The May 13 ‘Black Friday’ Australia Council cuts to three of this state’s most treasured theatre organisations – Brink, Slingsby and Vitalstatistix – sent shockwaves through the arts community. Though hampered by the cuts, the three companies are determined to continue.
The University of Melbourne’s Jo Caust wrote in The Conversation that the South Australian theatre scene received a “mortal blow” with the federal cuts to companies “at the forefront of artistic innovation”: Brink, Slingsby and Vitalstatistix. But the three companies are all moving forward despite planning for a leaner future.
“We were very disappointed and I would say shocked by the funding announcements,” says Vitalstatistix’s Creative Producer Emma Webb. “But we all knew that these funding cuts at the federal level were going to have an effect on what the Australia Council was able to fund.”
The three theatre organisations, along with local visual arts centres the Contemporary Arts Centre of SA and the Australian Experimental Arts Foundation, joined almost 60 other national companies that lost their four-year funding from the Australia Council, after the national arts funding body lost $105 million in the 2015 budget ($32 million was returned) with some of that money redirected to the new Catalyst program. The May 13 cuts targeted Australia’s small-to-medium arts companies.
Vitalstatistix’ Emma Webb looks to the future after the Australia Council Cuts
For the Port Adelaide-based Vitalstatistix, a contemporary arts organisation that focusses on the development of multidisciplinary and experimental art, the cuts mean the organisation will have to be a “smaller, more nimble organisation” according to Webb.
“For us, Vitals has survived for over 30 years in the Port,” she says. “This isn’t the first time we’ve gone through difficult funding decisions and funding environments, so I feel like the organisation knows how to fight for our future and we’re experienced in doing that. We’re wellloved by our local community here in the Port as well as nationally and across the state for our work with artists. Having said that, it [the cuts] makes things a lot more difficult. It means, for instance, that we’ve already had to cancel a presentation that we were hoping to go ahead with the Adelaide Festival next year and we just don’t have the funding to be able do that. So, we’ll keep talking to them about presenting that work in 2018.”
Between them, the three companies have been presenting work to South Australians, Australians and the world for more than 60 years, have won numerous awards and have performed or presented work at major festivals around the world including the Adelaide Festival. For Brink and Slingsby, the Australia Council cuts represent around 40 percent of their operating budget, about $300,000 a year. After the cuts, Arts South Australia announced it would help the organisations that lost their funding. Slingsby, Brink and Vitalstatistix all started fundraising campaigns and received overwhelming support.
Vitalstatistix has long been based in Port Adelaide
Slingsby’s Artistic Director Andy Packer thought about shutting the children’s theatre company after the May announcement even though they received much praise and a Helpmann nomination for their most recent production The Young King.
“Jodi [Glass, Slingby’s Executive Producer] and I were ready to close the company,” Packer says. “It really was the response from people that made us go, ‘Oh well, I guess we still have our Arts South Australia funding, let’s just see where this leads us, because people clearly want us to keep doing what we’re doing’.” Webb says she still has to consider what next year’s program will look like. She knows there are difficult times ahead but Vitalstatistix will focus on the creative development of new work by Australian artists.
“That means us seeding and developing those works and hoping to find opportunities – whether it’s us or others – to present that work down that track,” she says. “We don’t feel we are resourced well enough at the moment to do a large season of public presentations of work, so we’re going to focus on artistic development, residencies, program of artist talks, Adhocracy [Vitalstatistix’s annual national hothouse] and our Climate Century program.”
“What we’ve lost from the Australia Council annually over the next four years is the cost of one roundabout,” Packer says. “We’re not taking about a lot of money. We’ve had to cancel an international collaboration with Unicorn Theatre in London. We’ll postpone that inde finitely. It’s very hard to embark on a multi-year international collaboration when you don’t know whether you’re going to be around in 18 months’ time. That company is willing to make work with us once we feel con fident that we can follow on with it. At the moment, that sadly is on hold.”
Andy Packer, Slingsby’s Artistic Director was ready to shut up shop when the cuts came through
One of this state’s most acclaimed companies, Brink Productions, which celebrates 20 years this year, also has had to postpone productions.
