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RealTime-Performance Space Forums


 Da Contents H2

August 21 2007
a meeting with steve dietz
RealTime, Performance Space, d/Lux/MediaArts & Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council Forum

July 31 2006
There's research and there's research
RealTime-Performance Space Forum: art practice as research (full transcript)

August 8 2005
Forum: Wanted: Creative Producers
RealTime-Performance Space Forum: August 8, 2005 (full transcript)

November 17 2003
Getting The Word Out: Writing for Performance and Dance
RealTime-Performance Space Forum, November 17

August 18 2003
Video + Art = ?
RealTime-Performance Space Forum, Monday 18 August 2003

November 5 2002
The secret life of touring
RealTime-Performance Space forum, November 5

April 8 2002
Size Matters
RealTime-Performance Space Forum, April 8 2002

September 3 2001
The Place of the Space
RealTime-Performance Space Forum, Sept 3, 2001

June 4 2001
Body regimes
RealTime-Performance Space Forum, June 4, 2001 (long version)


Introduction: The future business

On September 3 RealTime and Performance Space hosted the 6th in a series of public artist-centred forums. Others have focussed on the performing body and the screen, sound and space. We’ve discussed the artistic vision and body regimes. This time the focus was the relationship between artists and the spaces that nurture, contextualise and present their work.

This forum was especially urgent in Sydney because of the position of Performance Space which, until the NSW Ministry for the Arts threw it a life line recently, looked like going under or becoming a different kid of organisation. The idea that we might actually lose such a valuable entity alerted artists and directors of contemporary art spaces all over Australia to their potentially precarious position, something hopefully also being addressed by the current Federal Government Inquiry into the Contemporary Visual Arts & Craft Sector.

The complex connections between artists and the multiple spaces they inhabit was described variously throughout the forum as dialectical, communal and symbiotic. Similarly, the connectedness between the venues across the country is seen as crucial in creating viable development and programming.

Equally important is the relationship between government instrumentalities and artists. Zane Trow (Artistic Director, Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts) described the fortuitous funding of the Powerhouse but many were depressed at the idea that we might have to wait for another 20 years for the alignment of political planets to produce another like it. Many of the issues raised in the forum have relevance for the working party of the Cultural Ministers Council currently examining Australia’s small to medium performing arts companies. Others clearly do not. Artists co-habit spaces across artforms, creating hybrid works and accidental audiences. Throughout the forum, the need to re-position the contemporary arts as a whole on the cultural map of Australia was passionately argued—as it has been in Sydney for 2 decades with not much sign of change. All agreed that the health of contemporary arts infrastructure is crucial for artists and for all Australians who value their role in seeding new ideas—"inventing futures” as Nicholas Tsoutas (Artistic Director, Artspace, Sydney) put it.

The forum was informally chaired by Fiona Winning (Artistic Director, Performance Space) and Keith Gallasch (Managing Editor, RealTime). The following is an edited transcript of the discussion between the 100 artists, artistic directors, program managers, representatives from artist-run spaces, academics, staff from funding bodies and others who attended—twice the usual number of participants at these important forums.

* * *

Keith Gallasch
Thanks for coming tonight. The fact that so many are here indicates that the place of contemporary art spaces is a hot issue, especially in Sydney. I’ve worked for many years in this space and for a long time it was a home away from home. I think that’s something shared by many people here. This is a remarkable multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary organisation. I remember having a heated argument with a famous arts bureaucrat in the mid 90s when we were fighting for the maintenance of Peer Assessment at the Australia Council which has survived, though in curiously diminished form. He said, “But surely Keith you’d love all that infrastructure money to go to direct to artists.” I said something like, “Maybe so, but where would they show their work, where would the community gather for inspiration, what about places to train and develop and share ideas?

We know the Australia Council’s rumoured to be addressing the issue of service organisations in the near future and I think when we look at places like Performance Space, Artspace, Casula and Brisbane Powerhouses, PICA in Perth or any number of like organisations, we’re looking at a dialectical relationship between organisations and artists. It’s not just infrastructure. It’s not just service. It’s a dynamic relationship. As we know, artistic directors of the Performance Space and other spaces have visions and ways of inspiring artists and developing work and providing spaces for things to happen that the artist might never have considered. We should be careful thinking about these places as simply venues for hire. The relationship is crucial.

Fiona Winning
I’d like to welcome Jennifer Lindsay, the Deputy-Director General of the NSW Ministry for the Arts, our interstate guests Sarah Miller (Director, Perth Institute for Contemporary Arts) and Zane Trow (Director, Brisbane Powerhouse). Welcome also to Nicholas Tsoutas (Director, Artspace), Rosalind Crisp (Omeo Dance Studio), Caitlin Newton-Broad (PACT Youth Theatre), Virginia Hyam and Greg Clarke (The Studio, Sydney Opera House). Representatives from many companies are here as well as artists Gary Carsley, Andrew Morrish, Ruark Lewis and representatives from the artists’ collective, Imperial Slacks. Alessio Cavallaro (Cinemedia, Victoria) will be here later.

Julie-Anne Long: Anywhere I hang my hat.

(READS) “Australia Council Dance Board 2001 Workspace. There has been a concern for some time about the availability of affordable and appropriate workspaces for dance activities. The Dance Board will provide up to 24 workspace grants of $1000 each to individual dancers and choreographers. The focus of this project is to provide a key resource to individual artists rather than an assessment of the work being developed. Proposals will be selected that best demonstrate the benefit of project workspace rent subsidy at this point in the development of a work or to artists developing their practice”.

“To whom it may concern. Following are the details of my 2001 Project Workspace proposal including a curriculum vitae. Over the past 5 years I have shifted my focus to incorporate making solo work for myself. To date, I have worked in my own lounge room and occasionally at the Randwick Literary Institute when I’ve been able to afford it. Upstairs there’s a large warm, oval-shaped carpeted room and downstairs there’s a small cold hall with a wooden floor. Neither space is a conventional dance studio space, reflected in the community hall rates, but they suit my purpose perfectly—inexpensive rates and easy access. Obviously my lounge room and these workspaces have influenced the working processes of my most recent work, notably the gestural nature of the movement material and its spatial relationship to a more domestic scale. This has been a conscious choice and I am committed to pursuing this way of working for at least one more body of work. Who knows, by the time I hit my mid-40s I may be keen to eat up the space and jetée again but that mode of physicality is not relevant to this present work.

