ARTS MID NORTH COAST REGIONAL SNAPSHOT 2014
The Mid North Coast covers an area of 19,000 square kilometres and in 2011 had a total population of 290,838. This is projected to be 305,500 by 2016. The region comprises seven Local Government Authorities (LGAs): Bellingen, Coffs Harbour, Great Lakes, Greater Taree, Kempsey, Nambucca and Port Macquarie Hastings. The main centres are Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour.
Key economic sectors include manufacturing, health services, tourism, construction and retail trade. The main road artery is the Pacific Highway and there is minimal intra-regional public transport in the area. However, there are key airports at Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour and a small regional airport at Taree.
The majority of the population in the region lives east of the Great Dividing Range, and in or close to Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and Taree. Although there are areas of growth they are some regions impacted by a declining population and in all areas an ageing population, with Nambucca and Great Lakes projected to have more than 35% of their population aged over 65 by 2031.
There is a thriving visual arts community on the mid north coast participating in a multiplicity of art forms. There are three major regional galleries – Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery, Glasshouse Regional Gallery (Port Macquarie) and Manning Regional Gallery (Taree). There are also numerous commercial, community and Aboriginal galleries across the region including Dunghutti–Ngaku Aboriginal Arts Gallery (Kempsey), Gangga Marrang Art Gallery (Taree), Nexus Gallery (Bellingen) Macleay Valley Community Gallery (Gladstone, and Matilda Street Gallery (Macksville). A large scale outdoor sculpture competition and exhibition, Sculpture in the Gaol, is held each year at Trial Bay Gaol (South West Rocks).
Theatre and Performing Arts
There is strong interest in theatre and performing arts in Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie and Taree with a number of community theatre companies staging regular performances in each of these locations as well as touring productions. Smaller community theatre groups include Stuarts Point, Coopernook and Upper Lansdowne. 8 All local companies rely heavily on volunteers and very few of these productions are sufficiently resourced to tour within the region. There is little by way of theatre education available outside of secondary schools, although Manning Entertainment Centre facilitates a youth theatre group in Taree. Bago Magic in Port Macquarie provides theatre training for people with disabilities.
Mid North Coast communities have a strong history of engagement with music across a very wide spectrum of genres. The region’s many festivals focus upon world music, jazz, contemporary, acoustic, folk and bluegrass genres and attract broad interest both within and outside the region. These festivals typically accommodate a mix of local and touring performers and provide opportunities for emerging local talent and community participation. The small township of Kendall also hosts the finals of the Kendall National Violin Competition, Australia’s preeminent contest for young violinists. There is a regional conservatorium at Coffs Harbour providing formal music training and strong music education opportunities within many primary and secondary schools. A similar conservatorium is in the process of formal recognition for the area from Great Lakes to Port Macquarie. Youth engagement with and participation in musical activity is at a high level in many parts of the Mid North Coast.
Film and Digital Arts
Engagement with film and the digital arts is at a low-level. Since 2011, the region has had no formal screen development office, but there are numerous practitioners (particularly screenwriters and directors) living within the region. There is a local short film festival, Short Sharp, staged annually in Coffs Harbour, plus the Forster Film Festival. There are few opportunities for formal training outside short workshop programs delivered by organisations including Short Sharp Digital Network (Coffs Harbour), Arts Mid North Coast and ABC Open.
The region has only one literary festival, the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival, after the demise of the Watermark Literary Muster in 2013. The Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre (NRWC), based in Lismore, is technically charged with the responsibility to provide resources and workshops in the region. However, the reality of geographical distance means that very few such events are staged by NRWC on the Mid North Coast. Coffs Harbour Library and Taree Library in particular stage a wide range of well attended writing events for the community.
There are twelve community arts networks across the region, most of which support, foster and develop projects, events and workshops in a range of art forms from visual arts to theatre and dance. Many of the region’s 9 festivals (particularly those with music, visual arts and community focus) also provide opportunities for artists to present work across art forms and genres. Collaboration is increasing as artists identify opportunities, particularly in the digital sphere, to make art that is capable of capturing the interest of a broad audience. There is very significant interest among young people in the region in the intersection of music, film and literature in the online space.
KEY ISSUES AND TRENDS
- In general, the region suffers from a paucity of medium to large performance spaces. Major facilities hosting performances and concerts by touring and local companies are located at the Manning Entertainment Centre (Taree) and the Glasshouse (Port Macquarie).
- Coffs Harbour, the region’s largest hub, has no large-scale performing arts centre and no agreed timeline or location for such a venue. Funding of such a facility also remains a major issue. The Jetty Memorial Theatre (capacity 200 people) remains the sole theatre space for local and touring productions. It is complemented by the Coffs Harbour Regional Conservatorium, which hosts concerts within very limited space.
- A performing arts centre has been designed and proposed for construction at Bellingen, but without funding remains at planning stage only.
- Resources for museum facilities are limited and are in most cases managed and staffed by volunteer members of local historical societies.
- Many small halls in towns across the region are in need of significant repair or renovation to make them suitable for use as arts venues, but have considerable potential to be used as such. Also relevant is the related issue of commercial charges by Council’s.
- The lack of medium to large performance spaces in the north of the region limits the capacity to host touring productions and acts.
