Not a threepenny opera

“Why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?”

Toner-gate, Victoria’s little arts scandal, revealed some interesting facts about government and administration of the arts. Firstly, public sector employees working in the arts believe that going to arts events is “a fundamental obligation of their professional life”. Penny Hutchinson, Director of Arts Victoria, rejects the idea that free tickets to arts events should be registered as gifts. The Ombudsman concluded, “a lack of management and auditing at Arts Victoria contributed to a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

Secondly, the Director of Arts Victoria told the Ombudsman that department employees keep a diary of their attendance at arts events. However, neither the Arts Victoria website nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) annual reports of Arts Victoria’s activities contain statistical information gathered from employees or arts organisations about the numbers of tickets given away, for this or any other purpose. Detailed statistical information about attendance at arts events comes mainly from Australian Bureau of Statistics data from census interviews. The Arts Victoria website is an analytical wasteland. Sure, you can find out how much money the government spent and on what projects. When percentages and dollar figures are provided, they all point to the munificence of the public purse and the crucial role of the arts in the economy. They are statistics served up like comfort food to make the public sleep.

Third, though Toner-gate is trivial compared to other public sector governance problems (annual expenditure on ICT in Victoria is around $1.6 billion), the numbers are not trivial to artists themselves—especially artists, like writers and poets, who are not part of the ‘color and movement’ industry. Chris Flynn, who organises writers’ events in Melbourne, posted on Facebook the day the Toner-gate news broke, “Thank God I didn’t get those Arts Victoria grants after all—turns out they needed 80 grand to buy toner.” I suspect this reaction would be mild among writers.

The ABC’s comedy series ‘Angry Boys’ was viewed by “just” 569,000 viewers on Wednesday 15 June 2001, when it went head-to-head with broadcast of a state of origin rugby union match. Chris Lilley, the comedic artist in question, must think that such contests are a harsh proving ground.

Go the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) website and look at the 2010 annual report and you will find that in 2010 the total audience for 2010 was 181,387. The total “paid attendance” was just 121,330. It’s not clear from the report whether any of these figures includes free concerts in the park (40,000 in attendance) or other outreach programs. Using the two available numbers, 33 per cent of seats at concerts are given away.

The Victorian Opera annual report includes the tantalising remark that audience figures are prepared according the standard Arts Victoria methodology. Gosh. Arts Victoria has a methodology for counting audience numbers? —Its annual report does not say what it is. Neither does its website. And this is strange because performing arts publications make so many remarks about audience numbers, it would be handy to know if there is a ‘special’ way of counting them.

The VO says that the total audience in 2010 was 41,799. This number includes dress rehearsals, educational and promotional events, and even 6,500 at free concert in The Bowl with the MSO. Leave all free seats in, and any others that may or may not be free, and divide it into the total of government grants (including a small sum from the federal funding body), and it appears that every single seat at an opera event is subsidised to the tune of $91. This figure is closer to $150 if you exclude seats given away for whatever reason; but, because we don’t know how many seats are filled by arts administrators for the purposes of “professional obligation”, there is no way of telling how high the figure goes. To be fair, the numbers should look better if one took into account that public funds also pay for modest administration, marketing and other expenses.

None of this even touches on the extraordinarily generous donations received by the operatic arts by various kinds of patrons, though it is interesting to note that the VO annual report has two not-quite-full pages of these donors’ names, some of whom gave over $20,000 and at least one (I wonder who?) who came up with $2.

The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.
The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.

And the numbers were especially healthy in 2010 because of the spectacular success of Kurt Weil’s ‘Threepenny Opera.’ More than ten thousand people attended 22 performances, about two and half times more than the next most attended opera and about five times more than most.

Why is the writer beating up on the euterpean muse? (I didn’t even look at the statistics for the ballet. My pure heart would be too beaten up!)

Arts Victoria’s and DPC’s websites used to bulge with business plans and targets related to the ‘Creative Capacity +’ framework for arts development in Victoria, a document that, now, even Google can’t find in the Orwellian memory hole of documents published on the Internet.1 I used to look into them to wonder, as I do now after Toner-gate, how little light these numbers, goals and performance measures throw on the ironies of arts funding.