“I am now at a stage where I want to rid myself of the distractions of interruptions that come from working at home and need to have access to a larger, uncluttered floorspace. To state the obvious, affordable and appropriate workspaces in Sydney are difficult to find. $1000 would rent a studio space for approximately 1 and a half, maximum 2 weeks full-time based on the current rates. I propose to work at the Randwick Literary Institute for 2 days per week over a 15 week period.”

Flashback: One Extra Dance Company, 1985. Down the road, The Studio, Wentworth Avenue, 2 flights of stairs up, windows, tarquette floors, screens and partitions, sink, toilets, dressing room area, storeroom, a second smaller not soundproof studio. Access 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Fond memories. One Extra summer schools spread out to Stanley Palmer in Darlinghurst and the Entr’acte Space in Liverpool Street. Wentworth Avenue space—now gone. Youth hostel. Stanley Palmer—gone. Looks like commercial offices. Liverpool Street—gone for some hole in the ground for ever and a day. 1986-7. One Extra moved to 2 big studios in George Street opposite the American Express Building—windows, tarquette floor, dressing rooms, reception area, office. We used to catch the bus to work each day with the office workers and have lunch in our holey tracksuits pants with the suits. Once again, access 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, lots of regular informal studio performances, great atmosphere. George Street Studios—gone. Redeveloped into office space. 1988, I’m a student locked in at the NIDA factory. First year in a brand spanking new purpose built studios, offices, common room, workshop spaces. No expense spared. Resources at your fingertips. Sterile institution. NIDA on Anzac Parade forever there. The trees in the courtyard have grown and they’re presently building a multi-million dollar theatre. I’ve hardly been back since.


Sarah Miller: The PICA experience

Like Julie-Anne I feel like I’ve been holding my breath since I’ve been in Perth and it’s 7 and a half years now. Performance Space was my home for a long time. If we’re going to talk broadly about contemporary spaces and what they can mean, that home-away-from-home or office-that-you-live-in is my experience. Performance Space is one of the most important life experiences that I’ve had and I love PICA but the community that has been around this space since, in my experience, 1982-83—that’s nearly 20 years—has been of fundamental importance to me. I’m pleased therefore to hear that the Performance Space has had a reprieve and is safe, particularly in this environment.

In WA where we don’t have much of anything except space—but we’ve got a lot of that, I think I’ve become profoundly aware that If the space exists for anything it is to build that sense of community. And as we know, it’s not just about artists. We want to bring audiences into that environment to engage with the work. But the bottom line is if you don’t have the spaces, if you don’t have the communities that function around those spaces, the audience isn’t going to come anyway.

At PICA we have a dysfunctional space. It looks much more glamorous than anything you’ll ever see in Sydney. It ‘s not as glamorous as the Powerhouse in Brisbane and it certainly doesn’t have the budget. I think it’s a harder place to build a sense of community. Whilst the population of artists is small, it has inhabited a more dispersed environment. Nevertheless, I’d argue that no contemporary art space exists like a pimple on a pumpkin and so for me, critically important to the life of any contemporary art space are artist-run initiatives and I see our relationship with them as symbiotic and essential. It happens in a number of ways—with individual artists, with other spaces, with government and bureaucracies of various kinds, but it always has to happen across a multiplicity of agendas. And I think that’s one of the things that’s not often recognised. At the moment I’m dealing with a fairly interesting situation between commercial galleries and the public sector. This is usually seen as an oppositional relationship and there are very good reasons for that. On the other hand, I don’t think the division is as neat as we might think. Most artists I know will spend time working through a range of spaces.

We’ve had a $2.6 million capital works plan in place since 1998. PICA’s in a very visible central location. We don’t have some of the problems that beset many contemporary art spaces. We’re not in a back street. We don’t have parking or public transport problems. We’re not in a place that’s invisible to most of the population which happens to be the situation for most contemporary art spaces around the country. Although with the Powerhouse, the new Empire initiative in Brisbane and what’s happening in Melbourne, we all look to Queensland and Victoria these days for inspiration. There is no doubt—and I’m sorry, Jennifer [Lindsay] to say this—that NSW is the worst in the country and I can say that because I live in WA.

Sydney has particular problems because it’s so expensive and those accommodation issues haven’t been addressed. I have really serious concerns about the way artists are supported. I have concerns about the conflict between the need for an organisation to generate income and the need for artists to actually be able to develop work in a safe environment with the resources and access to technology, and ideas and mentoring that they need. Until there’s some fundamental and comprehensive review which, of course, we hope is taking place at the moment, I don’t think we’re gonna be moving a whole lot further.

At PICA we have practical issues. We have no disabled access. We can’t show a lot of work because we don’t have the technologies we need. And WA has a particular problem because most head offices are on the east coast. So when it comes to access to a whole range of technologies, they can turn around and say, sorry, no commercial organisation has required that particular technology in Perth yet so you can’t get it.

It was a real shock to me when I came from Sydney where there is a much stronger sense of community to Perth where people definitely saw PICA as “the institution”. Well, of course, we’re seen that way by emerging artists perhaps or artist-run initiatives. But we’re seen as the “lunatic left” by any major institution. So it’s an interesting schizophrenic space to inhabit. But, as in most small places, you do get quite extraordinary things happening. That sense of dialogue and community is starting to grow but it’s going to take a while.

Zane Trow: Brisbane Powerhouse

Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts is an impressively renovated power station in Brisbane’s New Farm area. At its centre is the Turbine Hall, above which are offices and gathering places, a bar and to one side and below, 2 flexible theatre spaces, a gallery and, facing the river, the Watt Restaurant. An adjoining building is home to several arts organisations—Vulcana Women’s Circus is currently in residence and there are large rehearsal and workshop spaces. The whole area is surrounded by parks.

