Film, Music, News & Commentary, Stage, Visual Arts

Our smaller cities stand firm together against Brandis’ arts cuts

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As the crowd gathered in on the steps of South Australian Parliament for Adelaide’s Free The Arts rally, Teddy sat on the shoulders of his grandfather Rob Brookman and looked around the crowd. “Everyone we know is here!” he exclaimed.

It’s not hard to believe that was true for this boy, the third generation of an Adelaide arts family. In Adelaide, as in other cities like it, the industry is smaller than its Melbourne and Sydney counterparts, and in practice this creates an arts community that is tight-knit, where structural divisions between emerging and established, unfunded and funded, independent and main stage, don’t exist in the same sense as in larger cities. The flow between art forms is more diffuse, too: visual artists work in theatre design; street artists collaborate with musicians.

On the steps of parliament, students from the Adelaide College of the Arts stood alongside staff members of the Adelaide Festival. Staff from the Film Festival shared the crowd with local filmmakers. Artists who create one-on-one experimental theatre danced with company members from the Australian Dance Theatre.

Like all cities, there are conversations and consternations about where funding goes and how the well-funded organisations can do more to support independent artists. But the industry isn’t big enough for true divisions, and when the sector comes together on the steps of Parliament it doesn’t feel strange. It feels utterly expected. This mix of artists and arts workers didn’t occur because of a uniting rally; it is a solidarity that exists constantly.

One of the reasons George Brandis has cited for moving money from the Australia Council and into his Ministry has been a sense that artists outside of Sydney and Melbourne “don’t feel they get a fair go in the Australia Council funding round.” And indeed, this disparity between the proportion of the population held in these small cities and the proportion of the arts funding received is one that is frequently noted.

With more training institutions, more companies, more venues and galleries, and with bigger state and council arts budgets, artists frequently move to Sydney and Melbourne to further their careers. Over time, these cities have come to hold a higher proportion of Australia’s artists, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of artists moving to bigger cities where more artists afford more opportunities.

How this would change with the transference of funds, however, is not clear. At the Adelaide rally, the Australia Council was not above reproach, but repeated over the speeches was a belief in the work of the Council and the importance of arms-length funding. If artists from outside the big cities are unfairly critiqued by funding panels drawn from artistic peers from around the country, Adelaide’s independent artists attending the rally could see little evidence that a Canberra-based Arts Ministry would have a stronger grasp of their contributions and importance in a small, local ecology.

It seems no coincidence that of the seven theatre companies that are members of the funding-sequestered Major Performing Arts Group, all the public statements and actions so far have come from our smaller cities. Queensland Theatre Company’s Wesley Enoch has been vocal about the changes on Facebook, while Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Kate Cherry and State Theatre Company of South Australia’s Geordie Brookman spoke at their respective cities’ rallies. For the strength of the companies they head, these artistic directors must engage with the small-to-medium and independent sectors: it is from these pools where they will draw artists to work with, and it is from them they themselves will draw artistic fulfillment as audience members.

In Adelaide, Brookman mentioned work that had an impact on the way he saw and understand the world: work from Magpie and Magpie 2 (both companies that were lost in arts funding changes in the 1990s), and from Vitalstatistix, Brink, and Windmill. “All of these works have peeled back the layers between me and the world outside,” he said. “They’ve made me and countless, countless others better humans. They’ve all come from a section of artistic community that is now at risk.”

Throughout Australia, sections of the arts community flow into each other. Artists inform and support each other beyond funding boundaries as they and their work travel between fully independent and fully funded stages. In small cities, though, the flux of this relationship and the sector unity it brings is all the more apparent. In this, the detriment to one sector carries with it much greater risks for it all. To lose independent artists, said Brookman to the rally, “is to lose our outliers, our innovators, and our courageous forward thinkers. To lose them is to lose ourselves.”

[box]Featured image: Geordie Brookman speaking at Friday’s #FreetheArts protest. Source: Tammy Franks MLC Facebook page[/box]

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