From time to time we read about the “state of the arts” and “the place of culture” in our nation in our newspapers and publications. Such surveys, invariably informed by arts “observers”, not practitioners, list our artistic strengths: Our Hollywood Exports! Our Larrikin Sensibility! Our Can-do Attitude!

But these positives are usually tempered by a litany of woe-is-me complaints: Theatre Is Dying! Opera Is Dead! We Need More Funding! We Need a Government Vision Statement! Why Doesn’t Australia Just “Get” Culture?!

Call us glass-half-full here at Crikey, but we think the arts are always changing, always improving.

The arts by their very nature are unpredictable, random and chaotic. There are no specific “outcomes” in the process of creating music, art, dance, film, theatre, opera and design. There are no guaranteed “returns”. No one knows what makes a hit , and no road map drawn up by a government department and an army of arts bureaucrats is going to guarantee more of them.

Although the arts and entertainment industries in Australia are powered by billions of dollars in tickets bought, salaries paid, investment made, subsidies dispensed, grants given and arts policies decreed, art, as they say on Broadway, is a crapshoot. If we knew what made a masterpiece, it wouldn’t be art.

The art is in the making of it, and our artists, subsidised companies, galleries, museums and commercial producers have proved exceptionally skilled at responding to governmental intervention, economic booms and busts, technological shifts and rapidly changing public tastes.

Back in 1999 some thought the sky would fall in when the federal government’s Nugent Report streamlined the country’s 28 major subsidised performing arts leaders that include the major ballet, opera, and theatre companies. In a rare example of government meddling getting it right, the report’s demand that those companies become leaner yet more ambitious saw those who work in them respond to the challenge.

And the increasing success of these organisations in commissioning, programming, staging work and earning box office through the 2000s led to the blooming of the arts elsewhere.

While many bemoaned the fact that the big 28 companies were hogging government arts funds, individual artists were banding together and creating artists’ collectives, music ensembles and dance and theatre companies in inner-city dives. Their creativity was often driven by NOT wanting to be anything like the big mainstream companies.

“Our aim is to to excite, enthuse and celebrate the arts in all its manifestations …”

Now those artists who messed about in the abandoned warehouses and de-commissioned church halls of Footscray, Newtown and Fortitude Valley are the bright young things infiltrating programming at the Sydney Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company. These are the young bucks Opera Australia plans to snap up as their next provocative, angry young man director. (Sadly, the arts is still largely indifferent to angry young women).

But art begets art, and audiences beget more audiences as they become exposed to more — and are interested in more — and no one can predict where the next outbreak will be.

In 1997, when Crown Casino opened on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River, it was feared the glitzy mega-venue would sap the city’s CBD of its energy. Once again it was artists, designers and architects who led the way as they reacted by spilling into the CBD’s dingy laneways. Aided and abetted by the state government’s liberal liquor licensing laws, they built bars and opened galleries with the frequency of the graffiti exuberantly sprayed on the laneway walls.

The laneway “look” has been replicated in other cities, has become a tourist drawcard and is now so mainstream that even suburban shopping malls have faux-laneways to replicate an urban, hipster “aesthetic”.

Remember that “cerulean” speech in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep berates Anne Hathaway for not understanding that the lumpy blue jumper she’s wearing from a clearance bin actually trickled its way down the fashion chain from Oscar de la Renta’s vision when he designed cerulean gowns from his 2002 season? Well, somewhere now a Westfield marketing exec should be trawling our cities’ streets, galleries, design studios and dingy theatre spaces identifying the new trends for its next billion-dollar hyper-mall.

The co-opting of art by the mainstream is a sign of art’s success and should be celebrated. And so should art institutions’ embrace of commercial methods to entice people through its doors. The success of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art and the Melbourne Museum in creating allure, excitement, even danger around its shows creates more interest, more crowds, income and more opportunities for new and young artists to emerge and find their way to more audiences.

The ever-widening ripple of art radiates outwards — and Crikey is excited to dive into the pond to contribute. From Monday we introduce our new cousin Daily Review. Our aim is to to excite, enthuse and celebrate the arts in all its manifestations through reviews, features, news and opinion from around Australia and the globe. Everyone is invited to contribute to the arts by clicking on and responding to the art in front of you.

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now