Contenders

Twenty influential people in arts and culture

This week we're beginning a new countdown looking at the most powerful people across Australia's vibrant arts and culture sphere. Here, Tom Cowie presents the shortlist:

Andrew Denton – producer, Zapruder Other Films

Never mind his five-foot-five frame, Denton is a colossus in TV land. The former FM radio host gave the Chaser boys their big break and has his fingerprints all over some of the country's most popular original content at Zapruder, viz. the Gruen series, Can of Worms and Hungry Beast. And Dentophiles can rejoice, the bespectacled one will be returning to our screens soon as host of the new ABC quiz show Randling.

Anna Schwartz – gallerist

Prominent Melbourne art dealer Schwartz has a reputation as one of the nation's most feared contemporary gallerists: the kind of no bullshit tastemaker who can kick-start a career. Others say that's a bit overblown and her influence exists only within a small paint-splattered clique. Still, it doesn't hurt her cultural power to be married to influential publisher Morry Schwartz.

Baz Luhrmann – filmmaker

Say what you want about Baz shooting The Great Gatsby in 3D, the man is a master at bringing Hollywood stars and studio dollars to our shores. The platinum-haired prodigy also knows how to talk to government, having scored a rebate worth around $40 million to do it. But with our currency hitting all-time highs, Fox Studios in Sydney would pretty much be vacant without him.

Brendan McNamara – founder, Team Bondi

Gaming as culture? You'd better believe it. It's the growth entertainment area, with Australians spending more on video games ($1.5 billion) than they did at the film box office ($1.09 billion) in 2011. And while the local industry may have been obliterated by the Australian dollar, there was one homemade hit released last year by (the now-defunct) Team Bondi with their 1940s crime title L.A. Noire selling 5 million units worldwide.

Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton – artistic directors, Sydney Theatre Company

Some luvvies may be churlish about their high profile, but there's no doubt Blanchett and playwright husband Upton have brought the glitz to the STC. They've also made the company profitable and won critical acclaim taking home-grown shows to the US, meaning that when their reign ends at the end of next year they'll have well and truly left their mark.

David Walsh – founder, Museum of New and Old Art

If you haven't made the trip down to Hobart to visit the sex and death-themed MONA yet, chances are you know someone who has. At the centre of it all is Glenorchy-bred David Walsh, the enigmatic professional gambler ploughing his millions into the Apple Isle's newest – and most popular – tourist attraction.

Elizabeth-Ann Macgregor – director, Museum of Contemporary Art

Macgregor runs Sydney's MCA: a gallery which isn't even the biggest in its own city, meaning her influence is hard to judge on a national scale. Still, the Scotland-born redhead has her supporters who laud her for being approachable and generous with her support. A massive $53 million renovation opening this month enhances her claim as the most influential contemporary art figure.

Geoffrey Rush – actor

As one of the country's most accomplished actors, Rush already had plenty of cred. Now he's Australian of the Year and president of the newly-created Australia Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. He's also a big supporter of the local stage community, flying home regularly to attend – or even star in – the odd production.

George Miller – filmmaker

One of the few bankable Australian filmmakers, Miller was the brains behind the Babe series and the Mad Max films. The trained medical doctor and son of Greek immigrants also created the mega-hit Happy Feet animations, the first of which remains Australia's most successful ever film at the international box office, earning $384 million.

Julianne Schultz – founding editor, Griffith Review

Schultz may not have the key power title of others, but her presence and influence across the arts and culture sphere is undoubted. As well as being an ABC director, she's also had a long-term say over government arts policy having been at Kevin Rudd's 20/20 summit and now chairing the reference group for the federal government's upcoming National Cultural Policy review.

Kathy Keele – CEO, Australia Council

Government funding is perhaps the biggest issue facing artists and art bodies around the country. And at the top of the money tree is the Australia Council, run by Portland native Keele. It's a tough gig, with plenty of critics, mainly because everyone always wants a bigger slice of the pie.

Ken West – promoter, Big Day Out

Once upon a time, West's rolling five-city multi-stage extravaganza was the king of music festivals. These days things aren't so rosy. Ticket sales are down, line-up choices have been pilloried by music fans and the hard-rocking impresario's long-time business partner Vivian Lees quit recently in less than harmonious circumstances.

Louise Adler – CEO, Melbourne University Press

If you want to publish serious non-fiction, you could do worse than go to MUP. Run by the notoriously energetic Adler (she emails staff at 4am), the independent publishing house has become a specialist in political memoir: Mark Latham, Tony Abbott and Peter Costello have all put their words out with MUP.

Lyndon Terracini – artistic director, Opera Australia

No arts organisation gets as much government funding as Opera Australia, something that infuriates those who see it as lacking a connection to the wider community. And the man holding the chequebook is operatic baritone Terracini, a former Brisbane Festival chief, whose vision includes an ambitious outdoor staging of La Traviata on the waters of Sydney Harbour.

Michael Heyward – publisher, Text Publishing

Another of the key indie publishers, Text has some of country's most prominent authors on its books including Shane Maloney, Kate Holden and Tim Flannery. Heyward, like Adler, has also played a key role in cheerleading support for the parallel importation laws which have benefited local publishers.

Philanthropists

We may not have the same tradition of philanthropy as the United States, but Australia's rich still have their role in helping fund the arts. Leading the way is perennial arts patron Harold Mitchell, as well as other benefactors such as Simon Mordant ($15 million to the Art Gallery of NSW), Allan Myers ($6 million to the NGV) and the Wheelers (who paid for Melbourne's Wheeler Centre).

Richard Kingsmill – music director, triple j

When it comes to Australian music, there aren't many who match the make-you-or-break-you power of 'The King'. For almost a decade he's crafted the playlist at youth station triple j, one of the few outlets actively promoting up-and-coming local musicians. It means he has critics, and a whole lot of groupies who know that if he doesn't like your second album, you're toast.

Simon Crean – arts minister

It's an important year for government support of the arts, with the wide-ranging National Cultural Policy review slated for release later in 2012. It means Crean has more power than his predecessors to make a difference, even if those on the inside say the final product may not be the game changer everyone wants.

Theatre's Young Turks

They're the rudely talented, wildly contemporary young theatremakers dominating main stages. Simon Stone (27) is a critical darling with his shockingly reimagined classics; scenic artist Ralph Myers (32) took charge of Sydney's renowned Belvoir last year; across town Sam Stone (35) leads a Griffin Theatre troupe that punches above its weight; and Lally Katz (34) gave Shakespeare a run for his money last year to have more mainstage plays performed than any other writer.

Tony Ellwood – director, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art

Ellwood has helped transform Brisbane's reputation as a philistine wasteland, dragging 1.8 million visitors through the doors of the Queensland Art Gallery and GoMA in 2010 (the highest in the country). It's an achievement that will see the charismatic Melbourne boy head home to take on one of the biggest jobs in the business: director of the National Gallery of Victoria.

What's this list all about? Heres our definition of power in arts and culture:  The arts have disproportionate influence on society when compared to the size of their patronage. That's as it has been for centuries, partly because the arts are an important public platform for wealthy Medicis, partly because powerful people like to be judged by their artistic endeavors, partly because most arts power-wielders are very articulate, persuasive and well-connected, and partly because ideas flow in the culture sector and ideas attracts attention.


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