Zane Trow
I thought I’d talk about how it happened because I think it’s fairly unique—$23 million into the renovation of the building, $21 million of which is entirely local government money.

By local government, you mean the greater Brisbane City Council?

Yes. The Brisbane City Council is the largest local government in the Southern Hemisphere with a budget larger than Tasmania. So it’s like a city state. For the Powerhouse, 2 million of state government/local government infrastructure money. No state government arts money. That’s important. How did we end up with the facility that we’ve got? I think there’s 2 reasons and both of them are people—people who have particular histories of engaging with contemporary and community culture. One of them, Pauline Peel is the Divisional Manager of Brisbane City Council. Pauline was a founding member of Street Arts Theatre Company in Brisbane many years ago and was one of the first community arts officers in Australia. The other is Councillor David Hinchliffe who has the largest majority of any Labor Councillor in Brisbane. He has a 73% vote in his constituency. So he has a fair swag of influence in Civic Cabinet. He’s a former Trades Hall arts officer.

Both those people had their eye on derelict buildings in the city for 20 odd years. Both under various guises had done projects illegally or community arts projects in the Powerhouse. So when Brisbane City Council said, we’d like to make a gift to the city, those 2 people drove a feasibility study that convinced Council to spend the money. And the position they took in driving that study was of bringing the community together and contemporary culture.

One of the first things they did was to establish a group of artists—independent practitioners, small and medium companies in Brisbane who had input from go to whoa. They influenced not only the design of the building and the kind of spaces but also the kind of organisation that would be set up to run the building. So with that old 70s-80s community/art-in-working-life approach to community consultation within a large bureaucratic structure and influenced by ideas of urban renewal, of Brisbane as a key site on the Asia-Pacific rim, there was potential to push through a policy initiative that actually had money.

I think the stories of many Brisbane artists would be identical, if not worse, than some of Julie-Anne’s stories in terms of consistent access to useful space and from a 70s-80s social justice perspective, those artists were seen by the city as being in need of empowerment if the city was to change. So a number of things came together. As an incoming artistic director what I’ve inherited is an amazing community of artists with an unrivalled enthusiasm to work in the spaces that they themselves had input into designing.

It’s not all sweetness and light. The original budget was $19 million so they went a fair amount over and that was unpopular in Council, especially from the hoary old right of the Labor party who didn’t want to spend the money in the first place. There are some serious problems with the building which are yet to be resolved but we’re very lucky to have this moment in time to occupy that building and to allow a certain kind of practitioner to be in it. And because of the nature of the building, its flexibility of spaces both formal and informal we do have the potential to make money. We have a $1.1 million operating subsidy on top of the renovation money. This last financial year, our total income including that $1.1 was $2.8 million. We ended up with about $110,000 in surplus at the end of the first operating year. That has kept the politicians off our back. So, if you give a commitment and you treat contemporary practice with respect and trust it is possible, especially in performance, to develop a site that meets business agendas as well as a government’s development agenda in terms of new visions for the new century, and still allows a contemporary and community practice to develop. I see it as the role of the Powerhouse over the next 5-10 years to consolidate that position and to continue to prove that it will work and continue to network across the country with other artists and organisations so that we can raise the profile of what I believe is probably the best model for seeding contemporary cultural development in Australia.

Nikki Heywood
How do the artists work with the Powerhouse?

The hardest thing, as Sarah and Virginia (at The Studio) would know is how to afford to use your own space. So we have to set up structures that allow money to be diverted to creative development and residencies. You have to put up arguments, sometimes to your own board, that there needs to be a whole stream of activity in the organisation that is not necessarily driven by audience or ticket sales. And that argument at the Powerhouse has been easier to sustain because of those original philosophies of access and participation and how those have mutated into this “Creative Industry” business model. But there’s still a realisation within that model that you need research and development. You need to allow the individual artist into the space to make work.

How many are you able to help and how?

Up to 6 or 7 at different levels of support over the year. Everything from an ongoing individual artist-in-residence one year, through to occasional access to rehearsal, performance and studio space, through to all of the above, plus cash.

Slippery Relationships

PICA has a devolved funding line from Arts WA of $30,000 per year which means that we can provide direct financial assistance to a maximum of $5,000 each to artists working in hybrid performance already and/or electronic or new media for research and development. That’s because of WA’s peculiar emphasis on marketing and outcomes and product. And one of the ways for the Ministry to get around that was to slide that funding out to us. It’s not a huge amount but you’d be surprised how many artists have gone on to develop quite extraordinary projects nationally and internationally with just $5,000 and some studio space at a critical moment. Studio access, artists’ fees are pathetic. They’re based on fees that were developed by the Australia Council in the mid-80s but compared to what’s mostly available—ie nothing— that makes a huge difference.

Another thing that PICA is doing and could do much better is our ongoing role as an incubator for ideas, as a production house, providing administrative and marketing support for self-producing artists in particular which I’m sure a lot of you will agree is critically important. We’re all aware how much time self-producing artists spend on administration and marketing when they should be concentrating energy on the creation.

Performance Space
Fiona Winning

Because there’s less and less money for artists to be making work, what’s happening more and more is people coming with half the money they need and asking for assistance. Sometimes that takes the form of marketing or auspicing and financial support but very often we donate the space. So we actually go into it a series of co-production deals which ultimately may be valuable to the artist and to us as an organisation because we want to have that work in the space. But it’s a really difficult financial tension to be able to work out how to do that, knowing that we can’t afford not to do it because without it there is no art.

Gary Carsley
The history of contemporary art spaces in this country is the history of the practice of the last 20 years. And quite often they’re the only source to go to for archival material. By default, you establish your position within that history in a sense by your position in the exhibition history of these places. The staff employed by these institutions are the first contacts the individual artist has with professional curatorial principles. And very rarely do any of the spaces in Sydney schedule one-person shows and the effect of the juxtaposition of one or two or three artists is, in effect, a statement of principles and these principles are aesthetic, critical and conceptual mostly. They’re not driven by the function of the work of art as a commodity but rather as a means of explanation. They’re mechanisms of visibility. The visibility acquired through the commercial gallery system is of a different sort and it tends to follow the visibility first established within these artist-run spaces. What has astonished me is the degree to which these spaces are almost uniformly ignored by the press. We should consider this in the measure of esteem that we extend to these places which provide an instrument for mediation between the individual artist and events or with local authorities and their role in off-site projects—projects not specifically attached to the physical spaces they occupy—are critical areas of development for artists in this country.

