In response to a submission I prepared, I was invited to give testimony to the Senate Inquiry. The Hansard transcript is as follows:
CHAIR: Thank you for coming and talking to us today. The committee has received a submission from you as submission 1093. Before I invite you to make an opening statement, do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission?
Mr Quah: No.
CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief opening statement of no longer than two minutes before we go to questions?
Mr Quah: Our organisation has our fingers in a lot of pies in the music sector, including pub and club trivia nights and musical bingo. We have a very active wedding music service for both string quartets and DJs. We do audio production. We do outside advocacy as well. We are all over the music and entertainment sector. For my personal background, I am a trained composer. I studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I am a piano composer and singer. I wanted to state all of this very clearly because for all of this I do not consider myself part of the arts community that has been discussed by this panel so far. Everyone who has spoken in front of this inquiry, as far as I know, has been a recipient of Australia Council funding. Is that true? Most of the people who have advocated have had some relationship with the Australia Council. In the 10 years that the O-vation Group has existed, I have not received a single cent in Australia Council funding. My organisations have not received a single cent in Australia Council funding. Despite that, our organisation has not only been able to make a reasonably successful commercial venture; we have produced concerts that have world premiered some 200 new Australian music compositions. We have created new works. We have performed new works. We have given our fellow musicians opportunities to perform new works in front of audiences, and we have done so with absolutely no taxpayer money whatsoever.
I believe someone mentioned earlier today that the small-to-medium part of the arts sector provides most of the services to Western Sydney and, certainly, to regional New South Wales—and, for that matter, the city as well. That is absolutely true, but I want to point out that organisations such as the Metropolitan Orchestra, the North Sydney Symphony, Strathfield Symphony, Mosman Orchestra, the Balmain Sinfonia and the Penrith Symphony are all performing organisations that have managed to put on amazing concerts in the last year with no taxpayer funding, no Australia Council grants, very little state funding and, mostly, in-kind support at a local level. I wish to make that clear, because what these organisations are doing is creating arts. They are doing so without funding from the Australia Council. They are doing so without the expectation that funding is going to be received from government. We are going ahead. We are creating art. We are trying to advance our careers on our own, and we have taken the initiative to do that. Our own organisation has managed to create all of these wonderful new music concerts, and we have done so without any funding.
We continue to advocate for a Western Sydney creative centre, which is a model that, we believe, could potentially create resources and supports for emerging artists across Australia, especially in Western Sydney and especially in regional New South Wales, through the provision of co-work spaces, office spaces, business training such as how to write an invoice — a problem a lot in our sector suffer from. That is the sort of support that the Australia Council is just not interested in. We are not going to get support in the form of a single cent from the Australia Council to build a creative centre. We are not going to get any support from the existing bodies at state or federal, or local for that matter. We are currently looking at a philanthropy model, for the most part, and we will most likely co-fund it is a commercial venture. We will go ahead and make all this happen—whether or not we get government funding.
My point is: the arts community is not represented just by the organisations that have spoken here. The organisations that we have heard from across this entire process represent, maybe, a couple of thousand people. The arts and cultural sector employs more than both the mining and agriculture sectors in this country combined and, for the most part, most of the participants do not receive any funding from the Australia Council or from the state government or local government. Most arts participation is user-pays. I take the example of Packemin Productions. They did a fantastic production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Riverside Theatre about six months ago where they managed to make quite a lot of money. It was user-pays. There was no funding whatsoever. There is a children’s initiative up at Chatswood, where they did a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Once again, an educational opportunity for young people to be involved in the arts that required no government funding.
What we are talking about is this notion of inequity. Ultimately, the Australia Council money has been used to support a very small part of our community at the expense of the larger community. We would like to see a change in the way that we fund the arts so that it supports grassroots organisations, community events, individuals looking to do a concert program in their local town centre—things like that. If we are able to support things like that through infrastructure and provide them with the resources to be able to do what they do, as opposed to just handing out a money grant, I believe that we will see significantly greater artistic output from this country. I believe that this new fund could potentially elevate our entire sector, a massive sector, towards this notion of excellence. That is very much why I wanted to speak in front of this panel.
