THE councillor had come to my office to discuss the potential for programming the arts centre his outer suburban city was planning. As an arts administrator working with regional Victoria and outer suburban Melbourne, I enthused about arts centres as community hubs, providing opportunities for local events and performances and as venues to host quality visiting productions. As I walked him to the door my guest said: ”So, we could expect to have a show like Phantom of the Opera in there for a year or so.” He hadn’t got it. I quietly led him back into the office and we started again. Spring sees the opening of two new centres in regional Victoria: the Cube Wodonga opened in August and the Mildura Arts Centre will reopen early next month after being extensively rebuilt. Four months ago, the new Lighthouse Theatre in Warrnambool lit up for the first time. They are part of a statewide network of 47 arts centres owned and operated by local government. Advertisement
So, is local government getting good value out of arts centres? Rob Robson, manager of arts and culture for the Baw Baw Shire says: ”If a council sees building an arts centre as a way of making money, they should … build a bingo hall instead. But if they believe establishing and running an arts centre is a way of helping to build a vibrant community in much the way they provide kindergartens, swimming pools, playing fields, libraries and street lighting, they will embrace the idea.” Mr Robson cites Warragul, where the building of the arts centre was opposed by a significant number of ratepayers when it was planned 30 years ago. But in recent surveys of community satisfaction with council initiatives, it always comes out in the top three. The City of Bendigo’s satisfaction with its performing arts centre the Capital Theatre is also very high. Stan Liacos, director of City Futures in Bendigo, says that the council sees it as essential for a rounded, vibrant sophisticated town or city to have an appropriate venue for large gatherings where people can interact, quite apart from the provision of high-quality performing arts. Like many other centres, Bendigo has active daytime programs of presentations for children and seniors. Mr Liacos points to the fact that Bendigo is planning a new 1000-seat theatre to operate in tandem with the smaller Capital in order to extend the city’s outreach and service to its region. A great deal of the success of these centres depends on the managers of the venues. They must be multiskilled, able to deal imaginatively with the demands of programming and promotion, the requirements of commercial hirers, relating to their local community, running an efficient box office and maintaining high technical standards while managing a diverse staff and, particularly, relating to the council that employs them. Long-term manager of the Frankston Arts Centre Robin Batt is in no doubt: ”Arts centres are there to serve their community’s health and wellbeing. It is up to managers to ensure that their centre’s activities are integrated into a total council picture for building and maintaining a vibrant community.” In addition to a large performing arts and entertainment program which turns over $2 million a year, the Frankston centre has an arts access program that includes ticket subsidy for the financially disadvantaged, workshops, free guided tours, Auslan signing of performances and provision of easy access to the theatre for people with disabilities. One of its workshops is a community circus program that was begun for 12 to 21-year-olds. It then extended to a junior group: the younger brothers and sisters wanted to join, mentored by the older ones. Now there also is a circus group for the over 60s, amusingly called the Hip Replacement Cats, and even a course for people in wheelchairs – Circus on Wheels. The community development challenge is there for all arts centres. Riverlinks Venues in Shepparton and the Drum Theatre in Dandenong have taken it up by engaging with their strongly multicultural population. Midyear the Drum hosted a free, day-long street party for more than 2000 people with music and dance for local refugee and new-arrival communities. Both cities have a significant number of musicians of many nationalities who welcome the chance to perform for large audiences in and around their performing arts centres. In Shepparton this takes the form of the Emerge Festival, which will now become an annual event. ”Let’s face it,” says Mr Robson, ”arts centres are one of the few activities where local government can actually pick up kudos.” Now arts centres have moved from being viewed suspiciously by local government to acceptance as a vital part of community building. Don Mackay is a Melbourne theatre director and writer. He was executive director of the Victorian Arts Council (now Regional Arts Victoria).