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Arts leader Lynch labels Federal Government’s arts policy as a disgrace

Arts leader Lynch labels Federal Government’s arts policy as a disgrace
March 10, 2016

National and international arts leader Michael Lynch has described the Federal Government's arts policy as a disgrace.

Speaking at yesterday’s Currency House Creative and Business Breakfast, Lynch spoke out against the Abbott/Turnbull Governments’ devastating cuts to Australia Council funding and the reaction of major arts organisations to the move.

Lynch stated “the way these decisions were made ranks as one of the worst pieces of bad administration I have seen in almost 40 years of working in this sector.”

Over the course of his career, Lynch has led the Australia Council, Sydney Theatre Company, the Sydney Opera House and the Southbank Centre in London. Most recently, he was Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, responsible for the delivery of a new 40-hectare, 17-venue cultural precinct.

In his speech, East West Home’s Best?, Lynch reflected on challenges from his own career and the difficulties Australia’s artistic community faces in the future.

Recently returned to Australia, Lynch commented “without warning and contrary to all the public commitments given by the Abbott Government, the Australia Council had $40 million taken without discussion and given to the then Minister George Brandis to create an alternative funding mechanism in Canberra under the Minister’s direct control and divorced from any advice from the Australia Council.

“What an astonishing way to run arts funding and arts policy.”

Describing Senator Brandis' actions as the fulfilment of a "revenge strategy" of former Prime Minister Abbott against the arts, Lynch said the problems continued despite the election of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister.

He added “what has happened since is a disgrace to the present government. Post the demise of George Brandis as Arts Minister and the elevation of Mitch Fifield, some $12 million was restored as some sort of salve to the arts community that had welcomed the new leadership of Malcolm Turnbull.

“But the effects of last year's cuts are about to be felt across the arts sector and, while we don’t yet know the detail, announcements from the Australia Council will be made in July.

“Who as yet understands what the impacts will be, but I'm sure it can only be negative and destructive and unnecessary.

“The duplicity to the Chairman and the Australia Council at the opening of the new Venice Pavilion was astonishing and without precedent.”

However, Lynch did not contain his attacks to the Government, also delivering harsh criticism for the arts sector.

Here he stated “what disturbs me most is the way the main players reacted to these changes.

“The major organisations seem to have been struck dumb by the Minister’s decisions and only a very few uttered any reaction to what was being done to artists and in particular small and medium arts organisations.”

He cited as exceptions philanthropists Neil Balnaves and Simon Mordant and the 'courageous group' who set up the Arts Party.

Addressing the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has categorised himself as a lover of the arts, Lynch said, “Malcolm, you must stop this madness and restore the funding to the Australia Council and you must do it in this next Budget before you go to the people this year.”

Lynch questioned the Federal Government's preferred strategy of turning arts funding towards partnerships with the private sector as leading to a very risk averse arts sector.

Lynch compared Australia’s arts scene to what he had encountered overseas, having worked on one of the world's biggest and most costly arts precincts, Hong Kong's HK$23 billion (US$2.9 billion) M+ project in West Kowloon, and prior to that running London's South Bank and Royal Festival Hall.

Speaking before delivering his speech, he stated “having come from Hong Kong and China, the idea that we would trifle with arts with some sort of illusory promise if we keep quiet, that really disturbs me.”

Michael Lynch: Over his career Michael Lynch has been General Manager of the Sydney Theatre Company, General Manager of the Australia Council, Director of the Sydney Opera House, Chief Executive of London’s Southbank Centre and, most recently, Chief Executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong.

Lynch was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours List of 2001 for services to arts administration (principally for his work at the Australia Council) and in 2008 he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours (UK).

Live Performance Australia announced on Wednesday morning that Lynch would receive the Sue Nattrass Award for exceptional service to the live performance industry at the 16th annual Helpmann Awards on 25th July.

His speech, East West Home’s Best? can be read in full below.

3rd December 2015 - SENATE INQUIRY SLAMS FEDERAL CHANGES TO ARTS FUNDING

26th November 2015 - AUSTRALIAN COUNCIL WELCOMES PART RETURN OF NPEA FUNDING

21st November 2015 - SCALING BACK OF NATIONAL PROGRAM FOR EXCELLENCE IN THE ARTS A ‘BITTERSWEET MOMENT’

20th November 2015 - FEDERAL GOVERNMENT RETHINKS ARTS FUNDING WITH CHANGES TO UNPOPULAR NPEA INITIATIVE

28th July 2015 - AND THE 2015 HELPMANN AWARD GOES TO …

26th November 2014 - CONSTRUCTION ADVANCES ON WEST KOWLOON CULTURAL DISTRICT VENUES

East West Home’s Best?: Michael Lynch

It’s six years since my last Currency House talk in Sydney in 2009 not long after returning to Australia post my seven years in London. In that talk I tried to look back on my time in the UK and give some overview of a very lucky life and career.

