‘Our culture is who we are’ – arts leaders stand up for smaller players

Five of Queensland’s most established arts organisations have combined to stand up for the “little guys” of the arts community, warning that the entire sector is under threat unless smaller players receive urgent funding.

Apr 20, 2020, updated Apr 20, 2020

Opera Queensland, Queensland Ballet, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Theatre and Circa’s joint statement comes after the recent announcement of updates to the Australia Council for the Arts’ Four Year Funding program for 2021-2024.

“Foremost, we wish to congratulate the 95 performing arts organisations that were successful in the application process, albeit this is down from 128 companies in 2016, especially the 28 companies new to Four Year funding,” the statement read.

“Conversely, our support is with the smaller cultural organisations across Australia and particularly in Queensland that received transition funding only for 2021. For companies such as Australasian Dance Collective, Brisbane Writers Festival, Eyeline Publishing, Feral Arts and Umi Arts, this is devastating news and disappointing for arts and culture in our state.”

The statement also addressed the impact social restrictions that have arisen in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak have placed on the industry, which it said was in a precarious position already.

“The global COVID-19 pandemic has placed many sectors at risk of collapse. As we navigate our changed environment, arts, in particular, is certainly operating in a tumultuous climate for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 has resulted in the widespread cancellations of performances, festivals and events across Queensland, Australia and internationally, and with that, the loss of job stability, contracts and prospects. These measures will have a long-lasting impact on the performing arts sector and society as a whole.”

Opera Queensland CEO and artistic director Patrick Nolan.

Opera Queensland chief executive and artistic director Patrick Nolan said the five arts organisations were “constantly in communication” and the underfunding of the small-to-medium sector was a long-standing issue that needed to be addressed.

“I think one of the great things about the Brisbane arts sector is that we’re very closely connected and very supportive and very aware of how our operations work in relation to the greater ecology, and this is something we’ve been monitoring and paying attention to for some time,” he said.

“I think you’ll also find a lot of people – pretty much everyone – who works in the major arts companies have come through the small and medium sector, so they have a lived experience of what the sorts of pressures are like.”

Queensland Theatre artistic director Lee Lewis said the COVID-19 pandemic had further exacerbated an already-dire set of circumstances for smaller operators in the sector.

“The problems for the small-to-mediums have just been piled on this year,” Lewis said.  “It was always going to be an awful year for the small-to-medium layer of our arts ecosystem, the decisions that were made for the defunding of so many companies comes on the back of 10 years of defunding of the Australia Council [for the Arts].

“The Australia Council isn’t some weird and big institution working against the arts, it’s a small group of people – and that group of people have been getting smaller over the last 10 years as their resources have been cut. They don’t want to make those cuts to the small-to-medium sector, that was just the money that they had, which has been reduced in the last 10 years.”

Queensland Theatre artistic director Lee Lewis.

“It’s a sentiment echoed by Queensland Ballet’s executive director Dilshani Weerasinghe, who told InQueensland “arts is not valued enough in Australia”.

“From an arts funding point of view – and I’m going to take all the names out of it, so take Australia Council out, take Arts Queensland out, take Ministry for the Arts, take everything out – our fundamental issue is systemic,” she said.

“it’s much bigger than the fact that COVID-19 needs to see more stimulus for organisations big and small, it goes to a place of a taxpayer So you and I. If we value the arts, how do we get voices heard, and who do they have to be heard by to solve this systemic issue?”

Weerasinghe encouraged “regular Australians” to tell their local members of parliament how much arts and culture meant to them.

“We have to find a way to articulate to the decisionmakers that actually the taxpayers – that Australians – want this. Now, how do we do that? I don’t really have an answer to that but holding our hands out and saying ‘We need funding’ is obviously not going to be enough. So we need to find a way of articulating our value and aligning with the general Australian to say, ‘if this is important to you, join with us’.”

Queensland Ballet’s executive director Dilshani Weerasinghe.

Lewis said adequate ongoing funding for smaller operators in the arts sector was “a question about values, our big values”.

“What do we really value?” she said. “Over the last 10 years government has been devaluing the arts, relative to other societal endeavours, and, yes, they’ve also been devaluing research in science, and education and health care and I think it’s a question about what does matter to us as a society.

“I’m one of the people that says our culture is who we are and if we don’t create our original work – if kids are growing up not watching and hearing Australians in television and in their young people’s theatre – then how can they even get the idea that they can be creative beings?”

A healthy arts scene played an important role in helping to sustain the overall health and wellbeing of society, Nolan said.

“I would love to sit down with the Prime Minister and the Arts Minister and the Minister of Health and it took them through some of the programs that we do and say, ‘this is what we bring to a society, this is what we bring to the communities through the work we do and by not supporting us, the impact is going to be long-term and long-standing.

“You’re going to need the artists to be back on the streets and to be back connecting with communities and sharing their work and bringing the sort of the spirit and the quality of life that the arts does to a community.”

The organisations’ joint statement concluded with an acknowledgment of the sector’s history of endurance in the face of adversity and a reiteration for the need to rethink the Australia Council for Arts’ funding levels.

“Our industry is resilient and has a proud history of donating time and resources in unprecedented situations, from natural disasters to community-based needs. We look forward to rallying our collective creativity to entertain and inspire Queensland audiences again once this global crisis is under control.

“The Australia Council announcement comes at the end of five years of Federal Government funding cuts to the arts,” it said. “With the proposal of stimulus packages to address the massive impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s imperative to consider the needs of all arts institutions and individuals at this time regarding ongoing funding for the sustainable future of culture in this country.”

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