Why supporting local artists makes cultural and financial sense for festivals

While festivals have always championed local artists, such prerogatives will become all the more urgent as we recover from COVID-19, says Perth Festival’s Nathan Bennett.

The benefits of Perth Festival’s social, cultural, and economic impact have been demonstrated by a new report, released on Wednesday (3 June).

Conducted by Culture Counts, the Perth Festival 2020 Impact Report highlights the important role international arts festivals play in supporting local artists and arts organisations – a role that will be increasingly critical as the sector recovers from COVID-19.

‘In Iain Grandage’s first Perth Festival, about 75% of the artists who participated were local, and we think it’s really important to showcase their work – under normal circumstances – alongside work from overseas,’ said Executive Director Nathan Bennett.

Future festivals will clearly need to adapt to new circumstances as the Australian arts sector begins to move into a post-COVID-19 phase, Bennett continued.

‘In the short term, as we navigate Coronavirus restrictions, without a doubt the emphasis will shift even further towards supporting local artists and companies – partly because of the operating conditions imposed by Coronavirus, and also because of our responsibility to do so.’

Looking to the future

Lacking a crystal ball, Bennett said he was cautious about trying to pinpoint how the constantly shifting landscape would impact on the 2021 festival program.

‘I think it’s highly unlikely that international borders will allow free movement to Australia,’ Bennett said.

‘Even if they do, with enforced 14 day quarantine conditions in place, that would make it very difficult for an arts company to cover the cost of bringing others to the country, given that they would also need to be accommodated for that [quarantine] period.’

With the WA state government focused on keeping its population safe from COVID-19, some restrictions will continue for a time, he added. 

‘For us here in WA, our state government has done a very effective job of keeping us safe, of keeping the virus out of the community. And for that reason, they’ve indicated that the state borders are likely to be the last thing to open up.’

Read: Who’s reopening: the organisations leading the charge

The 2020 Perth Festival featured 2,286 participating artists, more than 75% of whom were from Western Australia. That percentage is likely to increase in 2021.

‘What we’ve seen just over the last few days in WA is that the four-square metre rule has been reduced to two square metres. Things are starting to open up. Theatres are about to be operational within parameters that are considered to be safe. And we would expect that things should be starting to get really back to normal by festival time next year,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘2021 will be about shifting the emphasis to a celebration of local artists and local arts companies. So, while it may be that there is more free movement across international borders, we are very clear that next year’s festival will have a strong local focus, as well as some Australian work that come from elsewhere in the country, but absolutely an emphasis on local culture and arts companies.’

Darwin Festival (6-16 August 2020) and Sydney Festival (January 2021) have previously announced their intentions to proceed with festival programming, also in more boutique and localised forms, while Adelaide Festival has published its 2021 dates (26 February – 14 March).

A new Melbourne festival, RISING, will be held in Melbourne next year (26 May – 6 June 2021). Ten Days of the Island is also due to be held next year, also with a focus on local Tasmanian artists. 

Read: $2 million fund for artists as new festival rises over Melbourne

Taking a localised approach won’t make Perth Festival any less of an international arts festival, Bennett argued.

‘It’s often useful for local artists to have work seen alongside work that comes from elsewhere, but for us to be shifting the emphasis to such a degree, so that the majority of work will be local – I don’t think that diminishes the quality of what will be presented,’ he said.

Indeed, the focus on Indigenous-only work in the first week of the 2020 Perth Festival is a clear indication that arts programming can take a local approach without reducing cultural impact or popularity, Bennett argued.

‘We had record-breaking attendances across the whole program … with a first week that was entirely Indigenous work, which has not been done before by a major international arts festival. People not just came, but they talked about those experiences as being transformational for them,’ he said.

Review: Bunggul, Perth Festival (WA)


The Perth Festival 2020 Impact Report demonstrates the economic value of supporting local artists, showing that the Festival put $10.8 million into the pockets of local artists, workers, suppliers and contractors – a situation that can only benefit the state’s arts ecology in the long term.

Similarly, the Festival’s direct economic impact from spending by audiences, artists and the Festival was $30.3 million, up 60% from 2019. This provided flow-on total economic value to the State of $84.7 million.

As well as its economic impact, the Perth Festival 2020 Impact Report also demonstrates the cultural impact the Festival has on Western Australia. According to those surveyed:

  • 97% said Perth Festival plays an important role in the cultural life of the state;
  • 95% said Perth Festival delivers high quality cultural experiences for the people of WA; and,
  • 92% of people rated their Perth Festival 2020 experience as good or excellent

The data highlighting the Festival’s social and cultural impact was an important demonstration of the value of the arts, according to Bennett.

‘It’s absolutely vital for people to have access to the arts, and festivals are critical in terms of bringing people together, giving them a sense of social cohesion and an opportunity to celebrate with their peers,’ he said.

‘I think as we look at the impact of the Festival from home, in isolation, it just becomes more apparent that we have to get together, we have to bring people together in a way that allows them to celebrate as a community.’

Read the Perth Festival 2020 Impact Report in full. The Perth Festival will return in February 2021.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts