Arts NSW Funding: HotHouse Theatre and Renew Newcastle

by Jane

Update 26/11: Funding to Renew Newcastle has been restored

Update 2 26/11: HotHouse has just released a press release which reads: “Arts NSW has offered HotHouse Theatre transitional funding for 2013 at the full amount requested in its application.”

Today, Arts NSW released its funding for 2013, and two nationally significant arts organisations had their funding reduced, in the case of Renew Newcastle, and removed, in the case of HotHouse Theatre [will hyper-link when more information is available].

Renew Newcastle was established in 2008, and has gone on to spawn a national movement in Renew Australia, with presence so far in Adelaide, Townsville, Parramatta, and Geelong. The program brokers relationships so empty buildings and spaces are available for use at low cost with rolling leases. This helps inject into the “vibrant” economy policy makers are always talking about.

Particularly in the age of the internet and websites such as etsy, anyone can be a maker and a seller. Renew Newcastle brought these creators out of their homes and into the centre of Newcastle. When these creators set up in a publicly accessible space, they bring with them the public. With the contribution of Renew Newcastle, Newcastle was listed in Lonely Planet’s World’s Top 10 Cities for 2011 – the only Australian city to make the list.

Newcastle is a small city – although I was shocked to learn it is almost half the size of Adelaide – and even when I was there for TINA, a quiet one. At the core of the city, though, is an extraordinary collection of unique spaces: hand-made craft shops, vintage stores, galleries, and studios, to scratch the surface. These spaces give homes to people who would perhaps otherwise move south to Sydney, and contributes to the Newcastle ecology in creating a town which people from outside of these creative industries also have a reason to stay in.

In the UK’s NewStart magazine in September, Westbury said:

Recently SGS Economics and Planning undertook the first independent assessment of Renew Newcastle. Among its key findings were that it had directly contributed to avoidance or mitigation of blight and antisocial behaviour; improved business and community confidence; improved skills development; encouraged greater volunteer engagement; created intellectual capital, some of commercial value; created jobs; made cost savings due to reduced maintenance; and improved regional ‘brand value’, tourism and inward investment.

Most importantly of all, at least from my point of view, is that 80 projects involving hundreds, if not thousands, of local makers, creators and citizens have been given an opportunity to do what they do they believe in and are passionate about. In turn, those people have engaged, entertained and inspired many tens of thousands more both directly and indirectly. Optimism is replacing despair and stories about what is happening and possible are displacing stories about what has gone wrong and who is to blame.

The independent assessment Westbury refers to [website down at time of writing] also found that the project has a whopping return on investment of 10:1.

The power of the Renew projects is proving to have a transformative effect on how we look at space and at cities. The low rates and rolling leases mean they are perfectly tailored for these enterprises which wouldn’t be able to afford a commercial lease. This creates city spaces with a multiplicity of opportunities and experiences for creators and for customers. By their very nature, people that move into these Renew spaces are unique: not only in comparison to the broader commercial environment, but also to within the Renew projects.

Arts NSW funding into Renew Newcastle is comparatively tiny – just $50,000 per annum, but in 2013 that will be slashed to just $30,000, and comes as the organisation was looking to expand, asking for $70,000.

Renew Newcastle has most recently taken over the old David Jones building, installing nine stalls in the abandoned building. In the place of a commercial department store you can find thirty-seven facsimiles of and that couldn’t sustain itself in Newcastle, are stores of and for the community it exists in. Renew Newcastle continues to actively broker these relationships, and actively set a national and international example for how to rethink our cities and the ever growing number of abandoned buildings.

HotHouse Theatre was established as the Murray River Performing Group by a collective of young early graduates from the VCA in 1979. Located in the NSW/Victorian border towns of Albury Wodonga, and renamed during a 1997 restructuring, it is unfortunately all too unique its qualities as both a professional regional theatre, and a theatre focusing on new Australian work. HotHouse theatre creates presentation and development opportunities for both members of the local community, and members of the wider national sector through a variety of programs, including a year long subscription season, youth project The Studio, an education program, and month-long residencies.

Like most theatre companies in Australia, it has gone through peaks and troughs in its existence. Funded as a Key Organisation with the Australia Council, in the last year the company was put ‘on notice’ for its funding: rather than accepted into the traditional three year funding cycle, the company was funded for one year and in that time it had to prove it was working towards an economically and artistically sustainable future.

The company did this for both the Australia Council and Arts Victoria, and was reinstated in full to the Key Organisations list. These decisions do not come lightly, and the company would have invested significant time and energy into formulating future plans that fit within the artistic visions of these funding bodies. In addition to this vote of confidence, in the past two years HotHouse has increased subscription attendance 270% [private correspondence].

The company received no warning from Arts NSW that its funding was under consideration, let alone was tapped for possible removal. For each of Renew Newcastle and HotHouse Theatre, these new funding arrangements start from January 1. This leaves only five weeks for the organisations to radically readdress how they will approach the incoming year, with no prior warning to put contingency plans in place.

Just over a month ago, I was privileged enough to attend Kumuwuki / Big Wave, and spend the long weekend listening to and talking to people who create work in regional and rural Australia. We are a huge and disparate country, made up of many varied people and many varied communities, and the work which happens outside of our capital cities is just as vital as the work which happens in them.

We are continually becoming more connected as a country, and with the advent of the National Broadband Network this will again be more true than ever. It would be a tragedy, though, to assume this connectedness means cities can broadcast to the regions and this will be enough. Every community in Australia deserves the strongest chance to thrive. This means supporting the people and the organisations which supply the ideas and the space to make this happen wherever they are, but even more pertinently in regional areas.

Renew Newcastle continues to prove its worth locally, nationally, and internationally. HotHouse Theatre recently increased subscriber numbers well against national trends, is a beloved and longstanding part of the national landscape, and has recently proven itself in the eyes of the Australia Council. Nationally, we need to be paying attention to what happens in our regional centres. Nationally, we should all be scared for what these funding decisions mean. Each of these organisations are organising responses to fight for the reinstatement of funding. I urge you to get involved in any way you can.