Omeo Dance Studio
Ros Crisp
I see the relationship between art spaces as symbiotic. Omeo Studio, provides an environment that is good for some kinds of work and at certain times in the life of a work but it’s limited, like any space. So it’s really important to have the balance of a studio environment and a more public and better resourced theatre space. Omeo is at the other end of the spectrum compared to Powerhouse or The Studio because it’s grown up through artists working there and become a venue by default really.

One of the positive things about our un-funded status is that our identity is slippery and we don’t have any obligations to provide a service. We can respond to the climate or the needs of the artists who are there. We don’t have to maintain any kind of annual program and in a way that’s a real luxury. It has its disadvantages, of course, in terms of the unpaid workload but it’s a space that can continue to serve the artist. It’s never a space that the artists have to serve.

Nonetheless when it comes to presenting work you require space and you go to Artspace or Performance Space—

Brisbane Powerhouse, sure.

And there are other links to do with training and dialogue between Performance Space and Omeo that are not all fully realised yet. It’s a feedback loop that’s really useful.

Dance people there become interested in things that happen here and hopefully in things that aren’t just about dance.

That raises another issue. When you’re working across different artforms, the expectations are very different. From Performance Space which was seen as primarily performance-based with galleries involved in time-based work, I went to PICA which is seen much more as an exhibition space with a performance space—although it is the primary venue particularly for contemporary dance but also any live art. This means there are all sorts of tensions in how spaces are perceived by different artistic communities. I spend my whole life hoping that people will pick up on something more than the artform they’re immediately involved in. I’m in the privileged position. I see it all.

PACT Youth Theatre
Caitin Newton-Broad
PACT occupies an industrial shed that has been re-dedicated to a makeshift theatre space in Erskineville. In a series of happy accidents, a company that exists on the smell of an oily rag has access to prime real estate in Sydney. We have buildings going down all around us. And I had a property developer come in the other day and say, “This is a great space” and I thought, “Piss off!” But the relationship is tenuous again because it’s not the company’s building. It’s owned by local council who’ve been kind enough to lease it to us at peppercorn rent. But we’re on an annual subsidy and we have to re-apply every year to keep that relationship going and that feels scary sometimes.

The little shed has become a centre of activity. A youth theatre company occupies the building. We do have the demands of creating an annual program but we also have this fantastic asset in the venue. My aim since I’ve been there has been to open it up to as much chaos and as much activity as possible and to see what happens. And sometimes it’s terrible and sometimes it’s fantastic. But like Omeo, it’s very flexible because it is small.

I suppose the importance for us in our relationship with larger contemporary art spaces is that basically curious young people, young artists who are really ready to fly have dialogue pathways they can follow. And maybe there are formalised projects like the Mardi Gras project where we have a collaboration with Performance Space. It’s a formal relationship, an introduction of people from one place to another. More important, though, is the informal introductions and conversations that happen that allow young people in Sydney who really do want to keep making work to come to a space and not find it overwhelming or oppressive or that they’d have to wait and do some sort of apprenticeship in order to test something out. Then there’s the more professional mentoring relationship. PACT has one and a half staff so you really need that conversation with other arts organisations so you don’t feel that you’re operating in a vacuum. The employees of the tiny spaces need conversation with the bigger ones. Our relationship is strongest with Performance Space because the links between aesthetic and cultural agendas are strongest there. With other spaces it’s more ad hoc, it’s what can you do for me and what can I do for you, which in PACT’s case is often not very much.

Artspace: The Warehouse of Ideas
Certainly that circulation of ideas has been critically important. I still remember profound fights with Nick (Tsoutas) and John (Baylis) about the difference between theatre and performance and what we meant by new form and whether feminism was really just girlie stuff that we were all gonna get over. I think I won that one!. We used to have a circle of chairs in this very space where people would get together and fight it out.

Nicholas Tsoutas
Artspace is an R and D centre. It’s a transaction space for ideas. It’s like a warehouse where things move in and out very quickly. It’s a place where the process of critical interrogation is part of the process of thinking about what we mean by contemporary art in its many manifestations. We work much more with the visual arts but those arguments that Sarah was referring to still rage and still cause consternation, particularly when old dudes like us see things that were done 30 years ago... But I think the thing that is profoundly disturbing for me is that, like Sarah, I feel privileged to still be working in an environment where we have such an abundance of really good, thinking contemporary practice, where artists are really flourishing with invigorating ideas that provoke and set international standards of practice. That for me is a real pleasure. What isn’t a pleasure is working in an infrastructure where we can no longer sustain those ideas—particularly in Sydney. Here we are with the biggest state, the largest number of artists living in this environment....

75 % I believe.

75% and we cannot service even their most fundamental ideas. It creates a contradiction for places like Performance Space and Artspace and the Australian Centre for Photography. We are flooded with proposals, projects, things that we want to engage with, relate to, and we certainly have ambitions for...I think contemporary art spaces are constantly setting the standard for re-defining ambition within individual practices yet we cannot develop even the most fundamental ideas. We’ve reached the bottom end of the infrastructure. There’s no way that these places can actually resource projects.

Re-drafting the cultural map

Contemporary art in this society is still treated in a paternalistic way. We have to constantly justify our practice in re-defining the edge of contemporary culture—the shifting, the difficult, the highly debated ground, the stuff that is inventing futures. The stuff that major theatre companies pick up fairly eclectically and brag about as new ideas. The state galleries suddenly put on Primaveras and take all the projects out of the contemporary art spaces. Meanwhile, all the hard yakka that gets done at this level doesn’t get recognised in the media. State government doesn’t recognise it—or it does in a very paternalistic way that really doesn’t give full credit to what is actually being done in redefining Australian culture.

