Sydney Dance Company’s woes

I haven’t yet blogged the furore surrounding the funding issues being faced by the Sydney Dance Company and feel it’s about time I did so. I’ve partly been tentative to discuss this issue as it is actually remarkably difficult and politically delicate. But I am plunging in with my opinion, regardless. And given this morning’s reports that the cloud is lifting over the SDC, with the Federal Government agreeing to loan the company the $600,000 it owes in debts, it seems an opportune time to tackle the issue.

The trouble with the funding model for SDC is partly to do with the artistic decisions and cultural response to modern dance, combined with the changes in costs associated with touring, and international political unrest. This year SDC travels to Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo, Canberra and Brisbane as well as a lightning-fast, 2-day international tour to the United Kingdom in May. Last year SDC toured again around Australia, but also undertook a 10 city tour of the United States in February and a 4 week tour of Europe in November. That’s a pretty huge difference in terms of tour undertakings and costs for the company between 2004 and 2005. And while Ian McRae might have been a little harsh in describing SDC’s funding model as out-of-date, it’s probable that the planned tours of the US and Europe in 2004 were not well budgeted. Changes to the costs associated with touring should have been predicted, and either a more reasonable tour schedule been pursued, or a new sponsorship model to bridge costs should have been negotiated.

But the financial problems weren’t just experienced in 2004. They go right back to the late 1990s with major sponsorship deals falling through, and ineffective planning for financial difficulties.

This is about poor business development, not about marginalisation of the Arts. Certainly Australians don’t value Arts innovation and culture as much as is deserved, but that’s not going to change by increasing government funding for a few representative companies of the Arts community. The key to ensuring financial surety in low and non-profit organisations is appropriate forward planning and effective business development. This is something so many representatives from the Arts world think is impossible. But clearly it’s not. There are business developers out there who have turned low-profit companies around with sensible business plans and forward-thinking financial management. There must always be a substantial surplus in every budget in order to accommodate for unseen issues that can arise. And that doesn’t mean that a less profitable performance season or poor box office takings can be regarded as an “unseen issue”. Indeed, low box office takings should be expected in budget planning; any high box office takings should be regarded as a windfall. Unseen circumstances include things like Acts of God, legal disputes, political unrest and global financial hardship. So a company like SDC with an annual turnover of about $4 million should be looking to end each year with at least a surplus of $1 million. There’s nothing wrong with using some of those funds when they become embarrassingly large to act as good corporate citizens themselves, and support other players in the Arts sector.

While I totally support government funding of Arts companies and believe governments have a responsibility to protect companies like the SDC, I also am gravely concerned about the strategies being pursued in business development across the Arts sector. We have far too many incompetent managers out there, and far too many Arts industry snobs who fail to secure the services of quality business development managers in favour of “one of their own” trained professionals, or a sympathetic, Art-for-Art’s-Sake kindred spirit. It’s time Arts industries took financial management out of the hands of Arts community representatives, and placed it in the far more competent hands of those who are capable of effective financial management.

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