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The secrets to keeping the doors open

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Gina Fairley

Longevity can seem an elusive concept in the current arts funding climate, so we asked a few established organisations to share their experiences of success.
The secrets to keeping the doors open

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At a time when many small to medium organisations were badly hit by funding cuts – some even forced to close their doors – there were also a remarkable number celebrating milestone anniversaries. 

Is it sheer tenacity? Or is there more to long-term success? And how difficult is it to sustain change and growth when the goal posts keep shifting and audience tastes change?

1: Know yourself 

Carolyn Chard, General Manager, West Australian Opera (WAO) believes that a sure secret to achieving longevity is having a blueprint that describes a clear vision. ‘It should articulate clear resource allocation – people and money – and an understanding in the community of what would be lost if we were not here.’


WAQ turns 50 this year and is proof that an organisation's survival is not always about reinventing yourself, or embracing the trend of “innovation”. The state opera company has traded under the same name and constitution for decades, and has even performed in the same theatre in which it's been a resident company since 1980.

‘Our artform relies on people. We trade in human emotion. We tell stories. We take pride in being custodians of the artform and we take this responsibility seriously,’ said Chard.

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2: Nurture a dedicated team 

In the arts you can’t do it alone. Fortunately, the sector is known for the dedication of its staff and volunteers, so there is no shortage of talent. 

But there is also real risk of burn out. That's why the ability to nurture a team is so important in the arts. A strong team will keep your organisation on track and future-ready.

Erica Green, Director, Samstag Museum of Art, said: ‘The primary thing that sustains the Samstag Museum of Art is a dedicated team of people who love and believe in art, and what Samstag is doing.’  

In 2016 the Samstag Scholarships program celebrated 25 years, and this year the Samstag Museum of Art at the University of South Australia celebrates 10 years.

Another South Australian organisation, Guildhouse, celebrates 50 years. Unlike WAO, it has gone through the rebranding/restructure process many times; Guildhouse was formerly The Crafts Association of South Australia, The Crafts Council of South Australia, and Craftsouth. 

While the name may have changed, the passion of its team has remained constant. ‘Guildhouse was born from a few people who wanted to raise the profile of craft in South Australia. Today we have a strong membership of creative professionals at all stages of their career,’ said Victoria Bowes, Acting Executive Director. 

When it comes to the commercial gallery sector, flux is the nature of the business.

Founder of Australia’s oldest exhibiting Aboriginal art gallery, Cooee-Art, Adrian Newstead OAM described his team as his most important asset as a business.  

‘The quality of those who have worked with us over the years and their own passion for the art and culture is an important asset for us’, he said.

Cooee-Art recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, and to mark the occasion opened a second gallery space in Sydney.

Part of that legacy is also recognising that it has been built on the shoulders of many.

The Australian Tapestry Workshop (ATW) chose to celebrate turning 40 with a publication titled Many Hands in recognition of all the people who have sustained the organisation over those decades.

Director, Antonia Syme said ATW's inaugural director and her key supporters and Board built very strong foundations, which has stood the organisation in good stead.

‘There have been a number of exceptional people and families who have believed in the organisation and have been unstinting in their support of the ATW. Without them the organisation could not have survived,’ she explained.

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3: Be responsive

One advantage that all these organisations have is experience. Newstead broke it down for us: ‘As time goes by your network of contacts increases in both size and quality. Opportunities present themselves constantly if only you are out looking for them. Being able to respond to those challenges is key.'

He continued: ‘The art in running any business, in fact in life itself, is in making the right choices. Persistence, commitment and drive are all essential ingredients.’

Syme expanded on this thought: ‘We only receive a small part of our annual budget from the government so we need to be enterprising at ATW in order to bring in new commissions and business. Being flexible, open to all ideas and opportunities – especially around engaging new artists, audiences and potential supporters – and being nimble on our feet has ensured that we have sustained.’

Green agreed that an organisation's capacity to work with change is crucial. ‘Art is constantly evolving and at Samstag we have always tried to be responsive to that, and be ahead of the curve.’

Bowes added that when she looks back over the decades of Guildhouse, ‘you see a program that evolved by responding to the needs of the creative sector.’

It's not just about “thinking outside the box”. Being alert to what is happening around you and responding to that – harnessing the moment and running with it – is a sure way to ensure your organisation remains relevant.

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4: Build partnerships

A critical part of the success of any organisation is the partnerships that it builds. Those partnerships come in many forms, from government funding to corporate sponsors, patrons and foundations, other organisations and universities, and invaluably, volunteers.

While it might feel impossible to exclude funding from the longevity equation, we asked these organisations what other assets – bricks or brains – have most helped their pathway forward.

As a gallerist, Newstead said that one way to secure longevity was converting one-off buyers into collectors.

‘Building networks in the field and amongst arts organisations, the bureaucracy and government. But most importantly sustaining supportive relationships with artists and their families and community organisations are at the core and underpins everything we manage to achieve,’ he said.

As a membership-based craft organisation, Bowes said that a connection to creative professionals and other organisations in the sector had long been central to Guildhouse's vision. She noted that support at different levels of government had played a huge role in sustaining the organisation’s forward direction.

Chard, whose organisation is also aided by good government relationships, explained the kind of cocktail of partnerships that organisations need to work with today.

‘We collaborate and co-produce work with other people and other companies. We have strong leaders in the corporate sector who support the company through sponsorship, partnership, donation and subscription. We have strong support in local, state and federal government who together provide a foundation for triennial tripartite support. We appreciate the support of donors and sponsors. It is all part of good governance mixed with carrying out the daily tasks of breathing life into this grand and intricate artform,’ she explained.

