A history of altruism, realism and pragmatism in Penrith’s commitment to the arts

1-Ann Martin 1994Twenty four hours after my April 27 post about the Deloitte report Building Western Sydney’ Cultural Arts Economy – a key to Sydney’s success, Facebook registered nearly 1500 people reached. The Deloitte report states, “Today western Sydney represents 1 in 10 Australians yet attracts only 1% of Commonwealth arts program funding, and 5.5% of the state’s cultural arts, heritage and events funding” – despite having 30% of NSW’s population. The arguments for greater investment are economic. It’s a hot topic for people in western Sydney. Former CEO of the 1990’s Creative Cultures, Ann Martin responded from Wollongong, “What again? I have copies of the final report into Creative Cultures, National pilot for regional cultural development…. funded by Australia Council and Arts NSW late 90s…specifically to seek equity in funding and opportunity for participation in arts and cultural activity in the Greater West. Its outrageous that history is repeating itself in spite of the history of advocacy and years of research and work by local government and the arts and cultural sector in Western Sydney…..” In the photo above, Ann at Creative Cultures’ 1994 forum at Riverside Theatres, Celebrating Cultures – Popular Myths and Realities.

Hania Radvan 2015In the Deloitte report, major upgrades were recommended to existing venues at Liverpool, Penrith, Parramatta, Campbelltown, Blacktown and possibly Bankstown. Among them was a $15 million upgrade to the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre and Penrith Regional Gallery, jointly managed by the non-profit company Penrith Performing and Visual Arts and largely funded by Penrith Council, with support from Arts NSW. To meet the needs of a fast growing population, both venues need new performance spaces, updated equipment, cafe and food facilities. A Sydney Morning Herald story quoted PPVA chief executive Hania Radvan, right, as saying, “We don’t want hollow promises or shiny white elephants – we are realists and pragmatists. We want to fix what we have and make it work harder, addressing the gaps and deficiencies that are a consequence of old thinking in a rapidly changing social context.”

JSPAC 25 years 1Despite the gross inequity in funding, everyone involved in theatre, music and operations at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, took part in ensuring community participation in an exuberant celebration of the centre’s 25th birthday, on Saturday, March 28.The Joan, as it is known locally, hosted Penrith Symphony Orchestra, Emu Heights Theatre Company, and Nepean Creative and Performing Arts High School in the concert hall. Aspiring young musicians and vocalists from the associated Penrith Conservatorium of Music performed in studios, orchestral room, and on an outdoor stage. StudioQ tutors took children and young people through a range of free open classes and performances to gain a taste of theatre. In the photo above, seasoned professional actor Annette Emerton shares some secrets of the stage with Nepean CAPA HS student and assistant lighting and projection designer, Kodie Amos.

Penrith R Gallery -lewers-house-1956Penrith Council was the first council in western Sydney to provide major support for the arts. It appointed the region’s first community arts officer, Jean Kirby, in December 1975. She became a valuable mentor to Pat Parker, who was appointed CAO by Blacktown Council in May, 1977. By the time Jean left the position three years later, councillors were paying warm tribute for her contributions, including “assisting in the development of the Q Theatre, Penrith, the Music Centre, Penrith and plans for the Lewers Memorial Regional Art Gallery at Emu Plains.” The Q Theatre was the first professional theatre company to base itself in western Sydney and it was Penrith Council which offered it the use of the old Railway Institute building as their home. The Emu Plains home of the modernist artists, Margo and Gerald Lewers, seen in a 1956 photo above, was bequeathed to Penrith Council. It was opened as the first western Sydney regional art gallery in 1981.

Valda Silvy- Benemerenti Medal 2012Local resident, music director and curator Valda Silvy was the music director at Penrith Music Centre from 1978 to 1989. After its incorporation into the new Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Valda became general manager of the centre and head of the Penrith Conservatorium. The work continued to expand and by 2005, Q Theatre was incorporated into the centre. Valda was appointed music producer in 2011. Her devotion to music, community and the church was recognised by the Catholic church in 2012, right, with the award of the Benemerenti medal for long and exceptional service to the church and to the arts. (photo Alfred Boudib.) Valda acknowledges the work of many others in the development of music opportunities in the area, including the late Dr Allan Mullins, and Father Arthur Bridge through Ars Musica.

The Deloitte report recommends funding for a Western Sydney Conservatorium of Music which builds on the existing conservatorium, currently subsidised only by Penrith Council. An expanded role would also support the professionalisation and development of Penrith Symphony Orchestra. Since the closure of UWS Theatre Nepean in 2006 and other performing and visual arts courses at the university, tertiary education pathways in cultural and creative arts in the region have been severely constrained. Q’s producer Nick Atkins is frustrated that without such courses, local students don’t have ready access to further training, career pathways, challenging engagements generating new ideas and faster development of local opportunities.

1-Penrith R Gallery - City of PlentyThe report argues that investment in the cultural arts economy is an investment in the livability of a place. With the planned new western Sydney airport, more businesses will be established and knowledge and creative workers attracted. Arts publisher Katharine Brisbane said recently “Being an arts practitioner at all is a risky, uncomfortable business. But it offers special qualities that are intrinsic to a forward-looking creative society. Taking a risk is not foolhardy – it requires judgement, a clear understanding of Australia’s past and future investment, not just in finite resources like coal and oil but in the infinite resources of the thinking mind.”

At Penrith Regional Gallery exhibitions have been engaging community on ideas of sustainability for the future. Throughout March high school students worked with artist Sarah Goffman to construct a “city” made from donated non-perishable food and household consumables, above. They partnered with companies like Aldi, Campbell’s Australia and Freedom Foods to collect foods, reflecting on social responsibility and the wisdom of past reformers and thinkers. They established a City of Plenty Blog and reported a fund-raising dinner provided by Cafe at Lewers and served by hospitality students from Western Sydney TAFE. At the end of the month, the city was dismantled and the goods distributed to Penrith Community Kitchen and OzHarvest. More than $20,000 worth of goods was donated and funds from the City of Plenty Benefit Dinner went to providing an estimated 14,000 meals.

Penrith R Gallery - HomefrontThe current exhibition at the gallery is Home/Front – a 100 year commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign. Sustainability remains the theme of free workshops drawing on wartime austerity. Veggie Gardening for Beginners introduces planning and preparation for growing your own vegetables at home, on Sunday, May 17, from 10am to 12 noon. A week later Vintage and Preloved Fashion talks you through how learning from wartime thrift of “make do and mend” will help you find bargains, while being stylish and more sustainable at the same time. Free, but bookings essential. Phone 4735 1100 or email gallery@penrithcity.nsw.gov.au.

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One thought on “A history of altruism, realism and pragmatism in Penrith’s commitment to the arts

  1. Pingback: Compelled by poor planning, Powerhouse Museum and North Parramatta campaigners join forces | Western Sydney Frontier

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