Li Cunxin AO: A victim of his own success and a rare unicorn?

Li Cunxin AO. Photo courtesy of Queensland Ballet.
Li Cunxin AO. Photo courtesy of Queensland Ballet.

When we think of Li Cunxin AO and Queensland Ballet, it’s hard not to think of the successful and savvy businessman/artist who has elevated our northern company to its lofty heights over the past decade. With a solid and respected reputation both domestically and internationally, there is little doubt that the success of the company is tied to the success of the man, supported by a powerhouse team. But just recently, the newly retired Artistic Director, who has stepped down due to ill health, has told the press that the strain of generating 42 percent of the Company’s revenue through philanthropic efforts has taken its toll. Moreover, the two percent that the Company receives in federal funding is simply inequitable.

With a new home in the “incomparable” Thomas Dixon Centre that even has David Hallberg, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, envious, and the growth and development of Queensland Ballet Academy, which is seeing huge community engagement in ballet training from inside Queensland and across the country, you may ask why is Mr Li speaking up now?

The answer is that he simply sees Queenslanders as getting the short end of the Federal funding stick and is appealing for that famous Aussie notion of ‘a fair go’.

Thomas Dixon Centre.
Thomas Dixon Centre.

Mr Li says it is time that funding bodies look at companies more equitably and not offer reduced support to those who have proven they can support themselves. Speaking publicly in Canberra to highlight the lack of Federal Government Funding for Queensland arts companies, Mr Li has labelled the current system, outdated.

“There are five dance companies in Australia. Despite growing to being the second largest of the five, Queensland Ballet receives the least funding from the Federal government, even though Queenslanders make up 20 percent of the population.

“Over the years, this disparity has placed the company at a huge financial disadvantage compared to our peers in other States. We are fortunate that our philanthropic and corporate partners have leapt to the challenge, sharing our vision for Queensland. That’s come at a cost, and for me personally, I have no doubt it has contributed to the decline in my health as I have been single-mindedly stubborn in my belief that Queenslanders should not be disadvantaged.

“We have contributed to the growth of the culture of philanthropy and corporate sponsorship in Queensland, and we have developed ballet not only as an artform and a viable career for young dancers, but also as a vehicle for wellbeing through our Health and Community Programs.

“State Government support made up a total of 20.13 per cent of Queensland Ballet’s annual revenue last financial year. Queensland Government has also supported the growth ambition of QB including through the investment in the development of the Queensland Ballet Academy (QBA) at Kelvin Grove, and significant investment in the Thomas Dixon Centre (TDC) redevelopment.”

Are Queensland Ballet’s skills as exemplary fundraisers a sustainable business plan? He thinks not. But one can’t help but wonder if this is because of the attraction of the man. With an incredible personal story which is even documented as a book and movie in Mao’s Last Dancer and considerable appeal as a personal and motivational speaker for those fundraising events or corporations with deep pockets, you have to wonder if the next Artistic Director will need to be an even bigger personality to keep the money rolling in?

And should this be the priority when searching for their next artistic lead, or should greater federal funding be secured so the focus can return to the art? Not to say that Mr Li hasn’t done an incredible job balancing the two; he undoubtedly has. With international commissions, staging of elite works reserved for the likes of The Royal Ballet, and a commitment to engaging new and exciting choreographers, Mr Li’s body of artistic works speaks for itself, as loudly as his business acumen. But is Mr Li a unicorn in that regard? And where will Queensland Ballet find another like him?

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