New competition from established venues

New competition from established venues War Horse is one of many stage productions secured by Australian performing arts centres. Many performing arts centres now operate as producers and co-presenters rather than simply venues for hire, creating head to head competition with their tenants.State theatre companies used to have a clear demarcation line with arts centres: they produced the work and the arts centres provided the venue.

But as CEO and Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival Centre, Douglas Gautier, notes in Lance Campbell’s Heart of the Arts: The Adelaide Festival Centre at 40 (Wakefield Press, 2013), things have changed. ‘As a rule the most successful and relevant arts centres, anywhere in the world, are those that are not simply “halls for hire”. They are the ones that have chosen to control their own destiny and positioning with a “program and ideas” led approach, to best engage and sustain artists and audiences,’ Gautier says.
Like similar venues, including the Sydney Opera House, Queensland Performing Arts Centre and Arts Centre Melbourne, the Adelaide Festival Centre’s approach to programming has changed significantly in the four decades since it first opened its doors on June 2, 1973.
The change has introduced a new element of competition for local producers, particularly the state theatre companies, who are often the arts centres’ staple tenants.

A senior executive at one state-based theatre company told artsHub that the rise of their city’s performing arts centre as a producer had made things harder for the theatre company. The arts centre’s management does not divulge which works they are pursuing, the executive said, and the two organisations have now been placed in the invidious position of being in direct competition over the same work .

Virginia Lovett, Executive Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) says she’s heard that there are a couple of organisations ‘that are facing challenges and having dialogues with their arts centres’. It’s not a situation faced by the MTC, partly because the MTC has its own theatre and partly because State’s theatre company and arts centre are willing to share information.The MTC now puts on about half its repertoire in the Southbank Theatre, which opened in January 2009, but Lovett says the company will continue to use the two theatres at the Arts Centre Melbourne which have been its traditional home. t ‘We do want to continue using the Fairfax, and the Playhouse is always good for us,’ she said.‘I suppose what is probably different is that we have a good relationship with Judith [Isherwood, Chief Executive] and Tim [Brinkman, Executive Performing Arts], and I know Tim and Brett [Sheehy, MTC Artistic Director] meet regularly about what could be coming up,’ she explains.

Such dialogue between the two organisations is furthered by Lovett sitting on a CEO forum with Arts Victoria and the other major hirers of Arts Centre Melbourne, which discusses ‘the over-arching artistic vision of the major hirers and the Arts Centre, so we can not only complement each other, but so that we’re not coming into strict competition with each other as well’.  ‘We’re hoping that the ecology will be healthier as a result of this consultation, and that we can increase yield and help each other,’ Lovett adds.

Vanessa Pigrum, the City of Darebin’s Manager, Arts Culture & Venues (and a former employee at Arts Centre Melbourne, where she ran the independent arts program Full Tilt) says that this shift away from being venues for hire has ‘taken place in the last decade’, and points to former Melbourne Fringe Festival Director Virginia Hyam’s appointment by the Sydney Opera House in 2000 as Executive Producer of the Studio (and later as their Head of Contemporary Culture) as the first sign that our arts centres were changing their programming approach.‘That was kind of the first high-profile moment for performing arts centres going “We are actually going to develop new work, in direct partnership with artists, create new programming,”’ Pigrum says. She herself began work at Arts Centre Melbourne in late 2005, launching the Full Tilt program, focussed on developing new works by independent artists, in April 2006.‘That was the beginning of a real upsurge in the programming direction for the Arts Centre, deliberately moving from a venue for hire focus, which it had had, into much more active programming: commissioning, partnering… taking control of the programming in those venues, and the Opera House was doing similar,’ Pigrum explains.  Globally, in the last 10 to 12 years, there’s been this almost creaking change amongst those major performing arts centres to take on more programming, but it’s a cyclical thing, and my observations of Arts Centre Melbourne is that it really burgeoned and had this incredible flourishing of new programs happening between 2006 and 2010, roughly, and then a bit of a shrinking back, and you see that with the Opera House too; they switched from the Studio program being what it was to being less about commissioning, and more about presenting and co-presenting.’

Today, presenting and co-presenting work is a key strategy for our major performing arts centres, as is taking a proactive approach to securing major productions, according to the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Douglas Gautier.‘On the commercial side I don’t think we’re really a producer of musicals, as we used to be in the past, but we are a collaborator, and to get commercial works of all kinds across the line, we’re engaged, and we work in strong collaboration with those commercial operators. I don’t think we’re a passive partner,’ Gautier told artsHub. ‘We also need to cross-subsidise, so we are, I think, looking at how we can leverage a commercial work to support those not-for-profit initiatives that are also very valuable and precious to us, and precious hopefully to the community,’ he said.

Such proactive programming as Gautier describes at the Adelaide Festival Centre and other major performing arts centres has resulted in the recent presentation of touring productions including War Horse and One Man, Two Guvors, and exclusive appearances by internationally acclaimed companies such as Nederlands Dans Theater and the Bolshoi Ballet. Arts Centres have become the new impresarios; the 21st century’s JC Williamson and Harry M. Miller.Without the support of our arts centres (whose combined national audience is estimated as being over 11 million attendees, according to the Australian Performing Arts Centres Association) the Australian theatre-going public may otherwise never see such iconic and powerful works – but their audiences may come at a cost to local theatre.

Richard Watts |

Richard Watts is a Melbourne-based arts writer and broadcaster. The founder of the Emerging Writers’ Festival and a Life Member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, he has worked for a wide array of arts organisations and sat on numerous boards. In addition to writing for artsHub, Richard presents the weekly program SmartArts on 3RRR. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts


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