Note: Alan Ferris, the General Manager of The Perth Theatre Trust (owners of the Albany Entertainment Centre) responded to this essay with the following:
In 2011/12 the Albany Entertainment Centre (AEC) hosted 174 events and attracted 44,517 people. This is an excellent result when you consider the population of Albany is 36,000 and the total population of the Great Southern region including Albany is 50,000 people. Of those events, AEC hosted 13 performances by local hires that attracted 5,906 people.
According to the Perth Theatre Trust Annual Report audited figures the Princess Royal Theatre (the main-stage venue in the Centre) operated at 62% capacity in 2011/12. This meets the Australian Performing Arts Centres Association’s industry average.
AEG Ogden (Perth), do not operate as booking agents, but professional theatre managers whose role includes programming and operations. AEC receives a programming budget from the Perth Theatre Trust which is administered by the AEC local management team at the Centre and which saw 14 shows come into the Centre in 2011/12.
In December 2010 the Albany Entertainment Centre opened in its harbour-side city, at the bottom of southern Western Australian. Featuring a bold, angular design by architects Cox Howlett & Bailey Woodland, the complex contains a 620-seat theatre and a 200-seat studio. Needless to say, these spaces are described by the centre as ‘state of the art’.
The technical facilities are doubtless excellent. But what is the state of the arts? Vanessa Pigrum is a former manager of Full Tilt, the Victorian Arts Centre’s development program. She pointed out to me that there’s often a focus on the ‘hardware’ of bricks-and-mortar cultural centres at the expense of the ‘software’ of artists and shows. ‘It’s more understandable for governments,’ she explains. Arts ministers can stand in front of a building and cut a ribbon; a plaque can be fixed to the wall. ‘But what’s messier and less understandable is investing in the software—the community-building.’
On the measure of bringing performances to the citizens of Albany, the Albany Entertainment Centre is not doing so well. The magnificent new venue lies dark for much of the time. For March 2012, the centre’s website lists events on only eight days. In each of April and May, it lists only four. In January, at the height of the summer holidays, the centre presented two events. Albany’s new institution looks stunning from the outside but it’s quiet on the inside.A performing arts centre, particularly one on the foreshore of Princess Royal Harbour, had been a long-cherished dream of the Albany residents and a campaign championed by local member Peter Watson. A committee recommended as early as 1997 that the city build a performing arts centre, but disputes over a site followed. The eventual design featured a ‘workable waterfront plan that included a maritime precinct, the Anzac Peace Park and a more viable entertainment centre site’. In 2005 the Gallop Labor government committed funding, and the final figure would be $68 million.
It’s not hard to understand why Albany was able to attract such a significant amount of money for the construction of a civic building committed to performing culture. The period 1980 or so to 2010 saw the performing arts centre and the art museum dominate the imagination of arts ministers and regional mayors. Across Australia, local and state governments invested billions in building or renovating iconic institutions. It happened in small regional centres and the suburbs of big cities, as well as in the civic centres of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Brisbane, for instance, went on a massive building spree. There was an airy pagoda for Queensland’s new State Library, a squat black cube for the Gallery of Modern Art, a funky warehouse redevelopment for the Judith Wright Centre, and an old power station fit-out for the Brisbane Powerhouse. Perth built the Heath Ledger Theatre, a swanky theatre space in the new State Theatre Centre in Northbridge. Hobart acquired a Museum of Old and New Art in a down-at-heel suburb far from Salamanca Place. Sydney got Carriageworks. Cairns acquired a Centre of Contemporary Art.
The operating costs of all these places are significant, particularly in the context of static or slowly growing budgets for arts organisations and artists’ grants. The final cost of the Albany Entertainment Centre, for instance, at nearly $70 million, was approximately thirty-four times the Western Australian government’s budget for regional and community arts in 2010–11 of $1.9 million. The $49 million spent on Carriageworks roughly equalled Arts New South Wales’ entire annual expenditure on grants and small organisations in 2006. The redevelopment of Hamer Hall in Melbourne’s Arts Centre, at approximately $128 million, equals about 150 years of Arts Victoria’s contemporary music funding program, formally called Victoria Rocks. The mooted redevelopment of the Sydney Opera House, expected to cost more than $1 billion, dwarfs the Australia Council’s annual budget of around $175 million.
