When Crikey examined the long-term attendance data for Australia’s major performance companies last year, Western Australia stood out. The eastern states have seen flatlining attendance figures while the west is attracting bigger audiences.
The state has been building cultural infrastructure, both venues and festivals, with a new fringe festival and a resurgent capital city festival both currently playing to packed houses. And Perth’s underground arts scene also appears to be in rude health.
“I take a long view historically,” the Perth Festival’s rapid-fire artistic director Jonathan Holloway told Crikey. “When you look at what was happening in Shakespearian England or Renaissance Italy or the US in the ’60s and ’70s, places that are growing rapidly and have the ability to invest can create a golden age in art.
“There are relatively few places in the world that can afford to increase their expenditure on the arts and Perth is one of them.”
The Perth Festival began this week, and is in full swing until March 2. Holloway has curated a suite of events that range from the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which takes place in a series of pubs, to a high concept remount of The Threepenny Opera by famous avant-garde director Robert Wilson.
“These are productions which will never be forgotten by everyone who saw them, and they are moments in which our perception of who we are and where we live changes,” Holloway said.
Mind you, Perth is not just embracing the high arts. Bold new fringe festival Fringe World, produced by local veterans Artrage, is also wowing audiences. “WA has always been known for its thriving music scene, I do think people have clocked that there’s always been a really rich and rigorous music scene here,” Fringe World director Marcus Canning said.
Conversely, visual arts haven’t been as healthy. “The visual arts scene here has been taking an absolute hammering, all of the older commercial galleries that had any credibility to them have all closed,” Canning said.
“From the performing arts sector, one thing that I’ve really been pleased with at the fringe this year is the growth of local practitioners plugging in,” he said, saying local performers “saw the success of the 2012 festival and have all really jumped on board”. For instance, the Blue Room Theatre is curating its own program of primarily local work called Summer Nights. Canning says it’s a real confidence-booster for local artists, particularly given the well-publicised difficulties Perth theatre companies have had in accessing expensive state venues such as the Heath Ledger Theatre.
“The excitement is palpable,” Canning said. Fringe World has seen ticket sales jump from 50,000 last year to 90,000 this year.
“There’s a real appetite for seeing new work, local work; there’s an audience for that.”
And Fringe World has been a critical catalyst of Perth’s underground and experimental sector. According to Kelli McCluskey from internationally acclaimed experimental performance collective pvi, this has been reflected across the grassroots more broadly.
“What we’re noticing is that there seems to be an awful lot more artist-initiated projects, [including] new ARIs opening up like Paper Mountain, who are a small collective of artists who’ve got a space on the cheap and are making the most of it,” she said.
“Last year and this year there’s been a festival called Proximity that’s run by artists for artists, and it’s about one-on-one artworks, performance artworks; so it’s one artist and one audience member. That’s never happened in Australia before, that format.” McCluskey also points to the success of ScreenWest’s crowd-funding initiative, as Crikey reported last month. “If there’s imagination, then we find a way.
“I think at the moment it’s a really good time, because you’ve got the Fringe Festival that does provide a really important counterbalance to the mammoth Perth international festival ,which brings in a lot of imports and has huge ticket prices,” she said. “The artists from Perth have really embraced the fringe and audiences are finding its much more affordable than $170 to go and see Robert Wilson.”
Pvi has just returned from a tour to Mumbai, and is debuting a “locative media” work called Deviator in March. “The thing that’s really interesting for us, even with the tightness of local arts funding, there are still commissions to be had,” McCluskey said. “There’s a real appetite for seeing new work, local work; there’s an audience for that.”
Over at Perth community radio station RTR, the local music scene is also looking good. Music director Adam Trainer says he’s never seen Perth’s contemporary music scene looking as healthy. “I think contemporary music in WA is better than I’ve ever seen it for quite some time. There are so many great local bands at the moment in particular,” he said.
Trainer says the local scene has moved on from Perth’s well-known penchant for power-pop. “What’s really important is that those bands are working in incredibly diverse array of genres,” he said. “You can trace that lineage through bands like Tame Impala or The Growl or Pond, but I think what’s really important to note is that there are so many other styles of music that are really well represented by Perth artists who are making what I think is world-class music.
“There’s always been that idea of the cultural cringe, where we feel as though our local music is fine if you just want to go out and see a band, but we’ve always felt that there’s a certain gap in quality between stuff that’s produced on a local scale and internationally. I don’t think that that’s the case any more.”
Trainer says local venues for live music are “reasonably stable”, particularly in historic hubs in the inner city and Northbridge, and that the soft infrastructure of touring and promotion has grown. “There are lots and lots of promoters these days. It almost seems like everyone’s a promoter,” he said.