White paper leaves a blank spot on developing the performing arts' connection with Asia
Illustration: Robin Cowther.
FOR those who work or are interested in the arts, it is common practice when surveying government actions to accept that this area is always a last-minute addendum - if we are lucky.
So it is for the Asian Century white paper. We have to be grateful the arts are there at all, and with stronger words such as ''revamping'' what exists rather than that weasel word ''encourage'', which a friend says is death to anything.
The white paper has been in the making for a year, with many interviewed about how we might engage more successfully with our region. It echoes Paul Keating's lead 20 years ago, but now seems both more obvious (hello, China), and more urgent.
Education has taken the running, as it should. We all care about it and the situation has been dire. But the talk is about language in schools. What about education of our arts people at the tertiary level? No Australian tertiary performing-arts training provider has core curriculum material on Asia. For this sector, Asian performance practice or philosophy is an add-on, to be engaged in if there is extra capacity.
As Aubrey Mellor, formerly of Playbox and NIDA and now based in Singapore, has said: ''On a recent return to Sydney it depressed me to see no sign we are in Asia, at least not in the performing arts. International leaders like Lepage, Mnouchkine and Robert Wilson have long been tapping Asia for inspiration … Unlike Europe and the United States, Australia has not yet seen a single professional production of any of the plays or adaptations by the many Asian Nobel prizewinners, including Kenzaburo Oe, Gao Xing Jian, Yasunari Kawabata, Rabindranath Tagore, and their equals, Kunio Kishida, Cao Yu and Abe Kobo.''
The white paper raises the opportunity for further discussion on how to right this situation and focusing on tertiary education is a key part. Perhaps a quota is the only way: including, say, 20 per cent of core curriculum for Asian material.
It is a similar sad tale for funding for activities with Asia in the performing arts area over the past 20 years by the Australia Council. Two decades ago the council funded such activities with nearly 60 per cent of its international budget. This has since declined to between 10 and 20 per cent.
Those funds spent in Asia itself have changed over the period, with the marketing tail of the arts dog increasingly muscular. In the early 1990s, countries such as Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Vietnam received a considerable slice of the pie, but gradually the focus centred on places where a Western-style ''market'' operates (Japan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong). They now reign supreme in terms of funding from the council.
So we spend money on Korea, but not Indonesia because it doesn't have a comparable ticketed theatre system; forget the fact that Indonesia has one of the most lively contemporary cultures in the world, and happens to be next door.
One of the best international programs I have seen was KITA! organised by the Japanese and held across Indonesia a few years ago. It didn't take existing Japanese works to be shown to reluctant but polite audiences in little-visited theatres and museums; rather it sent young artists to create new performances and artworks with colleagues in Indonesia and then presented them within the communities, on the streets, in the places where people naturally gather. It looked fun, energised, real, thoughtful, and terrific.
We should be doing better in Asia. We tend to send things as one-offs, without a lead-in or follow-up. This piecemeal action just doesn't work. We need a better strategy, better knowledge and better understanding of how things work.
The idea of a new international cultural agency has been gaining traction in the arts community. One run by arts professionals (not diplomats), and with real expertise, similar to agencies almost all other countries support. Again, to take the case of Indonesia: the French have four cultural centres there, and there are centres run by the British, Germans, Dutch, Italians, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Russians and so on. Unlike Australia, the near neighbour, which has none. Everyone thinks more money is good, and it is, but re-arranging what is there now and spending it in a focused and wise way is a first step. I don't think the KITA! program was expensive - good things don't have to cost a lot.
None of this is addressed in the white paper. Perhaps the new cultural policy will have some real action in this area at its core, some meat on its slender bones for all of us at least to be pleased to sniff if not devour.
Alison Carroll, with Carrillo Gantner, is author of Finding a Place on the Asian Stage (Currency House), in which Aubrey Mellor's words are quoted.