How the Arts lost the Soccer Mums

First published: Music Journal, November 26, 2014

Drumming is said to be great exercise. One might claim as much for dance, physical theatre, even singing. But whoever sees them in that light? Taken more broadly: where are such arts (or any arts) in the health debate? Indeed, where are arts practitioners as role models to the young and not so young in the fight against obesity, diabetes and in the promotion of general fitness? This is to say nothing of mental health whose problems are spreading in plague proportions across society. In the recent RUOK promotion sports people abounded in the media including some like Wendell Sailor who had ‘come out’ about their social problems. There was not an artist or entertainer to be seen. Only recently bodies like Arts and Health Australia have made a modest start but it may be too little, too late.

For decades we’ve been bored to sobs with media puff pieces from dance companies about how their artists can jump higher and require as much if not more physical and mental agility than AFL players. They may well be right. If so, where are the dancer role models to the young? Are they seen working in weekend clinics, visiting schools and marginalized communities? For the most part they are not. And let us not hear the refrain of “no money”. Among the reasons why sport has money is because it does just these things, not the other way around.

While we’re at it: where are the connections made by the arts about lifting the young out of poverty? Football can demonstrate this over and again across the globe. One might argue that pop music has also done so though few other music genres can claim as much. This seems mainly because arts in social programs tinker at the edges with a do-gooder mentality rather than seeking to change the way things are, the way the market works or doesn’t work for them. In the process they fail to create demand for themselves.

So we come to my big question: Why did the arts not win the soccer mums? Throughout the English-speaking world legions of women define themselves and others in this way or as regional variants of it (hateful to mention, but Sarah Palin's "hockey moms" also fit the bill). These are aspirational women who devote time, money and energy to giving their kids a better quality of life through extra curricular, after school activities, especially sport. Note that this is not any kind of sport. Soccer became the drug of choice because it was a team game which anyone could play: boys and girls could participate equally (cf Bend it like Beckham): it was high on dexterity and speed; it was non-contact and thus low on injury; and, above all, it had its heroes worldwide, irrespective of colour or creed. This was sport “lite”.

True, it doesn’t have to be sport to attract the young. Some take dance classes (but almost exclusively female) or join a band (which seldom involve mums and are mostly boys). More to the point, it didn't have to be soccer. Except for Britain in the English-speaking world, soccer was negligible until a few years ago, even regarded as somewhat “suss” among football codes. As a major sport it still is in many places. What happened? The code went out and marketed itself to the mums. Now it has a base of knowledge, enthusiasm and a pass-on rate in the community second to none. Males and females can discuss equally and enjoy. Above all, it has acquired a potent source of future audience as well as of players. Take the Western Sydney Wanders. Founded in 2012, they have 14,000 wildly enthusiastic paid up members and they’ve scarcely won a match! Given that a mere two decades ago this was a game that only ‘wogs’ played. That is a shift to make the marketers goggle.

But the soccer gurus knew that if you want to change the world you have to change the kids and mums are the gatekeepers to kids.

Given their profile and their aspirations one might have thought that these women were as natural a fit for the arts as for sport: a group activity that was fun, physical, social, safe, well-supervised and needn't cost a lot. So why did the arts lose the soccer mums? Why did the arts miss the chance to change a generation? Perhaps it’s because they were looking in the wrong direction?

For too long the arts have been obsessed with getting into schools, influencing curriculum, even becoming curriculum and otherwise inserting themselves into an already over-crowded school day. Witness when the 110 brightest arts minds gathered in Canberra some years back for Rudd's thinkfest. What did they come up with as the great big new idea? By 2020 no Australian school should be without a resident artist!! Bloody hell.

Yet in decades of bussing school kids out and bussing artists in (worthy though these things may be) and the T.I.E. teams that in the 1970s and 80s spread across the land like a locusts, they have neglected the world of after-school. Ballet should have given them a clue. Worldwide, squillions of little girls are turned into life-long fans - if not balletomanes - at Miss Brumley’s suburban ballet school. They form friendships, learn skills, keep fit (albeit sometimes to the point of anorexia), become passionate about their stars and, above all, become sufficiently knowledgeable to grow up to be discerning audiences of the craft and all of that they pass to their daughters. And what is the single most economically successful arts company in Australia? The Australian Ballet.

Like soccer, a long time ago the ballet gurus knew that if you want to change the world you have to change the kids and, I repeat, mums are the gatekeepers to kids.