I think we certainly have to start discussing how we position ourselves in this culture, how we re-define the infrastructure because it’s 25 years out of date. This model was developed years ago fundamentally by the Australia Council. Each year we’ve argued for or against it. Nothing changes. We still have to justify what we do. And I think there’s a very fundamental problem when a society refuses to give real credit in the area that it grows by— incubators, research centres, whatever. Interestingly enough, when we have international events or say Olympic festivals, they maraud these areas, take bits and pieces. Yet the real hard yakka gets done by artists without any subsidy. It gets put into spaces that can barely pay their phone bills, or whose staff are constantly subsidising them. It’s tragic when state ministries for the arts continue, year in and year out, to keep the lid on things. I think there’s a major problem in the way that sooner or later we acquiesce to that process. I’ve been around for 20 odd years arguing these sorts of issues and I don’t see any change.

I look at Zane and I think how I went from Sydney to the IMA in Brisbane suddenly having 3 times the budget that I had here in Sydney. Coming back some years later and suddenly getting 4 times less. There’s entropy happening here.

There’s always been this problem in Sydney I think partly because they’ve had the Opera House and the AGNSW and more recently the MCA—there’s that idea that we have


We’re funding a particular type of cultural manifestation that I think we all need to have in some shape or form. There’s no argument about that. But it is totally imbalanced. It doesn’t recognise what happens in the areas where new ideas are constructing Australian culture.

The Producers

There’s an interesting new development in Sydney and it’s happening across Australia and that’s the growth of the producer—Henry Boston in Perth, Barry Plews in South Australia, Philip Rolfe and his team at the Opera House, Zane has been playing an interesting role in Brisbane. We have others like Wendy Blacklock (Performing Lines). The Studio is developing as an interesting space with a new kind of energy. When Zane was talking about the problems of running a 24 hour creative venue, I could see Virginia Hyam and Greg Clarke nodding furiously.

The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Virginia Hyam
I’d also like to respond to Nick and say that the hardest thing I find in my position running the Studio is not being able to accommodate the number of fantastic ideas and great artists that are making work and I guess that’s our greatest frustration. What The Studio is offering is a performance space. In my dreams I’d love to see the Opera House be an incubator, to be able to offer rehearsal space, to have the multimedia suite set up where people could make work in the space. Those sorts of infrastructures are not yet available but we’re forging our way ahead.

The Opera House has actually taken on this challenge of bringing together a whole programming team who have a charter to bring new, contemporary work into the Opera House and change the aesthetic and the feel of the work going on there. But we’re still working within an infrastructure that has been operating for a long time. We’re working at slowly turning some of those processes around, changing ways of thinking and working which includes working with the union rules in that place which are quite astounding. Anyone who’s ever worked there knows it’s a really very expensive place to operate. That’s the negative. On the positive side, I see it as a real challenge to get as much work going on in that space as is absolutely possible. And there’s never going to be a shortage because there’s such an amazing range of work out there.

What I’m trying to do is to present work on a local and national basis mostly, building towards some international collaborations with local artists. It’s a gradual process. Even though it has resources to support the marketing of artists and the publicity, I see it more as a platform to present work. I certainly don’t see it in competition with any of the other centres. It’s really working together to profile what everyone’s work is about. The crossing of artforms is what we’re trying to do as well. It’s a really eclectic space. Developing cross-over audiences is another challenge for us—having new music one day and physical theatre another and multimedia works with emerging artists the next month. Hopefully, that starts to cross over with some of your more mainstream audiences who are coming to the Opera House who would never think to see some of these shows.

The national network

Do you feel there’s a chance to work together?

We have to. I’d also like to wholeheartedly support what Nick was saying. That’s why I used the words “trust” and “respect.”

The other word is “money”. Earlier this year I was engaged with a tour of The opera Project’s The Berlioz

project with Brisbane Powerhouse and Salamanca in Tasmania, we had no production budget, none, and we had to pull out of the tour. Now, I’m sorry but at a really fundamental level until we get some more comprehensive equity happening across the country—and one of the ironies of our withdrawal from that tour was that Playing Australia wouldn’t subsidise a guarantee against loss because it’s more expensive to get work across the Nullarbor! Funny that. I thought that’s why Playing Australia was established!

So it’s an incomplete circuit at the moment?

We’re not in that circuit. We’re not in the production network. We should be and we attempt to be at every level but as a producers’ network we’re not able to part of that.

Performance Space and PICA both have been nominated for a decade at least as part of the second and third tier performing arts network around the country. And Made to Move send me proposals and I’m like, that’s beautiful, I couldn’t look at one of them.

The answer has to be another 20 years of work.

Oh, no!

We have to continue to look for windows of opportunity in policy-making. Playing Australia would think nothing of sending the Australian Ballet across the Nullarbor. A sizeable slab of Playing Australia’s money is going to the major organisations. I knew George Fairfax who wrote the original feasibility study, and I know there were 2 things he thought were crucial to make that scheme work: small and medium scale touring and companies in residence. That was his rationale to Federal Government. Neither of those has happened. The hardest thing to do with Playing Australia is to get a small or medium scale tour up because the variants in budget across the country are so disparate

And the different ways of getting money.

And one of the things that’s really important in the development of contemporary work is the idea of a research and development house from which partnerships and productions may or may not emerge. And the company or artist in residence is a fantastic model. We ought to be sharing artists, sharing projects, sharing ideas, exactly as we do in our own houses, in all these other houses across the country.

For me the argument is still about how Australia thinks about itself in relation to its cultural practice. It’s fine for the Australian Chamber Orchestra to walk straight into Canberra and walk out with a cheque for $900,000, not only a cheque but a commitment—”the doors are open”. It may take another 20 years, a few people who are committed enough over that time to be inserted into the place where cultural policy in this country is made. And I believe that is a conversation between a minister and an adviser over lunch. And I think we as contemporary practitioners in this country need to work together to insert those people into that lunch meeting. From that we may be able to put up arguments that will be listened to. I think at the moment our arguments are filtered through a system of bureaucratic policy-making which is far removed from the centre of the work itself to be of any use to an arts minister.

Certainly there are collaborations happening. Between Zane and me there’s constant dialogue and looking at companies together but the amount we can do is so limited. There could be 20 times the amount of work moving around with those other levels of support.

