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Regional arts in NSW

Ambition, resistance and transformation

Jeremy Eccles

Barka Dreaming Art Camp (see note at end of article) Barka Dreaming Art Camp (see note at end of article)
photo James Giddey
For art’s sake

“It’s been frustrating, it’s been hard, it’s been a matter of faith; and at times I’ve thought, ‘This is crazy, no one cares about the performing arts here’—but it’s also been the best working life I’ve ever had.” Lee Pemberton was an independent dance professional in Melbourne in 1997 when she felt the need for a break. She found Bega on the far south coast of NSW, had a rest, a sea change and never went back to Melbourne. Two years later, though, her hunger for dance was such that she set out to create a totally unlikely professional existence for herself in a region of cheese-making and fishing, holiday houses and skiing. Now Fling is the only regional contemporary dance company in New South Wales and one of only a small number of youth dance companies in Australia. It’s hosted workshops this year by urban pros Legs on the Wall, B Boy Swipa and Tess de Quincey, has a 9-community tour lined up for December, and is planning a season in Sydney next year.

“There’s no doubt that Fling exists because I’m a dancer, not because of local demand or as a community arts exercise”, Pemberton acknowledges. “So the outside experts were selected because of my interests—they’re a life support for me, and for the kids (aged 14 to 20) who’d soon get sick of me otherwise. I think we also gave them (the townies) a living and breathing space down here. But their work has to be blended in with Fling’s identity as a youth dance company and a regionally based one, doing work like A Dictionary of Habitats (2004), all about local environments.”

Survival and support

But how does Fling survive, even with an audience of 1000 over 8 performances for A Dictionary of Habitats? Well, it began when Pemberton marched into the NSW Arts Ministry and asked its Performing Arts and Regional officers, “How do I go about dancing in Bega?”. They were able to introduce her to the newly created system of 13 Regional Arts Boards (RABs), each with a Regional Arts Development Officer (RADO) and a Board made up from local shires and community representatives. Each RAB sends a representative to Regional Arts NSW, making for an administrative centre that isn’t about urban patronage. In the words of CEO Victoria Keighery, it’s “an outside/in model. We’re only here in Sydney to keep the profile of regional arts in the face of governments—State and Federal.”

The State is the major funder of RANSW and of the RADOs, currently to the tune of $1.5 million a year. It also funds a City of the Arts for 2 years—currently Tweed Shire—at $300,000. But there’s a surprising amount of other money out there, especially at election time: local councils co-funding the RADOs and the Federal Government’s heavily promoted Regional Arts Fund. Then there’s Playing Australia for touring and Visions Australia, which both come out of DCITA (Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts), and a comparable heritage program.

The key policy areas touted by the Ministry are summed up in the notion of active regional cultures. Regional galleries, for instance, are no longer funded on the basis of their collections, but on what they do with them and with artists. Performing arts companies like NORPA (Lismore) and Hothouse (Albury) have developed a double-barrelled producing/presenting model. New arts centre buildings like those in Port Macquarie and Gunnedah are not a “lumping together” of competing artforms in the name of economics but a “contemporary practice-driven combination” of facilities. Only in the Indigenous area has NSW been let down by a national system that fails to fund fairly by population numbers, meaning that local Indigenous organisations also dealing with housing and health are all too often overwhelmed before they even get to the arts.

Another significant factor is the different rural cycles of life. “You always have to know when harvest time is”, says the Ministry’s Kim Spinks. South West Arts RAB and RADO must have learnt that early because they’ve got a swag of projects up at Hay, such as Marion Borgelt turning her gallery mandala into a 3-dimensional maze as part of the Shear Outback project, and the earthy Outback Theatre doing workshops with Sydney’s gritty PACT Youth Theatre in their ongoing collaboration (RT53, p35).

Art solutions

There’s still more movement from the city to the bush than the other way around, despite the fact that 35% of NSW is country, compared to just 20% in Victoria and WA. But Vic Keighery foresees a reversal of that pattern. “It’s all new and fresh out there, with few competing models. We’ll soon be importing their ideas on arts tourism and program management, I bet. And there may be fewer teaching jobs for artists out there [except in music, with conservatoriums seemingly popping up everywhere], but the Lee Pembertons will stay where they are if the means are provided to keep working.”