Not every child aspires to be the Sugarplum Fairy and, unlike soccer, ballet ain't cheap at any level. But the results are there for all to see. Almost alone of the live performing arts, ballet has a rust proof public. If you been to a National Australia Bank ATM recently, maybe you’ve wondered why you're looking at a message about ballet while doing your multiple choice cash withdrawal? I doubt that NAB thinks ballet, as such, is good for business, but I bet they believe that all those middle class ballet mums are.

Perhaps, you’ll concede, that one can achieve this with little middle class girls in tutus, but what about the rest? Sure, there are youth orchestras here and there but music lessons, not to say instruments, are expensive. If you’ve ever lived with a child practicing the oboe you will know how limited the fascination of that experience can be, not to mention the tolerance of the neighbours in an increasingly high density residential world. There is, too, a sprinkling of youth theatres and dance companies and so on. None of what I write is to deny or denigrate the extraordinary work done by the workers in those vineyards. But soccer now has mass appeal. Can any area of the arts match that?

In answer to that question we come by labored steps, but somewhat inevitably in this discussion, to the much and often erroneously vaunted phenomenon of what is now widely known as “el sistema”. Beyond doubt, in Venezuela troubled and poor, they've managed to create a nationwide frenzy of participation in youth orchestras from community level to international excellence which is rightly the envy of the world. It still falls well short of mass appeal but their ‘David Beckham’ by name of Gustavo Dudamel emerged from poverty to conducting acclaim and has like Beckham fetched up in Los Angeles as the music director of the LA Philharmonic at age 27. By the way, Venezuela like most of Latin America, is also a soccer-crazy nation.

So the ‘system’ there which now, thanks to the megalomaniac former President Chavez has glued to it the suitably patriotic name of Simon Bolivar, has changed kids lives, offered a team experience, taught skills, built future audiences and created role models. We’ll pass over the many apparatchiks flourishing in the developed world who have latched onto this worthy idea and applied it willy nilly to the notional ‘western suburbs’ of wherever.

For Virginia, this is not like teaching the peasant to fish and there is no evidence as far as I know that lifting a child out of disadvantage with a fiddle is of itself more socially or humanly beneficial than with a soccer ball. Indeed, I have known orchestras where mean spiritedness and lack of generosity flourished such as I have never witnessed in a sporting team. So the jury is out on public value but not perhaps on public appeal.

Why then did this happen? Well before Colonel Chavez came on the scene and unlike most arts managers elsewhere a remarkable man, Jose Antonio Abreu, who I have the honour to call a friend, pioneered all this just because he was looking in the right direction.

So far so good, but doesn't such a scheme cost a lot of money? Yes and where does that come from? Commercial patronage originally and now government. Why sponsors? Because it has mass appeal. Why does sport get sponsorship? Because it too has mass appeal. But also because there is close up, observable, community benefit. The football star running a clinic with the group of kids on Saturday morning is as potent a picture for the sponsor's website as the crowd of 30,000 at the stadium that afternoon. It's in the suburban club that the community's heart resides.

In recent times there's been a growing tendency for people in the arts to promote a ‘them and us’ mentality towards government support for sport. Funding of the Australian Institute of Sport is often cited; along with the naive idea that high earning alumni should pay back some of the costs of their training (will Hugh Jackman, Kate Blanchett and Baz Lurhman be asked to do the same to WAAPA and NIDA?) Apart from the fact that appropriations for arts and culture by all three tiers of government far outweigh total public expenditure on sport, this is a small minded attitude of envy which demonstrates yet again how much less generous the arts often is than sport in its world view.

The fact is that sportspeople are successful in this domain because they work at it. True, the rewards at the top can be great but so are those for many artists. We hear much about the low level of income achieved by many artists but are quick to overlook that this is not the entire picture. To take one case: between orchestras and the service bands there are about 900 annually salaried, professionally trained musicians in Australia today. Rank and file, entry level base salary in say the Sydney Symphony Orchestra starts at around $87,000 pa and rises to about $120,000+ for co-principals. That is not poverty.

ABS statistics suggest are around 1300 salaried sportspeople in Australia. My estimate is that across orchestras, opera, ballet and dance ensemble companies there are about 1200 annually salaried artists here today. Now it is also true that not many of these are earning up to a million a year but, dance excepted, nor are most of them on a ten year career span which is the average life of a sportsperson.

Alongside the relatively small numbers of professional sportspeople there are literally hundreds of thousands engaged for little or no remuneration in a plethora of codes across the nation from little athletics to synchronized swimming. It is a basis of enthusiasm and support which the arts have done virtually nothing to emulate or encourage other than in amateur theatre or choirs and they are, if anything, a dying breed.

