Regional arts organisations are able to produce work that brings their communities together, without the budgets and resources of companies in the city.
Beyond His Majesty’s Theatre and the Art Gallery of WA, arts organisations in the regions are creating work to engage their communities in challenging conditions.
After four years of planning, Theatre Kimberley organised giant puppet shorebirds to light up Roebuck Bay in Broome, in a celebration of the 120,000 birds that migrate from Siberia to the bay each wet season.
Further north, the Mowanjum Festival draws thousands of tourists from across Australia each year to share the culture of the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal peoples.
Down south, thousands of people attend the Denmark Festival of Voice to see local and international artists.
But the Arts and Culture Economic Recovery Plan, written by the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA, said one of the key issues facing the sector in Western Australia was the inequity between organisations in the city and the regions.
The report said regional artists and communities continued to be disadvantaged in their ability to participate: by intrastate travel costs, Perth-centric funding models, digital access and lack of access to cultural infrastructure.
While funding had become a perennial issue for the arts sector, Regional Arts WA chief executive officer Paul MacPhail said there was something of a bias towards metropolitan organisations over regional organisations in state funding.
“I do see some regional arts organisations who have absolutely fantastic programs of work on an annual basis and then I look at some metropolitan organisations,” hesaid.
“And I think, ‘Well perhaps it isn’t quite the same program of work happening there for their community as there is being delivered by a small regional organisation’, and yet they [small regional organisations] can’t seem to compete when it comes to funding.”
“The amount we can give out is tiny compared to the amount that is given out in the Arts Organisations Investment Program, which has a very heavy weighting towards Perth metropolitan organisations,” he said.
The Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industry’s Arts Organisations Investment Program allocated $31 million to 37 arts organisations in WA in 2019, three of which were based in regional WA.
Some organisations in the regions fared well in the latest round of multi-year funding for small-to-medium companies from the Australia Council for the Arts, and accounted for five out of the 11 grants given to WA companies.
Regional organisations are also supported through the Royalties for Regions program, which in 2019 allocated $20 million for three streams of funding (capacity building, strengthening Aboriginal arts and youth arts) and $8 million for the Regional Exhibitions Touring Program over the next four years.
According to the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA report, the lack of coordinated planning and delivery between the separate streams of Royalties for Regions funding is a missed opportunity for recovery and growth.
It said regional artists needed increased investment and capacity to develop and engage, especially to operate after the COVID-19 shutdown.
“Current programs, however, favour an approach of delivering art to the regions, rather than investing in regional arts themselves and, from a regional perspective, appear fragmented and lacking a cohesive vision,” the report said.
The Denmark Festival of Voice attracts international acts like the Aznash Chechen Ensemble. Photo: Hazel Blake
Denmark Arts artistic director Vivienne Robertson told Business News while she thought Royalties for Regions was a great initiative, a significant amount of money was allocated to metropolitan companies to tour regional areas.
“In some regional areas, that’s probably a really wonderful thing that they might have someone touring their region,” Ms Robertson said.
“We are really blessed in the south coast because we have as good a cultural milieu living in the region as Perth does.
“The thing is, regional funds need to be given to those people who are already on the ground doing the work, they don’t need to be given to Perth people to come and help the poor country cousins.”
She said the organisation had focused on increasing its earned income, because corporate sponsorship was hard to come by in Denmark and relying on grant funding was precarious.
According to Ms Robertson, about 30 per cent of income was from sales in 2019.
Most of the organisation’s earned income was from big events, including the Denmark Festival of Voice, which had to be cancelled because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Ms Robertson said this left the organisation in an insecure financial position, and its team of four was volunteering extra hours to ensure the organisation could apply for small relief grants to stay afloat.
“It’s a crazily administrative-heavy system that has been developed for quite small grants,” she said.
Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Cultural Centre, situated on the Gibb River Road, was disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because it is situated in the Mowanjum Aboriginal community, which is closed to visitors until the state government introduces phase five restrictions.
Mowanjum Festival draws thousands of tourists each year. Photo: Rebecca Mansell
Manager Barry Hayes said the government had approved an exemption for the centre to allow guests to start visiting from the end of July.
“We missed out on the school holiday crowd but we are hoping to salvage a bit of the dry season tourist numbers and try and get some sales in,” Mr Hayes said.
He said JobKeeper had been supporting artists who had been working in the studios for the past two months.
Because the dry season was nearly over, Mr Hayes said the centre was not expecting any major income until March or April next year.
Theatre Kimberley artistic director Meredith Bell also said remoteness could make work more costly.
Projects could be more expensive to plan, she said, which was sometimes not understood by people administering the funding.
“We sometimes put in to try and fund projects and people don’t have the understanding of what the conditions are like here,” Ms Bell told Business News.
She said isolation also made it harder to learn and cooperate with other arts organisations.
“There is a difficulty in staying connected to peers and other parts of your network to maintain a strong professional practice,” she said.
To encourage connectivity between arts professionals in the regions, Regional Arts WA is in the process of establishing arts hubs around the state, in partnership with the Ian Potter Foundation and the Minderoo Foundation.
Regional Art WA’s Mr MacPhail said the hubs were charged with looking after artists and working with other hubs to share knowledge and insights with arts workers in the regions.
“It’s at a very small scale at the moment, but we are hoping to build that over the next four years so hopefully, by 2023, there is 17 arts hubs right across the state that will start to help combat that sense of isolation,” Mr MacPhail said.
ArtGold, Ravensthorpe Regional Arts, The Junction Co, Creative Corner and North Midlands Project have been recruited as hubs.
Port Hedland-based The Junction Co, which was established in 2018, has a gallery and studio and offers a number of arts and community classes.
Executive officer Katie Evans said the hubs were going to be important in building capacity in the regions.
“We are a relatively new arts organisation and it’s great to be able to leverage off this network and because we are new, we have got a bit to contribute to that network as well,” Ms Evans said.