16/05/2018 - 15:51

Community culture works for WASO

16/05/2018 - 15:51

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Community culture works for WASO
Craig Whitehead says WASO’s endurance can be attributed to the contributions it makes to the WA community. Photo: Attila Csaszar

WA Symphony Orchestra has deep roots planted firmly across Western Australia, having spent 90 years connecting with communities beyond its core audience of classical music aficionados.

Ranked fourth by revenue on the BNiQ arts and cultural organisations list, WASO achieved a revenue of $19.7 million and a surplus of $956,000 in 2017, making it the 15th consecutive year it has delivered a surplus.

With $642,000 of that sum attributable to a bequest, justifying a far larger surplus than previous years, chief executive Craig Whitehead puts the majority of the organisation’s endurance down to its community involvement across the state.

“What I’ve seen with WASO is a real evolution towards securing its place in the community, and that’s what’s really assisted us during the downturn, the GFC and the (fluctuating) economic conditions in WA,” Mr Whitehead told Business News.

Founded 90 years ago as a subsidiary of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it wasn’t until 1998 when the ABC decided to divest all of its orchestras that WASO became an independent organisation.

“I think the real focus changed when suddenly the company didn’t have the support or protection of the ABC,” Mr Whitehead said.

“There were some significant issues, some underfunding issues when trying to divest and break down that central arrangement.

“And when deciding what each orchestra needed to depart successfully, it wasn’t very well thought out from WASO’s perspective, so it was a challenging couple of years financially.”

It took about four years for the organisation to find its feet and produce an annual surplus, with Heytesbury Group chair Janet Holmes a Court guiding the orchestra as inaugural chair.

Mr Whitehead said it was primarily during the past six or seven years that WASO had cemented itself into the general community.

Mr Whitehead said that, shortly after joining the organisation in 2008, he asked the management team the confronting question: ‘who would miss WASO if we weren’t here?’

Mr Whitehead said WASO came to the conclusion it needed to become an orchestra for the whole of WA, including those who did not live in Perth or could not afford to attend its concerts.

“Last year, we performed 414 education and community engagement activities to over 30,000 people across the state,” he said.

WASO’s activities include: its Hospital Orchestra Project, which involves visiting wards at Princess Margaret Hospital six to eight times a year; the Harmony Music Program for children with intellectual and physical disabilities, which operates across five schools; and its Crescendo music education program, which operates across two schools in Kwinana.

“I think that’s where we’ve gotten respect from our corporate community, from government, and the philanthropic community who say ‘okay, this is an organisation that’s committed to Western Australia, so let’s be committed to them’,” Mr Whitehead said.

Philanthropic contributions for 2017 totalled $1.8 million, while sponsorship revenue was $1.9 million, comprising a combined 20 per cent of WASO’s total revenue.

Philanthropy had grown about 500 per cent since 2009, Mr Whitehead said.

Wesfarmers Arts remains the orchestra's longest serving corporate partner, having been a sponsor for 20 years.

Thanks to Wesfarmers’ sponsorship, WASO has been able to attract performers such as principal conductor Asher Fisch.

“Since Asher Fisch joined, the quality has just been getting better and better,” Mr Whitehead said.

“I would argue it’s the best in the country right now.”

Box office revenue exceeded targets last year, bringing in about 26 per cent of WASO’s revenue with $5.1 million.

Mr Whitehead said the orchestra’s diversification strategy had also contributed to the success of its box office revenue, including the introduction of movie, rock music and concert nights into its program to reach a younger market.

“If you look at our first couple of months of the year we’re doing Eskimo Joe and Star Wars, and Harry Potter and those sort of things,” he said.

“It’s partly about relevance, accessibility and understanding not everyone wants to see a Beethoven symphony.

“Those things also provide some buffer from a portfolio approach.”

In terms of arts partnerships, WASO has a strong relationship with WA Opera and West Australian Ballet, having performed across three opera seasons in 2017, two ballet seasons, in addition to a collaboration with Perth Festival.

With Richard Goyder having succeeded Mrs Holmes a Court this year as WASO chair, Mr Whitehead predicts the former Wesfarmers boss will challenge the organisation in many ways to take it further.

“I think he’s going to bring all the things that he’s brought to Wesfarmers, rigour, discipline, passion, commitment and a strong focus,” Mr Whitehead said.

 

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