Imperial Slacks: Collective space
The structure that we have at Imperial Slacks [a Sydney artist-run space] is a live-in situation. There are 8 of us and we all live there and have studios there. There are about 12 or 14 contributing to the space. All the work that we have made over the past 4 years is collaborative to an extent, no matter how it’s authored. We share technical support, facilities and so on. It would be nice to think that that sort of structure wasn’t just a stepping stone in these people’s careers. I mean, it’s obviously just a warehouse that we live in and people will move on and get offers from commercial galleries, move on to different structures. But I think we all realise how incredibly necessary this structure has been, especially with what is available and how easy it is to be just become so individual and branch off into part-time and full-time work. To keep a motivation centre together is so important. Although it gets frustrating and insane sometimes, it would be nice to carry it on to shared studios. We want to put forward interesting projects. We’re interested in the idea of a collective of artists working together to show not just their own work. People like to think of these artist-run spaces as totally experimental and totally open but our gallery is a white cube and you do need to find 3 weeks of rent and we do have administrative structures and we are affiliated with places like Artspace and Performance Space.

Ruark Lewis: Space pirate

I’ve been associated with pirate space at Scots Church in York Street for the last 10 years which is a really long time to have inhabited a 5 storey inner city building. It’s prime real estate a block from the Stock Exchange. We managed to get in there when the Presbyterian Church abandoned their city offices for other premises. It was an organic process with artists finding a building to work in, not only visual artists but dancers, film distributors, musicians, installation video artists, photographers. It was a studio-based atelier project that began just because the building had been abandoned. I thought it was a great start because it was totally organic and totally anarchic.

But things started to change. We were paying about $100 a month for very generous spaces. It was great to be working in the centre of the city, feeling that you were important. You were the artworker in your office up on the 5th floor looking down at York Street. You could feel the pace of all the workers around you and you wanted to work at that speed in a funny way. On Fridays, you’d go down and have a drink at one of the bars down under Australia Square. And you’d be surrounded by stock brokers who’d say, “where are you from?” “Oh, I’m from the office on the 5th floor.” “Oh, so you’ve got your own business. Wow.”

This church had had its day and the building was starting to crumble, the water starting to leak and our rents didn’t go up year after year and a few more people came and went. Up until 1994 we had about 30 artists working in very good studios with electricity and telephones. But then you always knew that something was going to go wrong. And there was a fire in the George Patterson building and that was really the change of our fortunes. We were in a very old building that was close to a building which was in the press every day because they were looking for this arsonist and trying to work out from a local heritage council point of view what they were going to do to replace the building. All of a sudden the owners of the church had a liability that they didn’t want. It became a battle almost overnight. Council was all of a sudden very nervous that there was going to be a fire there.

This is a whole group of artists who are going to survive somehow or other independently with no infrastructure, no support. We’ve never had any funding whatsoever along the way. The only relationship we’ve had with institutions is a major church body and the local council. Obviously, artists came out of there and worked in other spaces like Performance Space and Artspace...

(Still fighting for our space) we’re in the basement of the building now. And they purpose-built our studios. Until the new development goes ahead they’ve said we can stay. The artists built an art gallery and we charge rent to each other—$100 a month to pay for the catalogues. And we have a slush fund in case we need to move.

What do we want?

Ruark’s story certainly makes us mindful of the problems of this building, Performance Space. It looked like there was going to be an exit this year and the Ministry helped stave that off for the moment. It does seem as though the problem has reached critical mass in NSW. A lot of us are very disturbed, not so much about whether we want to preserve the Performance Space but the whole idea of it.

There has been so much talk about a new home, a new place that reflects the quality, the calibre, the volume of work, work that can be shared with a national network. It’s a very serious issue and one we feel should be addressed. We know the Director-General of Arts Roger Wilkins has acknowledged this but there’s a long leap from acknowledgment and turning this situation (ridiculously high rent and extremely limited facilities) into something positive that reflects the nature of the work.

There’s an enormous volume of artists working here, incredible output. RealTime has edited a series of guide books to performance for the Australia Council [the In Repertoire series]. An enormous amount of the work comes out of Sydney, lots has travelled internationally, much of it has been critically acknowledged and most of it is done on the smell of an oily rag. It doesn’t have the home it deserves. It doesn’t have the rehearsal spaces, the development studios, the infrastructure that Performance Space dreams of providing.

What do we fantasize? What do we think is worth fight for? I worked in this place for years. I value it and the places it relates to. There are a lot of associated places we haven’t discussed tonight like the Centre for Performance Studies, a valuable operation at Sydney University where many of us have worked, and UNSW. But when it comes to the crunch, particularly for artists working in performance, this is the place and its future is dicey. It would be interesting to know what people feel about this.

Clare Grant
I don’t want to wait for another 20 years...It feels like a really big bold step needs to happen. We need access, visibility, centrality, appropriate-sized space for the work that needs to be done in it.

I’m sick to death of the idea that every time there’s another fucken dump derelict building that it’s a great place to put the contemporary arts.

It’s about time that particularly Sydney—”international gateway”—started acknowledging its responsibility and developing its culture properly. Site-specific buildings where you can discuss with the community of players what is actually required is not an unreasonable step to go forward. Artists are being cut out of the equation in this state. They cannot afford places to work. Whether it’s residential centres or studios or rehearsal spaces, these are the things that places like Performance Space, Artspace, PICA etc should be developing. We’re tired of being shunted around from one second-hand, basically restored derelict building to another. It’s time to really put contemporary culture on the map.

Harley Stumm
If they’re not basically restored, they’re over-designed and over-restored like Casula Powerhouse. Though there are lots of good things about it, it’s total fetishizing of the previous building to the point where it’s not usable for any performance in the main space. The one rehearsal room has iron girders in the middle because they’re an original architectural feature. The location is also a problem. Luckily Brisbane is small enough that their abandoned powerhouse is only 10 minutes from the CBD, not where Casula is—not that it has to be close to Sydney’s CBD but it’s not even close to where people live in Liverpool. Buildings like Performance Space are falling down around us and the ideas that people come up with as solutions are old-fashioned—to renovate old buildings. The infrastructure that makes things happen is someone in the gallery bumping into someone in the theatre and stuff coming out of that. At Urban Theatre Project in our own little way in our own office in Bankstown stuff happens that never happened when we were at Casula.

