Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Big hArt critiques AusCo

Scott Rankin, creative director of campaigning arts company Big hART. Picture: Ryan Osland.

Rosemary Neill, Big hART attacks Australia Council over heritage arts funding, The Australian, 25 November 2017

For Scott Rankin, 2017 should have been a celebratory year; a time to bask in his company’s achievements since its unlikely genesis 25 years ago in Braddon, northwest Tasmania. “It’s the poorest electorate in the poorest state in the country,” he says pointedly. “So it gives some credibility that we research and develop all our work down here.”

Rankin is chief executive, creative director and co-founder of Big hART, a campaigning arts company that, during the past 2½ decades, has created award-winning theatre, exhibitions and documentaries with 50 “outsider” communities where “the police often fear to tread”.

The company works intensively, for months or years at a time, with people who have typically never been near a state art gallery or theatre: teenage single mothers, adolescents in youth detention, residents of a drug-infested public housing estate, children living in remote areas and deemed “unteachable”.

From the Pilbara town of Roebourne — epicentre of a still-unfolding child abuse epidemic — Big hART produced an interactive comic that last year took out a Ledger prize, one of Australia’s top comics awards. Its eight-year campaign to secure indigenous painter Albert Namatjira’s copyright for his impoverished descendants ended in triumph just weeks ago, with the rights to the painter’s works placed in family hands for the first time in 60 years.

Its first project, the theatrical work Girl, was sparked by job losses at the Burnie Paper Mill in Tasmania in 1992, and the unemployment and crime wave that followed.

Politicians from John Howard to Bob Carr and Nigel Scullion have backed Big hART’s vision, while celebrated performer and festival director Robyn Archer has said: “There is no company I admire more in Australia.”

Despite its accomplishments, Big hART is confronting a funding dilemma that means it may have to lay off staff. It also may have to pull out of Roebourne, the former gold rush, now largely indigenous town where it has worked for seven years and which Rankin describes as having “the highest need in the country”.

In an extraordinarily frank interview, Rankin attributes his company’s problems — and those faced by other small and medium-sized arts companies — to the Australia Council’s funding priorities.

In a blistering critique, he accuses the federal arts agency of directing most of its funding to heritage arts — the flagship opera, ballet, classical music and theatre companies — at the expense of marginalised communities.

An uncompromising advocate of equal cultural rights for all Australians, he says: “Vast areas of the community, those who are most desperately in need, are left out and what they get is crumbs, which are token bits of funding, so that people like me will shut up.”

The Big hART co-founder excoriates the council as “inept” and “a joke”, and accuses it of taking a “negligent” and “intolerable” approach to arts workers based in troubled, often dangerous communities by not adequately subsidising their work. (The council firmly denies these claims.)

Speaking in a low, resolute tone, Rankin says: “Nugget Coombs (a council founder) set up a good thing a long, long time ago. But it’s just fallen over and it’s now the lapdog of the department of arts in Canberra.” He says the federal arts agency’s priorities are “so clearly wrong now that the Australia Council should be abolished and rebuilt”.

Rankin — who last week was announced as 2018 Tasmanian of the Year — previously has served on the council’s theatre board and community cultural development board. It is extremely rare for cultural organisations that depend on the Australia Council’s largesse, let alone a former council insider, to openly criticise it. But Rankin doesn’t hold back. “I’m not angry, I think it’s hilarious, what has happened to the Australia Council,” he says. “I mean it is a joke, I could write a comedy about it.” He says this with a shake of his head and a rueful laugh.

Since its inception, Big hART has toured nationally and internationally, played to 2.4 million people and won World Health Organisation, Helpmann and AFI awards. This year it was named as Telstra’s Tasmanian Business of the Year and it is a finalist in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s national awards.

The playwright and director says that despite the company’s achievements and close engagement with the Australia Council’s priority groups — including rural, remote and indigenous communities and young people — it cannot apply for the same levels or security of funding enjoyed by the 28 companies that form the Major Performing Arts group. This group includes the nation’s biggest arts companies, among them Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and the state theatre companies and symphony orchestras.

He says: “Although the Australia Council publicly say their priority areas include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, youth and regional and remote areas, their funding levels and initiatives indicate the absolute opposite. The least amount of funding goes to the highest areas of need.”

While his critique is partly about his company’s survival and self-interest, he also points out there is no “pathway” that would allow any community-focused company to migrate to Major Performing Arts status and, hence, more permanent funding.

Meanwhile, “low-achieving companies funded by the MPAB (Major Performing Arts Board) are rarely if ever de-funded. These rusted-on companies can chronically underperform … without fear of losing funding.”

According to Rankin, since 2000 Australia Council funding has covered less than 10 per cent of Big hART’s arts project costs. “Currently they are not interested in our work, you could say, in terms of the commitment of the dollar. But they’re very interested in having their label on our work.” Although it is the nation’s largest arts company of its type, Big hART is classified as medium-sized and therefore can apply for only one-off grants or multi-year program funding capped at $300,000 a year.

The Big hART chief executive argues that by taking a new approach to disadvantage, his company “saves a fortune” for governments. Put bluntly, giving marginalised youth cultural rights was cheaper than putting them in jail. “Our focus is not on the victim narrative. Our focus is on, ‘Who are you, and who do you want to be?’ ” he says, speaking with an intensity that can border on the evangelical.

