What is art, what is business, and who should pay for the state’s cultural infrastructure like sporting stadiums and museums?
FOR most of its history, Australian football was either an amateur past-time or semi-professional sport.
That has changed dramatically over the past two decades, as lucrative television broadcast deals poured money into the sport.
The AFL generated total revenue of $366 million last year and achieved an operating surplus of $10.6 million.
With the next TV deal expected to top $1 billion, the AFL is clearly big business.
It’s interesting to observe, then, where the money goes. In large part, it goes into the pockets of the employees.
Many players earn $500,000 or more, top players and coaches can earn $1 million, and AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou topped them all with a $2.2 million salary package last year.
Paying high salaries is fine, if they are sustainable.
In the case of AFL and other professional sports, they are only sustainable if there are large stadiums to host their spectacles.
And who pays for these stadiums? Judging by the recent debate in Western Australia over development of a major stadium, tipped to cost $1 billion-plus, it seems to be broadly accepted that taxpayers should foot the bill, with the AFL contributing a relative pittance.
This funding mix made sense in the 1950s and 1970s, but it doesn’t make sense any longer.
Funding contributions can and should be proportionate to the benefits that each user expects to derive.
The AFL would clearly be a major beneficiary of a new sporting stadium.
The state as a whole would also derive huge benefit, as a large, modern stadium would give Perth more capacity to host an array of sporting and cultural events.
If Premier Colin Barnett is serious about developing a major stadium, he should also get serious about having hard-nosed negotiations with the AFL and other prospective users of the stadium to establish an equitable funding mix.
Any success he achieves on that front would give the state more capacity to meet other pressing requests for funding, across the cultural spectrum from sport to opera, art galleries and museums.
The latter, of course, are not big businesses in the way football has become.
Nor are they automatically entitled to taxpayer hand-outs, at least not without accountability and performance measures.
Ironically, the state government already applies a ‘user pays’ philosophy of sorts in the arts, courtesy of the new State Theatre Centre.
Theatre groups love the new facilities, but have to pay more for the privilege of using them.
Basketball clubs discovered the same thing last year when they moved from the run-down Perry Lakes to their shiny new facility in Mt Claremont.
Artistic and sporting groups need to rise to the challenge, to show they can draw crowds, sign up sponsors and generate more revenue.
The WA Museum is doing just that with its newly opened AC/DC exhibition, which shines an entertaining light on a very significant part of Australia’s cultural heritage and, of course, Perth’s cultural heritage, with original singer Bon Scott spending his teenage years here and now buried in Fremantle cemetery.
Getting crowds through the door, while also maintaining the more traditional aspects of the museum collection, will be the best possible argument for spending an estimated $300 million on a new museum at Northbridge.
Some creative thinking might also lighten this funding burden.
Why, for instance, do we have a cultural centre that is comprised exclusively of museums, art galleries and libraries?
Why not mix it up with some commercial and residential developments?
EPRA has very cautiously dipped its toe in this water, recently setting up two small cafe-style outlets in the Northbridge cultural centre.
Why don’t we become bolder, and be inspired by the innovative deal that was negotiated for the Old Treasury Building?
That deal will result in the restoration of an iconic heritage building, the establishment of a stylish hotel, the construction of an office tower, and the opening up of poorly utilised pubic open space.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something similar around the museum site?