And from a university perspective, Green said that a critical part of Samstag’s success had been building the strong and productive links between the Samstag Museum and Samstag Scholarships program.

Go it alone, and you wont be around for long.

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5: Ride the rollercoaster

Risk is always a factor when working in the arts sector. Bowes explained that the flipside to risk is flexibility. ‘Remaining relevant requires the ability to be flexible, responsive and innovative, all of which have inherent risk.'

Green agreed. ‘Yes, risk has always been a part of the mix, employing the Kamikaze strategy. There have also been years of persistence, sheer hard work and always putting what is best for Samstag and arts practice first.’

She believes that riding the rollercoaster takes true grit to respond to the inevitable threats that come our way from time to time, adding: ‘I have always tried to approach every challenge as a creative opportunity.’

Newstead said: ‘Our efforts to promote Aboriginal culture here, in Australia, and abroad have been largely self-funded. We have been very lucky to ride the economic roller coaster and survive 35 years in business. And half the time it is just that, luck.’

He added: ‘Our activities have always been essentially entrepreneurial and opportunistic. Economic fortunes wax and wane. The ground is always moving – new art coordinators in the field, new emerging artists and art styles, new technologies to master and use to advantage, you always need to keep up or stay in front of the game. You can never take anything for granted.’

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6: Recognising your uniqueness

Green believes that part of longevity, and the success that time brings, is to be totally sure of who you are and what you do.

‘Recognition and appreciation of what it is that makes Samstag unique and special, while at the same time being aware that we are not asset or resource rich, but [recognising] what we can do well is think outside the square,’ she told ArtsHub.  

Chard believes that in her world of the performing arts a genuine belief in the magic of theatre is vital to a company’s survival. ‘A subscription to the theory that “art is the only serious thing in the world”, to quote Oscar Wilde,’ is a good motto to embrace for longevity.

Syme stressed that even with 40 years of branding you'd need to keep that unique edge upfront in your thinking.

‘We took a calculated risk in launching the Tapestry Design Prize for Architects. We had wonderful industry interest.

‘We had the added excitement of philanthropist and gallerist Judith Neilson AM commissioning John Wardle Architects design for a very dramatic and powerful tapestry. The second iteration of the Tapestry Design Prize for Architects was won by an overseas architect, so we are extending our reach internationally,’ she said.

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7: Responsibility to your audiences

Chard asks: “Why does it matter?”  ‘When I worked in theatre I was moved by Angela Chaplin, a director who said, “We trade in human emotion”. In opera I think this is amplified – it’s the very art of emotion,’ she answered.

‘Growing audiences for opera and encouraging the love of opera is a key priority as we continue to strengthen our education program, and reach out to audiences around the state through simulcast of Opera in the Park, and present new work as well as traditional repertoire.'

Programs across the arts have become more “people friendly”, encouraging their engagement and dialogue through social media and democratising the arts through free cultural events and festivals.

Chard continued: ‘Experiencing this in real time with a real audience around you and real people on stage is a unique experience in the theatre, which soaks up your senses – the eyes, the ears, the imagination … and our vision is to enrich the cultural landscape by presenting high quality opera and be a source of pride for West Australians.’

Companies that recognise the capacity to grow by listening to their audiences are sure to sustain the test of time. 

A complex cocktail

In conclusion, it is a rather complex cocktail that these arts managers prescribe. But overwhelmingly, each organisation identified vision as the key to longevity.

Risk is always a factor, and passion – despite sounding like a cliché – remains fundamental to success in the arts, especially given the challenges we face in the sector.

ArtsHub salutes those organisations that celebrated anniversaries over the last twelve months (February 2016 – February 2017):

Bendigo Art Gallery, recognised as one of the largest regional galleries in Australia, celebrates 130 years in March this year. In 2014 it added an $8.5m extension, doubling its exhibition space.

SAM (Shepparton Art Museum) will celebrate 80 years of collecting in March this year. It is currently scoping designs for a new gallery.

West Australian Opera celebrates 50 years this year. 

Guildhouse celebrated 50 years in November 2016. Formerly as The Crafts Association of South Australia, The Crafts Council of South Australia, Craftsouth and now Guildhouse, the organisation has offered opportunities to creative professionals working across a wide range of media including ceramics, glass, painting, textiles, drawing, photography, printmaking, sculpture, new media and public art.

Flying Arts Alliance (QLD) celebrated 45 years in October 2016. It delivers visual arts projects to remote Queensland.

UQ Art Museum, University of Queensland (QLD), celebrated 40 years in July 2016.

Australian Tapestry Workshop (VIC) celebrated 40 years in December with an anniversary publication.

Coo-ee Art Gallery (NSW), an Indigenous gallery, celebrated 35 years in December 2016.

Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) (VIC) celebrated 30 years in July 2016.

Firstdraft (NSW), an emerging and experimental arts centre in Sydney celebrated 30 years in June 2016.

Umbrella Studio celebrated 30 years in 2016.

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (NSW) celebrated 25 years in November 2016.

SAMSTAG (SA: the Samstag Scholarships celebrated 25 years in 2016, marked with a publication, while this year the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, University of South Australia, will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Northern Rivers Conservatorium (NSW) celebrated 25 years in October 2016.

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (NSW) celebrated 20 years in November 2016, and used the moment to turn a spotlight on itself in a two-day symposium. Read: Beyond the racist hyphen

Gallery of Modern Art (QLD) celebrated 10 years, joining the history of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Parramatta Artist Studios (NSW) in Western Sydney celebrated 10 years in 2016.

SAMAG (Sydney Arts management Advisory Group) is a not-for-profit professional group celebrating 25 years this month. They are marking the occasion with a debate on 27 February: “Will the Arts be dead in 25-years”.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.