Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Artistic Director: on the way to extinction?

Ralph Myers
(this is not his daggy shirt)
Ralph Myers The Artistic Director: on the way to extinction?
2014 NSW Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Sydney, 30 November 2014.

by Frank McKone

Is Ralph Myers a ‘suit’?  That is the relevant question. 

His answer is emphatically, ‘No’.  Since his first meeting with the best of Australia’s theatre artistic directors, when he became AD of Belvoir in 2009, at which only he and Circus Oz’s Mike Finch did not wear a suit, he claims to have remained what he always was as an artist – a set and costume designer.

He even wore the same daggy shirt, jeans and Volleys to deliver his Memorial Lecture.  Though, as I recall, Philip Parsons would have dressed a little more nattily, I suspect that he would be concerned like Myers about the changing relationships between Artistic Directors and General Managers that we have seen in our theatres since his passing. 

Not only have GMs become CEOs, but we now see EPs – Executive Producers who supposedly combine the artistic dreamer (that’s what a real AD is) with the competitive business person (which is what a CEO really is).   The impossibility of integrating the two in one person, Myers explained, is because the manager wants everything to be done with a steady hand, while successful theatre needs a ‘violently shaking fist’.

In less dramatic terms, an artistic director must be ‘cultural and specific’, not ‘managerial and generic’. 

In his own case at Belvoir Street, he and Brenna Hobson, titled ‘Executive Director’, work as ‘equal co-directors’.  That means much argy-bargy as each fights for what they need.  Artistic directors, Myers says, are our cultural leaders, different from managers – whose task is to make things happen.  It’s a ‘ying / yang’ that’s necessary, which requires two people.  It can’t happen in one executive producer.

Myers sees two themes to explain what is happening. 

The Australian tall poppy syndrome has a long history, which he illustrated in the way the Griffins were treated after winning the Canberra design competition, repeated in Utzon’s experience as winner of the Sydney Opera House competition, and currently demonstrated by the fact that all the conductors of the major Australian orchestras are FIFO from overseas. 

Despite the case of the ‘bloke from Wollongong’ so successfully directing the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Myers sees an Australian ‘unwillingness to be led by artists’.  Selecting the Griffins and Utzon showed ‘great vision’, but snatching away their chance – perhaps their right – to take their designs through to physical completion, placing the work in the hands of, effectively, mere managers has left us with flawed results.  There is a deep sense of insecurity here, where artists cannot be trusted.

In more recent times, as funding has shifted from government towards private sponsorship and philanthropy, the old insecurity shows in the composition of boards.  It was the Nugent report which pushed towards more ‘responsibility’ – which in practice has meant arts bodies becoming more ‘corporate’.

Only Circus Oz still has more than two artists on the board.  Boards, says Myers, appoint business people who appoint more business people like themselves.  They can be ‘trusted’ in matters of profit & loss, reading balance sheets and behaving prudently.  These are, ironically, ‘white, middle-class men like me’.  “I,” says Myers with unerring bravery, “should be replaced with someone more interesting.”

Apart from maintaining the separation and difference between the artistic director (who should have the final say) and the managerial director, Myers proposes three practical actions:

1. Board membership should be 50% artists.
2. Artistic directors should be appointed for short-term tenures without the option for rolling over – say 5 years max.
3. Boards should delegate the appointment of artistic directors to an independent expert panel of artists.

In keeping with his proposal, Myers has already announced his leaving Belvoir in 2015.

But to end on a positive note, in discussion of the apparent conflict of interest between artistic vibrancy and economic viability, Ralph Myers became suitably emotional.  The suits’ concept of artistic vibrancy is alien to the artists’ concept.  What is artistic quality?  It’s when a show ‘takes off and starts to sell’.  This is not always predictable, but at this point you can feel the energy coming off the stage and being returned by the audience, in a virtuous circle.

Yet it must be a worry that if artistic directors like Ralph Myers are extinguished in favour of good management: this will extinguish theatre and nothing will be left worth managing.

My report is necessarily limited in scope, but the full transcript of the lecture is available here http://belvoir.com.au/news/artistic-director-way-extinction/

The Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture is supported by Arts NSW and Currency House.

Recent relevant Platform Papers published by Currency House and previously appearing on this blog are:

Take Me to Your Leader by Wesley Enoch
The Retreat of our National Drama by Julian Meyrick