Alan Schacher
I want to draw focus back to the role of the contemporary art venue and how are they identified. I think Gary, Ros, Nick all spoke about how they’re identified in terms of policies, in terms of juxtapositions, freedoms, particular purposes. In this respect, I’m sorry, Virginia, but I want to say that the arthouse of the Opera House is not the place that can equally house a contemporary performance space for Sydney. And the models of Made to Move and Playing Australia can only tend to transport across this broad country the companies that already have 2 or 3 or 4 full-time administrative staff. I was down in Melbourne and saw how Chunky Move operate. They maintain the administrative staff full-time in preference to the performance staff, ie the artists. A contemporary space has to be really dedicated to its policy. When you say “contemporary art space” we’re not talking performance or visual art, we’re talking about a place where artists interact, where new work is developed because you see someone hanging something on the wall while you’re making a dance work downstairs and ideas develop.

On the matter of how these venues can co-produce and how they can jump over things like Made to Move and Playing Australia and the key players, the Opera House and so on, the level of culture is made at the ground and it gets siphoned off to high culture after the ideas have been tried and proven and the risks taken. We’ve talked about Eveleigh Carriage Works [Redfern] becoming an arts precinct but how would an arts precinct operate? One contemporary art space can’t be everything to a city.

That’s true but to me it’s important to say that as a city, looking at lots of diverse models, for a reasonably small second, third tier city in Europe it’s not unusual to have a multi-artform, funded, contemporary performance space. What we’re asking for here is not at all unusual. It’s just unusual in Australia.

Even in economic rationalist terms one reason that we’re seen to be a third world, old fashioned economy is because we don’t value our own culture and we don’t see any way of resourcing it.

Audience member
We’re constantly getting tied up in this thing about media-based activity. One of the things that makes all of these spaces quite different from other kinds of spaces is that what you traditionally call a visual artist and a performing artist are working in the same spaces in different ways. It’s the accidental audience for each other and a range of issues like that which have come up tonight. It’s one of the major differences that these spaces have. I just wonder if part of our problem is that we’re still being shoved particularly by state based funding or the Australia Council into media-based activities so that differences in the ways that the visual artist, performing artist, sound artist are treated are constantly being reinforced.

David Williams
A couple of years ago John Bell had his personal diary published in the SMH. The early entries were about the rehearsal spaces they were working in—the kinds of spaces that would be familiar to many people here. At one place he said that the noise of the planes going over made it impossible to work and he could not see how any art could happen there. He was talking about the Addison Road Community Centre (home of Sidetrack).

And speaking of Bell Shakespeare, are they still going to get the Wharf as approved by cabinet at a cost of several million dollars when there’s not a single dollar for contemporary arts in NSW?

The small to medium arts companies inquiry

Jennifer Lindsay
What’s been expressed here tonight is exactly what that small to medium enquiry should be about.

I think one of the issues for what’s described as small to medium arts sector, which is a definition I have problems with for obvious reasons, has been that at this end of the sector we all work according to our income whereas the MOB [Major Performing Arts Organisations Board funded companies, Australia Council] work according to their expenditure. That has been one of the fundamental inequities we have all struggled with.

It’s unhelpful to keep comparing them. The 2 sectors are so different...It’s not saying this is about money. You need the inquiry to get the role of the sector reinforced and recognised. If that alone was done and they said, but there’s no money, I think you’d still be a thousand times better off than where we are at the moment. It would help distil for state governments that building infrastructure is a very important way we can do things.

A tape of this forum should be submitted to the inquiry or some summary of it. What you’ve said tonight is the best articulation of what the sector needs. There are other issues for Sydney and our submission to that inquiry says that this sector in Sydney is doubly disadvantaged because whether it’s real estate, government, markets, publicity, you name it, the whole thing is twice as hard because you’ve got the big companies here and they divert attention, money, the whole lot. It would be valuable or supportive of our submission if you could reinforce that in whatever ways you can. There’s the small to medium sectors nationally and there’s the small to medium in Sydney—and it’s worse here.

With respect, I’ve listened to things like “oh, you’ve got to put these arguments forward” for 20 years. We’ve put the arguments forward and there’s something that blocks them. Nobody seems to acknowledge the value of contemporary art. Everyone here can talk till the cows come home about the value of it but unless the ministries acknowledge the value of places like the Performance Space and go in to bat for it, unless they start to say that in Sydney, artists need studios, it’s gonna be back to the drawing board year in and year out. The level of frustration is mounting and people end up leaving the industry. They can’t earn a living. In a sense it’s enlightening—and having participated in some of those discussions in Brisbane a number of years ago—to hear that there now seems to be this attitude that collectively government instrumentalities can actually change or create paradigm shifts. We’re witnessing it to a certain extent in Melbourne. In Sydney we’re back to square one.

Just to put this into some context, I think there are 5 people here who have run the Performance Space over the years and so for all of us who have fought those battles and run architecture competitions and tried to find new spaces, what you suggest is very real but we have in our various ways all done that. This is an institution that I care a great deal for and spent a lot of my life in but I knew all along, and we know it came close in the last couple of years, it could happen, the Performance Space could disappear and everyone in government would go oh, that’s a pity, what else is happening? It’s absolutely fantastic that the Ministry has come up with this reprieve but it’s bigger than the Ministry.

Of Carriage Works and precincts
As you said, If Performance Space had closed this would not have been in itself a shock, but it didn’t. There’s something significant in that. What we’ve said to Fiona and the PS board is well, this is the most we can do for you within the powers that we have. We’re putting something in our budget to get some recognition of your role. We’re working on options. That’s as much as we can do. There are some significant changes that have happened. You can only work quietly to turn it all around. The other thing is that’s different is that there’s never been this level of inquiry into this sector at a national level. So maybe there are some opportunities to intervene and maybe as we get older it’s going to happen.

