Marcus Westbury

Is to speak at the [so-called] Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

This is how it’s billed:


It is easy to agree that public financial support for the arts should follow artistic excellence and support those who can bring this to broad audiences.

So why does so much financial support go to opera and its wealthy patrons? Why should the vast majority of public subsidy for the arts be spent on art forms like symphony and opera, where the audiences are small, white and wealthy?

Meanwhile, the plight of so many other art forms that Australian’s [sic] passionately love, respect and want to experience are ignored.

How dangerous do they really think it?

Not too dangerous for the Opera House to make money out of by charging me to go and hear him talk. I’m not sure I’m prepared to spend that penny.

Marcus has been pushing this theme, which is, indeed, hardly a novel one, for some years – at least since his 2007 piece Mozart cover bands rake in the moolah and he’s trotted it out a few times since (I hope for a fresh fee) – for example, at the end of last year when Lyndon Terracini got the top artistic job at Opera Australia, and elsewhere.

Naturally, I am jealous of the support for my own favoured high art forms, so my response is hardly disinterested. I often say to friends that I go to the opera rather than (say) unsubsidised musicals because at the opera I get more of the government’s money. But there’s the rub, because the most I get is the money’s worth – assuming it is worth it or to the extent that it is. I (and other members of the audience) do not get the money: the money of course goes to the company and ultimately (in large part: there is admin, Adrian Collette is doubtless well paid and an enormous amount goes to publicity and advertising) to the artists it employs. Opera Australia’s figure is so high (and higher, for example, than any of the Symphony Orchestras) because it receives money to support the very high fixed costs of supporting two sizeable permanent ensembles – the chorus and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra – as well as the infrastructure of backstage staff. So one way of thinking of it is to say that the real question is whether those people should get that money.

I’m not saying the answer is simple, but that also means that for a complete picture one might need to look at the other money which the state provides to struggling artists who receive their de facto subsidies from Centrelink or from the higher education system. Of course, they are getting less than the pampered jades of the opera, but the total amount and its distribution between artforms is not to be equated with the funds disbursed by the Australia Council or the Major Performing Arts Board.

Money is incredibly important for art. For individual artists, whether they persist in their endeavour mostly depends on it. It is not, I think, a coincidence that many visual artists of the mid-twentieth century, for example, were able to continue at the very least at the beginning of their careers, because of family money behind them. That’s apparent, for example, from the diaries of Donald Friend (I recently read the first and last volumes of these). Brett Whiteley, Martin Sharp, even [as a pundit rather than an artist] Robert Hughes all started from a favourable position. Others just went and got a job as a clerk in a government department (see, eg, DR Burns, Early Promise) or became school teachers. Isherwood started out with a hundred pounds a year (on which he could live in Germany) which was, along with the room of one’s own, Virginia Woolf’s vital prerequisite to the literary life. (I think she had rather more than that.) Charles Lamb may have rejoiced when he could pack his job in at the East India Company, but hard though his early life was, the job made quite modest demands on him and even if begrudged was a sinecure. Those charming Tales from Shakespeare were subsidised by the sweat of the Indian.

That’s a scatter-gun and wide and wildly-ranging paragraph: as you can see, I’ve broadened the scope from performing to visual and literary “arts.”

But I suppose I shouldn’t ignore the headline question. What’s so special about opera?

Even Marcus Westbury knows that there are lots of things that are special about opera. I think the hidden assumption in the question is that so long as those special things are aesthetic they are a question of taste which should be put aside: the obligation of the state (which is what he is talking about) is to take a neutral view towards the tastes of its various citizens, just as, for example, one religion is not to be preferred over another. Marcus’s real question is what is so special about opera when we come to consider the question of government money for the arts?

It’s a tricky question, especially when it is posited on the assumption that any aesthetic views about opera’s value are to be put to one side.

A full answer would delay this post for ever.

I’ve already indicated above that the big share going to the opera is a bit of a trick of perspective: the opera is not in a much different position to the symphony orchestras. The distinctive feature of both is the retention of a permanent ensemble, and, in particular, the economical obsolescence of live and acoustical performance.