Why, if nearly a third of seats at some concerts are unpaid for, is there no detailed information about how the seats are filled?

Why, if public taxes pay for astonishingly expensive artistic productions, are these productions not televised?

Why, considering apparent waste and inefficiency, can no public funds be found to support a poetry recitation prize for Victorian secondary school students? And why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?

Why, if arts administrators can have free tickets to attend arts events, can we not provide the same advantages to artists themselves? I could, within a week if asked, provide a list of several hundred creative writers whose artistic education would be enhanced by nights at the opera and in our concert halls and theatres, myself included.

Penny Hutchinson’s tortured responses to the Ombudsman’s report demonstrate, amongst many other things, that she has no imagination. Maybe that’s what it costs you when “professional obligation” takes you out for a night on the town.

  1. The document can still be found in Pandora, the government repository of stale, public websites: Creative Capacity +

The risk-free ‘art’ of Kon Dimopoulos

The general flavour of reporting about the failure of Konstantin Dimopoulos’s tree-painting project in Melbourne was sympathetic. The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt took at a swipe at the waste of public monies. Aside from that, it was Victorian politician Mary Delahunty who took most of the ‘blame’ dished out in public over the failed plan.

Dimopoulos came to Australia from New Zealand in 2004, and calls himself a “public artist”. This is the kind of heroic claim that should immediately make our ears prick up. I think, considering what is at stake, we might be entitled to a definition of what a “public artist” is. Most of Dimopoulos’s work in the past has been, in type and character, distinctly ordinary: paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, and a few pieces that have been placed in spaces that, on the face of it, appear to be accessible to the ‘public’.

The language that Dimopoulos gathers around his project assures us that ‘Sacred Grove’ is no mere work of art: it is an “art action”. Other kinds of art—painting canvases, writing books, composing music, and so on—are the inactive arts: the arts that do nothing, do not get up out of their armchairs and go marching in the streets.

Dimopoulos leaves visitors to his web site in no doubt that painting trees blue is not just a magical aesthetic experience, but one that will help to prevent the de-afforestation of the planet. In this way, he wraps himself and the ‘Sacred Grove’ project in the pure intentions of Gaia. This is what the [2006] web site said:

Sacredgrove—the blue forest is a public art installation by conceptual artist Konstantin Dimopoulos. Sacredgrove is a global afforestation art action using art to highlight trees as sculptural forms, and the need to replenish the world’s trees.

When the Melbourne City Council finally rejected the ‘Sacred Grove’ project, and the State Government in Victoria was called on to justify the c. AU$100,000 it had given to Dimopoulos, it came to light that among the expenses for the project were amounts for promotional multimedia materials to be distributed to other cities around the globe. The purpose of these materials was to promote similar projects in other cities: sacred groves growing up all over the planet… Just imagine it! What a neat little money-spinner the success of ‘Sacred Grove’ in Melbourne would have been. As it turned out, a Melbourne hotel took pity on Mr Dimopoulos and allowed him to paint a small grove of trees it manages at the entrance to its Collins Street building. (Dimopoulos’s promotional materials, including a Wikipedia entry written by his publicity team, now refer to the ‘Sacred Grove’ episode as a “pilot”, no doubt in order to prepare anyone who sees photographs of it for how underwhelming it was, and to gloss over the fact that negative public opinion killed the actually proposed project before he got a chance to get away with the loot.)

Konstantin Dimopoulos, installation of blue trees at the Sofitel Hotel in Collins Street, Melbourne, 2005.
Konstantin Dimopoulos, installation of blue trees at the Sofitel Hotel in Collins Street, Melbourne, 2005.

As a ‘public’ and ‘conceptual’ artist, Dimopoulos makes claims that, from an art historical point of view, make no sense. For example, Dimopoulos is quoted in the article, above, saying to a journalist (who cannot be blamed for not knowing what the next question should be):

Public art is about taking risks. It does cost money but it brings people together.

I think this must be disingenuous. It is simply incredible that someone who calls himself a ‘public artist’ would not know about Christo and Jeanne-Claude; or have the temerity to believe no one would or could make the just comparison between this kind of public art and the public art of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. There are obvious comparisons to be made, in both the approach to getting works approved and in the works themselves.

