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Australia Council withdraws support from youth theatre

Arts Hub reports on the Australia Council’s recent cuts to youth theatre companies.

Richard Watts for Arts Hub, Monday 14 December 2015

Arts Ten of 13 youth performing arts companies have lost their Australia Council funding, sending shockwaves through the sector.

Outback Theatre for Young People, Cirkidz and Riverland Youth Theatre are among many youth arts companies facing an uncertain future beyond 2016, as the realities of the Australia Council’s reduced budget begin to hit home.

Of the 13 youth performing arts organisations that applied for 2016 project funding in the September grant round, only three – Corrugated Iron Youth Arts Projects (NT), St Martins Youth Arts Centre (VIC) and Powerhouse Youth Theatre (NSW) – were successful.

Given the cancellation of funding rounds earlier in the year, due to the chaos caused by the now-cancelled National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA), the September round was highly competitive: of almost 1700 applications submitted, only 290 were successful.

Consequently, ten youth theatre/circus companies now have no Australia Council funding in 2016:  Backbone Youth Arts (QLD), Canberra Youth Theatre (ACT), Cirkidz (SA), Courthouse Youth Arts (Geelong), Outback Theatre for Young People (NSW), Platform Youth Theatre (VIC), Riverland Youth Theatre (SA), Shopfront (NSW), Southern Edge Arts (WA) and Western Edge Arts (VIC).

These companies were previously supported through the Australia Council Theatre Board’s Youth Program Fund., but following the Australia Council’s 2015 restructure, the Youth Program Fund was merged with the wider pool of theatre funding, requiring youth arts companies to compete with the entire theatre sector for funding.

The loss of more than $70 million of Australia Council funding to support the Ministry for the Arts’ new Catalyst fund has reduced the overall amount of funding available, further exacerbating the plight of the youth theatre sector.

Coupled with the introduction of Catalyst, the decision to dismantle the Youth Program Fund now looks like a mistake, according to Rose Godde, Manager Company and Programs, Platform Youth Theatre.

‘It always looked like a mistake, in the sense that it wasn’t something the sector recommended as a good idea. Not at any point in time,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘Already we knew we were having to stack up against a very diverse set of theatre-making activities. Now we’re stacking up against a very diverse set of theatre-making activities with a significantly less amount of money in the first place.’

Godde stressed that the defunding of 10 youth arts companies in the September round needs to be viewed in a broader context.

‘There’s a larger historical context here in that 2007 there were 21 not-for-profit youth theatre arts organisations funded through the Australia Council. By 2012 there were 13, and now we have – in this year, circumstantially – three,’ she said.

Without Australia Council funding for 2016, many youth theatre companies will struggle; some may even face closure.

Sarah Parsons, Creative Producer, Outback Theatre for Young People said: ‘The loss of our operational funding from The Australia Council for 2016 – and beyond – creates a huge gap in our budget, a huge gap in the length and amount of projects we can deliver, a huge gap in our staff (we will lose our part time Development Manager, which puts even more pressure on our one remaining full time staff member), a huge gap in the amount of distance across rural and regional NSW our company can cover, which all means therefore, a huge gap in the amount of rural young people getting opportunities to engage with art that is about them and for them.

‘We cannot find these sorts of operational funds through philanthropy or fundraising – we simply don’t live in an area that is conducive to this. We don’t charge for our activities because the people we work with couldn’t participate if we did. Quote frankly, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place out here,’ she said.

The situation is similar for another regionally-based company, Riverland Youth Theatre (RYT).

‘RYT strives to not rely and operate from government funding. Our annual fundraising efforts support significant infrastructure for the organisation, we source funding, donations and sponsorship from philanthropic organisations and alternative funding sources. However, in this region and current economic environment we do not have major local businesses to sponsor and support our wonderful work unlike urban based organisations,’ said Riverland’s Chairperson, John Dawes.

He also stressed the value that youth arts organisations have in their communities.

‘Youth arts, especially in a regional environment, serve as a major community resource for youth expression, creative development, social inclusion and guides children and young people towards positive, collaborative experiences,’ Dawes explained.

‘There is acknowledged evidence to the value of creative practices, alleviating anti-social behaviour, building confidence, team work etc. With consideration to the alleged “ice epidemic” in this region, now more than ever there needs to be creative and positive outlets for young people to engage.’

Godde said the loss of funding in the youth theatre sector would have a long-term impact on the arts ecology as a whole.

‘The organisations we’re talking about are not-for-profit youth theatre companies with particular priorities for engaging with culturally and linguistically diverse young people from low socio-economic settings; and who are encouraging incredible opportunities of learning and experience between established industry-based artists and young aspiring artists and young people who are curious about theatre. So we’re really losing the next generation of people who will be the theatre-makers of 2021 and 2025,’ she said.

‘And it’s not just the real cash funding that’s been lost: it’s all of the shared aspiration, additional dollars and in-kind support, which adds up to much more, where $1 from the Australia Council created $3 to $5 of additional funding and in-kind support.

‘And I can only ask that the wider theatre arts industry in Australia actually vocally express the sentiment that they expressed at the Australian Theatre Forum [in January] where the majority of people in the room when asked “had an experience in the youth theatre arts setting contributed to them being where they are today in their practice?” and 300 of 340 people put their hands up and said “yes”. So I think continuing to say yes for youth theatre arts would be a really important expectation, particularly on my part,’ Godde concluded.

An Australia Council spokesperson responded by noting that the Australia Council is not the only source of government funding.

‘The Ministry for the Arts also provides arts funding, for example through the Catalyst program, and they should be contacted for more information,’ they said.

‘The 2015-16 budget measures have had a significant impact on the work of the Australia Council on behalf of the arts sector. The reductions to the Australia Council budget have significantly impacted the capacity of the Council to continue funding the same amount of artists and arts organisations and at the same level as previously.

‘The Australia Council’s September grant round was extremely competitive, with almost 1,700 applications received and 290 projects by individual artists, groups and arts organisations funded.’

The spokesperson also noted that youth theatre companies were eligible to apply for the Council’s Four-Year Funding – Organisations category, which closed on 1 December.

Applications are now open for the next grants round, which includes the Arts Projects for Organisations category. It closes on 2 February 2016.

The spokesperson added: ‘Applications are assessed by expert peers who make decisions based on artistic merit, excellence and the published criteria.’

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