Senator LUDLAM: Thank you for coming along this afternoon. I am glad we were able to get you onto the program. I think you are the first witness — or there might have been some in one or two of the hearings I was not at — who has been very strong in your support of the new program, so it is good to get this point of view because we have not really heard it. In your submission you said: The Australia Council for the Arts funding model is fundamentally flawed. Almost all of its funding is currently allocated to a closely-knit community of politically-aligned arts practitioners physically based in close proximity to each other within inner-Sydney and inner-Melbourne—to the detriment of a broad Arts and Culture sector … You go on to say: Further, much of the output facilitated by Australia Council funding is artistically dubious in nature, economically without merit and completely detached from the cultural experience of Australian society as a whole. That is really sharply at odds with what dozens and dozens of other witnesses have told us. It is a really big call— that it is divorced from the cultural experience of Australian society as a whole. On what basis do you make that claim?
Mr Quah: I make the claim on the basis that I am technically part of the arts and cultural community, but the work that is being produced does not have any tangible benefit to the society I live in. The point of creating art is to challenge society, and I think that to willingly choose to be in the arts community—a world where you are not going to make much money — you have to have some sort of sense of entitlement. You have to think that the work that you are going to do is so important that society has to fund it so that you can improve society. I am not saying that is a bad thing; I am saying that is an absolutely essential trait for a good artist to have. However, as a consequence we are giving a lot of money to particular projects that are very much at arm’s length from Government, that do not have any benefit to the society around us. It is very, very difficult to justify how, for example, a $60,000 grant for a styrofoam installation — as described in a particularly fantastic Quadrant article — benefits our society or challenges the way that we perceive music. I believe that the very limited pool of funds that is going towards those sorts of arts projects can have a much more tangible benefit on the ground by supporting, for example, the El Sistema orchestral education initiative. The program I am discussing operates three days a week over a 10-week period, in a regional centre, teaching young people how to play instruments. A project like that could benefit immensely from the creative centre model, for example, but the funding for something like that is non-existent because the limited pool of funds that does exist for the arts is being contested over through people fighting for that sort of funding in the Australia Council and now certainly through the National Program for Excellence in the Arts.
Senator LUDLAM: But the National Program for Excellence in the Arts does not create any more money, so there will still be the same number of people going after the same pool of funding.
Mr Quah: That is absolutely right, but I do see it as having a different set of criteria. The notion of art for art’s sake is fundamental to the Australia Council. I believe that the National Program for Excellence in the Arts is going to be able to create programs that are directly relevant to society. I gave a couple of examples in my submission, discussing the potential for a disability arts initiative where, in conjunction with the federal Department of Social Services, we could engage the disabled in a program where they are encouraged to make a film. We get them in a room and we teach them how to make films.
Senator LUDLAM: We have heard from extraordinary disability advocates in the course of this inquiry about work that is being funded by the Australia Council that would actually cop it and they would be wiped out if this fund goes ahead. So you are not proposing to us, ‘Don’t fund work in support of people with a disability.’
Mr Quah: Most definitely not. What I am suggesting is that the sorts of organisations that do advocate disability funding at the moment—and this is from personal experience — are very much focused on the idea of disabled people creating art. What I would be talking about is allowing disabled people to participate in the creation of art but doing so for therapeutic benefits. I take the example of our own FilmAbility initiative. We compared that to a film which received $50,000 in funding from the New South Wales government, a film created by an organisation called Bus Stop Films, in which intellectually disabled people were made to dance around doing interpretive dance. Our film, which we created for one-tenth of the budget and with no government funding whatsoever, involved disabled people writing their own script and having a lot of fun. We ended up creating a film called The Fast and the Fabulous. All it involved was disabled people pretending to drive cars really fast. They have had a lot of fun with those sorts of programs and, in contrast to existing arts projects, the therapeutic benefits were measurable.
Senator LUDLAM: You did not need government funding to put that together?
Mr Quah: No, we did not.
