April 15, 2016

By Keith Gallasch, Interview Phillip Keir, Founder, Keir Choreographic Award
15 Apr 2016

Phillip Keir’s done beginners’ dance classes at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York, read scripts and directed youth theatre for the Royal Court in London, learned German in order to study Regietheater (directors’ theatre) in Cologne, directed and translated plays for four years at the Sydney Theatre Company, published the Australian Rolling Stone music magazine for 20 years, in 2004 formed the Keir Foundation with Sarah Benjamin, to principally support visual arts and dance ventures, and in 2013 established the Keir Choreographic Award, first given in 2014. The semi-finals and finals of the 2016 Award are fast approaching.



What did you feel at the end of the Rolling Stone years? Did you leave with a new ambition?
I guess it’d become a commercial thing and I was completely overwhelmed by it. Towards the end, I formed the Foundation and started to fund certain arts projects.

Do you remember the moment you decided or the rationale, when you decided to become an arts benefactor?
I guess it had been brewing for a while and it was a way of re-engaging. And also I had all the finances I hadn’t had before, more money than I needed at this stage. It started fairly small in about 2004 and right from the beginning it linked back to where I started, with my interest in visual arts and dance and that’s where the Foundation has gone full-circle, back to the beginning, as in New York in 1976.

And that kinship between the two?
It also worked closely in with the music which at that time was Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Ramones, who all had a strong visual art element. Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and so on. It’s always one of the things I’ve been interested in as well as the high art/low art schism. I’m interested in things that don’t just sit in what I would call a traditional high art box. I have some knowledge of traditional ballet but I’m interested in what’s contemporary, what’s saying something to people now about what is of now. Dance to me is very much part of that in the local context because it is about a contemporary performance practice which is often quite open. It’s that interest I’ve held throughout. It’s fair to say that if there’s a sweet spot in what the Keir Foundation covers, it’s work that’s multi-disciplinary, that works between areas and sometimes does have a high/low culture kind of [mix].


The Foundation was very much a work in progress. We had no knowledge of how to conduct one and we were probably a little slow initially trying to work out what worked and what didn’t and so it’s taken the best part of 10 years to get a strong definition of what we think is interesting and where a foundation can work. There are many kinds of philanthropy and people give to arts and culture for many different reasons. Sometimes there’s a social dimension. Sometimes there’s an interest in one particular form—all kinds of reasons. It took us a while to work out what exactly we could do best and also in a practical sense. For instance, with large theatre projects the production costs are such that, as a relatively small foundation, we can’t “move the dial” as the Americans say. The attraction with, say, visual arts is that sometimes things can be large in scope but they’re also very modular so you can deal with individual projects and these don’t necessarily cost that much. Dance is a kind of poor man’s craft in one sense; artists often have to work under very tough budgetary constraints. From a pragmatic point of view we can actually make a difference because government funding in some of these areas is very modest.


So your Foundation contributes to the developmental costs of a work or production costs or… Is that the kind of support you’re giving?
Our view is to always work closely with existing institutions, encouraging small to medium organisations to work together. We take the view that sometimes pooling funds from different places helps with the budget in a pragmatic sense, but also that the process of working together is part of what the project is about [as happens] in Germany, the UK and the US. [But then] you come back to Australia and find that there are state arts infrastructures that seem to encourage people not to work together and people live in their bubble in their city in their home state and don’t collaborate very closely with their peers in other states.

Garry Stewart’s ADT has been a stand-out example of a company finding European co-commissioning partners who then also present the work.
Certainly that’s what a lot of the big European performing arts companies do. Not only do you get money to actually make the work but also, you don’t have to go back and sell it to them later because they’ve already to some extent bought in. It means that they have a commitment to that artist’s work. I find arts markets difficult things; the process of commissioning and buy-in has more potential.

The Foundation has a relatively low profile. There are no ‘apply now’ advertisements.
We don’t want to set up an infrastructure and that’s why we don’t have that process of application. By and large if you have an open application you end up with a lot of paper and phone calls and so on. A lot of the money that could go out in the form of a grant winds up in administration. And really, the arts scene in Australia is not that large. If we’re partnering with organisations it’s a matter of having a conversation. That’s often how the commissions come about.

It often comes out of us having an interest in a particular artist and the organisation having a similar interest. A recent example was a film work made by Melbourne-based visual artist Nick Mangan, a co-commission between Chisenhale Gallery in Bow in East London and Artspace in Sydney. The nature of film is that by visual arts standards it’s a relatively expensive medium because you’ve got to go to places and shoot the film and edit it and you usually have quite a few collaborators. The good thing about film is that you don’t have that conventional problem with freight, which is the big killer with visual arts. If you’ve got a big bulky object, you’ve got to get it from one end of the world to the other and most of the budget can be sunk in shipping costs. The project needed extra commission money. It was an innovative work between two institutions of similar size with an Australian artist with an international reputation. One of the things that still really interests me about the visual arts is that it has become the most international of forms. We don’t support scripted theatre because it often has limitations as far as language goes. Watching a two and a half-hour play in German is hard-going if you’re not understanding the text at all. I’ve always been interested in this international question so that’s another reason why dance and visual arts, to me, are the most international forms, and music too.