A total of 63 councils across NSW are understood to have applied for support to stage arts programs over one, two, and three-year periods in Create NSW’s upcoming second funding round.
Karen Therese, artistic director of the Powerhouse Youth Theatre in Fairfield, said the company had cancelled all productions and presentations until March. Many artists had lost income while living in crowded homes and managing mental health issues without many options or resources.
“We are in a state of cultural emergency in the region,” she said.
Craig Donarski, director of the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, said it was often forgotten that western Sydney is so much bigger than Parramatta, and that funding needed to be pushed out to the region’s edges.
“Lateral transport options, particularly public transport, between Parramatta and other western Sydney population centres are really inadequate,” Mr Donarski said.
Arts centres in Blacktown, Campbelltown, Casula, Fairfield and Penrith are predominantly council-funded and reliant on ticket sales and cafe proceeds, which have evaporated with social distancing rules and shutdowns. None are eligible for JobKeeper.
“Our income has ground to a halt,” said Michael Dagostino, director of the Campbelltown Arts Centre. “We can’t hibernate and want to bring audiences back when it is safe to do so. It is critical that we play a large role in how we bring back audiences, build confidence, and re-invigorate the sector as a whole.”
Hania Radvan, chief executive officer of Penrith Performing & Visual Arts, warned of an approaching “crisis point” later this year if venues could not open in a financially viable way. Traditionally, the March to June quarter earned venues their greatest income.
Mr Donarski said local government had been hit hard by COVID-19 and was not in a position to adequately fund programming in existing venues – one of the fastest, most cost-effective and efficient ways to support artists and provide arts and culture experiences to audiences.
“The spaces and equipment and staff and other resources are already in place, we just need the money to program the exhibitions, events, festivals, shows, screenings,” he said. “Putting all the artistic and cultural eggs in Parramatta’s basket doesn’t make for a western Sydney strategy.”
Fairfield City Museum & Gallery is anticipating a possible return to programs in August but its education program has been cancelled for the year, along with some large-scale youth programs.
Blacktown Arts Centre said it was not possible for it to hibernate during the lockdown given the vulnerability of its local artists and Indigenous and LGBTQI communities.
“We are responsible for delivering arts and culture across Blacktown City – this is a city of 48 suburbs with almost 400,000 people,” a spokesperson said. “We have the responsibility to enable, where possible, creative and cultural experiences as part of everyone’s daily life. There is no other state- or federally-funded organisation to support arts and cultural activity in Blacktown City.
“There is less than one dollar per person for arts and cultural activities invested by the state government in Blacktown City and no investment in cultural infrastructure. This is despite one in 22 people in NSW calling Blacktown City home.”
Long term, Mr Dagostino said the NSW government should consider a competitive capital fund of $500 million to create a pipeline of projects, including a much-needed new theatre and gallery in Campbelltown.
In addition to the disparity of investment in cultural infrastructure, events like the Sydney Festival had limited reach in western Sydney and relied on councils and small organisations to resource or subsidise key elements.
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald