Federal Politics

License article

Passing batons, waiting for Godot

IF ARTS' varied and constantly mutating forms in 2012 have shared a single characteristic, it has been a changing of the guard. Many of the people who have led our major institutions moved on this year, and a new cohort is taking up the challenge. A swath of new artistic directors and managers signal generational change; institutions that look to collaborate with other companies and artistic traditions will find green fields wherever they venture.

As a result, 2013 looks even more exciting than 2012, which was strong but featured a valedictory air. Tony Ellwood took over from Gerard Vaughan as director of the National Gallery of Victoria, while Bruce Parncutt succeeded Allan Myers as president. Juliana Engberg extended her reach from the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art to take on the next Sydney Biennale. The Melbourne Theatre Company, between permanent artistic directors, had a mixed year: Neil Armfield's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was a triumph; Robyn Nevin's Queen Lear less so. Formidable manager Ann Tonks said farewell after 18 years, replaced by the comedy festival's Virginia Lovett, who will support new artistic director Brett Sheehy. He, in turn, handed charge of the Melbourne Festival to Josephine Ridge (how will she top this year's vibrant riverside Hub?). At the same time, Melbourne's thriving smaller theatre companies continued to punch above their weight.

Australian Ballet and Opera Australia chief executives Valerie Wilder and Adrian Collette announced their exits, as did the much-loved Peter Burch after 32 years as Victorian concerts manager for Musica Viva. Victorian Opera's artistic director, Richard Gill, farewelled the innovative company, making way for Richard Mills, who will conduct Opera Australia's highly anticipated Ring Cycle this year. Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk's inaugural season at Chunky Move was very well received, capped by taking home The Age Critics Award at the Melbourne Festival for An Act of Now. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was welcomed back home when Hamer Hall reopened in July. The orchestra farewelled director Matthew VanBesien (he is off to the New York Philharmonic) and will greet a new chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, in April. It is wonderful to have Hamer Hall back, less brassy than before, but still splendid. Critics are broadly positive about the acoustics though stop short of a ringing endorsement.

And then there are permament losses, in particular the death of the great philanthropist and arts patron Dame Elisabeth Murdoch. Vale also the art critic, Robert Hughes, who changed the way we thought about art and the cadences in which it could be discussed.

Marking baton changes is more than a roll call. It reminds us of the crucial role played by talented individuals in developing great companies and art. As many organisations and individuals jostle to get pet projects funded (the proposed Sturt Street precinct, Federation Square extension and Flinders Street Station design competition all have cultural components), we must remember that the creation of art by artists is, and always should be, the main game.

A flourishing arts community is a hallmark of sophisticated societies; it teases our imaginations with different perspectives, helps to sustain us and challenges us to strive for change. Investment in artistic endeavours contributes to economic growth. Support through direct funding, box office, and private and corporate giving remains the sector's lifeblood. The future framework for this, though, is uncertain. The wait for Arts Minister Simon Crean to unveil the National Cultural Policy is in its second year. This delay risks signalling something other than fiscal prudence or political caution: it risks sending a message that arts' importance and funding is reserved only for boom times.


Dig deeper on transport

SPENDING precious hours of the first day of the summer break in a queue of cars stretched more than 20 kilometres across the city is, frankly, ridiculous. We could have said infuriating, but that is the lot of Melbourne commuters most days. This is holiday season, and you might expect the roads to be freeing up, giving you the ideal run to the coast to join friends and family. But, no, you left the run a bit late, and now here you are trying to nudge your vehicle across multiple lanes of the West Gate Freeway as it narrows from five lanes to two. You and 150,000 other vehicles. Great time for roadworks.

Don't blame the road crews for your inconvenience, though; essential maintenance must be done. Blame instead the successive state and federal governments that dilly-dallied and for years failed to devise a comprehensive transport infrastructure plan for Melbourne, one that will take this burgeoning city's 3 million people safely and efficiently to work, schools and homes every day. Whether it's an 18-kilometre road-tunnel joining the Eastern Freeway to the Western Ring Road, a direct train link between the city and the airport at Tullamarine, a release of the Kings Way bottleneck through the casino, or a multiplicity of other wish-lists, we are still waiting.

The Baillieu government must be kidding itself if it believes the multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects this state needs can be funded through sales of public land. Either that, or it is hoping for a property boom. In 2013, the critical debate must begin about how much borrowing is appropriate to fund such vital works. Federal and state governments must come clean with the electorate and release coherent, realistic and honest policies and, importantly, funding initiatives for the substantial developments this state clearly needs.