For anyone not familiar with the details, here are the basic facts, to help the comparison along…

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘Wrapped Reichstag’ project, to take a well-known example of their work, took 24 years to bring to fruition. During all this time, and after it was achieved, they did not accept a single cent, or a single pfennig, of payment from public funds. In fact, Christo and Jeanne-Claude never accept any public monies to complete their art works.

It is also instructive to note that the Christo and Jeane-Claude’s process for achieving their public art includes having to convince everyone, including the public and any interested parties, that the artwork should be permitted to proceed.

They are justifiably famous around the world for the rigour of their approach. Think what you like about the aesthetic experience of their art, no one I know of doubts the purity of their practice. They are beholden to no one.

The risk they take for their public art is their own misfortune.

Dimopoulos’s plan to make the people of Victoria pay for his project to re-aestheticise the world’s parks and avenues does not sound so heroic in this light, does it? His public art does not sound so risky.

Perhaps it would help if his project had the advantage of originality, but it cannot even claim that. Dimopoulos knows that the tradition of painting trees is a very old one in Greece. It survives today, to the surprise of many visitors, in the practical habit the Greeks have of painting roadside trees white where there is no road lighting.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees at Riehen in Switzerland in 1998.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees at Riehen in Switzerland in 1998.

Beyond that, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have beaten him to the tree game as well.  (The photograph, above, is of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Trees at Riehen in Switzerland in 1998.)

There is a striking similarity between these pictures and Dimopoulos’s “BLACK PHARAOHS APPROPRIATION 2005”.

Dimopoulos's 'Black Pharaohs'.
Dimopoulos’s original description of the project ‘Black Pharaohs’ refers to the inspiration of his childhood, but does not mention he copied Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

The original 2006 website posting about Dimopoulos’s pharaohs refers to Greek mythology and the legend of Theseus (the pretentiousness of it is excruciating), but not a single reference to Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Then, sometime in 2006, images of the “BLACK PHARAOHS APPROPRIATION 2005” were removed from Dimopoulos’s website, only to reappear years later with a different description, written by Ken Scarlett.

The new description acknowledges the original work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and says that the Dimopoulos variation is “interesting”—the kind of thing critics say with their chins balancing precariously on a curled index finger, à la Steve Jobs, while they try to force their eyebrows together to form a landing-platform for a new idea.

The suddenly proper acknowledgement of the debt to Christo and Jeanne-Claude still does not include any comment on the difference between Dimopoulos’s methodology and that of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Dimopoulos’s public relations team would be happy for you to think he works ‘in the tradition’ of Christo and Jeanne-Claude; not so happy for you to know his public art is an intellectual vacuum whose purpose is to suck up public funds.

In the years since Sacred Grove in Collins Street, Melbourne, ‘The Blue Trees’ project has become a whirlwind of public relations spinning. Though Dimopoulos has been happy so far to take $100,000 here, or $25,000 there, to paint trees in Melbourne, or Houston or Vancouver, or wherever local governments can divert funds from worthy projects to pay for his airfare, his ultimate aim is to paint the Amazon.

In the long PR journey that the Blue Trees is on, there is no mention in the world’s media so insignificant that it cannot be turned into an artistic aggrandisement. His 2013 website résumé proudly proclaims that the Blue Trees was named by TrendHunter as one of the top 100 activism trends of 2012. Indeed. Here is the reference from the TrendHunter site:

Trendhunter website screenshot.
Trendhunter website screenshot.

With a score of 3.7 on the TrendHunter scale the Blue Trees project ranked below the trend of making sub sandwiches out of cucumbers, which scored 4.8.

Trendhunter website screenshot.
Trendhunter website screenshot.

TrendHunter has estimated the worth of Dimopolous’s “art actions” perfectly. Here is a picture of the winning sandwich:

Photo of the 2012 'cucumber sub' trend, which was a much more significant trend than Dimopoulos's 'blue trees', according to the Trendhunter website.
Photo of the 2012 ‘cucumber sub’ trend, which was a much more significant trend than Dimopoulos’s ‘blue trees’, according to the Trendhunter website.

