ARTS NORTH WEST REGIONAL SNAPSHOT 2017
The New England North West covers an area of 98,409 square kilometres and has a total population of approximately 170,737. The region is particularly well known for agriculture and agribusiness, education and research, food processing, aviation training, manufacturing, tourism, transport and logistics, energy and mining, and alternative energy. The region comprises the 11 LGAs of Armidale Regional, Glen Innes Severn, Gunnedah Shire, Gwydir Shire, Moree Plains Shire, Narrabri Shire, Liverpool Plains Shire, Tamworth Regional, Tenterfield Shire, Uralla Shire and Walcha Councils. The main commercial centre for the region is Tamworth.
Main industries include agriculture, mining, wind and forestry. Emerging technology clusters particularly in the agricultural field are situated out of the government departments and University of New England (UNE). There is an alternate energy hub emerging in Glen Innes in two wind farms and a developing solar farm.
The Aboriginal population is higher than the State’s average (regional average of 8%). There are 17 Aboriginal Land Councils in the region.
Arts and Cultural Overview
The New England North West Region is a diverse arts region with excellent grass-roots networks, regular events, established artists and a strong cultural identity that is often place-related. The region has a high Aboriginal population and related cultural identity across all art forms including oral history.
There are numerous groups and organisations working in the arts and community cultural development, with new groups emerging and changing all the time. The health sector has strong private and government networks as does Aboriginal Affairs NSW and the lands councils. Although diverse there is cohesion and support from across the 11 local government areas. With three regional art galleries (Tamworth, Moree Plains, Armidale) and three conservatoriums (Tamworth, Gunnedah, Armidale), there is strong focus on visual art and music across the region.
There are 11 community arts councils across the region. The Arts North West ON TOUR network is a unique regional network that co-ordinates regional performing arts touring for community, council and independent presenters (including arts councils) across the New England North West.
The region has a strong Museums Australia Chapter, the New England Writers’ Centre and more than 45 Keeping Places and Heritage Centres. Town halls, showground pavilions and other community centres and halls serve as exhibition and event centres for a range of social and cultural activities.
KEY ISSUES AND TRENDS
Physical isolation and limited infrastructure impact on the arts sectors’ development. Many areas face the issue of empty shopfronts and cuts to TAFE funding have seen the closure of visual arts courses across the region. This has led to a number of community-led initiatives being established offering art and craft workshops and classes and informal training opportunities but on a somewhat ad hoc basis. Many of these are in formerly disused buildings and empty shops right across the region. Access to arts infrastructure, professional development, and industry support is fragmented. Only a few high profile venues currently have the infrastructure needed for successful arts practice and access to these venues is limited. Most of the cultural infrastructure in the region is based around educational facilities such as UNE in Armidale, TAFE, and schools. Local councils are facing significant challenges in being able to create and/or maintain cultural assets and infrastructure.
Travel times and costs are high yet connectivity is a critical component of successful regional arts projects or programs. Even individual artists require peer or community support which is not readily available in much of the region. Armidale is identified as a National Broadband Network (NBN) hub but issues regarding access to internet and phone coverage still affect much of the region. A major impact on programming and attendance is the long distances many need to travel.
Climate and the impacts of mining and drought also affect the cultural sector. Although mining, flood and drought tend to increase community need for cultural engagement, regional resources are necessarily diverted into these areas rather than cultural engagement. The intense and long cold periods in the New England area also limits cultural engagement as does harvest and drought on the Western Plains.
Population and Youth Engagement
Decline or stagnation of population is also a major issue for creative professionals seeking a sustainable way of life. However a sustainable lifestyle is supported by property prices in some communities being lower than in metropolitan and coastal areas and by the strong sense of community and regional co-operation. There are high numbers of young people, many of whom are forced to leave the region in order to secure education, professional development or employment. Long term youth engagement is a priority for this region. The lower cost of living in the region however, is a significant benefit for creatives who can operate their business with less overheads and export their goods across Australia and internationally from their regional base. The smaller population does impact on their ability to have an audience and a market for their products so promoting more broadly is a necessity.
There is an expansion in creative industries, digital projects and online opportunities as artists and organisations try to overcome the issues of distance and income sustainability. The fact that Armidale is an NBN hub led to a surge in ad hoc arts projects in this field. Now that people’s understanding of technology is growing it is not only being incorporated into daily lives but there is also a strong desire to implement it in new ways to overcome distance and isolation and to build our communities. Long term projects in this field include film, arts and disability, literature, music and theatre; however most in the region believe that without some element of physical engagement, these projects have limited application. Lack of accessible infrastructure for arts practice including varying quality in broadband/internet/phone service can also limit communication.
Touring and Performing Arts
Touring is a strong focus, although there is always a preference for known work and work that includes strong levels of community engagement. Tamworth’s Capitol Theatre and Narrabri’s Crossing Theatre are two of the larger theatre venues in the region but there is an extremely active network of other local government, community, and volunteer presenting venues connected through the Arts North West ON TOUR program. Locally made and produced product is a small but evolving element of the region’s performing arts and is well supported by the relative communities. Tamworth Dramatic Society; The Armidale Drama & Musical Society; North West Theatre Company, Bingara; Glen Innes Arts Council and a number of other community organisations all present amateur theatre and musicals for their communities.
