28/08/2020 - 10:00

Players keen to harness cultural centre potential

28/08/2020 - 10:00

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Greater attention to planning and land use will be integral for the Perth Cultural Centre once the state’s museum reopens in November.

Players keen to harness cultural centre potential
The State Library of Western Australia is part of the Perth Cultural Centre and in 2019, had revenue of $32 million. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Katt Osborne is adamant her adaptation of The Oresteia would not have made it to the stage in 2008 if not for The Blue Room Theatre.

Ms Osborne, who became the theatre’s executive director in July after more than a decade as a producer, told Business News the Blue Room had played an active role in developing her adaptation of the trilogy of Greek tragedies more than a decade ago.

A recent graduate of Edith Cowan University at the time, Ms Osborne said she appreciated how the theatre had indulged her ambitious interpretation of the source material, while providing guidance on how to produce a show for stage.

“You don’t even know what it is you need when you’re starting out,” Ms Osborne told Business News.

“For it to be, ‘Here are the resources, here is a plan of how you get people to your show, here are the steps to follow to make sure you have a budget that works, here’s how you contract the artists’… it’s walking you through and setting you up for success.

“Once you’ve done that a few times, you then know what you need to know, which empowers you to go out to other places.”

Ms Osborne cites that formative experience as instrumental to the success of her award-winning production company, The Duck House, which she left in 2013, and her subsequent career as a freelance producer and director.

Although the Blue Room employs fewer than 10 people directly and claims about 20,000 patrons, the theatre plays a vital role for artists such as Ms Osborne, and Western Australia’s arts and cultural industry overall.

This is despite its modest revenue of $1.3 million in 2019, almost half of which was from federal, state or local governments, according to Business News’ Data & Insights.

“I learned how to be a producer and an arts manager through those initial, formative experiences, which I then went on to develop in other places,” Ms Osborne said.

“As a feeder to the rest of the industry in WA, The Blue Room Theatre is a core of the community.”

Performance theatre’s contributions to the arts sector are notable given it is the smallest of five institutions based in the Perth Cultural Centre, the precinct centred on James Street Mall and bounded by William and Roe streets.

PCC venues the Art Gallery of WA, State Library of Western Australia, WA Museum, Perth Institute of Contemporary Art and the Blue Room generated $80 million in the latest available reporting periods, according to Data & Insights.

In years past, The Blue Room Theatre and neighbouring venues have played an integral part in hosting performances for Fringe World Festival, which this year attracted about 450,000 visitors and $11 million in ticket sales.

Outside of the festival, however, the cultural centre has struggled to attract visitors in recent years, due in part to issues associated with WA Museum’s temporary closure in 2016.

That is likely to be solved come November, when the museum is set to reopen with expanded exhibits, amenities and floor space, following its highly publicised $430 million renovation.

Ongoing social distancing requirements may affect patronage, but 800,000 visitors are expected to visit the museum in its first 18 months.

While the cultural centre and surrounding facilities are likely to benefit from the museum’s reopening, stakeholders who spoke to Business News said long-term planning would be crucial to the centre’s success.

That’s particularly true of how the space itself is configured, according to Urbanista Town Planning director Petar Mrdja.

Mr Mrdja, who has held planning roles at the City of Vincent, City of Stirling, and City of Subiaco, said the centre was in a prime location given its connections to Perth Station, James Street and William Street.

However, he said the space was largely unused outside of events such as Fringe World Festival and provided few reasons to visit.

And while the museum’s reopening would likely bring people into the cultural centre, Mr Mrdja said many pedestrians and commuters were unlikely to go to there because they tended to travel south in the mornings, towards the CBD, as opposed to heading north into Northbridge, Mount Lawley or Leederville.

“There needs to be more of a sense of arrival, especially that connection from the train station itself,” Mr Mrdja told Business News.

“How you bring people into that space and what you do with that bridge [Roe Street overpass] is really important.”

PICA director Amy Barrett-Lennard said collaboration between institutions would help bring attention to the centre as a destination, emphasising that programming planned across institutions would be vital after November.

“Our collective audience is very vast, but at the moment it’s still these disparate bodies around a stark unwelcoming space, with ad hoc infrastructure and a program of activities that often bear no relation to the history, context and purpose of the place,” she said.

“Nowhere else [in Australia] do you have that many key, cultural organisations in a city in one place. “The potential for a vibrant and renowned cultural centre is absolutely huge, and I don’t think it’s that difficult to harness that potential and leverage it.

“It would just take some considered master planning, relatively modest investment in infrastructure and a genuine collaboration approach to governance and activation.”

Perth Theatre Trust general manager Duncan Ord appeared to acknowledge some of these concerns when the trust took over management of the precinct from the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority in 2018.

Speaking to Business News at the time, Mr Ord said a business model based on maximising revenue for each venue in the centre was unsustainable, and he instead wanted to build a non-competitive, collaborative environment in the centre.

Details of a new strategy for the centre were scant last year, aside from reports the state government was considering amalgamating management of the library, art gallery and museum.

That plan was dropped in October 2019 – a move welcomed by Art Gallery of WA chair Janet Holmes à Court and Chamber of Arts and Culture chief executive Shelagh Magadza.

A spokesperson for the state government confirmed there was still no intention to amalgamate management of the three organisations. Initial steps towards a strategic rethink of the centre began and the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage.

The group’s work is ongoing, with a spokesperson for the state government telling Business News plans to improve landscaping, lighting and security were already under consideration.

The spokesperson also said the taskforce was working towards a long-term strategy for the centre that involved creation of a treelined boulevard.

In the short term, the state government has announced the Art Gallery of WA will receive a new, multi-use rooftop venue by January 2021, which will accommodate 500 patrons and feature sculptures and prominent indigenous artworks.

That’s in addition to a new executive team for the gallery, with Colin Walker permanently appointed director in March, after previously serving on an interim basis, and New York-based artist Ian Strange having been appointed guest artistic director last month.

Stefano Carboni had served in both positions between 2008 and 2019.

Elsewhere, The Blue Room Theatre will update its liquor licence ahead of completing a $137,000 renovation of its upstairs bar early next year.

That should help the theatre generate greater operating revenue in coming years, with the federal government set to withdraw Australia Council for the Arts funding from 2022.

Art wins

With a date now confirmed for the reopening of the museum, and many restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 having been lifted, arts venues should have some certainty as they begin planning programs over the next 18 months.

Ms Osborne said the fact people were again able to visit galleries and theatres may in itself be enough to bring attention to the organisations in the PCC.

“When these things get taken away from us, it’s a reminder of the importance of a live experience,” she said.

“It’s great that digital experiences have helped increase accessibility to the art form, but it’s really highlighted that it doesn’t necessarily replace the energy you get from being there, and watching someone make something and the exchange between an audience and an artist.

“We’re actually quite privileged to be able to do this.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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