The independent arts sector at risk Reply

by Rachel Smith

Kerri Glasscock, Emilya Colliver, Rachel Healy

Kerri Glasscock, Emilya Colliver, Rachel Healy

A special forum at the Sydney Fringe Festival, ‘Where are the canapes’, examined the importance of a strong, sustainable independent arts sector given the sector is facing venue closures, budget cuts and minimal pay rates. The forum’s role was to tackle questions such as the role of the independent or fringe arts and how can they be sustained, how venues can be made sustainable, how funding models can be improved, how pay rates for artists can be establishes – and where are the canapés?

The panel discussion, at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst, was led by Festival director Kerri Glasscock, curator Emilya Colliver, arts administrator Rachel Healy, live theatre organiser Camilla Ah Kin and arts businessman James Winter.

But before any of the big questions could be tackled, the panel had to considered what was in front of them – the dismal turnout at the ‘Where are the Canapes?’ forum. It was symptomatic of the questions under discussion. And Festival director Kerri Glasscock was worried.

“The lack of focus on the independent arts sector is dangerous; it is a place where artists can build their voice and develop their career as an artist,” she said.

James Winter, Director of Brand X, a company that provides affordable spaces for the independent arts sector, urged rebellion; he urged independent artists to avoid the commercial side of the arts.

He said independent art has the ability to be really dangerous and contain things that frighten the audience. “It should not replicate the mainstream,” he said.

However, many local independent artists feel uncomfortable taking risks, particularly because they do not feel valued in the Australian art scene, according to Ah Kin, the Live Theatre Organiser at the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. She believes that artists experience shame when they do not get paid.

“For artists to feel valued, we must pay them. An element of shame at not being paid exists. If they got paid the minimum wage, they would view themselves and their work very differently,” she said.

Often actors in independent theatre are forced to go on government benefits to make ends meet while rehearsing for a show. Ms Ah Kin suggested that any shame developing from this could be decreased if there was a way to legitimise applying for government benefits.

“If there was a box to tick which says, ‘Are you working professionally unpaid in your industry?’ artists would feel more appreciated for their work,” she said.

She also believes that the audience needs to know that the artists are not receiving payment for their work.

Rachel Healy, Executive Manager of Culture at the City of Sydney, said that once independent artists feel more appreciated for their work, they will be more likely to take creative risks. She said she sees the independent sector as the place where artists can be inspired.

However, for this to occur, she said government needs to re-evaluate its funding model in order to avoid duplication across  Federal, State and local levels.

“I would like to see a diversified funding model in the future. There is no practical system at the moment, which results in endless duplication from the different levels of government,” Ms Healy said.

Artists and the community would benefit if the government had a model that focused on funding infrastructure rather than single artists or companies.

Ms Glasscock said, “Not only would this help thousands of independent artists, but surrounding businesses would also benefit as more people are drawn to the area; there is a whole community once a space is created.”

If the community can collaborate in funding and developing spaces for independent art through innovative planning, it is one step closer to legitimising the work of independent artists.    

A good example of this was put forward by Emilya Colliver, founder and director of online gallery Art Pharmacy. She suggested utilising old shipping containers to create an art and theatre space in Sydney Park to make the most of uninhibited spaces.

Having a space for independent art is the first step to making the arts more accessible for participants and for those who want to get involved. A prime example can be seen in The Sydney Fringe Festival, which acts as an advocacy body for the independent arts sector, thus giving artists a chance and a space to express themselves.

Unfortunately, the Sydney Fringe festival is one of few examples of communal partnership in promoting the independent arts scene.

“The audience should be funding the arts. Artists can pour their heart and soul into their work, but an audience is necessary. It is pointless if art is only funded by grants. People have to pay for art,” Kerri Glasscock said.

Mr Winter regards the independent arts sector as an economy that is yet to be built. To him, a more viable financial model is needed whereby everything is commercially sustainable. “Artists need to pay bills, not charity,” he said. 

The independent arts is a sector that is all too often overlooked, in terms of funding as well as visibility, according to panel members. The forum argued that without proper funding, people will not feel encouraged to participate, as both an audience member or as an artist. The current environment exhibits a lack of appreciation and without intervention will only continue dwindle, it concluded.

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