Independent dance cut to the bone

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Leila Lois warns of a funding crisis in the arts, particularly  independent dance.

Phillip Adams, Artistic Director of Ballet Lab and Temperance Hall in Melbourne. Photo by Georges Antoni, art direction by 3 Deep.
Phillip Adams, Artistic Director of Ballet Lab and Temperance Hall in Melbourne. Photo by Georges Antoni, art direction by 3 Deep.

“At its essence, art’s very core resonates with a natural inclination towards radical emancipation.” So says Phillip Adams, in an interview for Dance Australia. Adams has directed Melbourne’s iconic Temperance Hall, pinnacle of the independent dance community and a pioneer in the queer dance scene since 2016, and led the Australian dance scene towards a more inclusive and critically engaged landscape. The 160-year-old hall in South Melbourne is one of the latest sites to receive news of funding cuts, plunging the future of the venue into immediate peril. 

Adams continues: “The outpouring from hundreds of artists signing the opening letter to save Temperance Hall is testament to the absolute need for independent diversification.” He calls the announcement of cuts “devastating”, leaving the independent dance sector “deflated and confused".

Similarly, FRAME Biennial, a national contemporary dance festival adapted last year from Dance Massive, which has relied upon the success of its collective partners, including Arts House, Dance House and Chunky Move, has found itself with a resource shortfall, and unable to survive without emergency funding, which it has not secured.

FRAME saw great successes last year with a wide curatorium and audiences, and so the closure announcement seems quite out of the blue. Arts funding, it seems, has been slashed at federal and state level, in response to the economic climate and mounting debt. The post-COVID arts revival funding scheme,  Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund, announced as part of the 2022-23 budget to support reactivating the arts and entertainment sector, has come to an end and Temperance Hall and FRAME biennial are just two of the many casualties. In its last (seventh) round of funding, RISE had “$2.4 million to hand out in 2023-24, down from $159 million in 2021-22.

Without these state and federal level funds, there seems little in its place to keep the great momentum of the independent Australian dance industry going.

Even large institutions such as Arts Centre Melbourne are facing large shortfalls in revenue since pre-pandemic years. The arts centre has a deficit of $22.9 million for the financial year ending in June 2023, according to its annual report.

The assumption of the Federal Government overall seems to be that following RISE, this huge several hundred million "shot in the arm" of art funding, the organisations and venues should be now able to "stand on their own two feet". However, with the rising cost of living and audience sizes still recovering since the pandemic, with Arts Centre audiences at 13% to 20% behind pre-pandemic levels, for example, this may be overly optimistic and harm the diversity of representation in the sector, as Adams points out:

“Now, with no life lines left to anchor, nor quick solutions in place to financially secure a future for the organisation, what happens next? We watch a sector that continues to thin out and – with our closure – losing the vital dimension of radicalness.”

Compounding the lack of federal funding, the state funding body Creative Victoria has been inert in saving Temperance Hall. In the statement on its website, Temperance Hall explains that in 2022, at the most vulnerable point for the organisation, following two years of lockdowns, it lost its multi-year organisational funding from Creative Victoria and was put on an 18 month temporary "strategic funding" plan, which has now ceased. Neither federal nor state government are reportedly able to provide succor to this organisation, which has seen so much success in its programs of dance over the past years.

“Temperance Hall is all too rare, in this time of supposed inclusivity in the arts,” Adams reflects.

Melbourne's Temperance Hall. Photo by Kristina Arnott.
Melbourne's Temperance Hall. Photo by Kristina Arnott.

So what of other independent dance organisations across the country? Are they facing a similar uncertain fate? New South Wales arts and cultural organisations lost $190 million in the latest announced budget cuts. Local members of the arts sector in South Australia have signed a letter urging their Premier to take action on the underfunding crisis. At mainstream levels, things are also tough: Queensland Ballet’s founder and former director, Li Cunxin, cited disparity in federal arts funding as the cause for his physical burnout. So the picture across Australia is clear: dance companies and institutions are vying with extraordinary odds to keep their doors and auditoriums open.

With mounting debt, inherited from the national response to the pandemic, some may posit that the most competitive and accomplished dance companies will prevail, and find resourceful ways of staying afloat.

But this is a tall order, with rises in costs of living significantly affecting audience sizes. Recent research shows that younger audiences from suburban areas, rather than richer city dwellers, are much more likely to go out to see shows if they are "freebies", according to research just released by Creative Australia.

How, then, are dance companies going to be able to engage younger and broader audiences and cover costs of production with little funding opportunities and free ticketing?

As well as an aggregate decline in paying audiences, there are fears that federal funding bodies like Creative Australia are not supporting the full spectrum of diversity. In Creative Australia's recent four-year organisational funding plan, Philip Adams asserts, there is a perceivable lack of “LGBTIQ+ representation in any dance/theatre/opera organisations under Creative Australia’s portfolio,” which may further entrench exclusionary practice in the dance industry for this group.

“We are far from achieving the ideal utopian artist-led creative enterprise, the very namesake of Creative Australia and Creative Victoria’s program. The artist-led mentality, as such, imposes far too much de-regulating of governmental policing,” Adams warns.

So now that these budgets and plans have been drawn up, and the future of significant dance independent companies remain uncertain, what can be done to rescue them from closure? Adams stood down from his directorship of Temperance Hall earlier this month, explaining in a public letter that the “weight of constantly proving worthiness in the eyes of crucial Government stakeholders” and the desire to pursue a new role as MA Coordinator, Senior Lecturer in Dance at VCA, were his decision makers. He is still remaining on the board for Temperance Hall and “championing every effort of the staff and artists to keep the doors open".

There is an open letter of support to the local politicians of Melbourne to urgently support the institution financially, a last cry for succor from one of many independent dance organisations facing closure following these cuts. The best we can do for now might be to support such causes, turn up to shows if we have the capacity and spread the message that independent dance is valuable in our communities.


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