Opera and Symphony are the calcification of a high water mark in musical economics [musicians poor or pro-am; audiences or patrons, simply by reason of ordinary middle class respectability, very very rich comparatively; the prosperity and concentration offered in a few key metropolises] which was reached in the years immediately before 1914 but which has since survived only by the intervention of the state – either in substitution for the monarchy and aristocracy or in substitution for the support of the very high bourgeoisie.

Over the same period the economics of music have been profoundly affected by the development of amplification and electronic distribution.

The retention of permanent ensembles is a relatively recent development in Australia (as, for different specific reasons, in the USA and, for that matter, everywhere else). In Australia this has always been a matter of government subsidy. Along the way, “classical music” has exponentially professionalised: people expect higher standards and, as I have read somewhere in relation to the US (I will try to track it down, but this is a quick-found snapshot of the current general position there) there has been an enormous supply-side expansion in the availability of technically proficient and highly-trained players. The very few who end up getting a job are, in historical terms, well paid.

Subject to the obvious point made in association with the last paragraph that all government subsidy of the arts is relatively recent phenomenon, that just leaves us with what at first may seem a pretty piss-weak argument that opera is special because its preservation is a heritage issue. On one hand, that is not as trivial as it may seem: what it means is that, if opera and symphony orchestras are not given special treatment, they won’t survive.

Marcus is more concerned about the art forms which are struggling to come into being. These unborn babies are the opportunity cost of the state’s support for opera. That may or may not be so. But is every sperm sacred?

3 Responses to “Marcus Westbury”

  1. Cultural wars « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] funded arts institutions [at the head of the list being opera, and then symphony orchestras] are Marcus Westbury (whose talk on this topic due for 11 am (on the first morning of daylight saving) at the Opera […]

  2. Frederick Says:

    Art is and should dynamic, opera is dead. It is marketed, and the people who buy tickets though intense intensive marketing programs can be sold anything that is well packaged to their aesthetic. “Unborn babies” as you say, better yet the future of art and culture, have very little money almost none in comparison for marketing and the still fil their rooms. If we left marketing to be limited to word of mouth for a small underground experimental art show of some of Australia’s many talented artists, vs the same strategy for an opera I wonder which venue would be full? I have a good guess but that is opinion and speculation, however many underground arts events exist like this and do fill up every time, is there any examples of opera that can achieve the same thing?

    So we can stay making the hits of the 17th century over and over again or we can move to the future and be a little more dynamic with our culture, better yet as Australians we can make our own, not an appropriated culture from European society that colonised this land. I see you use the internet, probably a mobile phone and a host of other things that did not exist in the 17th century, you probably also really enjoy the benefits of such things, would you like to write with a quill and send your mail by horse drawn carriage? Why would you want your culture from the same era?

    Are you and we as a society not as creative as people were 450 years ago? Did we learn nothing? At some point a long long time ago opera was revolutionary, why can’t we follow in this tradition and be revolutionary- any move to preserve these out of date art forms actually betrays the manner in which they were originally made.

    My name is Frederick Rodrigues, I have moved to the Netherlands as, as an artist that believes in creating new work and pushing boundaries and paying my bills I had no choice. Opera Australia took all the arts funding (well almost half of the total) and many others like myself leave this country to work and be respected elsewhere. So I will stay away and leave you with your old and dying artform that you must resuscitate to keep alive.

    • marcellous Says:


      Naturally I googled you, and so I found that I had missed your show with the DeMiXerphone back in May 2010 at the Red Rattler. It sounds interesting. I’m not sure it would have been exactly my thing, but in any event I never heard of it.

      You talk of “word of mouth” marketing but I expect there is still some real cost even of marketing such an event. It might not be proportionately all that much different from the cost of marketing the Opera, though the difference is that the Opera pays for all of its marketing at top dollar subsidised by the state, whereas I expect your group did it by efforts in kind.

      I do hate to see the enormous proportion (from memory it is certainly between 10-15% of the costs) of the budget that goes for performing arts organisations’ marketing.

      Anyway, don’t they have opera in the Netherlands as well?

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