Post script, 22 March 2015 — the Squamish affair

In the world of public relations even failures must be put to work boosting and spinning whatever it is ‘the company’ wants to foist on dazed consumers.

So it is with Mr Dimopoulos. In his latest pretence, on the unsuspecting citizens of Squamish, Vancouver, he uses images of his failed attempt to paint trees in Melbourne’s Yarra Park. The electronically altered image of Yarra Park appears on the Vancouver Biennale website, alongside images of other projects (which may or may not be altered, too, I don’t know).

Here is the image of the ‘proposed’ Yarra Park project, which never happened:

Image of the proposed Yarra Park project in Melbourne, reproduced in a Vancouver Biennale website where there is no comment on the fact it is not real.
Image of the proposed Yarra Park project in Melbourne, reproduced in a Vancouver Biennale website where there is no comment on the fact it is not real. The blue trees in this picture are digitally altered to appear blue; they have not been painted.

Here is an actual (that is, unaltered) photograph of the blue trees project (aka ‘Sacred Grove’) in Melbourne, as it actually happened:

Entrance of the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, where the blue trees project ended up after a public scandal over the waste of public funds.
Entrance of the Sofitel Hotel in Melbourne, where the blue trees project ended up after a public scandal over the waste of public funds.

It does make me wonder if the good people at the Vancouver Biennale ever saw the real thing, or if they know they have published photographs of projects that have not happened?

Further reading

L’Affaire Dimopoulos: ‘copy’ of ‘difficult’ N.Z. ‘artwork’ installed at Federation ‘Square’

Following the controversy, in 2005, about the Melbourne City Council’s sensible rejection of Kon Dimopoulos’s ‘Sacred Grove’ project, the Minister for the Yarts in Victoria, Mary Delahunty, announced that the AU$73,000 odd dollars ear-marked for the blue trees would be spent instead on a “site-specific” sculpture “similar in concept” to ones already installed at a Toyota facility here and outside an airport in New Zealand.

The new “site-specific” sculpture has now been installed at Federation Square in Melbourne. An Age editorial mentioned that the sculpture had arrived (7 June 2006), and an article by Jonathan Green, a senior writer at the same newspaper, extracts some comment about public art from notable persons:

Vault eventually moved to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, while Sacred Grove was recreated in miniature for the Hotel Sofitel in Collins Street, a small gesture towards artistic tolerance that was opened by the director of the National Gallery, Gerard Vaughan, a man who had been saddened by the demise of the original elm paint plan. Red Centre is part of Federation Square, standing between its bars and the Yarra.

It seems that little raises the ire of a certain section of the community more than “difficult” public art. “Some people don’t like to be challenged, I suppose,” said Dr Vaughan.

In the mind of art critic Robert Nelson, the clamour that greets work such as Vault and Sacred Grove points to a fundamental difficulty in introducing serious art into public places.

“The natural air of contention around any art work reaches a hysterical pitch in a public space, so there’s an incentive to go with work that is decorative and not particularly challenging,” he said.

“You are left with symbolic neutrality … like all those little bronze dogs in the city, they’re just slightly pompous garden gnomes.”

Quoted from Jonathan Green’s article, ‘Will Red Centre be the new Yellow Peril?’, The Age, 7 June 2006.

“‘Difficult’ public art”? I wonder whether Gerard Vaughan is kidding. Here is the “difficult” public art in question …

This detail of the Age photograph accompanying Green’s article shows ‘Red Centre’ in daylight. It is lit at night. The Herald Sun photo, published on the same day, shows that the reeds are red, black and yellow. The interesting thing, though, is that this “difficult” work by Dimopoulos looks very much like other equally “difficult” installations. Make up your own mind:

… The ‘Firebird’ installation at a Toyota facility.

… The ‘Pacific Grass’ installation at a New Zealand airport.

(The last four images from the Dimopoulos website.)

… Two more versions — ‘Yellow Carex’ (top) and ‘Grassland’ — in parks and on private properties in New Zealand. And there are others. (Actually, some of the others are better!) You get the idea.

