Shooting the pianist

The McLeay Report: Throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Shooting the Pianist: The Role of Government in the Arts [edited by Philip Parsons (Sydney, Currency Press, 1987). rrp $7.95] is neither an historical account of arts funding in Australia nor an argument for a specific direction in future funding policy. Rather, it takes the form of a dossier of materials drawn from "The Mcleay Report" (Patronage, Power and the Muse), responses to the Report from the Australia Council and various extracts from the proceedings of a one-day seminar, "The Future of Government in the Arts", held by the Australian Theatre Studies Centre at the University of New South Wales in October 1986.      

The collection is edited by the director of the Australian Theatre Studies Centre, Philip Parsons, who also provides an introduction to the issues. Parsons' hope is that the material col lected in the book will play a useful role in the current debate, by outlining some of the arguments for and against some of the most significant recommendations of the Mcleay Report; the devolution of various responsibilities from the Australia Council Boards to state and local authorities; separate funding of the Australia Council's three major clients; additional community representation on Council and Boards; shifts in the relationship between Council and the Minister; and the need to reduce the costs of the 'administrative' aspects of Council and the Boards.

Parsons quite clearly takes a partisan position in favour of the maintenance of the Australia Council in its present general form. He highlights some of the more cynical, philistine and just plain silly aspects of the Mcleay Report, not the least of which is its title. Such an unobjective stance is quite proper under the circumstances, given that Shooting the Pianist provides something of a reply to what many have seen as an unreasonable attack not only on the Australia Council, but also on artists in general. As Parsons points out, the Report's view of artists is one of its major problems. In the report they figure sometimes as amusingly inconsistent, self-centred, absurd; at others as ruthlessly on the make and bent on exploiting the system.(p.18)

This image, it is suggested, may be the result of the divided interests and opinions within the art community, with the Mcleay Committee taking on the role of 'audience' for a wide range of groups and individuals each with its own axe to grind.

A further problem identified, has been the recent shift from a central focus on the artist, to a broader notion of the "arts industry". This industrial view is the result of a need to justify arts spending on grounds other than the vague "quality-of-life arguments of the sixties which had identified, accurately, the intangible value of the arts to the human spirit"(p.13).

The justification of government spending in the arts by pointing to the 'spinoffs' in tourism and employment has produced a situation in which the debate is now firmly in the hands of "the industrialists". By using an industry model to justify funding, the arts are now valued in terms of measurable material benefits. Such a view of the arts clearly throws a particular light on the Mcleay Report's notion of "public benefit": "We recognise that the arts provide public benefits and argue that the only role of government in the arts is to maximise those benifits. We reject the view that Commonwealth assistance is a right of the arts because of their merit."(p.26)

As a result of the speed with which changes have taken place following the release of the Mcleay Report, elements of the discussion dealt with in this book are already out of date. However, the material which includes contributions from Donald Horne, Di Yerbury, David Throsby, Anna Ward and Mike Mullins, should be of interest to everyone who takes the future of the arts in Australia seriously