Arts funding strip backs have left Sydney theatre companies facing an uncertain future. Photo: Barry Goyette

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BY SHON HO

Arts funding strip backs have left Sydney theatre companies facing an uncertain future. Small to medium sized organisations will bear the brunt in a tougher landscape and will be vying for fewer grants from a smaller pool of funds.

As a knock on effect from the Federal Government’s post budget cuts, the Australia Council’s September round of project funding was highly competitive. 1,700 applied for funding, of which only 290 were successful

Some companies have been forced to close their doors due to the cuts. The Rock Surfers Theatre Company in Bondi closed down last month after an 18 year run.

Youth theatre funding has also been slashed. Out of the 13 organisations that applied for project grants from the Australia Council for 2016, only three were successful.  13 organisations were funded in 2012, 21 in 2007.

Performance Space, a resident experimental arts institution at Sydney’s Carriageworks, predicts it will lose $1.3 million in funding over the next three years. While it was successful in receiving continued funding from Arts NSW, a $700,000 cut across three years from Arts NSW paired with the recent introduction of a $300,000 cap on multi-year funding from the Australia Council, delivered a damaging set back.

The company is in the process of implementing a smaller operational model and is currently restructuring and reducing its staffing.

“Ongoing commitment to multi-year funding for small to medium organisations provides the security and incentive to build capacity, expand programs and build critical new audiences for bold new work of excellence.” said Terese Casu, the executive director of Performance Space.

She told City Hub that backing for these organisations and investment in experimental art practices and risk taking work, is vital to the development of a vibrant cultural nation.

The long term impact of the funding cuts “will inevitably affect the larger arts ecology, where the independent sector, larger arts organisations and the Major Performing Arts sector are intrinsically linked and rely on each other for growth, diversification and audience development,” Ms Casu said.

“Support for independent artists and access to creative development and new work grants need to be protected,” she said.

Performance 4a, a not for profit contemporary performance company which supports Asian-Australian artists, has also felt the impact after the Australia Council’s June round of funding was cut last year.

“I was aiming to apply to that round, for money to produce a show called In Between Two which I had managed to get the Sydney Festival to program” Perfomance 4a’s executive producer, Annette Shun Wah said.

“For a little company like ours, getting a show into a major festival was a really big thing. It’s like an opportunity you can’t let go.”

Despite not receiving the funding, Performance 4a decided to make the show anyway.

“I just thought bugger it, whatever it takes, we’ll do it. We scraped up all our savings and basically cut some other planned spending in order to make the show.” Shun Wah said.

She said the arts were like an “ecosystem,” where everything needs to be healthy and growing.

While Performance 4a retained multi-year funding from Arts NSW, it hopes to receive a multi-year grant from the Australia Council. However, with funding being so competitive, Shun Wah said that they are not expecting it.

“Many of us had been spending a huge amount of time and effort preparing expressions of interests in multi-year funding and all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under us.”

Shun Wah said she believed that arts funding, especially for culturally diverse works, has a wider social benefit for all Australians.

She said that funding cuts could mean a tipping of the balance toward the familiar and mainstream rather to minority and fringe voices.

“If you look at mainstage theatre in Australia, it’s still really white. It’s really important for Australia to see a realistic and relevant representation of what our lives are like. But we need help to do it,” she said.

“So often you go and see things and think, I’ve heard this all before and seen this all before and here’s this hot rich pool of stuff that’s never made it onto a stage”

“Diversity in all forms needs to be considered when future funding is being developed.” Terese Casu said

“Appropriate levels of culturally and linguistically diverse and Indigenous representation needs to be supported across all our arts and cultural programs to ensure our art and our stories reflect the communities we live in and our Australian heritage.”

The cuts could also have an impact on the future generation of theatre makers.

PACT Centre for Emerging Artists is also facing uncertainty. While it receives renewed support from Arts NSW and funding from Australia Council until the end of the year, there is a question mark about its funding beyond 2016.

PACT’s application for multi-year funding from Australia Council is still pending.

“The Australia Council does represent quite a substantial part of our budget” said PACT’s artistic director, Katrina Douglas. “So we are already now talking about what happens if we’re not successful. How do we keep PACT running? What does that mean for our programme? Can we keep PACT running?”

Douglas says that small to medium sector tends to be where experimentation can occur. Smaller companies take the risks that bigger companies, reliant on box office sales, can’t afford.

“This is the area where innovation happens” she said.

“It’s the area where the next generation of cultural leaders are testing their craft, developing new ideas, pushing their art form and having the opportunities to put something on stage that might not work.”

In Douglas’ view, funding cuts will result in the loss of many Australian stories. As experimental work continues to lack funding, gaps will emerge in the industry. As less work is being produced, local theatre may begin to stagnate.

“If people are artists, they make art.” Shun Wah said. “But it is a question about how the work’s made, the compromises that will be made to in order complete projects and the amount of time spent developing and researching something before it comes to a stage.”

“So art will still be made, theatre will still be made but just maybe it won’t be as rich and won’t be happening in as a timely way that it might have been.”

In Between Two, produced by Performance 4a, opens today as part of Sydney Festival at Carriageworks.