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Sharing the Bundle of Sticks

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A person in all black holds a camera to a performer on the right who is singing in front of a lectern. They are standing in a carpark behind a pale coloured concrete wall.

Image: Behind the scenes shot of co-Director Victoria Pham shooting performer Lotte Betts-Dean for SOLOS IV. Photo Daniel Pini

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Aesop’s Fable, The Bundle of Sticks, reflects upon the need to share the load. Through a distribution of labour we can achieve more collectively, whilst still caring for one another. In reality, labour is rarely distributed in the utopian ideal of egalitarianism. Instead, collaborations demand negotiation and compromise. Labour is not distributed evenly.

<center>To his sons, who fell out, father spake:</center>
<center>“This Bundle of Sticks you can’t break;</center>
<center>Take them singly, with ease.</center>
<center>You may break as you please;</center>
<center>So, dissension your strength will unmake.”</center>
<center>Aesop, The Father, His Sons, and The Bundle of Sticks, Crane Poetry Visual Edition</center>

As a company, FABLE ARTS, we made it our mission to develop opportunities for emerging artists of all disciplines and aspired to make space for others, whilst offering time and support for artists to showcase their work. Our organisation’s labour intends to provide a supportive space for artists to expand their practices through workshops, open crits, and experiments with digital presentations.This process of directing and administrating has also made us intensely aware of the pressures which are put on arts organisations to produce, and manage artists in order to support them and their work while meeting organisational deadlines.

The desire to live up to these standards was in part due to some of our personal experiences and how the generosity of small arts organisations had allowed us to develop into the artists we are today. For Victoria Pham, this was made particularly clear on her 2021 residency with UK-based organisation, Metal Culture. Metal Culture provided year-long artistic support within a small team of four at the Peterborough office. What was most memorable was the endless support from staff members who inadvertently mentored Pham through sessions about managing PR, collaborative artistic processes, mental health and open crit sessions. Pham recalls being told by a staff member “every experience is as good as the artist wishes and communicates for it to be. We are here to support your development and your time will ultimately be shaped by you” (Pham 2021).

This experience affirmed the aspiration for FABLE ARTS to provide such a space for others. What Metal Culture exemplified was that artistic development happened collaboratively, and that labour is an experience that is subjective (Freee art collective 2012). From this, balancing the needs of an organisation and the needs of individual artists has prompted deeper questions regarding sustainability. To illustrate these conundrums, we invite you to join us as we review some key experiences from the last two years.

Funding, Donors, and Philanthropy

At our yearly review reflecting on another year past, a key concern was labour. The ambitious projects we wanted to produce required significant work and financial stability—whether funding was sourced from grants, private donors or other philanthropic forms, being able to remunerate ourselves for our labour and engage consultants would reduce the workload, in turn enabling us to care more for the work of our artists. Without long-term public funding we decided to seek support through philanthropy or individual private donors.

Private donors, corporate relationships, and philanthropy are sometimes perceived as ‘selling out’, but it is indisputable that their support is critical to the success and sustainability of many arts organisations. Major performing arts organisations (MPAs) across Australia, the UK, and USA all have extensive lists of donors who keep ‘the ship afloat’ (Donelli et al. 2023); the arts have an important symbiotic relationship with donors, government funding, and artists (Roulet 2022). MPAs represent more surety for donors. They have a larger demographic, more viewership and so attract more money. From this, they can set conditions for donations and have the reserves to keep working even if a donor withdraws. This can be good when funding is used to support arts, education, and the community. Other times, their funding drains money from the pool smaller artists and arts organisations compete for. This was illustrated in 2018 when NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin ‘admitted some money from a State Government funding round was diverted to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra after the ABC revealed 11 organisations missed out on the money’ (Boland et al. 2018). To use the same MPA in a positive example, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s emerging artists projects - Sydney Sinfonia Orchestra and their Fellowship program - are exceptional outcomes that funding and philanthropy for educational aims can achieve in the arts. These two initiatives have produced excellent and lasting results through professional instrumentalists who represent Australia nationally and internationally. However, even MPAs are not immune to tightening budgets, and in the years since 2014 the glowing ‘Emerging Artists’ section boasting five programs has been almost entirely cut, leaving behind in the 2021 Financial report, only mention of a ‘Training Australian Musicians’ section, and the only remaining Emerging Artist program, the SSO Fellowship (Crouch 2015, 2016; Moses 2022).

A person in all black is leaning down adjusting a yellow bear before a green animation screen. In the foreground the same view is seen on a mobile phone including other teddy bears holding instruments.
Image: Behind the scenes image of co-Director Daniel Pini. Photo Victoria Pham[Image description: A person in all black is leaning down adjusting a yellow bear before a green animation screen. In the foreground the same view is seen on a mobile phone including other teddy bears holding instruments.]