It’s easy to play games with numbers, of course, and no single study has been done that compares capital expenditure to ongoing cultural funding by all Australian governments. Capital expenditure also differs from ongoing operational funding. But the investment in new institutions, and in renovating old ones, soaks up a significant proportion of the arts funding dollar. As a result, large institutions—with their running costs, maintenance and large complements of salaried staff—are a key facet of Australian arts funding. Take the two largest states. In Victoria, grants to artists and small organisations make up only 9 per cent, approximately $35 million, of Arts Victoria’s annual operational budget of $394 million. The rest goes to performing arts venues and large cultural institutions, particularly the National Gallery of Victoria and the Arts Centre. Arts New South Wales is no different: $272 million of its $345 million budget last year went to the big institutions, particularly the Sydney Opera House, the State Library and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Investment in buildings—the venues—needs to be supplemented with recurrent operational funding. The commitment needed is therefore greater than is generally understood, which can lead to problems for local and regional centres. The issue of operational funding can also make access to venues more difficult for artists. The story of Albany is instructive here. Despite stumping up $1.2 million for its share in the construction of the Entertainment Centre, the City of Albany doesn’t run it. That’s left to the state government, via the booking agency AEG Ogden. Indeed, the City of Albany can’t afford to run the space, let alone provide a budget for programming or commissioning work. A smallish municipality (Albany’s population is only 36,000), the City of Albany has money problems. In 2008, it lost $3.2 million in subprime mortgage investments with failed US merchant bank Lehman Brothers. More than three years after Lehman imploded, the council is still hoping to recoup some of the losses in a class action against the bank and its liquidators, but acknowledges that those chances are slim. As a result, the council has recently signed a deal with the state government, which will see the state fund Ogden to book the centre out to 2014. There will be no artistic director and no programming budget.
The City of Albany doesn’t want to run the centre at all. ‘It’s a magnificent facility, and well patronised, but it loses about $1.36 million a year,’ Albany’s mayor, Dennis Wellington, tells me. The state government insists that the city council account for the centre’s depreciation costs in its budget, which amount to about $1 million a year. ‘That has to come straight out of our cash flow,’ he says. ‘When the state or federal governments want to build a new building, they just raise a new tax. We can’t do that.’
Albany is not the first local council to discover that the cost of running an arts centre can be just as daunting as the initial outlay. Across the regional performing arts sector, which is primarily run by local councils, it’s a fairly common predicament.
Rick Heath is the director of the Australian Performing Arts Centres Association (APACA), the national peak body for performing arts centres. ‘The investment in the hard infrastructure has definitely been more prevalent than any operational investment, and therein lies a bit of a problem,’ he says. APACA has more than 180 members around the country, and the bulk of them are regional centres run by local councils. According to its most recent data, from 2009, ‘utilisation of arts centres around the country sits at 60 per cent’. That means Australia’s performing arts centres are empty roughly two-fifths of the time.
Heath says the annual cost of running a performing arts centre can sometimes blindside a local council. ‘It’s about having realistic expectations about what a centre is going to deliver when it is first designed and looked at,’ he says. ‘Some councils want a venue that is going to be self-sufficient. The thinking is, If we’re putting on shows then we’ll probably make money out of it, and there’s been instances where there’s been $30–$40 million chucked into [a centre] and then it’s expected to break even. They then find out that it requires a $400,000–500,000 subsidy annually, and that seems to be a surprise to councils.’
Heath observes that capital and operational funding for arts centres often comes from different funding pools, and is subject to different political imperatives. ‘You know, it’s easy to stand in front of a building and cut the ribbon, it’s not quite so sexy to stand in front of a budget presentation and say this is what we’re going to do this year.’ Heath also points to Albany as an example. ‘Part of the problem in WA is that there are few local government authorities that actually have a cultural policy or plan, despite having a venue. This is quite an important thing,’ he says.
