Prime minister lays into arts chiefs

Prime minister lays into arts chiefs


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2009

At the memorial service for Geoffrey Tozer in Melbourne, former prime minister Paul Keating slammed past directors of the Sydney and Melbourne symphony orchestra for deliberate and malicious neglect of the country’s most gifted pianist. ‘This malevolence more or less broke Geoffrey’s heart,’ he said, adding that the saga was a prime instance of ‘bitchiness and preference within the arts in Australia.’

Keating has written an article to the same effect in the Sydney Morning Herald, while the Age of Melbourne carries a full text of the speech under the headline ‘Indifference to Tozer’s genius is a disgrace’ – perhaps to make amends for its own disgraceful silence over Tozer’s death. 

I endorse and applaud every word of Keating’s eulogy. Australia failed its greatest pianist and little has been done to put the arts on a more professional footing that might prevent such waste and injustice in the future – witness only what is happening now in Melbourne’s chamber music hall. I have said it in Australia and I say it here again: the arts in that country need a Royal Commission – an independent assessment of assets and future strategy. 

Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of the precedent of an elected leader attacking orchestral administration for bias, ineptitude and flagrant favouritism. Can we hear it now from the Mayors of Philadelphia and New York? Berlin, too, should take note.

Good on yer, Paul. 


  • JohnofOz says:

    Let’s not overplay the Keating angle here! Many of your readers will not know his style, although it sure is there for all to see: “The kind of loss people felt when Germany lost Dresden.” This is Keating hyperbole at its best. Sadly it says more about Keating than it does about Tozer. Your readers should also note that Keating has not been prime minister since 1996, and even when he was, his arts ministers (Kelly, Lee and McMullen) were mostly remembered for their other portfolio achievements. Commending past leaders for taking the arts establishments of the past to task may be all very well, but it achieves little. Keating plays the angry man very well indeed, but he is no longer our “elected leader”.
    You also sell the Australian arts scene a little short. Arts administration in Australia is certainly not as unprofessional as you imply. The music scene is actually quite vibrant. And while an assessment of assets and strategy may well be a valuable exercise, the last thing needed is a Royal Commission.
    NL replies: I’m familiar with Paul Keating’s history, his hyperbole and his inventive use of profanity. He is, however, in my view, absolutely right in this instance. I recognise the symptoms he describes and agree that they cry out for treatment.

  • While JohnofOZ may be right in saying that Arts Administration in australia can be very professional, I think he unintentionally highlights the entire problem with Australian culture: that the focus is almost entirely on artistic administration and not the art or artists itself. I believe it is symptomatic of a culture of over governance. Three tiers of government for 22 million people? Of course the culture created by such a structure will inevitably become edifice and administration heavy. Australia is one of the most over-curated cultures in the world. Curators, Assessment Panels, Artistic Directors, Artistic Administrators, Creative Producers…. but rarely does the artist appear forefront, and almost always filtered. The artist is never approached for what they might wish to create, but rather how they might ft the frame. Therefore the work that is produced is already tamed, shaped to fit an illusory market for trading works as soft diplomacy, an abhorrent agenda for creation and one that is arguably outmoded already.
    Further one must note the extraordinary demand by practicing artists on the exceptionally small pool of funding available for independent work (of course panel/pier assessed) which is sometimes as little as a 12% success rate in any given category, and never more than 30%. The richest cash composition commission (which has incidentally just been discontinued by the philanthropic organisation) was a mere $AUD 80,000 – but over a two year period, metered out like benefit cheque. The average wage in Australia is about $52,000 per annum. The value of art and artist in Australia is so low, and it really is the role of government to structure the delivery of culture to (and by, let us not forget artists are people too) its citizens.
    I feel artists themselves need to lead this change, as one cannot ever simply hand victory over to people. But it seems unlikely in the current climate, and by the way artists are educated and shaped, and the very tangible fear of persecution for speaking out that a grand revolution is close at hand. There is a punitive thread that runs through arts bureaucracy everywhere, and artists, those like myself who rely on the tiniest of grants from these people, do well to be cautious. My mouth has cost me a lot over the years, but my work stands tall. I am far more careful now, although even writing this my neck tingles a little nervously.
    Having been active in arts governance in Australia I know that that approaching cultural change through policy is glacial. As a composer, I have really had to pull back form these activities lest my practice become a secondary consideration.
    But Keatings call is valid. A ROYAL commission though reads too much of an imperial approach. I would much prefer for Keating, on his government pension, to lead an entirely more rogue approach – create a new form of structural inquiry from within the culture rather than external and one loaded with historiographical weight. Mister Keating might be best to gather artists around him and tool them up to storm the castle. I for one, would be happy to join such a team.
    David Chisholm

  • Many fine artists are neglected in their home country. I am sure there’s at least one that can say this everywhere. Why, I have never played with the orchestra in the region I am from, and have to hustle diligently to make sure I can put food on the table. Most people cannot believe it. In the case of Geoffrey Tozer, he had the Prime Minister speaking up for him–although too late. In my case, I don’t believe there’s a dignitary that is even aware that I or my esteemed colleagues exist. My advice to artists everywhere: don’t wait your life away expecting others to recognize your talents. You have a voice–make sure it gets heard, or you will fall into the cracks of history. Make a difference; create new ideas and projects; leave a legacy–don’t wait for the world to ‘find you’.

  • Huw Belling says:

    I sense a more endemic cultural problem: a fear of elitism that often leads to the derision of ambition other than in a narrow band of accepted professions.
    In his public endorsement of the arts during his premiership, Keating pursued adulthood for the nation. Yet, we are still adolescents (and we’re not dancing to Stravinsky) We bleed classical musicians overseas, and those who remain are stuck in a humiliating social discourse of self-deprecation, or creating inoffensive Australiana. Cultural signs trump content, and no one is challenged.
    I await the next Prime Minister, who mourns pianists who played written-down music; who attends Mahler concerts, much less cries at the end of them. Until that day I will be wailing with Mr Keating.