Senator LUDLAM: At the risk of misinterpreting your submission, it sounds as though you just do not like what the Australia Council funds. Have you put in applications for Australia Council funds?
Mr Quah: Yes, we have. I do not dispute what you are saying. I do have an ideological opposition to a lot of what the Australia Council funds, but I do believe that arts funding is essential. I think that a pool of funding from the federal government towards creating an arts and culture community in our society is absolutely essential. I just do not think that centralising it amongst a very small number of people, people who will be on their sixth, seventh or eighth proposals — organisations that are established at the moment who are catering to a very small community. I do not think centralising our funding in those organisations is a good way to spend the money. I think there are better ways to distribute our arts funding. I think that the National Program for Excellence in the Arts is going to help us facilitate that.
Senator LUDLAM: Almost uniformly — maybe unanimously — the evidence we have heard thus far has been very critical of the draft guidelines knocking out individuals and small- and medium-sized companies of performers and artists. They say, ‘You do not even need to apply; you are not excellence as far as we are concerned.’ What do you think of the creation of a fund that simply takes all that diversity—and you seem very concerned about diversity—and tells these people not to bother applying at all? How does that help the situation you are describing?
Mr Quah: I believe that the fund is looking for economic stability. This is from my reading of the guidelines and I may be completely wrong on this, but it looks to me like the fund is designed to support economically stable initiatives. I think the sorts of proposals that the NPEA are going to be looking for are the sorts of proposals that say that an investment of X dollars today will fund Y projects and return a certain amount of dollars back to the taxpayer. I think that sort of economic justification, where we are able to give a line item budget and say that this is how the money has been spent to benefit society in this particular way, is something the NPEA is going to put back into the arts and culture sector.
For all the Australia Council say, I do not think they are able to justify a lot of the funding they have given out. I do not think the notion of, for example, a $10,000 grant to develop one’s career by funding a holiday overseas to learn an instrument is a good use of taxpayers’ money. I think that same $10,000 invested in the creation of a creative centre in a regional town would be absolutely fantastic. If we were able to use that $10,000 to pay the rent for six months on a small office in, let us say, Wodonga, that would support the arts community there. There would be 24-hour access, it would have couches and stuff like that for meetings, it would have pigeon holes to act as mailboxes and it would host educational events. Those are the sorts of projects that the NPEA would most certainly be in a great position to fund — but the Australia Council is currently not in a positon to fund—and would have a tangible benefit for the arts and culture sector across Australia. I am talking about the broad arts and culture sector, the one not really represented here today.
Senator LUDLAM: I think you would find your little arts centre in Wodonga would be disqualified from applying to the NPEA, but best of luck.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I have listened with interest to what you have said, Mr Quah. Your written submission does give a different perspective. There are few other submissions like that, but they have not seen the light of day yet. One thing I just want to clarify: you spoke about the styrofoam thing that got $60,000 or something.
Mr Quah: Yes.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Everyone else seemed to snigger when you said that. I have got no idea what you are talking about.
Mr Quah: I was reading a particularly interesting Quadrant article. I am more than happy to put that on the record for you. It is available online.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Just tell us what it is.
Senator BILYK: Was that funded by the Australia Council?
Mr Quah: It was founded by the Australia Council, yes. Musician Dale Gorfinkel received $60,000 to support the creation of new works, skills and professional opportunities, which resulted in a work entitled Sound Sculptures Polycup. I believe it is nine-minute work that involves the styrofoam cup on a vinyl timetable and the resulting sounds that come from a particular initiative. I am not quite sure how it works but a styrofoam cup is placed on a vinyl turntable. It is not really up to me to discuss the validity of whether or not that is art.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: It is something we must look into. Did that cost $60,000?
Mr Quah: Yes.
Senator BILYK: Mr Quah, did you that say you have applied to the Australia Council but have not received funding?
Mr Quah: We have put in submissions in the past.
Senator BILYK: Can you tell me what they were for?
Mr Quah: We have applied for funding for the for the creative centre and have been told that it is just not something they are interested in.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: What was that?
