Our nation was devastated earlier this year, as 2020 was welcomed with the blazing terror of bushfires that swept across the South Coast and Blue Mountains regions of NSW, and beyond.
What is perhaps the busiest tourism period – and summer holiday income that bolsters arts companies for the year ahead – was wiped out. And, just as recovery was in sight to again welcome back tourists and arts patrons, COVID-19 descended with the government enforcing nationwide closures in late March.
For many it has been six months they will never recover from. For others, it has been a hard lesson in program diversity and resilience. But there remains hope.
ArtsHub spoke with three arts companies that were directly hit by this “double whammy.”
TOURISM AND THE SEASONAL ARTS BUSINESS
For most regional areas, the arts and culture audience blend is just that – a mix of peak tourists travelling to enjoy their offerings and a foundation of local support.
Executive Director Four Winds Concerts, David Francis explained: ‘The Easter Festival is, of course, seasonal. 60% of our audience are visitors to Bermagui, the vast majority citing the Festival as the reason for their visit.’
Four Winds Concerts is located at Barragga Bay, 9kms south of Bermagui on the far South Coast. Its signature event is the Four Winds Easter Festival, which is presented over four days on an outdoor mainstage within stunning bushland. It was cancelled this year due to COVID closures, just months after the site had been threatened by bushfires.
A February 2020, a report by the Australia Council, Domestic Arts Tourism: Connecting the Country, revealed ‘Australians’ willingness to travel for the arts and how arts and creativity are significant tourism drivers,’ said Dr Wendy Were, the Australia Council’s Executive Director of Strategic Development and Advocacy.
The report draws on Tourism Research Australia data and additional resources to provide insights into the behaviour of people travelling within Australia.
‘With so many of our regional communities devastated during the recent bushfires, it provides insights into the vital role that arts and culture can play in rebuilding and recovery through supporting local economies and strengthening regional communities,’ Were added.
Were’s words are doubly true now in a post-COVID environment.
Sharon Howard of Gang Gang Gallery (GGG) in Lithgow, said that tourists are a significant percentage of visitors to the Gallery. ‘The Greater Blue Mountains tourism industry, which counted 5 million visitors annually, started to implode as the wave of tourists retreated and local travel was severely restricted by cross roads during the fire emergency.’
The gallery opened in 2017 as a creative gateway to the Blue Mountains region, Hawkesbury and Central Western NSW, and is housed in the heritage space of the Old Refreshments building of the Theatre Royal on the main street. Regional tourists are key to their operations.
REPERCUSSION OF PULLING A SIGNATURE EVENT
For both GGG and Four Winds, the closures meant they were unable to welcome visitors for their signature event during the summer tourism period.
‘The first big event on the Gallery calendar was the Hands on Clay exhibition, an integral part of the Clay Gulgong Biennial, which is the largest national ceramic arts event. Over 800 participants were disappointed when the April event was cancelled abruptly,’ said Howard.
Francis continued: ‘In 2018 we took the decision to move the Easter Festival from biennial to annual event … I’m now feeling very grateful that we had a festival in 2019, otherwise COVID would have resulted in a two-year break from music at Easter in Bermagui.
‘Having said that, we’d been working very hard to build momentum for an annual festival with a lot of investment in audience development. In the short-term, re-establishing that momentum is going to be a priority so that in the long-term Four Winds becomes firmly established as an annual Festival.’
He said that Four Winds is proving to be a resilient organisation. Despite the fact that it has been unable to welcome visitors since early January, they have been supporting artists throughout this period.
‘We were fortunate to receive a significant anonymous donation which enabled us to support 14 musicians financially at a time when most have seen a massive, if not entire reduction in their income,’ said Francis.
Some of those were artists from the region. ‘It’s felt incredibly positive to continue to engage with artists in this way at such a challenging time,’ he added.
An hour further south again from Four Winds, is the Bega Valley Regional Gallery (BVRG). Iain Dawson, the gallery’s Director told ArtsHub: ‘Tourism is vital to our region and is it’s primary employer. We program exhibitions to coincide with seasonal visitors. The fires affected our Summer blockbuster, Weapons for the Soldier, touring from Hazelhurst Gallery. We were closed for two weeks over that period.’
BVRG said that it had not cancelled any of its artistic program during COVID, and actually stayed open during the bushfires.
‘We rapidly pivoted to present our exhibitions online, offering 3D tours of both our Craftivism exhibition and the current exhibition Eugenia Lim’s The Ambassador with all resources accessible through our web page.’ They also developed a raft of new digital programming.
WILL EASED TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS HELP?
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced that it would allow regional state-wide travel from 1 June. Other states are also encouraging local tourism according to their own road maps for easing restrictions.
‘As Lithgow is on a main route to the Central West, we expect a considerable increase in passing traffic as NSW residents explore regional areas,’ Howard told ArtsHub. ‘We have maintained private visits for local residents while preparing to open on 3 June, and were inundated with enthusiastic locals wanting a ‘breath of art.’
