As the official arts funding body for the Australian Government, the Australia Council is an important and powerful institution. Through its various decisions and activities, not least its grants program, it helps shape and promote Australia's cultural life. Indeed, many artists and arts organisations rely on the Australia Council for their existence.
So it is important that the people who make up Australia Council are experts in the field. Adrian Burnett, director of dance at the Australia Council 2011, certainly fits the bill.
Burnett has considerable knowledge and understanding of contemporary dance and ballet, having worked as an artist, choreographer, producer, teacher and director nationally and internationally for many years. He graduated from the Australian Ballet School and joined the Australian Ballet in 1988 where he worked in various capacities including as Senior Artist, Resident Choreographer, Executive Producer and Guest Ballet Master until 2010.
As a freelance choreographer, Burnett has been commissioned by the Dutch National Ballet (for Holland International Festival), Houston Ballet, Singapore Dance Theatre, New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, West Australian Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet.
In 2013, Adrian assisted the Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet to produce and re-stage seminal works by Glen Tetley and Twyla Tharp for the company’s season at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival. In 2009, he was Guest Dance Director for Sydney Dance Company. He also worked extensively as a guest teacher with international companies including Royal Swedish Ballet and Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance (UK).
Burnett's experience extends to commercial theatre, including producing large scale events for high profile corporate clients such as G’day USA (the leading showcase for Australia in the US), Faberge, Qatar Airlines and Volkswagen.
Add to that his long association as coach and choreographer with the Genee International Ballet Competition, and it is clear he has a deep involvement with dance from most angles.
Burnett first joined the Australian Council in 2011, on seeing an ad for the position of Program Manager of Dance. He was well suited to the job, having completed a two-year postgraduate in arts and entertainment management at Deakin University in Melbourne. He was later appointed Relationship Manager (working with the Major Performing Arts companies) and became Director of Dance in 2015.
From a dancer's perspective, his appointment to the AC was an eminently reassuring move. Here was a real dancer, someone who understands the artform, rather than the cliché of a bureaucrat in a grey suit. But he points out he that he is only one of a team of widely experienced artists and former artists who make up the Australia Council, all with similar experience and passion for art. He says his knowledge of the arts in Australia as a whole has increased through his management roles at the Australia Council. “It’s a national organisation so it really opens your eyes to the bigger picture, what people are doing not just in Melbourne and Sydney but all over the place, from NT to regional Australia. I also get to see the links and impacts beyond putting on a series of performances, where the value is for a community and for the sustainability of an artform. I also have this wonderful opportunity to understand much better the independent dance sector.”
Burnett has no direct role in grant decisions. His role is more of an advisor and liaison person, feeding his knowledge of dance into policy making, and providing an accurate context within which grant assessments are made. He travels the country seeing as much work as possible and consulting with the profession.
“For example, with grants you would look at the trends across, say, five rounds of funding. What are the gaps, who is applying, who is not applying, what areas of the artform might need some more investment, some more knowledge, some more skills? Where do we see the artform going in the next five years? How can we improve things – like touring? Why is it that a lot of Australian dance companies can tour in Europe or North America or even Asia more easily than they can in Australia?”
To this end he arranges visits and meetings between entrepreneurs and presenters, both local and international, such as at the biennial Dance Massive or the Performing Arts Market. “I’m working with our international team to identify those people who are going to be able to present work internationally.”
Not long after Burnett joined the Council it implemented a major restructure, following long consultation with the arts community, which involved a simplified and more accessible grants model (which moved from 140 grant categories to five); a new peer assessment model (which draws on a much larger and more diverse pool of expert peers nationally); and newly focussed strategic development work. The restructure went ahead despite a new government unexpectedly cutting the AC's funding (albeit with “the level of investment in some areas significantly reduced”). Burnett admits being beholden to changes in government can be frustrating: “The amount of strategic work and thinking and effort that goes into something and then things change politically, governments change, and that whole cycle starts again”.
“But then you realise that the fundamental principles around arm's-length funding and supporting artists don’t change. That's how I find my way through, because that's what I'm interested in – art and artists.”
Are there any improvements he would like to see? Yes, he would like to see less red tape and more resources go to artists. He would like to see the “independent Indigenous dance sector really flourish” and he believes a lot more could be done to advance dancers with disabilities.
As a part of a complex and sometimes vulnerable economy, the arts often come under attack, and the Australia Council is often left having to defend its role. “It's an investment of public money, and that responsibility is taken very seriously,” he says. “The intrinsic value of the arts can be difficult to measure – such as the social impact and community benefits. They are interesting challenges. We are about to release the results of our 2016 National Arts Participation Survey which will tell us how Australians value the arts and identify the impact it has their lives.”
(The results are now available at here.)
– KAREN VAN ULZEN