Councils need to have a cultural policy. Without a formal cultural plan, the responsibilities for venue managers can be difficult to fit into broader council priorities. ‘Quite often artists and arts organisations look to the venue manager as the barrier to getting the work into those centres, and quite often the manager is advocating for them, but they have to take any proposal to a council meeting and sit down with the financial controller and council executive,’ Heath explains. ‘And if there’s no plan in place, they can’t say where this project sits within the local government strategy.’
Artists and producers are the product arts centres are selling. They find it difficult to access regional arts centres too. Those I spoke to on this issue pointed to the difficulty of regional touring for independent artists and smaller arts organisations. It doesn’t help that artists are rarely the priority of local cultural policies, which are often focused on tourism and economic development. Apart from some well-supported regional touring programs, there are few commissioning programs or even programming budgets to support local work. According to one Victorian producer I spoke to, there is one regional performing arts centre in Victoria where ‘whoever manages to answer the phone can book the venue’. There is no curatorial approach. It’s first in, first served. Some other performing arts centres ban their employees from social networks. While this might please IT managers in a central office, it means venue marketers can’t use Facebook to market shows. Indeed, Heath reckons ‘less than a third’ of the performing arts centres in Australia even have a dedicated marketing manager, ‘so whilst they’ve got the facility and a venue manager, they don’t necessarily have people who are skilled in marketing and audience development’. This makes it harder to sell tickets, even to safe shows.
In some ways, audiences are the negative space of the arts in Australia. Most performing arts centres and companies have an intuitive grasp of what might appeal to their regular crowd; the larger institutions even have relatively sophisticated databases and demographic information. But forecasting the attendance for a particular show on a particular night remains an inexact science. In recent years attendances at some types of events, such as outdoor music festivals, have boomed, while audiences for traditional sit-down performances have barely grown. Across the twenty-eight companies of the major performing arts sector, for instance, audiences have been static for a decade.
So it is no easy task to program a performing arts centre—especially if the goal is simply to fill the venue every night. That makes it harder for the artists seeking access to those spaces, particularly those trying to present something risky, obscure or simply weird.
Lawrence English is one of those people looking to book venues for shows. The Brisbane-based experimental musician—who is also on the Australia Council’s Music Board—is a veteran tourer and producer through his record label, Room 40. He’s been programming work at the Brisbane Powerhouse since its inception and has arranged national tours for artists ranging from Scanner to Van Dyke Parks. ‘The further away from the capital cities you get, the harder the programming. There’s often no budget.’ But even at established venues, it’s difficult. ‘The Sydney Opera House, it’s now impossible for me to do shows there, where even seven years ago you would do shows in the Studio and maybe you’d even break even, if you sold out at a decent ticket price.’ According to English, the rising venue costs of the Opera House mean the sorts of contemporary and experimental music shows he would typically promote are prohibitively expensive. ‘It became clear there was almost no way to make a profit.’
English sees a ‘curious disconnect’ between the infrastructure and the art meant to go into it. ‘The infrastructure is seen as an investment, the programming is seen as an after-thought.’ He maintains that it’s very hard, or even impossible, to get certain types of art into regional arts centres. ‘Shows only really happen because venues support them … in terms of programming, you’re dealing with a heavily underresourced sector.’
As a result, performing arts centres often languish without a meaningful identity or an audience awareness. ‘It’s like a newspaper,’ he reasons by analogy. ‘You can print the cover and it looks amazing, but if there’s only one good article every five pages then ultimately its reputation will suffer. All these centres should be supporting new Australian work.’
For regional centres, English would like to see a programming budget of at least $100,000, ‘to bring in five to six things a year, and have a vision’. This is the minimum required to give a performing arts centre any kind of brand. Without at least some programming money, ‘you’re never going to transform those communities, to bring about that artistic understanding’.
A professional with years in the sector, English is a survivor. He knows how to make a $13,000 grant from an arts body translate into a new work or a regional tour. Even so, he’s realistic about the difficulties of sustaining an artistic career. ‘The small-to-medium sector is literally a desert where people are going from oasis to oasis to survive,’ he says. English points out that the Australian Taxation Office defines a small business as one with a turnover of less than $2 million annually, yet hardly any Australian arts organisations get near that threshold. He recalls a meeting of the Queensland music industry where the only organisation with a turnover higher than $500,000 was the record label Dew Process.