May I say how thrilled I am to have Lisa Havilah introduce me to you this morning. At the end of a long career in the wonderful world of the arts it gives me great comfort to see a new generation of arts and community leaders taking over from the tired and spent baby boomers; and it makes me feel even better that most of them are women and that they are carving an indelible mark on the Australian arts landscape. Thank you Lisa for your kind words and I look forward to watching you reach stellar heights in your leadership of Carriageworks in the years ahead.

I should also pay tribute to the extraordinary Katharine Brisbane who has been such a presence and an active contributor to this country’s cultural life for some seven decades and remains determined to provoke and contribute to the development of new thinking around writing and performance and the role that government should play in supporting our great artists and their work.

When I returned from London in 2009 I took up roles on the Boards of the ABC, Film Victoria and the Myer Foundation.  I settled in Melbourne with my wife where she was very busy setting up the Wheeler Centre, and where I did my best to adapt to what my daughter refers to as RDS: relevance deprivation syndrome. I then had a hip replacement, which made me feel I could walk again (or even walk on water?) and reignited the idea of doing a last meaningful job before either the RDS or the effects of post polio finished me off.

So the ambition still burned and in 2011 I was offered the role of CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District and started there in July almost five years ago.

An epic project. A challenge that had seen the demise of two previous incumbents: the first lasted a week, the second four and a half months. But then again, the West Kowloon project had been gifted the most expensive 40 hectares of real estate in the world, on Hong Kong harbour, and a bank account with almost four billion Oz dollars in it. Considerable up-side.

And so we set out to build the world’s most ambitious cultural precinct, comprising a major new contemporary art museum, M+, and some 15 theatres of different sizes and configurations that would give Hong Kong’s artists and arts companies wonderful facilities that had been denied them under 150 years of British colonial rule.

Does it sound a little familiar to Sydney’s ambitions back pre Sydney Opera House?

What we were trying to do was launch Hong Kong into a competitive position with the great cities like New York, London, Paris, Shanghai and our own Sydney, all examples of places where it has been clearly established that access to a wide range of cultural activities is crucial to being a successful world city. The recent report on ''World Cultural Cities' made a very clear connection between the cultural life of a city and its capacity to be a financial and lifestyle centre and a draw-card for the best international talent and the most compelling tourist offer in an increasingly competitive world.

That was the purpose and ambition of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

So what was achieved in my four years on this epic project and where is it now?

M+ is well underway. Designed by Hertzog and De Meuron, architects of Tate Modern, M+ will have a floor space of over 60,000 square meters and is due for opening in 2019 at a present cost of 5 billion HK.

Five of the theatres are now under construction with the Xiqu, the Chinese opera theatre scheduled to open in 2017, and the others due to open over the following three years at costs from half a billion to 3 billion HK dollars.

The large urban park is now under construction and will open next year and it’s worth noting that over 23 of the 40 hectares will be public open space including 13 hectares of parkland.

There were, however, external factors which put enormous pressures on the West Kowloon project, and are still impacting the time frame. The most pressing was the new fast rail to China, with the Hong Kong terminal being built under and next to the West Kowloon site. It will cost some $HK70 billion and is running three years late; and the rest of the site can’t be developed until the railway is completed.

The overall budget was under real stress from early on in my time with the project, as construction costs in Hong Kong had risen by 150% since 2008 when the HK Government granted the initial money.

But these are the sorts of stresses one expects on big projects, and I went to Hong Kong knowing that I would never be able to see out the project to its completion in 2020 or thereabouts. But I am proud to have got it started. I am proud that Hong Kong people will have the sort of harbourside park that we take for granted in Sydney and that they will have a truly splendid museum when M+ opens.

If any of you are going to Hong Kong in the coming months, be sure to see the first exhibition of works from the famous SIGG collection of Chinese contemporary art that was gifted to West Kowloon in 2013 at a value of 1.3 billion HK dollars.  It includes some 1500 works from the seventies to the present day and will provide the cornerstone of the M+ permanent collection which has now reached some 5000 pieces, with a primary focus on Hong Kong, China and the rest of Asia.

So, having got the ball rolling in West Kowloon, it was time to come home.

And, as our new leader says, what an exciting time to be an Australian in the great Age of Innovation!

We returned a week after the election of the great visionary Malcolm Turnbull who had wrested power from undoubtedly the worst PM since Billy McMahon; or at least since Kevin Rudd. The atmosphere was palpably different, almost reminiscent of the halcyon days in 1972 when Gough was elected.

The SMH commented in its editorial that “now he has a second chance at the top job, he is doing everything possible to reform the nation in his image. He has a year to complete the makeover.”

But it’s still the Government lead by our worst Prime Minister and Malcolm must be judged by their actions, not by our hopes. And I would like to be fair to Malcolm as he is my local member and a very nice guy who could make me feel proud to be an Australian at such an exciting time if my issues are addressed.

There are a number of things troubling me after six months in our new-found Nirvana. It seems to me we have have moved too slowly in a world that is spinning perilously fast.

Where are we up to with Reconciliation, the Republic, and the National Disability Insurance scheme?  On a personal note, I’m offended that polio victims “some 400,000 of them” are excluded from the scheme.