Mr Quah: Our creative centre model is something that it did not even get to a point where it was formalised They just said it is not within their purview; it is a commercial venture.
Senator BILYK: Your organisation, O-vation, is that a for-profit organisation?
Mr Quah: For the most part, yes. We do both. A lot of our for-profit work funds a lot of our not-for-profit work.
Senator BILYK: You mentioned a couple of examples where there was no government funding required. Are you able to tell me did people pay to participate in those events?
Mr Quah: Yes they did.
Senator BILYK: So they were not free?
Mr Quah: The participants paid and it was definitely user pays. The audience pays and participants pay as well.
Senator BILYK: Is that how you think the arts world should work?
Mr Quah: Not necessarily. If it is a project that can clearly make a profit for itself that will generate income then it is sort of poses the question: why does this project need government funding? I think that seed capital would be absolutely amazing a lot of projects, especially if those projects have a time line for moving towards a for-profit model.
Senator BILYK: Under the NPEA, seed funding does not exist. I am actually quite confused as to whether you support the NPEA. In your written submission, you appear to support it quite strongly but some of the comments you are giving us now appear to contradict that.
Mr Quah: I would say that the sort of support government can give to organisations like Packemin Productions, which is the one that did Phantom of the Opera. Office space, meeting space and co-locating arts and culture organisations within fantastically resourced offices where we are able to communicate each other are the sort of supports that governments should be funding. We are then going to be able to use office space and be in touch with each other every single day to create new projects, to collaborate, to come up with new ideas. I am not saying that we should give money to a theatre organisation to put on a production of a commercial show; I am saying that that particular organisation that demonstrates an educational benefit to its users, that demonstrates said that is contributing to community could be supported in terms of its logistics and in terms of day-to-day support.
Senator BILYK: We have heard from a number of organisations that have applied to the Australia Council and not been successful. What they have said is: they have all had fabulous feedback; they all realised that their applications were not to the standard; and they have all gone away and reapplied, basically. I do have this concern that your point of view comes from the fact that you have not received the money you applied for, and, not to put too fine a point on it, is this a case of sour grapes?
Mr Quah: I do not think so. I think that is idealistic—
Senator BILYK: But you were happy to apply to them! But you are saying that they are no good?
Mr Quah: I am happy to apply to anyone who is willing to give me money to support the campaigns that I am willing to put forward. Whether that is the Australia Council or whether that is the Communist Party of China, I will apply to whoever is going to be in a position to support the kind of work that I want to do.
Senator BILYK: You do realise, don’t you, that the NPEA also will not give money for operating space?
Mr Quah: That may be so.
Senator BILYK: You do understand that? I want to be clear that you are very clear about of the guidelines are. I was looking on your website earlier, www.o-vation.com.au, and I noticed that under your little profile it said you provided counsel to political and philanthropic organisations. Can I ask which political groups they might be?
Mr Quah: Family First.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: We might ask that for every witness from now on. If that is the way that you want to go.
Senator BILYK: Fine, I do not mind.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: We might find some interesting results, Senator Bilyk.
Senator BILYK: It is on the website.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: We might ask all of the witnesses that.
CHAIR: Order! Order! Mr Quah: I will point out that it was quite a long time ago. I was in my early 20s and in terms of philanthropic consultation I did do some fundraising consultancy at one point advising new charitable organisations on how best to maximise the amount of money that they could make from a fundraiser. The objective being that putting on a fundraiser one night to raise some money is not as use all as building up relationships and developing long-term funding. That is my area of speciality when it comes to fundraising.
Senator BILYK: What happened to the movie—I think was called The Fast and the Fabulous — that you made?
Mr Quah: It was made in conjunction with the organisation Sunnyfield. It is a fantastic film and you can look at it and you can find out on YouTube at the moment.
Senator BILYK: Did it go out to a broader audience than YouTube? Do not get me wrong, YouTube has a big audience, but was it played anywhere else?
Mr Quah: It was given a limited theatre release. Mostly for the participants themselves.
Senator BILYK: By whom?
Mr Quah: By Sunnyfield. It was given a limited theatre release.
