RAW: SA Arts In Decay – In Conversation With Fenella Kernebone

Last night’s terrific In Conversation With hosted by Fenella Kernebone (Art Nation etc) to a mostly full Space Theatre did more than just look at the issue of whether arts bodies could act collaboratively rather than competitively when seeking audiences.

Indeed it laid bare the decay of the arts in this state, at every level from facilities to mojo, from tourism support to our status as the nation’s leader and innovator in the sector.

John Frost, Musical Theatre Executive Director of Wicked now showing in town, really unleashed both barrels on The Adelaide Festival Centre facilities, past management and governments post the Dunstan years. While we sit around and worry about being a laughing stock on the east coast but content ourselves with occasional pockets of brilliance, Frost made it clear that where once we possessed showmanship and an unrivalled reputation, today we were lagging badly. He described the Festival Centre as ‘grubby, tired, no longer capable of staging an event’ and ‘it doesn’t have the kick and spunk of the 80s and 70s.’

In particular he noted that the BASS ticketing system is ‘atrocious’, unable to provide the key demographic data on bookings that major production companies need  to keep coming back. Where once big musicals opened here and two would tour in a year, that, he said, no longer happened.

CEO of the State Theatre Company, Pamela Foulkes, also weighed into how this state promotes it arts. According to Foulkes, ‘tourism people in this State have no interest in promoting cultural tourism.’ She and others cited the extraordinary success the Victorian Government had achieved with its ‘spend a weekend in Melbourne’ campaigns, encouraging tourists to come for great food, great footy and a musical or the winter art masterpieces programs. In contrast Foulkes and others said our tourism seems wholly focused on penguins and pandas.

A lively debate was had also about the Adelaide Festival of Arts going annual and the problem of its timing in the year’s calendar. According to Foulkes, Adelaide people just won’t buy tickets to arts events in the weeks leading up to the Festival, then have a month’s break after (the Festival’s ‘rain shadow’ effect) before daring out again after Easter, school holidays et al at the end of April. That she said makes fitting seven plays into the remaining period to the middle of November extremely difficult.

On other arts venues, the judgment was little better with Adelaide described by Festival Chief Executive, Kate Gould, as no longer having the venues necessary for a major international festival. Anyone who has visited places like the Royalty and Arts Theatres can relate to sense of going way back in time not only architecturally but also to when the painters last visited, the seats were fixed or air conditioning even installed.

On the issue of working together to build audiences or at least share them, the idea seemed somewhat novel to the panel which also included WOMAD supremo Ian Scobie. (It seems that whatever merits it may have, given their showpieces are all on at the same time, competition then is fierce.) However members of the independent theatre sector stated that they were increasingly working together in this area and with lobbying.

Given the Premier, Mike Rann, is also our Arts Minister all of this was heresy and it was most surprising that his PR minder Jill Bottrall, wasn’t there to hose down such sedition. (I suppose when you have a Police Minister shooting his mouth off most days, you can’t be everywhere.)

It is fascinating that in the Government’s ‘order of precedence’ the sports minister ranks last but enjoys the Arts Minister’s fulsome support for $535m to go to a venue for just two sports and about 80,000 South Australians to enjoy – about as many in a year as will attend Wicked in two months.

As Pamela Foulkes noted, when your biggest competition is Fox Sports and flat screen TVs, so long as the government keeps cutting back on the arts and insists it grow its audiences (a task she says is not possible given STC survey work undertaken), this State is at real risk of becoming a backwater and a lost cause.

All of this a far cry from our history and what we thought was alingering reputation.

Well done to the Adelaide Festival Centre for staging these conversations, to Fenella Kernebone for her moderation of the discussion and for the panellists for being prepared to express their frank and what no doubt will become ‘courageous’ views (in the Sir Humphrey Appleby vernacular).

Hear the pod cast at: In Conversation With – May 2011

See also all our features on the Cabaret Festival and Patricia Piccinini in this month’s Kryztoff at: Kryztoff\’s On-line Magazine

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