What’s happened to hoped-for advances on Climate Change, Same Sex Marriage, Public Broadcasting and arts funding? And what has happened to address the increasing inequality in this most fortunate of lands? We seem to be dangerously myopic about what has happened in the world over the last ten years. Dare I say this seems particularly acute in our precious and fortunate Sydney where we exist in somewhat benign indifference to everything going around us.

As many of you know, my career has been bookended by the Australia Council. I started work there in 1972 as assistant to its first CEO, the unforgettable Jean Battersby, and under the inspirational chairmanship of Dr HC Nugget Coombs. The Minister was Gough Whitlam and the Council comprised of some of the great leaders of our country and some great artists, who presided over the development of the organization as a significant catalyst for cultural development in Australia.

20 years later, in 1994, I came back to take over the CEO role when Paul Keating was the PM. It was the time of Creative Nation and the establishment of the Major Organisations Fund of the Australia Council.

We attempted to stop the competition between big and small arts organisations for government funding while making the big be a little more planned and business-like and a little more self reliant. We also wanted to ensure that there was new work and that artists could earn a living wage and that Australia could project itself to the world in a more interesting and innovative way long before the new dawn of the Age of Innovation.

In 1996 the Howard government was elected and the then minister Richard Alston advised us that the government, as part of their first post election budget, would cut the funding by 10% and that they expected the Board and management to deal with that issue in a responsible way, which naturally my Chair and I agreed to do. This was done in a climate of distrust of the arts community, and Election Day front page stories that Hilary McPhee would be the first Public Officer to be replaced and that I would be the fourth of the top ten to go.

It never happened, but provides a telling contrast to the events of last year when, without warning and contrary to all the public commitments given by the Abbott government, the Australia Council had $40 million taken without discussion and given to the then Minister George Brandis to create an alternative funding mechanism in Canberra under the Minister’s direct control and divorced from any advice from the Australia Council.

What an astonishing way to run arts funding and arts policy!

What has happened since is a disgrace to the present government.

Post the demise of George Brandis as Arts Minister and the elevation of Mitch Fifield, some $12 million was restored as some sort of salve to the arts community that had welcomed the new leadership of Malcolm Turnbull. But the effects of last year’s cuts are about to be felt across the arts sector and, while we don’t yet know the detail, announcements from the Australia Council will be made in July. Who as yet understands what the impacts will be, but I’m sure it can only be negative and destructive and unnecessary.

The way these decisions were made ranks as one of the worst pieces of bad administration I have seen in almost 40 years of working in this sector. The duplicity to the chairman and the Australia Council at the opening of the new Venice Pavilion was astonishing and without precedent.

But what disturbs me most is the way the main players reacted to these changes. The Major Organisations seem to have been struck dumb by the Minister’s decisions and only a very few uttered any reaction to what was being done to artists and in particular small and medium arts organisations.

10 points to noted philanthropists Neil Balnaves and Simon Mordant who criticised the decisions and the impacts they would have on the arts ecosystem. Ten points to the courageous group who set up the Artists Party to articulate the case for the arts when the Government had failed them.

Null points to most of the Major Organisations who were requested to shut up as it would be in their interest to get access to the money that had been taken from the Council and dispensed by the Minister at his whim. As I understand it, one of the grants made is half a million dollars to a commercial gallery on the Gold Coast!

Malcolm, you must stop this madness and restore the funding to the Australia Council and you must do it in this next Budget before you go to the people this year .

My final points relate to a developing concern over governance in our arts organisations and where it may lead us.

The captains of Industry seem to have done very well in taking over the governance role in most of the arts organisations I have encountered. The chairs and boards are now comprised of the truly great and the good, who have played a significant role in building private philanthropy as the most desired funding source. I have no quibble with this development but it comes with a corresponding slide in corporate support for the arts and a perilous prospect of diminishing government support from both State and Federal sources and also from local government.

The competition in the fight for funds is creating a real climate of competition between the arts companies where ultimately the biggest and the richest and the best connected will dominate at the expense of the artists and the innovators and the truly creative.

One of my esteemed colleagues said to me last week this was the most competitive and difficult time he had experienced in his whole career of working in the arts and that the nature of governance in the sector was a major contributor to this.  This is something we need to be very careful of as I’m sure it’s leading to very risk averse activity in many arts organisations.

Surely the Age of Innovation should open up huge opportunities for our creative community and innovation should not just be predicated on becoming rich tech entrepreneurs. The attitude to the CSIRO fills me with a deep sense of despair at what innovation really means in this new age.

My final words are about our most important cultural institution, the ABC.

Mark Scott has done a great job and I wish Michelle Guthrie, his successor, the very best in her future tenure. To our Government, I ask that you honour the promises Mr Abbott made prior to the last election of “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”. 

If we can afford 12 multi-billion dollar submarines and all that other stuff, we can surely afford a properly funded cultural sector and an appropriately funded ABC and SBS.

Thanks for listening and allowing me to get this off my chest.

I will now take my daughter’s advice and slip quietly into obscurity.

Anyhow, as David Bowie said:

Let’s dance!

Put on your red shoes and Dance.

Thank you.


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