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The Independent Weekly
arts January 22 - 28, 2010
Better to have tried and failed ...
One of the things I m hoping for
more of in the arts this decade is
No, I m not wishing that the
nation s artists and arts companies
spend the coming years slipping
into decline, bankruptcy and
I m just hoping they will find
ways to take the kinds of creative
risks that don t always come off.
The kind of failure I m talking
about is not the opposite of success
but the kind that is intrinsically
bound up in it.
It is one where the alternative is
not success but risk aversion, low
expectations and predictability. It
is a kind of failure that is actually
a prerequisite for innovation in
creative life -- and most other areas
of life, for that matter. It is part of
the process of challenging yourself
and those around you to try to do
something a little different.
The only reason I ve ended up any
good at anything is through making
mistakes and being reasonably good
at not repeating them. It is failing
and applying the lessons learnt
that allow us to refine our ideas,
experiment and innovate.
I m particularly reminded that
failure is important at this time
of year because the commercial
world is shoving it in our faces
around now. Half the much-hyped
TV shows starting over the coming
month aren t destined to see out the
season. They will be unceremoni-
ously axed or forced to run after
midnight (or on the new digital
channel graveyard) if the ratings
don t support them.
The perpetually shunted local
histories of the likes of The
Sopranos, The West Wing and
The Wire on Australian TV have
demonstrated that being bumped
in this way is hardly a sign of poor
product. Hey Hey It s Saturday, on
the other hand ...
For every Avatar or mediocre
Boxing Day blockbuster there are
a dozen films that bomb at the box
office and a hundred more that
struggle straight to cable or on to
For every hit record there are
a hundred that won t make their
money back. This is how culture
moves forward. Failure in a com-
mercial sense is very different from
failure in a creative one.
Inevitably, much of the "failed"
work will inspire a small but loyal
audience and some will inspire and
resonate long after the blockbusters
are forgotten. Give me inspired,
flawed creative failures over
lacklustre blockbusters any day.
Things aren t so simple in the
arts world. Most of our publicly
funded organisations and institu-
tions would find it impossible to
sustain anything like the failure
rate that the commercial cultural
world takes for granted. Competing
claims for the public purse make
it difficult to justify things that
are complex and unpredictable.
Risk-averse politics make it hard
to justify resourcing failure, tight
financial margins mean they often
can t afford it, and it is almost
impossible to distinguish between
types of failure.
Failing -- from attempting to
try something new, trying to
challenge or reach a new audience,
or long-term repositioning -- is
indistinguishable from misman-
agement or a growing series of
Public subsidy can also simply
entrench the wrong kind of failure.
It can create a culture of subsidised
mediocrity and low expectations of
success. The Australian film indus-
try seems to revel in demonstrating
that it is possible to fail repeatedly
without it leading to innovation or
evolution from applying the lessons
of the experience.
Our failure at productive failure
is not all the artists , administra-
tors or risk-averse managers fault.
We in the media aren t usually
renowned for our sympathy either.
When a gallery puts on an
exhibition that is panned and
poorly attended, or when a theatre
company puts forward a show
that few see and even fewer would
ever recommend, it is rare to see a
review that contextualises the value
Yet where culture will truly
flourish is when it has strategies
for failure and risk. One of the
great paradoxes of the arts is that
you can take more risks with fewer
resources. Part of this is simply
about creating spaces for experi-
mentation. It is encouraging to see
that some larger institutions such
as the Arts Centre in Melbourne
and the Opera House and Belvoir
Street in Sydney create spaces in
their programs that allow for lower
budgets, failure and innovation.
Here s hoping that 2010 and
beyond will be an era of fruitful
failure and flawed experimentation.
May we all find the courage to try
ideas that may not quite come off.
Artists must have
the courage to take
creative risks, writes
starve our galleries
Christopher Menz s resignation
as director of the Art Gallery
of South Australia represents
one of the few occasions a senior
figure in an Australian public art
museum has shown the courage of
That conviction was that the
AGSA deserved to be adequately
funded by the State Government.
For five years Menz s pleas for
funding had fallen on deaf ears.
Finally he took the dramatic step of
refusing to renew his contract and
making a public criticism of his
The AGSA has the second
largest collection in the country
and is Adelaide s leading cultural
Since the days of Don Dunstan,
South Australia has styled itself
"the state of the arts" and made
a great fuss about the Adelaide
Festival. Yet the gallery s annual
grant from the State Government
amounts to a paltry $5.7 million.
The National Gallery of Australia
is expected to spend a larger sum
on hosting its current blockbuster,
Masterpieces from Paris. In 2008
the Art Gallery of NSW scraped
together $16.2 million to buy one
small painting by Cezanne. Works
by international masters now
routinely sell for tens of millions
-- a painting by Jackson Pollock is
reputed to hold the current record
of $US140 million ($150 million).
Was Menz asking for an outra-
geous sum of money? He wanted
only another million. Over the
past two years, even allowing for
its slender budgets, the gallery has
initiated important shows such as
The Golden Journey, Hans Heysen,
and Misty Moderns. There could be
no questioning the quality of the
staff s work and commitment.
SA Premier Mike Rann, who
is also Arts Minister, responded
disgracefully, boasting he had
recently given the gallery $2.1
million to fix its air-conditioning.
Yet even in sizzling South Australia,
audiences tend to visit galleries to
see exhibitions rather than enjoy
the air-conditioning. When there
is no money to initiate shows,
a gallery is doomed to fail in its
What makes this story doubly
disturbing is that AGSA is not an
isolated case. Australia s public
galleries are chronically under-
The National Gallery of Victoria
received $41.6 million last year, but
has to close its two venues for one
day each week to make ends meet.
The National Portrait Gallery has
a gleaming new building, but little
money for exhibitions and acquisi-
tions. One reason why exhibitions
run for so many months at Sydney s
Museum of Contemporary Art is
to save on the expenses associated
with a more rapid turnover.
Regional galleries beg for a few
thousand dollars, only to have
their requests snubbed by the NSW
Ministry of the Arts.
The long-serving director of the
AGNSW, Edmund Capon, has said
time and again that governments
should see the task of providing
funds to state galleries as a
responsibility, not an example of
The AGNSW received $20.5
million in recurrent funding in
the last financial year from the
State Government -- much less than
its counterparts in Melbourne,
Canberra and Brisbane -- and had to
raise the same amount itself just to
cover costs. There are rumours that
even this niggardly annual grant is
resented by some Labor members
who see the arts as an indulgence of
the Carr era.
The counter argument,
advanced by economists such
as Richard Florida, is that arts
funding represents an investment
rather than charity. When a
gallery is adequately funded and
well managed, it will generate
greater revenues, aside from the
accompanying social and cultural
benefits. This economic argument
has been persuasive in places such
as Singapore, which has begun to
fund the arts in a more committed
It is pathetic that we need resort
to such expedients. A leading art
museum is self-evidently a central
asset to any city, state or country. It
is a repository of cultural memory
and one of the most important sites
of community activity. Why is it
so hard for Australian politicians
to understand the significance of
major galleries, and provide them
with the most basic funding?
The results of inadequate
funding, as Menz observed, will be
the relegation of our museums to
the status of provincial backwaters.
This process is already well
advanced in Australia, where no
amount of spin will eventually
disguise the threadbare nature of
Due to our own meanness,
philistinism and lack of vision
we are on the way to becoming a
John McDonald is the Sydney
Morning Herald s art critic.
Artist and critic Marcus Westbury.
Photo: Angela Wylie
Christopher Menz refused to renew his contract with the Art Gallery of South Australia because of inadequate funding.
Photo: Stephen Gray
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