Pushed to the brink

5 April 2020

In difficult times we turn to the arts for comfort… but as the COVID-19 crisis intensifies, the Australian arts sector is being eroded, writes Nina Levy.

On Friday the Australia Council announced the recipients of its Four Year Funding for Arts Organisations program. When I learned that cherished West Australian performing arts institutions Barking Gecko Theatre, The Blue Room Theatre and Strut Dance* have all missed out on four-year funding, I cried.

I cried because I love each of these companies and the work they produce. I cried for the friends and colleagues who are part of these companies and weren’t even able to hug one another for support. I cried for the artists who won’t be employed as a result of this decision. And I cried for our Australian arts sector because what hope is there when the Federal Government continues to reduce the number of companies receiving ongoing funding?

I cried because these are dark days and they just got darker.

The national picture has been well documented by the ABC, Artshub and Limelight Magazine. The total number of companies funded has dropped from 128 in 2016 to just 95 in 2020. While transition funding will be provided for the 49 companies that received funding 2017-2020 but were not successful in their application for funding 2021-2024, the outlook is bleak. Arts organisations are already facing the massive challenges presented by COVID-19 and the shutdown of all arts events. How much more can their resilience be tested before they break?

Of course, this is not the first time that the news has been bad. Back in 2015, the then Minister for the Arts George Brandis stripped funding from the Australia Council. The following year 65 companies lost their Australia Council four-year funding.

It’s difficult to understand why the Coalition government is continuing to deprive the arts sector of funding. The benefits of the arts to society (and the all-important economy) have been well-documented.

And looking at the WA arts companies that haven’t made the cut, it feels like vital parts of the arts ecosystem are being damaged by the lack of funding available through the Australia Council.

Barking Gecko Theatre, The Blue Room Theatre and Strut Dance are all small-to-medium organisations – small-to-medium, but mighty.

Making theatre for WA’s children and their families, Barking Gecko plays a vital role in enriching the lives of young theatre goers and their grownups, and building the audiences of the future. From the ground-breaking exuberance of Fully Sikh to the magical Ghost in my Suitcase and the multiple Helpmann Award-winning The Rabbits, Barking Gecko confronts challenging topics with heart and grace, imbued with invaluable lessons about resilience and vulnerability.

Perth’s Blue Room Theatre is an incubator for young and emerging playwrights, directors and performers, as well as a place for established artists to breathe life into new ideas. A creative hub in Perth for more than 30 years, it has developed the talents of such leading lights as Matthew Lutton, Kate Mulvany, Tim Minchin, Claire Hooper and members of The Last Great Hunt. Its Summer Nights program is one of the highlights of Fringe World, the jewel in the crown of a jam-packed annual program of goodies from Perth’s vibrant independent theatre scene. The Wolves, Medusa, Miss Westralia, 30 Day Free Trial, Frankie’s… just a handful of my favourites from the last year or so.

Like the Blue Room, Strut Dance is an organisation for independents, this time dancers and choreographers, providing opportunities for independent artists to work with nationally and internationally acclaimed choreographers, as well as various opportunities for local independent choreographers to make and present new work. I’m a huge fan of the organisation’s annual “In Situ” program of site-specific work, presented in collaboration with Tura New Music, as well as the larger scale collaborations with internationally-renowned makers, the most recent being “Hofesh in the Yard” at Perth Festival.

All three companies are vital to the performing arts on this side of the country. Barking Gecko ensures that the next generation is enriched by theatre, and develops a new generation of theatre-goers, as well as providing employment and professional development to a range of professional artists. The Blue Room Theatre and Strut Dance are platforms for emerging and established artists to make new and innovative work, the stuff that breaks boundaries and enables the artform to grow and develop. And both organisations provide much-needed employment opportunities for artists.

These flourishing companies have been feeding artists’ creative practice, building audiences from the grassroots up and supporting the leafy canopy of the WA arts scene.

But how long will our canopy remain green?

* Barking Gecko Theatre, The Blue Room Theatre and Strut Dance are not the only WA theatre and dance companies who have missed out on four-year funding but all three made it through the Australia Council’s tough initial vetting process. Of 412 organisations that submitted expressions of interest, just 162 were invited to apply for funding.

Are you concerned about the future of the Australian arts sector? Parliament sits on Wednesday to debate the next stimulus legislation so now is the time to contact your MP and demand support for the arts.

The full list of organisation who have received funding from the Australia Council is available online. Seesaw congratulates the WA organisations who were successful in their applications for four-year funding: Broome Aboriginal Media Association (Aboriginal Corporation), Community Arts Network, DADAA, KALACC, Magabala Books, Marrugeku, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, PVI Collective, Tura New Music and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.

Pictured top: Strut Dance’s ‘Hofesh in the Yard’. Photo: Anthony Tran.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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