Powering up the house

Keith Gallasch

Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts

Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts

Brisbane Powerhouse Centre for the Live Arts

Zane Trow, Artistic Director of Brisbane’s Powerhouse, is positively electric. A steady current of unabashed enthusiasm about his first year at the new arts centre and the promise of the 12 month program he’s announced for 2001 flows down the phone line.

It’s a significant move for a contemporary arts centre to announce an annual calendar of events, tied as such venues are to artists and companies waiting on the outcomes of government arts funding cycles. Doubtless this plays a role in Trow’s scheduling too, but Powerhouse funding levels, box office income and co-production deals, along with an accessible, attractive venue with several performing spaces and a good bar, allow him a choice of artists and appropriate hirers that will add up to a distinctive program. As Trow says, “co-production is crucial. That’s the future. We operate this organisation far more like a festival than an arts venue. It’s a mixture of commissioning, sponsoring, co-production, investment.” In a short period the Powerhouse has proven itself attractive to audiences and artists and is a highly desirable venue for touring interstate artists. The 2001 calendar includes, from Melbourne, Crying in Public Places, Handspan Theatre, David Chesworth Ensemble and desoxy Theatre; from Sydney, Rosalind Crisp and stella b., The opera Project, Andrew Morrish and Taikoz; and from Brisbane, Vulcana Women’s Circus, Frank Productions, Elision new music ensemble and 2 appearances each by Topology and Rock’n’Roll Circus. There’s more in visual arts, new media, dance and community events—as you’ll see on the Powerhouse’s website: www.brisbane powerhouse.org. Almost a year after the centre’s opening, Trow’s enthusiasm is undimmed, he’s already achieving many of the goals he set himself, his staff and the building.

The 12 month plan

Creating a 12 month program is a struggle but it worked for us in our first year. We did a certain amount on the run and we were nervous about it—various marketing gurus said we should have a quarterly program but the 12 month one worked for us. People held on to it. More and more the website keeps people in touch with the program as it goes along. That seems to be working.

There’s no subscription scheme, but we’ve got some packages this year where you can buy a taste for the year of a range of projects, for example if you’re interested in contemporary music. I really think that relying on a subscriber base is a bit of a chain around your neck. Most national initiatives start from a premise of trying to convince subscribers to like contemporary performance. You know, how are we going to convince our subscribers to give something risky a try; rather than saying, here’s all this risky stuff that does have an audience, how are we going to expand that. It’s a different way of thinking. Last year in audience terms was extremely successful for us. More successful than anyone had predicted. That gives us a basis to build on the idea of diversity.

Audiences find a home

Part of what we’re doing is recognising that Brisbane does have an inner-city culture. It has an audience that’s probably between 18 and 45, that is interested in risk and probably has a range of entertainment options that is about risk but has not had that live performance option in Brisbane before, and in one place. That has served us very well. Our core audience is younger, comes to the Powerhouse more than once and has an interest in a whole range of aspects of contemporary performance culture. That’s been important with the Spark Bar up and running really well this year. In March we’re opening the Watt Cafe by the river so we’ll be able to offer regular visitors food and drink as part of their ticket package. We’re developing incentives, loyalty programs if you like, but we’re not locking it all down and trying to pre-sell a program 12 months out and then worrying that we haven’t got enough subscribers.

We do an initial push at the beginning of the year and then we sell show by show. We use the mailing list effectively, I think. People tell us what they like and don’t. We love the internet because we can talk to people directly. The website is very well used and we’re constantly developing new ways to use it. This year you’ll be able to go to the website and every couple of weeks get a regular update.

It’s crucial that people begin to come here for a whole variety of reasons and just hang out. The idea of the cafe and the atmosphere in the building is really informed by a small and medium scale European and UK art centre aesthetic—the bar and relaxed food atmosphere as much as the theatre or the bookshop. It’s those kind of models we’re drawing on to do the business plans for the Powerhouse. So far it’s working.

Given all the conversations that have gone on over the last 12 months about the Saatchi & Saatchi Report, it seems obvious that if you want to get people to enjoy art that is challenging and risky then it’s probably better to give people a relaxing and enjoyable environment and to break down the formality of the high art idea that you have to get dressed up to go. My experience tells me that when you’re able to do that, when you do create a happy and relaxed environment, the art is actually served well and audiences appreciate that and might, in fact, take a risk on something that they wouldn’t ordinarily.