Many artists stop practising. ‘There’s a timeline of attrition,’ says English. He estimates that up to 90 per cent of the artists he worked with ten years ago have left the scene. Skills and knowledge are lost. The middle of an artist’s career remains a bottleneck that many practitioners simply find too difficult to negotiate. ‘I think it was Robert Forster who said that there has to be this ladder that artists can climb up. But the steps are becoming further apart.’
It’s not all doom and gloom. Many of the people I spoke to gave examples of inspirational performing arts centre curators—men and women with a vision for activating their spaces, and the nous to turn a profit while they’re at it. One of them is Richard Mitchell, in the outer Melbourne municipality of Knox. ‘We’re a small 200-seat venue in Bayswater,’ Mitchell says. ‘When I came to this venue, it was overgrown, it wasn’t working, and in six years we’ve totally turned it around by saying, “What is the role of an arts centre in a suburban community?”’
Mitchell sees this role as closely related to the education sector. ‘The VCA, Deakin, Monash—all these students are coming out of the arts funnel. Where do they go? How do they develop?’ Mitchell has worked with the dance course at Deakin University to give final-year students an opportunity to present their graduating show. He also toured the show to other outer suburban and regional arts centres.
‘I worked with Deakin Uni’s contemporary dance unit that is [based] ten kilometres up the road, in order to say to these students, How do you engage with arts centres, how do you build relationships with arts centres?’ Mitchell points out that not every dance student can go and work for Chunky Move. Some will teach. Some will choreograph, or go into arts administration. ‘I got contacted by a young dancer who was ex-Deakin and living in Boronia, and she said, “I’m doing a dance performance for Melbourne Fringe. I’ve heard you’ve got an arts centre. I’ve finished my degree and I’ve got nowhere to rehearse.”’
Mitchell gave her access to free rehearsal space, and also wrote a media release for her show that promoted it to the people on Knox’s database. ‘I said, “Come and rehearse here at no cost, I’ll tell your story, I’ll write your media release, it’ll be Knox Arts Centre supporting local dancer in Melbourne Fringe.” Then she went off and performed at Fringe, we sent that out to our database, so it’s about getting a story going and how to support artists to do that.’
Mitchell has developed a micro-touring structure that he calls a ‘6-pack’, which allows him to tour artists through a limited number of like-minded regional arts centres. Deborah Conway toured recently. ‘She wanted to tour, and hadn’t been able to break into the arts centre scene.’
‘Deborah is a strong-minded and experienced individual,’ he chuckles, ‘and I set up a tour for her over three weeks. I negotiate with her what the fees are going to be, I negotiate with the venues, and I know all the venue managers, I know their budgets, it’s a lot easier for me to do that.’ Mitchell sees it as an opportunity to defray costs for his own programming and to value-add for artists trying to arrange gigs. His next big show is a ‘netball opera’ called Contact, held at the Knox Regional Netball Centre in May. ‘Where else would you put it, really?’ he quips.
Vanessa Pigrum, currently at Darebin Council, approached Mitchell. ‘She said, “Rich, this is a good one to tour.”’ He arranged some co-investment with the other arts centres that were to present it, and found some Touring Victoria money too. The event was also marketed through Netball Victoria, which has 54,000 names on its email list. ‘That’s how we grow our audience in Knox.’
Some performing arts centres take the role of commissioning and developing new work very seriously. They tend to be in the big cities, and in institutions run by the state government arts ministries. Malthouse in Melbourne, Carriageworks and Belvoir in Sydney, and the Brisbane Powerhouse and Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane are all examples of arts centres with varying—but determined—commitment to presenting new work and assisting artists and small collectives to get their work to the stage.