Senator BILYK: Sorry, what is Sunnyfield?
Mr Quah: It is a disability service; they provide day support and respite care.
Senator BILYK: And is that local?
Mr Quah: That is state-wide I believe. There are couple of them that we worked with. We gave those films a limited theatre release, mostly so that the participants could have the opportunity to walk the red carpet. I can assure you that they are still absolutely delighted about it. Even today, they still talk about it.
Senator BILYK: Once again I was not quite clear about this in your written submission but are you still lobbying for the consortium of Western Sydney Creative Centre.
Mr Quah: Yes, very much so. We recently had a dispute with the Parramatta Park over a particular site. That fight appears to be lost, but we are looking at a presence within the new Fleet Street Heritage Precinct and we are working with the New South Wales government to facilitate something like that over the next 10 years.
Senator BILYK: The New South Wales government, not to the federal government?
Mr Quah: No, the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct is a New South Wales government precinct that will most likely receive World Heritage status within the next couple of months.
Senator BILYK: Do you think that the Australia Council or the NPEA should fund DJs and trivia nights?
Mr Quah: No.
Senator BILYK: Because that is another part of your organisation. Is that correct?
Mr Quah: It is a part of the organisation that pays for the other stuff. My advocacy work does not make me any living expenses. I have to pay for my petrol and I have to pay for my living expenses somehow. Unfortunately, that means having a day job as well.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: And you do not get a government grant.
Senator BILYK: Like everybody else we have heard of, they have to have day jobs as well to help make ends meet.
Mr Quah: Absolutely.
CHAIR: Mr Quah, what do you see as a benefit?
Mr Quah: Towards?—
CHAIR: You mentioned that a styrofoam cup spinning around on a record turntable has no benefit, but you believe that funding a school where kids can learn to play musical instruments is.
Mr Quah: I believe that projects that are based in community, that are able to be driven by members of the community, who are not expecting to take a wage for these sorts of projects, should be given resources. I do not necessarily believe that we should be giving out money for the sake of money. I think if we are able to give in-kind support to a lot more projects that we will see a lot more benefit. There is still a place for funding development. There is still a place for funding projects and I believe the Australia Council will continue to do amazing work there, but I believe it should not be the only form of funding. I believe we should have another body which has a different set of criteria, a body which looks at how arts can engage with other sectors of society. I believe a funding body like that, which can work with other sectors of government and with the philanthropic sector and the corporate sector, will be of great benefit to our sector.
CHAIR: I am just interested as to why you chose that particular piece of art work, that is all. I would suggest that a lot of people would have got a huge benefit out of that. A lot of people like different art works, like different music, like different productions.
Mr Quah: Perhaps.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: At a price of $60,000.
Mr Quah: It is a Styrofoam cup and a vinyl turntable.
CHAIR: It might be a Styrofoam cup and a turntable to you, but it may be something completely different—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: $60,000?
Mr Quah: To produce a work like that. I do not necessarily believe—
HAIR: I have seen art work cost a lot more not only to establish but to buy that are a lot less than a Styrofoam cup.
Mr Quah: Yes, and if someone is willing to pay that money for that artwork, all power to them, but I do not believe it is necessarily the purview of the taxpayer to be deciding the value of those sorts of projects.
CHAIR: That is your opinion.
Mr Quah: Yes, it is.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: He made it clear it is his opinion.
CHAIR: I am interested that you would see the construction of a building far more beneficial than giving grants to people to create art.
Mr Quah: Yes. I believe if you give a man a fish the next day he will come back and ask for two more fish. Give a man a fishing pole and he will start a fishing business.
CHAIR: A profitable business.
Mr Quah: One would hope so. The whole point of the O-vation gig is to create employment opportunities for at least me and for my business partners and for as many people as we can drag along, for us to work in our own sector. I can make a lot more money in the private sector. I have made a lot more money in the private sector, but I want to work in the arts and my colleagues want to work in the arts.
CHAIR: So you want to work in the arts but make a lot of money.