“We were supposed to be in pre-production now for a show in August that was going to employ 13 actors,” says Brink’s Artistic Director Chris Drummond. “It was one of the biggest casts that we were going to put on stage. Luckily, rather than cancelling, it has been delayed until next year. We’ve got a partnership to help present it.”
Drummond does not want to be downbeat.
“We don’t want to talk ourselves down because we are in all sorts of incredible conversations with people and I think we will find a way through, nor do I want to diminish how visionless this [the federal cuts] all is.”
Webb says if there is a silver lining, it’s that arts organisations have found their voice to advocate for their industry.
“Over the last few years, the arts sector has really matured around how to go about doing political advocacy and campaigning around the arts,” she says. “Obviously we saw the enormous response to the Senate enquiry that happened last year. To have nearly 3000 submissions to that enquiry was quite incredible. I think that most people would have expected several hundred not several thousand.
Slingsby’s The Young King won much acclaim in the 2016 Adelaide Festival of Arts
“With the national day of action that was held … and a whole lot of other campaigning that’s been happening, I feel like there’s been a real effort to try and have arts and culture more in the public policy conversation, for politicians from all parties to realise that the arts, while it’s a relatively small issue for many people, it is a very important issue for a lot of people. Everyone has arts and culture in their life in some way.”
“I think it was very hard for the arts prior to this [arts] raid to be able to talk about the role we play in society without feeling like, ‘Oh, here come the whingers again with their hands out for money’,” Packer says. “I think we, as a community of artists, felt embarrassed about that. We didn’t quite know how to articulate the importance of that investment in the arts but with this very signi ficant raid on the funding, it brought together our audiences and us as a united sector; the industry and community to be able think beyond ourselves and think as a group: what is culture in Australia? It’s not about an industry, it’s about the hopes and dreams of the Australian people and how we tell our stories to each other.”
Arts funding has returned to the national spotlight this election. Labor made a pre-election promise to return the money to Australia Council, as have the Greens, who want to invest more. Many small-to-medium arts companies are currently in a sort of limbo before the July 2 Federal Election and the delivery of the State Budget on July 7.
Chris Drummond is optimistic for Brink Productions’ future in SA
Not long after the Black Friday cuts, Arts South Australia announced it would meet with the organisations that had their Australia Council funding cut to discuss ways to move forward, to suspend the need for investment or funding partners in 2017 and consider funding opportunities through Arts South Australia’s budget allocation. Though it was feared that the arts would face a rumoured $8.5 million cut from the State Government, this has not happened as $15.7 million has been put aside with $3 million going to Arts South Australia in 2016-17 and $4 million per annum thereafter, with $700,000 going to next year’s Adelaide Festival of Arts. Arts South Australia’s Executive Director Peter Louca also wrote that he will establish a Strategic Reference Group made up of arts industry leaders and creatives.
“This group will help advise Arts South Australia on key issues and help develop a strategic framework for the sector’s future direction,” Louca wrote in an open letter.
The local organisations that lost their Australia Council funding will be able to apply for additional funding from Arts South Australia in August.
Drummond believes that we are at a tipping point in regards to arts funding.
Brink’s co-production with Tiny Bricks, Deluge, also garnered wide acclaim at this year’s Adelaide Festival
“A small increase could exponentially explode the amount of activity, diversity and opportunities,” he says. “At the same time, you go the other way and there’s just a collapse and it’s gone. We are between those two opportunities.”
“Depending on what happens with the [Federal] Election, the landscape will change dramatically at a federal level but that will take a while to sort itself out,” Packer says. “At the moment, the recent announcement that the savings have been scraped is fantastic, that means that Arts South Australia, within its own budget, has greater capacity to assist and invest in the three companies that recently lost out on their Australia Council funding. Let’s just see how great that capacity is.”
“If the State Government invests in us, it’s not just us asking for more,” Drummond says. “Give us enough to take advantage of all the opportunities that we’ve got and we will bring more money into the state. It’s an investment, it’s not just [handing] money out. If you throw that away, it takes 10 years to get us back to where we are. We’ve lost seven companies over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago you would have been talking to nine di fferent companies in the sector and now it’s down to three.”