The Sydney Morning Herald,
Editorial, 16 March 2005

Orchestras need a lighter note

Most surprising about the review of Australian orchestras is that the arts establishment saw so little of its kick coming, despite warnings of impending doom. One arts administrator went so far as to liken it to a polite subsidy application. "Inquiry is a euphemism for possible review of your funding," said the administrator, without reading the fine print restricting the review panel led by James Strong to find ways for orchestras to live within their means by losing weight. As it turns out, the struggling orchestras appear likely to be spared the anorexic diets because their fury at the Strong recommendations coincides with a particular sensitivity in government ranks to voter antipathy. It might have helped the entire clumsy episode had the Government not insisted initially that extra funding was off the table.

Even so, the Strong report is sympathetic to the plight, shared by orchestras around the world. It sensibly argues that orchestras should be released from the stranglehold of "efficiency dividend" - spending cuts applied by federal bean counters to all areas of government endeavour, regardless of their capacity to downsize or raise productivity or revenue. The proposed downsizing would have cut 42 musicians from the combined numbers of the Queensland, Adelaide and Tasmanian symphony orchestras. Their repertoires would be limited, but they would have had a shot at survival.

That is not to be sneezed at. In the United States, at least 15 symphony orchestras went into bankruptcy in the past 15 years and only about half got back on the rails, while about three-quarters of the top 25 post deficits, despite increased concert income and private support. Orchestras here have adapted to their separation from the ABC with concerts in city lunchtimes and under wilderness stars, by hiring themselves out for television commercials and by playing the pops. But they are stuck with high fixed costs, stiff competition for leisure time and corporate sponsorship, an ageing fan base and the phenomenon of patrons buying more recordings but fewer concert tickets. Subsidised 60 per cent overall by government, the Tasmanian and Queensland orchestras rely on taxpayers for 80 per cent of their revenue and Sydney 45 per cent.

The shrinking of orchestras is like shutting off rooms of great art galleries or expecting a rugby union team to switch to league and the spectacle to remain the same. The accountant's slide rule does not cope with cultural enrichment because it has no agreed monetary value. Would we argue that libraries should shut because they are patronised by a relative few? Societies are products of their diversity and that costs money to preserve.