Music is also well represented throughout the region’s conservatoriums, Arts North West ON TOUR venues, festivals and centres. The Tamworth Country Music Festival is a large event that boosts development of a vast array of musical genres including Aboriginal music through the Cultural Showcase that is held in conjunction with the Country Music Festival. Large scale Ticketek events are generally held in the Tamworth Event Centre. There are also a number of film festivals in the region – including Armidale, Tamworth, Tenterfield and Bingara.
Visual Arts Training and Career Pathways
There are no longer any accredited visual arts training courses operating in the New England North West. UNE offers a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Music and has Bachelor of Theatre and Performance. TAFE, with units across the New England North West, was also the major hub providing access to arts equipment, workshop and learning facilities. TAFE closures have shifted the onus onto local government and other providers to examine diversification of and increased access to alternative spaces for creative practice and professional pathways. Workshop spaces are a priority for both visual and performing arts across the region. Arts North West supports artists, cooperatives and other organisations to access resources and equipment and is currently working with TAFE, UNE and other stakeholders to develop an alternative model for regional visual arts accreditation.
The major focus of the region is Aboriginal culture or Australian heritage events, rather than stand-alone multicultural activities. There are Sudanese Burmese, Indian, Chinese, Thai and a range of recent migrants from Middle Eastern countries in Armidale and Tamworth that are involved in ongoing cultural development projects with Arts North West, including film, music, visual arts, fashion and craft cottage industry. UNE has a large international student population that engages with the arts through NERAM and beyond. Some smaller communities welcome migrants including Mingoola which has settled families from the Great Lakes area in southern Africa. The tomato farm in Guyra for several years have employed visa holders and there are substantial numbers of Pacific Islanders residing in that town and engaging in community activities. Roxy Theatre and Greek Café in Bingara celebrates that town’s heritage.
Festivals with a focus on cultural diversity include: La Porchetta Festival (Gunnedah), Carnivale (Armidale), Nundle Go for Gold Festival and Glen Innes Celtic Festival, La Fiesta Peel (Tamworth) and a variety of Harmony Day events across the region each March. Multicultural Tamworth and Northern Settlement Services in Armidale and Tamworth are frequent partners of Arts North West delivering creative opportunities to refugees and new migrants to the region. Multicultural NSW host bi-monthly meetings in the region through their Regional Advisory Council. These meetings cove topics relating to multiculturalism and provide support and advocacy for projects and programs to increase cross-cultural social cohesion including the administration of grants for arts and cultural events and activities.
Through extensive community consultation and strategic partnerships Arts North West is working with numerous individual and organisations to build and improve opportunities for Aboriginal arts and communities in our region.
Prior to the appointment of the Aboriginal Arts Officer position in 2012, RANSW’s research and ongoing mapping of Aboriginal arts activity across regional NSW over the past four years indicated that, despite its high Aboriginal population, the richness of its arts activity and the diversity of high-calibre Aboriginal artists, Aboriginal arts in the North West region was very localised and fragmented.
The current coordinated approach to Aboriginal arts and culture in the North West provides regional economic and social development, the revitalisation and preservation of unique skills and culture, a growth in awareness of the artistic talents and capacity of Aboriginal people. In view of the size and diversity of the region and the complexity of working in Aboriginal arts, this development and its future sustainability can only be achieved through a long term approach based on strong relationships and trust from Aboriginal communities.
Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as identified by key sector representatives are as follows:
- Regional cohesion, pride and strong local communities.
- Educational hubs including UNE’s Theatre Department and Conservatoriums.
- Strong Aboriginal arts activity.
- Regional arts and government organisations with a strong track record in arts and cultural programs.
- Good connection to highways and surrounding regions.
- No accredited visual arts and associated training and limited existing professional opportunities.
- Large region requiring extensive travel.
- Lack of accessible infrastructure for arts practice including varying quality in digital service which limits communication and opportunities.
- Diverse levels of creative practice in all arts sectors and building professional connections difficult. Aboriginal arts activity is, for the most part, at an emerging rather than established level.
- Arts activity is volunteer reliant and limited succession structures in place.
- Often there are opportunities our community is invited to participate in within metropolitan areas but are unable to attend because of travel and financial constraints.
- Partnership development to build skills, exchange resources, organise hubs and stronger information pathways do not progress as most potential partners in the region are already working to capacity.
- Potential for use of empty spaces for arts practice if they were properly renovated and made accessible.
- Regional networks are strong, and creative industries and online programs could assist with infrastructure renewal.
- Emerging aboriginal arts sector and creative industries sector in this area.
- Lots of community and business or agricultural events and organisations do touch on the benefits of arts and culture but could be approached to have a stronger focus and support for the arts.
- Funding within tight fiscal environment.
- As travelling exhibitions and performances from out of the region is costly, tickets must often be subsidised in order to secure audiences and this is not a sustainable practice.
- Degradation of transport systems and roads.
- Population decline particularly of young people from the region.