Arts advocacy’s future, post AMPAG

AMPAG (Australian Major Performing Arts Group) has announced that its final project will be a report examining the changing face of arts advocacy in Australia and how its effectiveness can be increased. The organisation officially closed business in September, but it will continue to live on in name until the report is released, which is expected to be in March.

John Daley, founding CEO of the Grattan Institute, has been commissioned to prepare the report, which AMPAG says will stand as “a significant legacy for the performing arts sector across Australia”.

AMPAG formed in 1999 and has represented many of Australia’s largest not-for-profit arts companies in opera, ballet, dance, theatre and orchestral and chamber music. However, the organisation’s Chair, Mary Jo Capps, points out that the report’s scope is “very intentionally much broader” than looking only at its member companies, and that it will also consider the larger ecology of independents and small-to-medium arts companies.

She says: “AMPAG has itself been working for some years more broadly than its members. This has been happening since after the events of 2015 (i.e. the Brandis cuts to the Australia Council) that we all know too well happened to reshape the landscape. And certainly in the last 12-18 months AMPAG has worked very assiduously well beyond its direct membership in cross-sectoral discussions because, as we have always said, the arts ecology is so intertwined and interconnected, where one part does not exist without the other. Anything that happens in one area has impact for everyone else.”

Capps adds that this year, COVID-19 has accelerated the desire for coordination amongst key networks and organisations as never before. Live Performance Australia, Symphony Services International, the theatre network and other bodies in the not-for-profit sector all quickly came together to try to find ways forward.

“Everyone’s facing an existential crisis at the moment, so it just turned out that we had another job to be done, which was very much advocating for the whole sector,” she says.

Ever since the Nugent Report in 1999, arts funding from the Federal Government has operated according to a two-tiered model, and this has come under criticism because it has tended to carry the implication that ‘major’ performing arts companies are more important than the others.

It is an implication that Capps soundly rejects. “It’s not the way the sector actually works. It was a convenient division for communication and dealing with them; and it has worked well from a government’s perspective, but for the actual sector I think that we want to decrease divisions than put more up,” she says.

“At the time Helen Nugent wrote her report (1999) she quite rightly pointed out that the performing arts were particularly poor at advocating. There were a couple of notable exceptions who did it well, but by and large it was a very ad hoc, raggedly bunch who would go in one by one. And often it was not advocating but rather whinging or with a begging bowl. It was not a strategic advocacy program. So that was what AMPAG set out to fix, and I think did it effectively. But now the lines have been redrawn, the landscape is changing.”

Hence the need for this new report. Daley comes well equipped to write it. As one of Australia’s leading public policy thinkers, he has held many senior roles in the arts, and in his younger life was a violinist in the Australian Youth Orchestra.

But before his report appears, immediate interest is how the National Performing Arts Partnership Framework (NPAPF), launched in 2019, play will out. Replacing the Major Performing Arts (MPA) Framework, it among other things undertakes to expand the number of companies funded through the Australia Council.

In the meantime, how will the former AMPAG companies continue to operate collectively, if at all?

Symphony Services International continues to provide advocacy support to the six state symphony orchestras who form the core of its membership. It has recently expanded its orbit beyond its traditional orchestral base too, says CEO Kate Lidbetter.

“The orchestras were very pleased to show leadership and support to the broader classical music sector through our shared advocacy event in Canberra earlier this year. The success of that event has led us to plan for a similar activity next year, and we hope a range of small, medium and larger sized companies will join the orchestras at some point to share stories, successes and challenges with decision-makers in Canberra.”

More details are expected to come on that.

Perhaps because of the new NPAPF, many AMPAG companies themselves were not prepared to comment on what the future holds, or what new umbrella might take the place of AMPAG. However, four opera companies were happy to respond.

Opera Australia’s CEO, Rory Jeffes, believes AMPAG has made great strides in moving away from the two-tiered model that views the ‘major’ companies as belonging to an exclusive club.

“The problem is that there’s an unspoken but sometimes also felt implication is that everyone else is therefore ‘minor’, and has tended to cause a schism,” he says.

“I think the fact that the partnership is becoming broader will hopefully allow that to be less of an issue. Certainly I think that part of the role of organisations like Opera Australia is to act as an advocate to the whole sector, both large and small.”

Jeffes says that discussions have already taken place since the start of the pandemic whereby opera companies all around Australia – not just the national and state ones but small ones as well – have been looking at how they might work together.

“I think the broader partnership will allow that to continue, and I really look forward to that.”

For the present though, it has all been about coping with COVID; and Jeffes says advocacy has changed markedly according to that.

“What’s happened over the last seven months is advocacy for the arts has morphed into being very tactical, because of course it is all about survival – about ensuring that the issues of sustainability and survivability are dealt with in how we advocate with government.”

But over the longer term, he sees a need to put broader arguments to government that carry the collective voice of the arts sector as a whole.

“Organisations like Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet or the Sydney Symphony going knocking on doors in Canberra is immediately just seen as a grab for more money, when actually what we want to do is demonstrate the value we have,” says Jeffes.

“What I’m looking forward to seeing as we begin to emerge from the whole pandemic time is a shift in advocacy coming from all who see the value of art in the community – from theatre groups, music groups, symphony orchestras, galleries and all other areas. We need to find a much more effective way to state the case for why the arts are important.”

Carolyn Chard, Executive Director of West Australian Opera (who also serves on AMPAG’s board) is another who wants to see a view of the arts evolve that embeds it firmly within community.

“What we do know is that the arts are a crucial part of our everyday world. We know that we need the live performing arts, not just the online arts. Part of the magic of live performance is the shared experience with others and we need to find our way back to theatres and galleries and museums and libraries.”

She says that while her company tries to navigate both the pandemic and new National Performing Arts Partnership Framework, what best serves sector needs in terms of national advocacy is yet to be seen.

Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, Victorian Opera’s CEO, also believes that a shared advocacy approach is the way of the future, and that it must reflect a “unified voice reflective of our sector”. She says “This will be especially important in the years to come as the arts slowly recover from the wake of this pandemic and its complex impacts.”

“Our company maintains strong ties across our sector with fellow arts organisations and workers. We are in regular dialogue, offer support where needed, and speak in unison on relevant issues.”

Yarmila Alfonzetti, State Opera South Australia’s Executive Director, holds a rather different point of view. What is fundamental for her is recognising diversity of needs. She says the winding up of AMPAG is “an unsurprising reflection of our times” and is not convinced that the arts have experienced much success in group advocacy over the last ten years.

“My perception of what has happened over time is that each of the major performing arts companies is desperately trying to differentiate themselves. And they should! Here at State Opera one of our key values is distinctiveness – we talk about this all the time and we cherish this value. We want to be different and special – and we are! So we don’t necessarily need cookie-cutter advocacy any longer. We need something bespoke and relevant.”

“So, there might be an opportunity for arts companies to find smaller sub-sets, not just art form groupings but rather a conscious collective of like-minded organisations, and source advocacy opportunities and political champions throughout the year for different reasons.”

Those reasons could be any, but she points out as an example how a group of companies that tours performances may need specifically directed advocacy regarding borders and visas.

Alfonzetti says that organisations such as LPA and SSI are already beginning this work.

“But I would be interested if a new player – company or individual – came onto the scene. I hope someone smart with influence takes advantage of this new world we are all in,” she adds.

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