Someone might like to explain to me (please) what’s “difficult” about these installations. When you see them it’s difficult to understand what Minister Delahunty’s press release meant when it promised a “site-specific” sculpture “similar in concept” to others already installed elsewhere.

Robert Nelson’s comments are, ironically perhaps, right on the money. Dimopoulos’s installations are not art at all, in my view: they’re pure decoration. Prêt-à-porter urban design; one-concept-fits-all intellectual laziness where the only things that change from one site to another are the dimensions, the colors, the title and the price tag. Could you imagine New York settling for tripe like this? ‘You mean Wellington and Melbourne have them!? OK. We’ll have one, too… Make ours just like the others.’

Worse is that the whole enterprise — both the installation and the commentary on it — lacks imagination, directness and rigor. In the intellectual vacuum of corporate art it is a positive value to exhibit no imagination, and to repeat, by rote, tricks performed elsewhere; to copy oneself shamelessly.

A writer, by contrast, would not be permitted to abscond with public moneys after having left behind them an already published novel — no matter how good — that had been re-typed and only the title changed.

Dimopoulos is not the only ‘artist’ who behaves this way. John Kelly’s remarkable, and deserved, success with his many images and sculptures of cows has led him to repeat the trick maybe more than a few times too often. But Kelly, at least, was for the most part putting his hands in the pockets of the rich to pay the poor (himself). It is a different matter to strike a pose of artistic intention with a title like ‘Red Centre,’ when uncannily similar objects have different titles elsewhere.

Another Kon job goes belly up

Another Kon Dimopoulos disaster, this time from NZ, is breaking news: a wealthy New Zealander, Michael Hill, who dreamed of having a sculpture park in his backyard that could be seen from the moon (yes, he said “moon” but I think he meant ‘space’), has packed his AU$120,000 Dimopoulosiana into the shed, thrown up his hands, and his dreams with them. Hill shouldn’t despair: Kon has other sculptures, indistinguishable from Hill’s backyard job, still set up in NZ and Australia. And, besides, I’ve heard the audience for ‘art’ that can be seen from the moon… let’s just say he’s not going to be getting many letters of complaint about the cancellation of the gig.

Hill removes art after council indecision
14 March 2006

Jewellery store king Michael Hill says frustration with Queenstown Lakes District Council led him to remove a giant work of art from his garden.

He told NZPA if he ran his business the way the council’s resource management division department ran its decision-making process, “we’d just be gone”.

Mr Hill erected a five-metre-high $120,000 Kon Dimopoulos reed sculpture on his land around a year ago.

New Zealand artist Dimopoulos is most well-known for a Pacific Grass sculpture located on the roundabout at the northern end of the Wellington Airport runway.
Mr Hill said the artist took a “great deal of care” with the sculpture’s placement, taking into consideration “the area, the environment and the mountains must not be competed with”.

He said he had also planted fir trees to eventually hide it from the nearest road.
Problems started, however, when he asked the council for resource management permission.

“I really wish I hadn’t,” he said.

“The Resource Management Act doesn’t have separate clauses for art, so the council had to view the sculpture as a house. In the end, it took so long to hear from them I put it up anyhow.”

Since then, he said he has been working with the council for consent, but has been left constantly frustrated.

“People in these positions are frightened to make decisions outside of the square of the Resource Management Act,” he said.

“It just needed someone to say: put it up, take it down, anything! Any decision is better than no decision,” he said, sighing.

“And that’s why I pulled it down as you can’t carry on anguishing.”

The sculpture, which now sits stacked in Mr Hill’s workshop, was just one of many he had planned for the area.

“I wanted to have a sculpture competition here, but I won’t be able to do that now,” he said.

“The valley is going to be lacking a significant supporter. These works of art are not cheap. I was going to put up over a million dollars – the council and most of the community can’t afford them, and here was the perfect opportunity.”

Eventually, Mr Hill said he wanted to emulate amphibious craft entrepreneur Alan Gibbs’ sculpture park in Kaipara, Auckland.

“Art that you can see from the moon … it’s unbelievable … I would have liked to have done something similar here,” he said.

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