Audience member
I’m with a company that works at the Eveleigh Carriage Works in Redfern and there are quite a few contemporary performance companies there and people who rehearse in there. It is one of the very best spaces in Sydney. I think it’s interesting I’m the only person that works for a company pretty much on a full-time basis that exists in that building who is here [at this forum]. It’s a space that has a lot of potential for Performance Space and I guess people should write letters to government.

[We are conducting some feasibility studies at the Carriage Works but] it’s very early days....and it may be a pipe dream but we’re trying to do this one right so that it does work.

John Baylis
Jenny, taking up what Zane said earlier on, it would be so much more reassuring if some of the people here had been involved in that process, that if you want to bring it to fruition, to have the support of all the people who had input and who owned that project, it would probably help, rather than it being a revelation to some of us that all of this is happening.

Some of us, Alan and I and a few other people have been invited to the first couple of meetings.

The most important thing is the inquiry that’s going on now, working out some very resonant ways of getting over the messages about the sector. NSW Ministry knows the infrastructure problem. Nobody else is ever going to address that one. So, okay we’re doing things on that front. But use this chance to get recognised what the sector’s raison d’être is and the way it sees itself and getting people to say, okay, that’s the way we see the arts from a Nugent point of view but this is the way we see the arts from the other point of view. That will be the most important investment we can make in the future of this sector.

But Jenny, there is an impasse because it isn’t early days. That’s what everyone is saying and the money isn’t enough by a long shot.

You have to be “strategic” if you want access to funding.

Other models

I’d like to ask John Baylis [Manager, Theatre Board] what he’s done about it. He’s had 3 months at the Australia Council.


The Australia Council, as you know, doesn’t normally deal with such grubby things as performance venues. The Theatre Board met last week and such a small number of new work projects were given out. And they’re all going to self-present in some venue. So much of that money is going to disappear [to rent].

It takes me back to when I was with Sydney Front touring in Europe for the first time, going around these small venues in Europe. We didn’t have that much money but we’d get a performance fee, accommodation, a meal allowance—even free drinks sometimes. I’d be sitting in the bar afterwards talking to German and Belgian artists—this is the subsidised nirvana that we all dream of—and they would ask me about funding. Artistic exchanges are all about funding in your respective countries!

We’d tell them about our project grants and our annual program and they’d say, oh that’s such good funding you’ve got out there, it must be heaven. And I’d think maybe we’re doing well because that sort of funding isn’t that much available in Europe. We know the Pina Bauschs and all those companies get money but the independent sector don’t get much. But what they do have is the venues, supported art spaces. So even if you have no funding, even if you never get a new work grant, as long as you can find somewhere to rehearse—you then pay to present, you don’t have to learn how to present. You don’t have to do your own publicity, don’t have to stick up posters on telegraph poles. It’s all done for you. That kind of network of presenting organisations is the real seed bed of that kind of subsidised field in Europe that we all dream about. And the Australia Council, for whatever reason, has no stake in that.

Ros Crisp
That European system means that the artistic decision-making is decentralised which can be such a divisive thing in our culture.

At the Ministry, there’s a new Director-General and a lot of discussion ... and an infrastructure policy is an important part of that. I think Roger Wilkins is pretty aware of that but he’s only been in the position for 6 months.

Audience member
As well as the dollars and whatever big bricks and mortar come out of it, things such as John is saying are important inputs to that kind of policy. It is in some senses an alternative to direct funding and if you have this structure which people can access without requiring too much money, then it’s another way of stimulating the sector.

A couple of years back we were able to get substantial funding to buy from the RTA a property at Leichhardt. We’ve got some very staggered funding to do something there. ... It’s an extremely protracted process of getting what we want which is one floor dedicated for a rehearsal and co-operative space on the top floor. But we’ll get there in about 3 years, sooner if we’re lucky....

And the infrastructure you’re talking about, if you don’t have a vision of how it all comes togetherwe’re not suddenly going to push a button and have bricks coming out, buildings going up all over Sydney. We’ve got to have our priorities and that’s why at this particular juncture, where there’s an opportunity to get an understanding of what the sector is about, it’s an important one. The links between this sector and infrastructure are vital.

Gretchen Miller
Why can Brisbane do it and we can’t? Why can we just whack up buildings for the Olympics, bang! and it takes 3 years to get a weeny little room in Leichhardt?

We had to suffer 32 years of Bjelke-Peterson.


No, that is actually the answer.

Political visibility

Ruark Lewis
I wonder about the actual political visibility of artists in the community. We work in many different ways and we’re present at performances and presentations all over the place, but I just wonder how we can politically activate the whole system more than we’re doing at the present time because I think a lot of artists are very good at coming up with good ideas and strategies but not actually getting out there and being agitators within political party systems. Or you might prefer Joseph Beuys’ actions in Germany which invented a whole political party called the Green Party which is now a universal intervention in the political machine. Here in Australia, in my memory of this last few years with John Howard, we’ve done one set of marches through the streets to protest the taxation inequity. And we haven’t gone back to that. As soon as we got a small win there, everyone went quietly back again to their work, the committee shrank into oblivion and it’s now over. We ought be really fighting for taxation reform because we’re stuffed under this thing.

There does need to be more arts advocacy. In WA we have Arts Voice, an advocacy group that’s played an important role. Its relatively conservative but at least it functions as a conduit to government and I would suggest that it’s really important in Sydney that those things happen because it’s such a difficult bureaucratic environment.

Especially for this group because we’re politically invisible because of [the big arts organisations]. The MCA was the most recent example. It took the contemporary art football and just ran with it and all of a sudden the Sydney City Council just abandoned all its other policies and just went MCA, MCA, MCA, let’s re-build the whole thing! Now I don’t know... that made everyone even more invisible—all the other art spaces, Performance Space, Artspace. Now the problem’s as big as ever but now the Council’s not even there to support us. I think the Sydney City Council has as much as the State Ministry to answer for in all of these things.

In order to make ourselves more visible why couldn’t we form a pack and choose a government building that we’d like to occupy and go in en masse and re-name it as a contemporary art space?

Audience member
I can tell you where it is. It’s been there for 3 years. If anyone’s interested....


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