Venice, venues and various views
From Australia once could believe that the Venice Biennale takes over the whole of Venice, that every visitor has come to see it, that the whole city is devoted to its presence, that much of the world’s attention to Venice, at this time, is driven by the Biennale. But standing in Piazza San Marco amidst the hordes, the bustle of thousands and thousands of tourists from all over the world, where the queues to get into the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace are a hundred metres long, the tables and chairs of the cafés all full, the selfie-stick hawkers and fake hand-bag sellers out in force, you realise that it is not so – that for most visitors to Venice the Biennale doesn’t exist except for the banners, the advertisements, and associated exhibitions dotted throughout the city and that gondola rides, souvenirs and a visit to a few churches are the primary focus of their visit. And yet the Biennale is of undoubted importance to the modern reputation of Venice, a contemporary complement to the centuries of arts and culture in its fabric.
Which leads me again to question why it is that we, in Australia, are so obsessed with arts numbers. We think that unless a thousand people go, or the venue is full, a performance has been a failure. In Venice, or Milano, or Paris, or Brussels, the idea of arts and culture is welded to the idea of city and society so that no-one questions its value, even though not everyone participates in it. In Australia that cultural embededness is reserved only for sports, in which not everyone participates. In Europe theatres and museums are taken for granted and constantly being improved. It would be unthinkable to not have them. In Australia our proliferation of sports ovals and sporting facilities are taken for granted and constantly being improved. It would be unthinkable to not have them.
I was once asked at a Parliamentary Committee in New Zealand why should the government fund the arts and cultural facilities, because no-one goes. I pointed out that, leaving aside that he was completely wrong (just because he didn’t go…), every day I passed four or five parks which incurred significant annual costs for their maintenance and upkeep. For the most part of the week they were empty, except for the occasional dog-walker. The major sports facilities were completely empty all week, except for some training sessions and then on Saturday mornings a flurry of activity for children’s sport. By Saturday afternoon – dog walkers and a few joggers again. Yet we accept that having good sports facilities and good parks, which are funded through are rates and taxes, is good for our society.
In Tasmania, at least, as I have said previously (its a hobbyhorse), our performing arts facilities have fallen way behind what should be expected in a modern, sophisticated society. We are not even able to consider performances in Tasmania that are taken for granted in any other state, in many regional cities as well as the capitals, because no-where in the state is there a theatre with a proscenium width of more than eight metres. To put this in perspective – most dance productions are devised with a proscenium width of minimum ten metres in mind.
We don’t yet accept that having good cultural facilities and funding for creativity is of critical importance for our society if we are to grow, create jobs and encourage a healthy and thinking community.
Not everyone needs to be involved. Not everyone needs to like going to the theatre or visiting a gallery for the benefits of creativity to flow to everyone – just as not everyone needs to play sport or go to a sports event for the benefits of physical awareness or the cultural connectedness which can be created by sports to be felt in society. It’s just as important to have new artists, creating new work, playing to audiences of a dozen as it is to have full concert halls listening to genius artists of the past like Beethoven. It’s just as important to have venues where 200 people is a full house, as it is to have venues that seat a thousand.
Arts and culture are always having to compete for funding and yet it represents a tiny part of our national budgets. We are often presented with choices between funding for arts or funding for health or education for example, ignoring the fact that arts funding is so little a percentage of those other important areas as to make the choice completely specious. A departmental head of arts in another Australian state some years ago, when approached about a funding reduction, actually said to me that it came down to a question of more money for the arts or more money for kids with cancer! As if every dollar for the arts is dollar snatched from someone who needs it more! As if that’s the only priority against which it can be measured! What about the roads budget? Or the new bathroom at Government House? Or any number of budget choices that are made each year? The reality is that there are many choices for how our money is spent, but we are only ever presented with a very narrow band of options when the question comes up in the media, or with politicians who know that the lack of recognition of the part that arts and culture play in our society makes the Arts sector a very easy target.
I have conflated the two issues of funding for arts activities and funding for arts facilities for the sake of argument, but the point I make is that we can scratch our heads and rub our stomachs at the same time. If we don’t we will fall behind in everything. Creativity is good. It’s good for us individually. It’s good for us as a society.
Is this MONA advertising in Regent St, London? No, it’s just me bleary-eyed and jet-lagged. However, one could be forgiven…