North West Regional Arts RADO Jack Ritchie goes even further: “It’s so exciting—there always seems to be a solution, though it may take some time to discover it.” The former stage and film designer sought a mountain change 13 years ago, returning to his family home of Glen Innes. When Arts North West needed a RADO, he applied, got the job, and justified his new office being in Glen Innes. His patch spreads from Walcha to the Queensland border, and westwards from the ridges of the Great Dividing Range out to Moree. Solutions for Ritchie have come from “good partnerships”, which include a Board that mixes brilliantly with the Sydney pollies and a number of projects with the Big hART team who seem to be able to charm money from a range of both political and financial trees. Their recent film on alcohol abuse in Moree was hailed as “a masterpiece” by no less than State Minister John Della Bosca.

“Since 1998”, says Ritchie, “it’s been increasingly possible to use the arts to examine social issues. Non-arts sources will happily fund work involving young people with multiple disadvantages out here. What’s hard is for our young people to access the professional arts.”

Which is why the Carr government started a $1.9 million Arts Access program this year. So far it’s brought kids from remote areas into a visual arts workshop and allowed them to experience touring professional theatre. It’s also brought 2 isolated arts teachers into professional placements, with Coonabarabran’s Di Suthons spending 4 weeks with an Australian Chamber Orchestra that itself has recently discovered a regional/educational responsibility.

“Coonabarabran can support a thriving painting community”, says Suthons. “But it’s impossible to imagine a career as a muso there. “We had a visiting singing teacher from the Tamworth Con for a time; but her successor didn’t want to stay overnight. And we’ve managed some video conferencing for wind players with Mark Walton at the Sydney Con. But parental support for the cost of instruments and lessons is always hard to maintain—enthusiasm needs to be regenerated all the time. A conservative area doesn’t see much point in a continuing music education. But after the ACO educational event in Parkes, where Peter Sculthorpe worked on an arrangement of a Tim Whitlam song, I’m dreaming of something in Coona linking our Siding Springs telescope and the stars to composition.”


And yet Di Suthons seems to have it easy compared to projects like Luke Robinson’s Paddock Bashin’ in Coonamble, or Kate Reid’s remarkable Brewarrina kids circus. Both are specialist artists transporting their skills westwards to work with Indigenous youth. But a comparison of the 2 projects reveals that the social one (Robinson’s) was much easier to set up, with the Attorney-General’s Department leaping on board with funds, while Reid sat out 3 years to raise the money for an artistic and skills-based effort. And now she’s doing it voluntarily from a house she bought herself when no other accommodation was available: “I just can’t walk away”, she insists sadly; “too many have walked away from these kids before.”

Both crave sustainability for their efforts, but doubt whether it's achievable. Luke Robinson sees his mix of the physicality of drumming, the permanence of a percussive piece of public art, and the organisational skills that have already led to a youth council and a new local park, as worth franchising to other communities. “Sport hasn’t worked by comparison—it always leaves the weakest out”, he explains. “But there is a resistance to ‘the arts.’ And getting people to take ownership is hard. The schools in particular are so under-resourced.”

Kate Reid dreams of Brewarrina having a circus strand in its school that would attract specialist teachers and undoubtedly boost the 20% attendance rates achieved currently. But the educational, police and medical professionals in town are all temporary, all straight out of college, with no cultural training and no commitment. “It’s a punishment posting” she assesses. “It’s a really racist town; I couldn’t believe it. Yet somehow we took 30 kids who’d spent their lives running away from people to the Adelaide Fringe, put on 10 shows in a row...and had tears at every show. Back home, the video of the show makes people burst with pride every time they see it. Yet I’ve no idea whether it’s sustainable.”

More than art

So it ain’t all a bowl of cherries out there, despite an official spin suggesting that getting the infrastructure and the funding must lead to top people being attracted to the regions. But I can’t deny developing a warm feeling that, while in the cities, a certain pride is taken in producing art that’s hermetic and inscrutable, out bush, as Vic Keighery put it, “artists are not producing for a homogenised, commercialised market, it’s about where they live.” Is it a bit like religion? Just as the social and political aspects of church life are being expunged by uncaring fundamentalists all over the world, so art about Art has excluded community and social benefit from the equation. Except in the country.

Photo: The Barka Dreaming Art Camp was a Year of the Outback event organised by West Darling Arts, the Central Darling Shire and Far West Health. The 3-day camp brought together young Indigenous people from the remote communities of Wilcannia, Dareton, Broken Hill, Ivanhoe and Menindee to introduce them to contemporary and traditional artforms and learn about their shared culture. One of the outcomes was the creation of 3 large charcoal drawings, each made up of 52 smaller drawings. The one here is a portrait of a Barkanji elder, Mrs Lulla King. It was installed in the main hall of the community centre. Two local Barkanji boys performed a dance for the elders of Menindee just prior to the community hall being decorated for that night’s NAIDOC Week celebrations in 2002.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 8

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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