A place for artists

That’s something that we really try to foster—a place where artists can come, over and above simply presenting work. In a professional sense, in terms of development, I’ve actually managed to achieve a level of residency program here that I’ve tried hard to do in the last few years in Australia and have never been able to pull off. We have artists in residence throughout the year, focussing on performance but not exclusively. We have people working in new media and installation and visual arts. That begins to foster the idea of a contemporary hub of ideas. The kind of atmosphere we’ve tried to set up in here is very different to the standard arts centre interval bar that nobody in their right mind would want to sit in talking till 3 in the morning. You’d go somewhere else. Whereas here we’re trying to foster an environment, for artists and audience, where you could come for the whole night, see a show or not and you can sit around and engage with an aspect of contemporary culture—which is the building itself.

Getting the work on

I’ve got development projects up to the end of 2003 and there’s a real demand to work here. We’re also being recognised as a place where you can bring an initial project idea that may be left of centre and get a critical, supportive response. That’s brought a range of projects which are attracting a level of support they might not have enjoyed in Brisbane. That’s part of the rationale of a place like this, to be able to respond to interesting ideas.

With the kind of independent and smaller company networks we work in, I think co-production is crucial. That’s the future. We operate this organisation far more like a festival than an arts venue. It’s a mixture of commissioning, sponsoring, co-production, investment. There’s a mixture of models about how a piece of art gets made. We try and retain a flexibility in the way we work and in our budget to be able to respond in different ways.

There are certain organisations nationally that we’re beginning to work regularly in partnership with so that you’ve got a mixed level of investment into a project that perhaps 5 years ago could have got away with maybe one funding source. We’re working with other arts funding agencies internationally to support overseas artists coming here. We’re looking at cross-producing work with some Queensland companies that are annually or triennially funded. They still need $10,000 or $15,000 extra to get what is in fact their annual program up. It’s so important for an arts centre like us to maintain the program funding we have and to be able to have the flexibility to choose where to invest it. I think that idea of a mixture of investment, sponsorship and co-production and commissioning is a model that could be used far more in Australia in an arts centre sense—The Powerhouse is a bit of a new model.

Robyn Backen, the building that speaks, public art installation, digital image courtesy of the artist

Robyn Backen, the building that speaks, public art installation, digital image courtesy of the artist

Of course it’s relevant

The issue is about a balance of investment between heritage culture and new work. In a forum we hosted with the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy in their response to the Australia Council’s Promoting the Value of the Arts campaign (www.gu.edu. au/centre/cmp/rtfs/ PVAworkshop.rtf) we reached a couple of conclusions. The first was that clearly there is a contemporary practice in Australia that actually does address, and has done so historically, a lot of the concerns expressed in that report. None of those organisations or initiatives, it seemed to us, were heritage culture. If you talk about 70% of Australians wanting the arts to be relevant to the way we live now, if you take that quote out of the Saatchi & Saatchi Report, well it’s pretty interesting, isn’t it?

If art is to be relevant to the way we live now, I doubt very much whether the Opera and the Ballet and the proscenium arch can deliver that in a consistent way—occasionally perhaps. Whereas it’s the contemporary practitioners of the nation who are involved in how we live now. Those things seem to us blatantly obvious. The question is how to convince the policy makers that it really is that simple.

It’s hard but I think we’re very lucky here at the Powerhouse because Brisbane happens to have at this time, regardless of diminishing project grants nationally and locally, a great energy.

Lifting the cloak of invisibility

In the 7 months we’ve been operating we’ve made just under a million bucks earned income, mostly in ticket sales with some stuff like hire and events. That gives us a good argument to go back to the Brisbane City Council and say that the “mad idea” they had to form this independent business is actually viable. It also proves that if you present this art, people will come and see it. For some of the more conservative strains of the arts industry in Brisbane this has come as a bit of a shock. The majority of the work we develop is hand in hand with local artists and organisations who have been “invisible” in Queensland for a long time—in terms of coverage in the media or in any genuine sense of local pride in what these artists might do. And we’ve certainly removed that cloak of invisibility and demonstrated that the work has an economic value.

We have an annual subsidy of $1.5 million and we do everything with that. It covers the overheads and we basically have to double it to stay alive. That puts us into the Major Organisations kind of bracket, but we’re a bit of an aberration because it’s rare that $1.5 million a year is spent on this kind of independent contemporary work. Just that small investment isn’t very much when you compare the arts subsidy in Australia with what one can spend on farming. It’s a pittance. But if there is energy and commitment and vision and there are artists who want to do good work in this contemporary culture, small amounts of money in our networks go an awfully long way. I think what we present is an argument that says yes, that’s true but if you take this culture seriously, if you were to invest in contemporary culture to the level that you would normally invest in straight theatre you will also see a significant return and you will see work that is recognised nationally and internationally. That’s part of our role, to say it is possible for Australian contemporary culture to get an audience and to make money. What it needs to achieve that is respect, trust and flexibility.

