Don't let business mindset stifle the arts



The practice of appointing business people to oversee arts bodies is as questionable as referring to the arts as an 'industry'. Business and the arts work on almost diametrically opposed rationales. Understanding this might go a long way towards assessing the art world more intelligently.

Ron Mueck 'Mass' (2017) on display at Triennial at National Gallery of VictoriaIt is true that in both business and the arts money changes hands and costs should not exceed revenue. But that is about where any similarities end. Although in the early stages of a business there is often some creativity involved, once a product has been devised that is profitable, the aim is repetition. The point of the enterprise is not to be creative, but to be efficient.

In the arts, the purpose is to be creative, which means avoiding repetition. Successful artworks should be unique, not like what has come before. And such uniqueness has almost no relation to the monetary value: it may be 'worth' a lot, or it may be 'worth' little or nothing. But in an environment where financial materialism dominates, the absence of a meaningful correlation is easily missed.

The point is easy enough to demonstrate. Consider two of the greatest painters of the last 150 years: Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Both created unique, timeless works that took the visual arts into new territory. Few would dispute that they were at the very pinnacle of artistic achievement.

Van Gogh sold only one painting, The Red Vineyard, which was exhibited in 1890 in Brussels. It went for about $2000. It is estimated that Picasso sold about 50,000 works, for a combined total of about $250 million. Does that mean Picasso was 125,000 times better than Van Gogh? In business, such a comment might make some sense. In the arts, it makes none. Yet that kind of monetary evaluation is undertaken all the time to assess the arts 'industry'.

In the 2017 Philip Parsons Lecture, lighting designer Nick Schlieper identified four sources of income for the performing arts: government funding, box office, corporate sponsorship and private philanthropy.

Schlieper argues that relying mainly on the box office is 'actively deleterious to the whole idea of developing an art form' because the aim then becomes to provide continuity and a predictability, which means almost no new offerings. Audiences keep coming because they know what they are going to get. The result is stagnation.


"The principle skill for artists too often becomes the ability to network with bureaucrats rather than to create quality art."


Corporate sponsorship, according to Schlieper, has largely withered on the vine. The only growth area is philanthropy, but this routinely comes with strings. 'As soon as you're using someone's own money to make any form of art, you give that person the moral right to have a say in what that art is,' commented Schlieper, who contended that the only way out of the situation is to argue more effectively for government funding.

In truth, more government funding is not an especially attractive solution, not least because it tends to be highly politicised. The principle skill for artists too often becomes the ability to network with bureaucrats rather than to create quality art.

This can partly be overcome by putting in place sound institutional structures. According to the German-Australian theatre director and producer, Wolf Heidecker, in much of continental Europe (especially Germany and Austria) there is a deliberate effort to invest in people. In most theatre productions personnel costs represent about 80 per cent of the total. The remainder goes to overheads and other production related costs like sets, props and costumes.

In Germany and Austria the theatre is thus only required to generate 20 per cent of the costs from ticket sales, whereas in Australia it is more than half. There is also a subtle change of wording: funding is not called a subsidy, but a 'risk premium' — taking a risk on producing something new. It means that performing artists can make a living, something that is all but impossible for Australian artists unless they emigrate. Boards are also banned from interfering with the artists' programs.

The approach in Australia is the opposite. Risks are avoided because government funding is treated more like seed capital that has to elicit a business return — and the best way to get that return is to offer the familiar. Boards, which tend to be heavily populated by business people, regularly override the artists because too often (understandably enough) they see their role as being the same as managing a business.

It is unlikely that a solution will emerge any time soon. But to improve the situation, it would help to stop calling the arts an 'industry' and to stop treating artistic ventures as just another business. It is a recipe for intractable mediocrity.



David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of He has a PhD in English Literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Main image: Ron Mueck 'Mass' (2017) on display at Triennial at National Gallery of Victoria (Photo by Tim Kroenert)

Topic tags: David James, art, business


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Existing comments

Great article David. I have always hated the commercialisation of creativity into an 'industry'. It smacks of the same mentality which sees nothing wrong in the term human 'resources'. Regarding the arts, the artists themselves are fighting back through the internet and the whole commercial elitist (because of money) gallery process seems to be dying a slow self-induced death. Sadly, I think the majority of people these days have drunk the kool-aid of consumerism and corporatism. Sadly most don't realise they have become economic slaves to be be exploited rather than wondrous creations to be nurtured. We all need to continually question our whole raison d'etre. Articles like yours will help to do this. Also, your play sounds terrific. Will look it up.
Stephen de Weger ( | 21 February 2018

Your observations ring very true, at least in my own experience and observation. Although there are some refreshing exceptions, such as the Red Room Company in my own field (poetry) and the Stella Prize for women writers (an inspired and successful initiative), and some excellent literary journals which deserve support yet receive little or no funding, it is still the case that funding goes mostly to safe bets, and there is a concomitant unwillingness to take risks on anything that ventures into less familiar territory, or cannot be relied on to turn a financial profit, despite the talk of "creative capital". Poetry is sometimes a case in point, and the publication thereof a casualty of the attitudes you identify (though certainly not the only casualty), although there are also some risk-takers in publishing who are prepared to invest in work they believe in, which is not necessarily a guarantee of economic sustainability for them, given the relatively small market (based on population) for such publications. Sustainability in terms of creativity may not coincide with economic sustainability for the creator. However, as you note, business criteria are often given priority over creative payload when disbursing funding. Thank you for your perceptive comments and to Eureka Street for publishing them.
Jena Woodhouse | 21 February 2018