Mr Quah: No. I want to be able to sustain myself within the arts and this is the balance I have picked for myself, to be able to work arts adjacent, as an arts consultant, as a provider of ancillary services, so that I can fund my arts practice.
CHAIR: And make a profit for your shareholders.
Mr Quah: I would hope so, yes, absolutely.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: So that is a dirty word on the other side of parliament! It is a bit like sportsmen.
CHAIR: We have witnesses here—
Mr Quah: I once said the words ‘for profit’ to someone in our sector and they actually recoiled in horror.
CHAIR: So you want government funding to erect a building that will make you profit.
Mr Quah: Absolutely not. I am looking for government funding to create the sorts of centres that will be able to teach people in our sector how to be great economic managers — for example, how to write an invoice. I will make an example of a 60-year-old performer who sent me an invoice which had no date on it, no bank details whatsoever and expected me to be able to pay him without an address and without any details. These are fundamental issues that our sector should know better about. I think the sort of training that we offer the tech start-up community for facilities like Fishburners and Smart Hubs that are funded through the New South Wales government rather than through the federal government certainly, that sort of support, which we offer to those sorts of sectors, can very much apply to arts and culture. If we are able to invest in careers by providing support and by providing office space, by providing educational opportunities for practitioners, then we are going to be able to create a creative economy that is going to be competitive on the world market. I would like the world to be able to see Australia as the place to set up their Asia-Pacific headquarters for the greatest microphone manufacturers in the world. I would like to be able to create an economy here in New South Wales where a branch of an international festival would want to set up in Australia. I do make the point that I worked for Asian franchise of the Eurovision Song Contest and that is exactly the sort of event I would try to bring to Australia if we had these sorts of facilities available.
CHAIR: If a young, up-and-coming artist living in, say, Ayr, Queensland, put in a submission for $50,000 to create a piece of artwork, you would much rather have that go into the building you want to erect to make money?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is a completely insulting question, Mr Chairman.
CHAIR: I want to hear the answer.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: You as chairman should be better than that.
Mr Quah: Senator Macdonald, I am more than happy to answer this particular question. I would suggest that that artist would benefit from being able to work in a space within his or her community. That would be funded in conjunction with local council, who would want to energise this space to create an arts community and to build up a relationship with that artist. I would say to them, ‘Why don’t we provide you with a studio space that would be next door to other artists in your profession and in complementary arts.’ I would say to them, ‘Do you need $50,000 to rent a studio, because we have one next to all these other fantastic facilities. We will also teach you how to market your artwork to the world. We will teach you how to build a website.’ For example—
CHAIR: Why market a piece of artwork if they can’t build it because they hadn’t been funded?
Mr Quah: I think the idea that $50,000 to build an artwork is a bit of a furphy. If they are able to demonstrate that $50,000 worth of materials need to go into that artwork — absolutely fine. I bring up the example of the styrofoam cup once again. How much does a styrofoam cup cost?
CHAIR: It is not the cup.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: So what is it?
CHAIR: It is what they do with it.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Seeing that you are giving evidence, what is it then?
CHAIR: It is a piece of artwork.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: What do you get the $50,000 for? Is it to sit there and ponder it and be paid for a year?
CHAIR: Just quickly: the NPEA will not fund operational or training costs. Now that the Australia Council have been cut, they will no longer fund it. Where do we go from here?
Mr Quah: This is an inquiry into arts decisions. I have come here in a broad context. I have taken the opportunity to see that we are finally discussing how the arts sector is funded, whether that is through the Australia Council, whether that is through the NPEA or whether some minor changes need be made to the NPEA is not really what I have come here to talk about. What I have come here to talk about is the context of a broader arts and culture sector that does employ more than both mining and agriculture combined in this country, that is not receiving support from the Australia Council. Those are the sorts of terms of reference that I wanted to put in front of this panel.
CHAIR: Thank you for your time, Mr Quah. That concludes today’s proceedings. The committee has agreed that answers to questions taken on notice at today’s hearing should be returned by 13 November 2015. I thank all witnesses who have given evidence to the committee today. Thanks also to Hansard, Broadcasting and the secretariat.