Not far down the road from Gang Gang Gallery, the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (BMCC) is preparing to reopen. BMCC Artistic Program Manager, Sabrina Roesner, told ArtsHub: ‘We are mindful that the shows on offer when we reopen, are very local artist focused and local topics – they are the kind of show we feel people would come up to the Blue Mountains to see.’
Roesner said their next exhibition to open the gallery is very much about the region, including some raw images in response to the bushfires and new experimental drawing works from COVID.
Howard was also mindful of BVRG’s program upon reopening. ‘We believe visitors to the gallery from outside the region should not have to ‘change gears’ to engage in our programs. Our communities, while regionally based, are as global as their metro peers,’ said Dawson.
‘The recent closures of galleries across the country proved that smaller public art galleries are able to compete in an increasingly nimble fashion, with their larger, more cumbersome urban counterparts,’ he added.
Open since 1 June, BVRG have implemented sign-in procedures, a visiting guide and an optional booking service which they are strongly encouraging.
‘Visitors returning to the area is exciting for us,’ said Dawson. ‘Being the only public art gallery south of Nowra and East of Albury means we attract a large slice of visitors to the region looking to experience what we are able to bring to our local audience.’
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO RECOVER FROM THIS?
In the most simple, deliverable sense, Francis said to recover they ‘need audiences to attend our events, particularly the 2021 Easter Festival – which is the Festival’s 21st Birthday.
‘We need those audiences to help build momentum and support all our local businesses, accommodation providers, bars and restaurants.’
For Howard, it is a critical moment for funding. ‘GGG has put forward its case to further extend GGG VIRTUAL with Arts NSW’s COVID grants lottery…[and] have secure funding to bridge re-opening costs.’
She continued: ‘Artists and arts workers (contract staff) have not received the benefits of JobKeeper and the Gallery has had to remain self-sustaining.’
Howard made the point that Destination NSW and other State and LGR agencies promote art galleries and events as the Arts Industry, and embrace the term creative tourism, and yet believes creative people have been seriously under-served in this time of crisis.
Dawson’s narrative had a similar tone. ‘Our needs remain the same as prior to the cavalcade of disasters that has beset our community. An updated, fit for purpose gallery space and increased level of investment for full time positions to increase the capacity of what we can deliver to the community.’
The Bega gallery was rated as a top funding priority under the NSW Government’s $47 million Regional Cultural Fund, but missed out while a nearby aquatic and cultural centre, ranked 72nd, got $8 million.
RETHINKING THE BUSINESS MODEL
Declaring “Art Should Have No Limits” as its motto to defy the crisis caused by the pandemic, Gang Gang Gallery is endeavouring to reach out beyond a passive online presence.
‘Unless art galleries dramatically change their business model they will not survive,’ said Howard. ‘We had to back away from where we saw the Gallery going in 2020 and look at all options. Actually, due to COVID-19, we realised we can move in other directions and find new openings to be creative.’
She added that this period has demonstrated how, through the virtual platform, the Gallery could stay in touch with its followers and expand its reach to wider audiences. ‘These lessons you hold on to.’
Francis agreed that they reached a new understanding during this period.
Francis added: ‘Whilst [the Easter Festival] is our flagship event, we have a busy program all year with a lot of activity in the second half of the year – particularly focussed on engaging young people. So, we anticipate delivering much of our program, even if it’s in an adapted form to suit the circumstances in which we find ourselves.’
‘We’ve learnt that Four Winds is pretty resilient. Knowing we cannot present live events we have been developing work to reach audiences online. Our Artistic Director James Crabb is creating six Video Casts during which he is talking and collaborating with artists who have an association with Four Winds. These are being created specifically for the digital space. This will become a new strand of our program and over time will be closely related to our live program,’ he added.
Dawson also said that BVAG it has used this opportunity to continue to strengthen its digital offering. ‘Access to education programs and exhibitions viewable online are crucial for regional and remote audiences.’ He noted that their closest townships were an hour’s drive.
BVRG commissioned contemporary artists to present a series of AT HOME workshops for kids, as well as self-shot studio tours. ‘We will continue to offer access via online channels to the primary and secondary students in the area. This area is something all cultural institutions have aspired to achieve in the past but it has become clear this is a crucial part of our business model moving forward,’ Dawson told ArtsHub.
BVRG also used its extensive mailing list to provide weekly recommendations via an email series called ‘Directors Cut’, where the BVRG Director listed recommended viewing of art events and exhibitions “from around the corner to around the globe.”
They also launched an online exhibition, the FIREFLIES PROJECT in response to the bushfires.
Need to know:
Bega Valley Regional Gallery has reopened. The gallery is a 5.5 hour drive from Sydney and 3 hour drive from Canberra.
Gang Gang Gallery has also reopened this week. Lithgow is a 2.15 hour drive from Sydney. It has reopened with the Hands on Clay exhibition.
The online door is open to Four Winds Concerts, with new content rolling out over the coming weeks. They are anticipating being able to present outdoor events iin November/December, and of course their iconic festival will return in 2021 for the Easter Weekend – block it out now.