An Australia Council spokeswoman says that since 2008, Big hART has received 16 grants worth a total of $3 million. (According to Rankin, it costs $3m a year to run the company.)

Council figures show the 28 Major Performing Arts companies received $109.1m last financial year. This vacuums up almost two-thirds (or 62 per cent) of the agency’s funding. These figures also reveal that about 590 small to medium arts companies share less than half the money ($53.4m) that goes to the 28 majors while reaching twice as many people.

The arts body says, however, that commonwealth and state governments, not council staff, determine “the composition of the companies included (in the major performing arts group) and the level of funding”.

Nevertheless, the council firmly rejects Rankin’s claim it neglects high-need areas. Its spokeswoman says that last financial year it subsidised 1620 new indigenous works and 353 “culturally diverse projects/events”. Council chief executive Tony Grybowski says it supports “a wide range of extraordinarily diverse organisations and artists working in challenging environments and with vulnerable communities”.

The agency adds that the majors are “subject to strict monitoring and reporting” and must present new strategic plans every three years.

Even so, there is broader disquiet in the arts world about how the bulk of the Australia Council’s funding goes to just 28 companies — Opera Australia received $25.5m last year, most of it from the council.

Rankin denies his criticism is an attack born out of self-interest. Rather, he sees it as “a last-ditch attempt to start standing up for people’s cultural rights … We are held to ransom by this inept agency that is essentially ensuring the arts can’t be part of the solution in Australia to the issue of cultural rights (for the disadvantaged), because it’s part of the problem. They’re interested in the big end of town, big events and big companies.”

This is not the first time Rankin has taken on the federal arts funder.

In 2008, the council offered Big hART a six-year grant, averaging $125,000 a year. In a controversial move, Big hART knocked it back, arguing it needed $610,000 a year to do its work safely and that the council had previously acknowledged this. Rankin says “we had to take that stand … Their inept policies of underfunding were endangering our arts workers’ safety in the field” — something the council emphatically denies. Almost 10 years on, he says “we are in exactly the same position”.

Big hART has staff based in Roebourne and Rankin says “no other non-indigenous agency lives in the town. It’s all fly in and fly out, except for the police.” He says Roebourne “is beautiful and culturally intriguing” but also a chronically neglected and therefore “dangerous place to work”. (Police have described the rate of child sex offending in the town as “staggering”. So far, 300 child abuse charges have been made against 36 men.)

Since 2011, Big hART has engaged 80 per cent of this deeply scarred community’s youth in 2000 arts workshops. In 2014, its acclaimed music theatre work about deaths in custody, Hipbone Sticking Out, was created with locals and performed at the Melbourne Festival and Canberra Centenary Festival.

A further project, New Roebourne, aims to turn 100 young women from the Pilbara into future leaders. “If you change a young woman you change a community, if you change a young man you change the footy team,” says Rankin. “They are the future of that community; that’s what we’re trying to deliver there.”

On November 30, young women from Roebourne and other communities (Cooma, NSW; Wynyard, Tasmania; and Canberra) will travel to the ACT for a 12-hour colouring-on marathon at the National Gallery of Australia. The event will be launched by former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, and the aim is to raise money for preschool children who have fled family violence.

Rankin has approached various government departments for continued funding in Roebourne but says: “We are about to have to pull out of there because governments — both state and federal — are prepared to spend money punitively on the criminality and the criminals, but won’t spend money on the young people who need support.”

During the past 25 years, challenging environments have become second nature to Big hART. Its first theatre show, Girl, was set and created in Burnie, northwest Tasmania, in the 1990s as the town was roiled by redundancies at the local paper mill and a spike in youth crime. The Girl team worked with young people “heading towards the juvenile justice system”, and played a tangible role in reducing rates of recidivism.

From 2007 to 2010, the Drive project, also based in Tasmania, focused on the hidden phenomenon of “autocide” — young rural men intentionally killing themselves while driving. This project was motivated by the idea that “hardly any group attracts less sympathy than under-educated, rural, white young men” and resulted in a documentary that screened on the ABC, an exhibition and 69 spin-off short films.

Given its funding difficulties, Big hART is changing tack and working on an alternative funding strategy — a high-octane project called Skate, animated by skateboarders, gravity-defying stunts and percussion. It’s hoped this commercial show will generate profits that can be fed back into the company’s social justice projects.

Big hART auditioned skateboarders in an all-night event at a Melbourne skate park, and a showcase of this “pure, theatrical spectacle” was shown to potential investors and arts festival directors last month.

Skateboarding will feature as an Olympic sport for the first time at the 2020 Tokyo Games, and Rankin, suddenly sounding more like a spruiker than an indignant activist, predicts interest in it will “go insane”.

As the 2018 Tasmanian Australian of the Year, the playwright and director is in the running for the Australian of the Year title, which will be announced on Australia Day. When accepting his Tasmanian gong, he again highlighted his mantra — how the arts was “about inclusivity and everyone having the right to thrive, not just the lucky like me”.

As for his uncompromising views on the Australia Council, he reflects that “people might think the arts are to do with bread and circuses, but the arts are to do with safety in the community. If the arts are doing their job, everyone would be included in the narrative, and there would be far less exclusion and violence. It’s as critical as that, but it’s sold as a soft option to keep people vaguely happy.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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