best-known economist studying the box office statistics of Hollywood feature films, has actually coined the phrase “superstar curse” to refer to the risks of films paying big-name actors huge fees. Even if films starring Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson make more money than films without a “bankable star”, they might not necessarily be profitable. The fee charged by the superstar might cost more than the extra box office they bring in.

Leaving aside the economics of superstars, is it the role of the state to fund them? Generally, politicians of a conservative persuasion tend to believe the market is the best mechanism to price risky and uncertain business propositions, such as musicals or stage plays. Indeed, for those of a libertarian bent, the idea that governments should be in the business of picking cultural winners in a taste-based market seems nothing less than big government gone mad.

Then again, if Bates ends up with a hit on her hands, all such objections will be forgotten. Investing in cultural productions in the hope of box office success is always a gamble, but if her number comes up she’ll still be a winner. Everyone remembers a hit, after all, while only the accountants remember the misses.

It’s interesting that Queensland is creating its new star fund at the same time it is winding back grants for small organisations and for emerging artists — the up-and-comers who could well be the stars of tomorrow. Investing in emerging talent is exceptionally cheap. The $750,000 that Arts Queensland will spend on the superstar fund could support a lot of first albums, first novels and low-budget plays.

But no-name artists don’t sell tickets, and they don’t attract the favourable media coverage that politicians naturally gravitate towards. Just ask the federal Labor government, which has a superstar fund all of its own. Despite desperate attempts to bring the budget into surplus, Julia Gillard and Simon Crean were still able to find $12 million in this year’s budget for Hollywood studio Marvel to help shoot Hugh Jackman’s latest Wolverine blockbuster in Sydney.

Photos of the PM with Jackman? At $12 million, that’s a steal.