Beating bad press

The Courier Mail implied that the Powerhouse was turning into an elite centre for the gay and lesbian Mafia of Brisbane. There was a certain amount of local politics involved in all that but also the issue of invisibility. Once we pulled off the cloak what was presented to the more conservative end of town was a culture they hadn’t really looked at before. And it was clearly seen to be something that people wanted. For example, our Queer Film and Video Weekend was a 98% sell-out last year. If you are involved in arts and culture and your main involvement has been in a major organisation, whether you’re audience or arts worker, you haven’t really noticed all this contemporary culture before. You’ve got no reason to. In our collaboration with Brisbane Pride Festival, for instance, we’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done in Brisbane before, it’s just that we’re doing it with a new level of visibility. If you look at a program for any contemporary arts organisation, it’s full of bodies, photographs of bodies. Therefore the whole thing (according to the Courier) must be about sex and, not only that, deviant sex! One of the conservative critics thought it was appalling that we got so many young people in the space. Now there are some arts organisations who have spent 20 years desperately trying to get young people in. This critic was actually offended that the bar was full of nose rings and tattoos and she couldn’t believe it, so she thought, right, they must all be deviants. I don’t think she’d actually been in a bar full of young Australian people recently.

The article did come as a surprise. The program had been in the public domain for months before the article happened. But it has not affected attendances, ticket sales, project development at all. It’s basically an aberration and most of the people who have visited and the arts organisations in Queensland we’ve worked with thought the article was so bloody stupid that it was almost embarrassing. It certainly caused debate on our board which I think was a very healthy thing. The board is incredibly supportive of the directions we’re taking in programming and supported the idea that the venue should be gay and lesbian friendly. So it did raise some issues. Over Christmas there was another article in the Courier Mail. The headline read “On track despite the critics.” During that period there was the 25 year anniversary of the IMA and its director Michael Snelling in his speech said that the history of contemporary culture in Brisbane could be seen as a 25 year struggle with the Courier Mail.

We got an awful lot of calls of support. It’s interesting because if we follow through the strategies of audience development for contemporary culture that our betters and masters are currently so keen to have us do, my theatre foyer full of 18-25 year olds having a great time with art that hasn’t specifically been sold to them as Youth Arts—they’ve come because it’s an interesting product and they want to see it. On the other hand it’s a great threat to the status quo. I think there are some people in the arts here in Brisbane who think, it can’t possibly go on, we’ll have to pull that risky strategy back.’

New media vs hybrid arts

We’ve taken Cyber Cultures from the Casula Powerhouse in Sydney’s west and we’re supporting a number of residences. We have new media artist Keith Armstrong and performer Lisa O’Neill and in the visual arts there are some new media works as well. I’ve left it to the artists themselves to try and score the money from the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council. I think there is great potential here in Australia to develop a performance technology research and development arm of the culture. There’s a range of companies you can think of who have been working in that way for years. There has been a feeling that the New Media Arts Fund is in danger, in the long term, of becoming a digital arts fund rather than a multimedia and hybrid arts body. Perhaps it’s that, overall, the Australia Council is struggling with a Federal Government that wants to push it in particular directions. There’s been a lot of investment in rock ‘n’ roll recently and some good investments in international marketing and whatever but we still haven’t had a decent increase in basic grant funding for 20 years. One of the great jokes of the Saatchi & Saatchi Report is that the majority of work that could probably address its concerns about audience development is lucky to get $15,000 a year. Meanwhile, $15,000 wouldn’t even wipe the nose of the Australian Opera’s education program. What’s going on here?

The 2001 Program

There are a number of local artists and artistic directors who have a look at our venue and just laugh—‘never in our wildest dreams would we ever perform there.’ Others, like Michael Gow, Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company, see the theatre as a great opportunity. Hopefully our relationship with the QTC will be ongoing. The interesting thing about Richard II, in the 2001 program, is that it’s one of the few standard scripts throughout the year. I suppose if you’re going to have a scripted play you might as well have Shakespeare!

In the 2001 program there’s a strong emphasis on physical theatre and an expanded contemporary music focus which is important because the new music scene here in Brisbane is very strong. I hope our relationship with Elision and Topology and other groups will develop over a number of years. I really wanted to develop the music program to a point where it looked coherent and reflected the diversity of talent here. To the local groups we’re adding the David Chesworth Ensemble from Melbourne and Taikoz from Sydney.

Having established the strong physical theatre focus last year, we’ll continue that too. There’s Vulcana Women’s Circus, two shows from Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, Frank Productions, plus desoxy from Melbourne. We might see some long term development out of interstate visits—Taikoz and Frank Productions have been talking for years about trying to do something together. With the Powerhouse as a kind of broker those things can happen.

Brisbane Powerhouse, 119 Lamington St, New Farm. For 2001 Calendar of Events see www.brisbanepowerhouse.org.

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 4-5

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001