Peter Louca: “I think our best years are ahead of us.”

Arts South Australia chief Peter Louca wants the sector to be ambitious again, as the former political staffer, graphic designer and 1996 federal candidate for Mayo discusses his journey from working in his parents’ fish and chip shop to executive director of Arts South Australia.

“We’d forgotten our ambition,” Louca says of the arts sector. “Individual companies were able to have success: State Theatre and Windmill touring Pinocchio on Broadway for two weeks – amazing success. That is the pinnacle of what they’re trying to achieve. Here we have companies achieving that on a global scale and yet, as a sector, we kind of lost our mojo. We absorbed the mentality that we were all going to suffer cuts but [the tide] was turning. [Senator George] Brandis actually galvanised the sector.”

Senator Brandis unwittingly achieved this through redirecting funds from the Australia Council to his short-lived Program for Excellence, which became Catalyst. The result of this meant many small-to-medium arts companies around the country lost their Australia Council funding including five local organisations: Vitalstatistix, Slingsby, Brink Productions, Australian Experimental Art Foundation and Contemporary Art Centre of SA.

 Senator George Brandis was much maligned for the Australia Council cuts to arts funding, but Peter Louca says the cuts have galvanised the sector.

“We’re working with the companies that have been unsuccessful,” he says. “Under our funding guidelines there had to be another source funder, another funding partner. For all of those companies it was Australia Council. We would have had to automatically end our payments or funding agreements on the basis of the existing policy, so we suspended that policy. Companies like Slingsby have been incredibly successful in crowdfunding and private benefaction and I think we’ve gone from what was a pessimistic future for that company to, at least, a more positive future.

“We called a forum on the Friday when the announcements were made. We invited all the applicants, not just the unsuccessful ones, because one of the things that the Arts Minister [Jack Snelling] and I agree on, is this is about the sector responding – not just those companies. The burden has to be shared.

“Our initial position was about buying time for those companies, so we could start working with them. They have funding from us to the end of 2017, during that time we’ll be looking at the way our grants work to see how we can reposition. We are profiling our spending priorities within the portfolios to see where we can make internal efficiencies and I’m trying to put all that money into our grants programs. We hope in the coming weeks that we will be able to announce more money to some of those grants programs especially to those in the sector that have lost their money.”

Louca, who was Snelling’s Chief of Staff, once contested for the federal seat of Mayo, but lost to Alexander Downer in the 1996 election.

“I was a young man in my mid-20s,” he says. “Like a lot of young people I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and thought I could change the world. I still think I can change the world but in a more pragmatic way. I developed contacts that later led to employment. I learnt the value of listening to people’s concerns and knocking on doors. It’s quite a humbling experience to surrender yourself to the democratic process.”

Louca’s journey to becoming arts chief is an intriguing one. His parents migrated from Cyprus. They ran a fish and chip shop in Eden Hills. This is the family trade of choice: his grandfather owned the Parade Fish Café, his brother owns The Fish Man in Blackwood while his cousins own Louca’s Seafood Grill, which has just moved from Hutt Street to Pulteney Street. His first job was to serve customers at his parents shop as an eight-year-old, standing on a milk crate so he could peer over the counter. He says his work ethic stems from that. An interest in politics also comes from his family; they talked politics rather that sport over the kitchen table.

Louca was the first in his family to graduate from university. He studied Arts and graduated with Honours from Flinders University and was involved in with student politics with the Greek Student Association where he eventually became the national president. His graphic design career was the result of working on a national Greek newsletter where he produced a Greek/English supplement. The designer quit and Louca, who was in the office that day, put his hand up. This two-week contract led to an eight-year career in design. After that ran its course, he decided to enter politics as he had “aspirations to do something around public policy”.

“I ended up working in the legislative council for Carmel Zollo, who eventually became a minister,” he says. “Once the Rann government was elected, I applied for a job as an advisor. I spent a year-and-a-half as an advisor, and the remainder of my employment, nearly 11 years, as a chief of staff to a couple of ministers across a range of portfolios. This gave me an understanding of what really makes government tick and the decision making process.”

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Louca, who is also the chair of the Justice for Cyprus Committee, says moving into the arts is a progression from his interest in the creative industries.

“I’ve always been interested in arts and culture and the bringing together and understanding of public policy, change and governance. The area [arts] is fundamental to the way we see ourselves as South Australians. It plays a much more important role in the state than the 30 people in our office. We manage to achieve an awful lot with the $140 million of state funding. It’s less than one percent of the state budget. I think we deliver enormous outcomes, collectively, for the state. It was time for some renewal and reenergising and a bit of leadership.”

Can Louca get more money for the arts?

“I think we’ve successfully prosecuted the case already,” he says. “When I got into the job nine months ago we were facing quite heavy cuts year on year, which accumulated eventually to somewhere in the order of $12 million per annum. This is on top of about $8 million that they already had [lost] in the past. The minister, last financial year, was successful in getting $4 million returned to the bottom line. But that still left a gap. My highest priority was always trying to prosecute the case of why this [cuts] wasn’t a good thing for our sector and the effect it would have, not just in terms of cultural output, but what it would mean to the state more broadly. You think about festivals and arts; they are embedded in our DNA as South Australians. It’s part of what makes us a bit different from other places around the country and the world. It’s something we do very well but we often take it for granted.