With MPAs struggling to strike the balance between economics, investment and emerging artists, we began to reflect on our own practices as we strived to find a better solution. As we are a small ARI, our experience was different when looking for philanthropic support. Donors may feel that, as they are contributing financially to an organisation, that they have earned the right to make organisational decisions. We experienced such a situation early on. The instability of never knowing when money may be withheld demanded a different approach in order to balance the power of the two parties—philanthropists and our organisation. The management of the donors became a full-time job and began to cut into the time we wanted to dedicate to our projects and artists. Even with this additional layer of management, the risk of withdrawal of future funding made the relationship unstable. As such, it was impossible for us to rely on this stream long-term.

Ultimately, the strain placed on us as the ‘middle-person’ between artist and donor, often with unsolicited demands by the donor for changes in the creative vision for the company (and by extension, the artists we were supporting), we decided that philanthropy was currently not an option for a company so small. Inadvertently, our experience with philanthropy had caused us more distress, the blurring of our professional and personal boundaries, and thus, more work negotiating for our and our artists’ rights. Although this may have been an extreme experience and not all philanthropy will present itself in this way, it sparked us to once more consider how better might we allocate our bundle of sticks?

Administrating, Nourishing, and Cultivating

While our efforts for philanthropy flopped, smaller philanthropic donations kept rolling in from members of the public who wanted to support our company. And so with no funding or philanthropy, we were still determined to make a place to nourish the creative spirits of others. A noble and possibly naive quest, but one we care about. While we are proud to have paid every artist who developed work through our support, the question of sustainability continues to repeat in our minds. We sought to create a space that offered duty of care that we had hoped for from our personal experiences as emerging artists. How does an organisation operate with care and kindness even in circumstances where that duty is not reciprocal? It is a question that we continue to return to, with each monthly or annual review, as our relationship with labour shifts from an all-or-nothing approach to sustain-ourselves-to-sustain-others approach.

At the heart of the challenges we’ve faced, we’ve resolved  two principles:

  1. Care within creative practice extends beyond one’s own relationship with the work we are producing, but the effect our actions can have on another’s weight of labour. We like to think of this as nourishing to cultivate. While we value that those who labour at their art making need time and space to make thought-provoking, strange and beautiful things, we hold a similar responsibility for those who make that seemingly invisible foundation of support—the grant writers, the stage managers, the operations officer, and others—time and space for them to strive for the best. Something as simple as missing a deadline might hold invisible consequences: the person who finalises marketing a month later might have a stressful 24 hours to turn around material instead of a fortnight. There is an overarching ecosystem of labour distribution that extends beyond the individual or group that the majority of the public witnesses. In this example, both the marketing officer and the artist have produced work that the public witnesses but one’s lack of care and understanding weeks prior has resulted in an unnecessary requirement for another to work beyond their usual limitations. So then, labour is experienced subjectively: for the artist the concern is to utilise time and energy towards the quality of their project, and for the arts administrator the concern is for the best representation of an artist’s work.
  2. Communication is at the heart of every relationship. Balancing our individual artistic practices with the experience of running an organisation, we are well aware that it will never be equal. However, we have resolved that care works both ways to facilitate conditions better suited to each side’s share of the labour. If one requires more time to develop, let your curator or collaborator know as early in the process as you can (preferably not the night before a deadline). The organisation or director is a person, with resources that are designated to be drawn from. For us, it ranged from production meetings, grant writing assistance and four months of creative and technical support leading up to a presentation of work. Life is unpredictable, and with it as is art and our professional relationships. People work differently, and that’s ok. What we encourage and look forward to are open dialogues where no party is expected to know drastic changes before they are communicated, and the challenges of creative practice can be shared and better supported.

An example of where this balance between care and communication was best reflected was SOLOS IV: Four White Walls by mezzo-soprano, Lotte Betts-Dean (2021). All parties were included during all processes, creative and administrative, for four months prior to the premiere of Betts-Dean’s work. Professional boundaries were set early in the process and reaffirmed throughout to avoid miscommunication or misplaced expectations throughout between all parties. This may sound overly formal a procedure, but as communication flowed easily and with a shared goal of best representing Betts-Dean’s work, it was a partnership between artist and organisation that we continue to look back upon with creative fondness. At her project’s heart is collaboration: first through Betts-Dean’s voice, as a singer and storyteller, and a filmmaking-vision directed by Betts-Dean herself and produced by FABLE ARTS. The artistic relationship expanded beyond the professional elements and seeped into the experience of the artist’s work, with Newton (2021) reflecting on the work as one housing “calmness and joy.”

Beyond our close work with Betts-Dean, there are several other artistic partnerships and developments that have continued to spark continual joy, arguably making our occasional majority share of labour worthwhile. So as we reflect upon the past two years, we have arrived at the firm conclusion that companies rely on relationships, and for relationships to flourish depends on joint care and effective communication. Most of the difficulties we have had (and will continue to have) could be solved by sharing that bundle of sticks. The bundle of sticks will never be equal, and that must be accounted for, but the act of distribution, and the desire to work towards something together enriches us all in this communal load.