The Malthouse, for instance, runs a sophisticated artistic development program that includes a resident company from the micro sector. ‘In almost all cases,’ Malthouse’s Jo Porter tells me, ‘it’s the first time [for the company] that people are getting salaries while in rehearsal.’ There is also the Helium program for the Tower Theatre. It features an open call-out for independent artists and small companies, curated by Marion Potts and the broader Malthouse team. According to Malthouse’s Josh Wright, ‘The deal is they take 70 per cent of the box office, we take 30 per cent; we waive theatre hire, costs like box office, front of house, insurance—the kind of costs that they may not have thought about before coming into a space like Malthouse.’
Wright and Porter point out that, at least in Melbourne, there are many independent performing arts venues. ‘We often leave out [of this discussion] La Mama, Dancehouse, Theatre Works and so on, but they’re often the most fertile ground and have the most accessible spaces,’ Wright says. ‘In talking about spaces you’re really talking about access artists have—are dancers dancing on concrete floors?’
Lewis Jones is the program manager at Arts Queensland’s Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane. ‘Our mission is the development of contemporary arts for audiences and artists,’ he begins, ‘so part of what we want to do is get things in that will encourage people to come to the venue.’ Jones estimates about 25 per cent of the Judith Wright Centre’s shows are ‘straight hires’ in this mix, ‘so they’ll be international and national artists’. Of the remaining three-quarters, ‘Some are straight buys and others are door deals and there’s a whole range … from “we’ll pay you x thousand dollars” to a door split, and so on.’
‘Someone like Lawrence English, we’ll work with him to present the Syncretism series, and we’re in ongoing discussions on how to develop audiences for that very edgy contemporary work,’ Jones says. The centre also has a development program called Fresh Ground for which artists apply. Successful applicants get $10,000 in cash, access to rehearsal spaces, help with business and marketing plans, and ‘support in the development of producing skills’.
Helium and Fresh Ground are styles of program development undoubtedly influenced by the success of Pigrum’s Full Tilt at the Victorian Arts Centre. But it’s also the case that the whole idea of performing arts centres supporting artist development is relatively new, and fragile. According to Pigrum, ‘Development programs go in and out of favour with whoever is in charge. If the CEO doesn’t have a liking for work that’s only half-done, that can be a problem.’ While at the Arts Centre, Pigrum would try to ensure senior stakeholders attended a series of shows, to help them understand the spectrum of risk for shows in creative development. ‘I was really aware of all the internal lobbying with senior arts managers.’
Pigrum also points to one of the less-understood aspects of artistic infrastructure: the need for affordable working and rehearsal space. ‘Most of the time I was at Full Tilt I was renting space outside the city. It’s harder to argue for—you can’t bring the National Ballet of China to work at a two-person studio.’
With the impending release of the Gillard government’s National Cultural Policy, the value and output of performing arts centres is suddenly coming into focus. APACA’s submission to the policy process included proposals for more touring grants, better links among regional and capital-city arts centres, and, perhaps most ambitiously, ‘a strategic approach to arts funding across all levels of government’. APACA highlighted the thousands of hours wasted on unsuccessful grant applications and the often tenuous links between regional and federal policy-makers.
Can a new cultural policy ‘join the dots’, as Arts Minister Simon Crean keeps insisting it must? The story of Albany Entertainment Centre offers a cautionary tale. There is little in the way of federal funding accessed by artists in the region. Federal funding to Country Arts WA—the main regional touring organisation in the west—totalled less than $900,000 in 2009, according to its last published annual report. The City of Albany relies on the state government to pay an outside booking agency to program its Entertainment Centre. Local citizens have limited access, and local artists few opportunities.
Nor has the stunning architecture of the building attracted any significant interest among cultural tourists. The Entertainment Centre is not even listed on ‘Amazing Albany’, the main tourism website for Albany, or on the state of Western Australia’s main tourism portal for the south and south-west. Great Southern region tourism remains resolutely based on wineries and the region’s natural wonders such as its forests.
How important is a performing arts centre to the wellbeing of a community? In some cases, the answer is ‘very’. But in others, the answer may well be ‘it depends’. Gleaming new arts centres are neither panaceas nor white elephants. Running one is a lot like the rest of the arts: dynamic, uncertain and risky. Some arts centres will be really successful. Others, perhaps the majority, will fulfil a modest role for their local communities. Some will fail.