I have long believed that one of the great public strengths of sport was its capacity for public self-criticism. Criticism in the arts is an arcane business usually left to non- practitioners whom no one much likes or who are kept at arms length from the action. Peer criticism occurs behind discretely closed doors or clenched teeth. Public self criticism is of course unknown. Consider the Henson photographic debacle. Whatever the rights and wrongs, how many artists were prepared to say publicly "this is a serious issue? Clearly many people feel strongly. It behooves us to have a proper, reasoned debate". Instead, we got a knee jerk reaction that all censorship is always bad. End of discussion. And that very closed mindedness turns many potential supporters away. By contrast, the Australia Council went in the opposite direction, caved into equally undiscriminating official pressure and enacted what was to all intents a self censorship regime.

There is a paradox here for those who choose to contemplate it. Growth of professionalism in sport has widened the basis of participation and audience. The same phenomenon in the arts has extended the passive audience but narrowed participation.

Contrast sport: Turn on any TV channel on Sunday morning and you will find leading sportsmen and women entering into dialogue with their critics, analyzing the Saturday game, freely acknowledging shortcomings in their performances generously acknowledging the superiority of their competitors. It is engaging, informative and honest and most of all gives the spectator a sense of belonging and insight.

When, by contrast, did you ever see a serious public discussion with or between artists to compare with this? But, you protest: “artists don't get that type of exposure in the media”. I would turn that around and reply: “you don't get that exposure because the media perceives that when you do you don't say anything engaging or revealing still less polemic”. Cooking programs have more guts. Only David and Margaret on At the Movies have ever maintained any sense of drama about arts criticism. And they for the most part debate each other, rarely the artists.

So against the 'let it all hang out' approach of sports, we in the arts propagate a sanitized ‘every-in-the-garden-is-fabulous’ view of the world except to whinge about money. That mentality never admits anyone on the outside. So again and on the level of public discourse (which ought to be a strength of the arts) we lose out to sport. No wonder we are last in the public interest when the public seems to be last in ours.

For an ‘industry’ that is supposed to be in the business of communication we have done a poor job of communicating our needs and aspirations to our fellow Australians. That is not to say that individual companies and artists have not done well, but my hunch is that even with doping and other scandals and not infrequent bad behaviour, sport still radiates a positive and engaging face to the nation. The arts, by contrast, propagate an image of begging and complaint without offering much to society in return for its support.

There needs to be a shift in the mentality of the arts community. Part of that must be to cease extravagant claims that can neither be proven nor justified. If, as is often argued, there is a public benefit in the arts, what exactly is it? Either this can be demonstrated or it cannot. Either way: stop the waffle. And while we're at it: junk the economic impact argument. Anyone can prove anything with that. Specific arts and entertainment events and institutions can of course demonstrate economic impact in particular circumstances (Sydney would be beyond question a lesser tourist attraction if not for the Opera House). But if that's all that can be advanced, governments might as well go for investing in a succession of mega hits like Vivid rather than systemic support.

Arts advocates have long advanced an equally vague ‘spiritual’ benefit i.e. that somehow the presence of the arts in society makes people better, For that there is not a skerrick of real evidence even if we could agree on what constitutes ‘better’ and knew what had that effect on people. Indeed, there are throughout history some rather disturbing instances to the contrary.

Advocates of the arts in education claim, as though it were gospel, that arts in the curriculum have a beneficial effect on overall school performance and intellectual development. The evidence for this is marginal at best and reminds one of the claims that used to be made for teaching Latin in schools, namely that it made the young think more logically. It only holds good if you believe that no other discipline can do the same. I note that recently in the US at least this rhetoric has softened to claims that “arts kids” [sic] have better school attendance records. I can at least accept that that result is measurable even if the case for cause and effect is moot.

Recently, the eminent British theatre and opera director, Jonathan Miller (who is also a distinguished medical scientist) observed on the BBC’s Hard Talk that the highest claim he would make for the arts was that they might make the observer think about something in a way that he or she had not before. He was quick to acknowledge that the same could be said of science. It seemed like a good and reasonable position.

I can live with and would even strenuously argue for the idea that the arts (along with languages, maths and science) can offer human beings insights into the world and their condition with in it and perhaps think more profoundly about those things. But I find it hard to be enthusiastic about the notion that anyone who declares him or herself to be an artist acquires a kind of angelic capacity to improve the world.

By contrast, some willingness on the part of artists and arts workers to demonstrate that they give to rather than take from society might win some hearts and wonder of wonders maybe even get those soccer mums on board.

Justin Macdonnell
September 2013