- The Mid North Coast’s festivals continue to provide an indispensable platform for bringing touring performances and artists to regional audiences. Most of these festivals are volunteer run and rely upon significant funding from all tiers of government for their continued existence.
- The establishment of a touring framework across regional borders is essential to growing opportunity. The region would benefit from scheduling of tours together with the Northern Rivers.10
- The touring of professionally mounted local productions to neighbouring localities/regions is rare due to cost and requires greater support.
CaLD and Aboriginal
- The Mid North Coast region has the highest Aboriginal population of any region in the state.
- Together with ten regional Aboriginal land councils, Arts Mid North Coast was a partner in the establishment of the Saltwater Freshwater Aboriginal Arts Alliance, the peak regional body for Aboriginal arts and cultural development. This is now an autonomous organisation whose functions include the delivery of the Saltwater Freshwater Festival each Australia Day in rotating locations around the region. Saltwater Freshwater also delivers a number of learning and cultural programs.
- A growing population of culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) people reside in the region. There is a very wide spread of cultural backgrounds, with Coffs Harbour the new home for a significant number of people from a variety of countries on the African continent. Community groups and councils across the region support and deliver activity in this sector. International Women’s Day and Harmony Day are a platform for many CaLD arts events across the region, along with festivals such as Curryfest (Woolgoolga), Africa Festival (Taree) and Women of the World (Coffs Harbour).
- Career pathways and employment opportunities for artists, arts workers and creative industries professionals in the region are limited.
- There is currently little investment in the strategic development of the creative industries in the region other than Coffs Harbour.
- Employment in creative industries is concentrated in the larger centres of Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie. There is also a lack of industry clusters, with screen arts professionals around the Coffs Coast being the only strong cluster in the region.
- Incidence of collaboration throughout the industry is limited. Community Art Networks and Councils tend to work in ‘silos’ that negate opportunities for collaboration in marketing, resource sharing, skill development and information sharing.
Education and Training
- The removal of State Government subsidies from TAFE Fine Arts courses has severely impacted the education and training opportunities available to emerging regional artists. It is unlikely that these will be replaced in the short to medium term by other formal training options, particularly in the visual arts. This will also impact upon the employment of professional local artists such as teachers and tutors, meaning that there could be potential skills losses to the region as they seek employment opportunity elsewhere.
- TAFE offerings differ widely across the region and it is not generally practicable or economically viable for students to travel large distances for specific Certificate and Diploma courses.
- Students with professional aspirations generally need to travel outside the region to further their development.
Local Government Engagement
Only two of seven local councils have a dedicated cultural development officer (Coffs Harbour and Kempsey) and only four have cultural plans. Arts and cultural planning is now largely subsumed in community plans. Coffs Harbour City Council also has a current Creative Industries Action Plan and Economic Strategy developed in consultation with Arts Mid North Coast and other community organisations. All councils have small community grants schemes supporting arts activity to varying levels. The impact of potential local government amalgamations on cultural development resources and priorities is unknown.
Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as identified by key sector representatives are as follows:
- Diverse arts activity across the region in multiplicity of art forms.
- Numerous strong festivals growing audiences from within and outside region.
- Community support for arts and cultural events.
- Attractive environment for artists and creative industry professionals from outside the region to live in.
- Good pool of professional knowledge in major centres.
- Success rate in obtaining Australian Government regional arts fund support.
- ‘Can do’ approach, with a low reliance on external funding.
- Increased cultural tourism development through project partnerships between Arts Mid North Coast and regional tourism organisation (North Coast Destination Network).
- Opportunities for increased youth digital arts development through Genwire Artspace and partnerships with ABC Open.
- Declining arts education and employment opportunity due to TAFE subsidy cuts, course reduction and limited tertiary offerings.
- Lack of medium to large scale performing arts facilities outside of Port Macquarie and Taree is of concern to the community.
- Lack of regular high quality touring performances (outside of Taree and Port Macquarie) due to distance and absence of appropriate infrastructure.
- Lack of skills and training opportunities in performing arts production.
- Lack of a regional theatre/performing arts company (such as Northern Rivers Performing Arts).
- Lack of designated arts and cultural development officers at local council level.
- Lack of focus on cultural tourism and creative industries driven economic development strategies and plans.
- Focus on cultural tourism through partnerships with North Coast Destination Network/Destination NSW.
- Opportunities for working with Destination Management Plans and local tourism industry.
- Roll out of National Broadband Network in regions may mean increased opportunity for artists and creative industries nationally and internationally.
- Potential to utilise unused commercial and local government infrastructure for arts activity, installations, performance and exhibitions.
- Increased level of public art across the region.
- Opportunities could broaden with developing economic impact indicators and studies regarding arts and cultural activity.
- Repurposing visitor information centres as community arts centres/galleries.
- Financial support within a tight financial environment.
- Further erosion of arts education and employment opportunities offered through TAFEs and universities.
- Human resources attrition – most volunteers are in the 50+ age bracket and there is a much lower rate of volunteer participation among younger age brackets.
- Uncertainty of the impact of local government amalgamations on resources and the maintenance of the cultural identity of smaller towns/communities.
- Decline in regional economic conditions and unemployment in some areas of the region.
- Ageing population and limited incomes