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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Deloitte report debunks myths and urges arts investment in western Sydney economy

1-WESTIR map 2011A decision by the state government to relocate the Powerhouse Museum from the Sydney CBD to Parramatta is provoking controversy. There are those who say that Australia’s only Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences should remain on its present Darling Harbour site, where it is easily accessible. One commentator, who was involved in the establishment of the museum at Darling Harbour, describes Parramatta as being on the periphery of Sydney. In fact Parramatta is now recognised as the geographic and demographic centre of Sydney. People in the east still fail to understand the size and characteristics of Sydney’s western region. At its most expansive, the region encompasses 14 local government areas and almost 9,000 square kilometres. Outlined in black in the map above are the 14 local government areas, with the shaded area to the east (right), the rest of Sydney. It is reproduced with permission of WESTIR in my book, Passion Purpose Meaning – Arts Activism in Western Sydney.

Specious comments from Sydneysiders resisting the move include that people from western Sydney prefer coming to the CBD for the total experience of an outing. Others claim that people from the west are not interested anyway as attendance figures attest, they don’t want to pay and they have other priorities. A report released shortly before the state election debunks these myths. You only have to look at the map to realise that distance, and therefore travel cost, are the major issues preventing access to Sydney CBD from the west. The DeloittThe Joan PAC - Penrithe report was jointly commissioned by the Sydney Business Chamber – Western Sydney and the regional river cities of Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool, with statistical input from other councils, including Blacktown and Campbelltown. Right, Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre (The Joan), Penrith – photo, Penrith Council.

Instead of arguing for social equity in funding, the Deloitte report Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Arts Economy – a key to Sydney’s success argues that greater investment in cultural arts in western Sydney creates opportunities for the government to deliver jobs, investment and social outcomes for the region. The executive summary highlights the grossly inequitable funding to cultural arts in western Sydney, which was first highlighted in 1985 in a report by Fairfield Council. 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. It defines the first factor driving demand for cultural arts in western Sydney as the region’s population.

Casula Powerhouse - L'pool Council“In 2011 western Sydney’s population was 2.03 million, compared to 2.3 million for eastern Sydney. By 2031 western Sydney’s population will reach 2.9 million, overtaking eastern Sydney’s.”  The report discusses culture exclusively in terms of venues and events, but says “the arts however play a unique and central role in cultures development and expression.” Other factors are the gradual transformation of the population to white collar occupations, tertiary educated and a surplus of high value, creative and cultural workers. It states that the cultural and creative economy is a significant contributor to Australia’s economy – contributing a similar gross value as health care and social assistance. Above left, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre – photo Liverpool Council.

The report argues that additional government investment in western Sydney cultural arts venues and events would provide far greater return on investment than other options. Current urban renewal programs in its identified regional cities provide an opportunity for governments to leverage other economic advantages. It cites international examples of such leverage in successful cultural arts precincts in Newark, New Jersey, Brooklyn in New York and Shanghai in China. It notes that NSW’s overall attendance at cultural venues and events is the lowest in Australia and suggests that cultural arts development in western Sydney is already driving attendance growth in NSW.

Riverside Theatres - ParramattaRecommendations in the report include a commitment of $300 million infrastructure funding over five years to 2020, doubled program funding, relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to western Sydney, the development of a western Sydney cultural arts advisory group, greater coordination between western Sydney councils and “That the state government develops a long term western Sydney cultural arts infrastructure and industry development strategy.” Above, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta – photo Arts NSW.

Among other recommendations are that the Australian Film, Television School and Radio School, along with the National Art School be relocated to the region and that the University of Western Sydney develops new programs to deliver vital tertiary training. Since the closure of UWS Theatre Nepean in 2006, the tertiary education pathways for the cultural and creative arts have been severely constrained.

Right now, there is an example of a talented and well organised group in the Penrith area  facing closure as a result of inadequate funding and resources. Emu Heights Theatre Company is a professional theatre company that has operated successfully for five years. Co-founded by Michele and Ian Zammit, the company’s first production was The Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto, the story of two women who were prisoners of war of the Japanese, who meet again 50 years later. It is the production which is now ending the present incarnation of the company and is timely for the 100 year commemoration of the ANZAC landing and the outbreak of the World War I. It is also a fine production, gently nuanced, humorous and deeply moving.

JSPAC 25 years 2In the five years, EHTC has presented seven productions at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, and three sets of Shakespeare seminars taken to schools around western Sydney. It has worked with scores of talented professional artists and engaged the interest of more than 5000 students and their teachers. Public audiences have been growing. The company believes “that theatre is a means for connection and force for change, and Penrith deserves its own theatre company to share these stories with its community. There is also a sense of frustration: we want to continue! We have learned after five years the ins and outs of what it takes to run an independent theatre company, and we now understand we do not have the funds, resource, nor the personnel and business expertise to do so.” Above, at The Joan, artistic director Ian Zammit with his two leading ladies from The Shoe-Horn Sonata, Annette Emerton, left, and Diana Jeffrey.

Give yourself the pleasure of attending the show before it finishes on May 2 and expand your appreciation of the story by participating in a Q&A session with actors and director at the end of each performance. Click here for bookings. You also have the opportunity to be part of creating a new vision and future for the company. Contact Ian Zammit.