The appointment of Dutch archivist Jan Müller as CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), the third non-Australian to occupy the post in 12 years, has raised hackles in sections of the industry.
While no one is questioning the qualifications of Müller, who has served as CEO of Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision since 2009, many are asking why no Australian resident, born here or overseas, was deemed suitable for the role of safeguarding Australia’s audio-visual history.
And some are critical that it took the federal government so long to fill the vacancy since former CEO Michael Loebenstein announced his resignation last November and in January returned to his native Austria as head of the Austrian Film Museum.
Producer Tony Buckley, a co-founder of the Industry Activity Group which has been campaigning for a new, purpose-built NFSA that would be an archive and conservation and research facility, is a vocal opponent of the appointment.
In a letter to NFSA chair Gabrielle Trainor, Buckley said: “A most unfortunate and unwelcome decision. Sadly the Australian cultural cringe is alive and well. This is the third foreign CEO in 12 years that comes to us with “an international reputation” and look what the other two did to us.”
Professor Deb Verhoeven, chair, media and communication at Deakin University, said: “Notwithstanding the failure to appoint someone with local knowledge of the critical issues and stakeholders, I am open-minded about this appointment.
“Müller has strong track record around Linked Open Data and is well positioned to take the NFSA forward into the realities of 21st century archiving in a way that hasn’t seemed possible to date.
“There is definitely an open question around why the Federal Government doesn’t believe (and hasn’t for a while, and across both parties) that there are appointable local candidates for this role. At a broader level this points to larger issues around senior cultural administration in this sector – in particular around capacity building.”
Film and technology consultant Dominic Case, a former development manager at the NFSA, said: “I quite agree about the lack of local knowledge of the creative culture but more critically of the political culture, which has really challenged previous appointees. The last Australian in the job apparently knew the Canberra scene but he didn’t last.
“I don’t know Jan Müller but I do recall that Loebenstein came with the reputation of a strong digital interest and expertise but he was unable to cope with a government whose attitude to culture and history was lamentably parsimonious and neglectful.”
In the 2014 budget the federal government cut the NFSA’s funding from $27.07 million to $25.9 million for each of the next two fiscal years, then $25.74 million and $26.01 million.
Before the funding cut, Loebenstein announced a restructuring which entailed shedding jobs and reducing its touring program and the number of events at its Arc cinema in Canberra, moves which were widely criticised, not least due to lack of consultation. Loebenstein blamed the cuts on increased operating costs as the archive continues to convert its library to digital.
Ben Gibson, a Brit who had a short and unhappy tenure as director, degree programs at AFTRS before taking the job of director and manager of the Berlin Film Academy said: “When Aussies worry about whether an imported candidate for this kind of position “will last”, it’s usually a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. Everyone will spend all their time trying to teach the new person how to “understand Australia” – and be deeply offended if they come bringing ideas.
“After a couple of years of frustration they will have a tan already and be completely desperate to leave for just about anywhere else because all any Aussie thinks about is whether they are “understood” – and each one will have a different problem.
“So giving the guy a break would actually involve more than a brief honeymoon of curiosity, actually a lot of uncharacteristically genuine open-mindedness.”
To be fair, the appointment has been welcomed by key players such as Seb Chan, the chief experience officer at ACMI.
Meg Labrum, NFSA collection general manager, will continue as acting CEO until Müller starts in October.