“It wasn’t a deliberate policy decision that led to us being losing our funding over time. It’s just the accumulative effect of government savings, so the arts weren’t singled out – but the roll on effect got to the point where we were at a tipping point. We’ve been able to turn that around for the next two years at least. We got $15 million returned to our bottom line over the next four years. We still have to make efficiencies like any other part of government. We’ve had $180 million invested into the Festival Centre and Festival Plaza redevelopment, $35 million into Her Majesty’s and half-a-million looking into the future of a new institution or gallery in what’s described now as Adelaide Contemporary. That’s a pretty optimistic looking future, I think, compared to where we were a year ago.”

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When Louca became the arts chief the name was changed from Arts SA to Arts South Australia. This is for global impact, which will be tested when Louca travels to Edinburgh Fringe this month with 45 delegates for the Made in Adelaide showcase.

“I got the idea a couple of years ago in Edinburgh. New Zealand Council for the Arts had created a program called Made in NZ. When you walk the streets of Edinburgh you see the word Adelaide everywhere. Adelaide’s got cache in Edinburgh, the city’s name is flyered all over the place with events from our Fringe and Festival and the shows are rated according to what they got in Adelaide.”

At least 22 local acts will travel and be promoted in Edinburgh at a Made in Adelaide activated space in Summer Hall, which will act as a hub for artists and industry. Louca wants Adelaide to become the Asia Pacific hub for the performing arts market.

“We were once that [the hub] when we had APAM [Australian Performing Arts Market]. We have an aspiration to bring APAM back to Adelaide. It’s going to be available for tender from the Australia Council next year. We’ll prepare a strong bid. We are creating a new market called ShowBroker [a national performing arts market that will be based in Adelaide]. We’re going to run a marketplace in Edinburgh with Fringe for four days. We’re bringing producers and directors to meet our artists and provide opportunities and a platform.”

In the latest budget, $500,000 was put aside to develop a business case for a new contemporary gallery.

“There’s a debate around location. Where would you put it? There’s one school of thought that’s been pretty vocal around the old RAH being a site. Yes, it could be. Absolutely it could be. There are two other sites on the table. We’ve seen the west end developed with the hospital and the universities. Then there’s the Convention Centre and the Festival Centre – Adelaide Oval has been the lynchpin for all that. There is a site adjacent to the Convention Centre on the Riverbank, which is an exciting green field site, or there is Port Adelaide. A lot of urban renewal has been achieved through culture. If you look at Tate [Modern, London] and Bilbao [Guggenheim], they’ve been economically depressed postindustrial areas that are not necessarily in the centre of the city. There are a lot of thing we have to examine.

bilbao-guggenheim-adelaide-reviewWill Adelaide draw inspiration from the likes of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum in a brand new contemporary art gallery?

“The artistic vision is largely being led by Nick Mitzevich [Art Gallery]. He’s the driving force. MONA has David Walsh as the creative spark behind MONA – fortunately for them the funding source – in this case we might not have a David Walsh in terms of financial resources but we do have one of the most innovative, creative institutional directors in the country with Nick.”

Is Louca confident it will become a reality?

“I think there is a lot of excitement around the idea. It’s been well-recevied publicly. I think cabinet would be willing to back something that was solidly presented both on a cultural and economic basis. It’s a project that aligns with a lot of the state government economic and social priorities. If you think about city vibrancy, if you think about growth in the tourism sector, if you think about our aspiration to be an innovative cultural leader – this is a place that would attract intellectual capital as well as financial capital. It’s not an insignificant structure, where talking something in excess of $200 to $300 million.”

Another announcement in the state budget: $700,000 for the 2017 Adelaide Festival of Arts centrepiece opera performance Saul. “It will be a significant event. It is also being supported by Catalyst Funding. It will well and truly establish the new directors of the Adelaide Festival and their direction over the next three years. I think it will be something that will be heralded in the Festival. It’s very exciting.”

adelaide-festival-barrie-kosky-saul-adelaide-reviewRead more about the Adelaide Festival’s opera centrepiece, Saul

Is Louca committed to his role as Arts South Australia’s executive director or will he run for election again?

“I’m absolutely committed to what I’m doing now and I can see a very long time promoting and advocating for the arts. My ambition is to grow the sector in SA and I want to do that with the arts community. I think our best years are ahead of us. I think people look back with nostalgia to the era of Dunstan and while that was a remarkable time, the question is: what have we done with that legacy? What I see is the direction I’m trying to encourage – and I certainly take a lot of my cues from the minister with this – how do we build on that? We were given this great legacy of institutions, statutory authorities and infrastructure. We’ve got to take it to the next level. It can’t be an incremental growth; it’s got to be that seismic change.”

arts.sa.gov.au

Photos: Sia Duff

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