This year has marked many anniversary celebrations, including for City Recital Hall, which celebrates its 20th birthday. It was an ideal location, therefore, for the Symposium of Australian Arts Organisations, which saw leaders of organisations celebrating milestone years gather to discuss the past, present and future of the industry.

City Recital Hall. Photo © Tim da-Rin

NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin kicked off proceedings with a speech congratulating the organisations present, “on behalf of every lover of arts and culture in this state and around Australia, thank you for your outstanding contribution to the arts, music and culture in New South Wales,” he said, though he did not take part in the discussion that followed.

The panel comprised Paul Dyer, Artistic Director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, which turns 30 this year, and which hosted the event, Elaine Chia, the CEO of City Recital Hall, Sam Allchurch, Associate Artistic Director of Gondwana Choirs, also celebrating its 30th, who was there to represent Artistic Director Lyn Williams, Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, which turns 50, Mark Gaal, Executive Director, Pathways and Partnerships at NIDA, which turns 60, and Paul Stanhope, Artistic Chair of the Australia Ensemble, which turns 40. The other Australian arts organisation with a birthday this year is Bangarra Dance Theatre – yet another 30th – currently on tour in Hobart. The discussion was AUSLAN interpreted by Accessible Arts.

“I think the most remarkable thing, quite apart from all the candles and anniversaries,” said moderator Christopher Lawrence, “is that you’re still here, if you know what I mean. You’ve actually survived and prospered and developed in a number of trying circumstances.”

The discussion, genially lead by Lawrence, ranged from the organisations’ beginnings (“We had nothing,” Dyer said, recalling borrowing a typewriter and some desk space from Musica Viva) to anniversary programs and the issues and challenges facing the established organisations today.

Stanhope brought up the challenges of embracing digital technologies into the future. “Gondwana does very well with the YouTube broadcasting,” he said. “I think the ABC unfortunately, has fallen quite behind in taking hold of the potential of what we could do with live YouTube broadcasts and so on.”

Technology has also changed the landscape in which the performing arts compete for attention. “I’m going to steal Elaine Chia’s line about our greatest competitor being Netflix,” Allchurch said, suggesting that for Gondwana, centralising concerts into festivals is a way of meeting that challenge. “I think that’s what’s going to make people interested in what we’ve got to say. There’s still, of course, a place for the regular concert, but the more we can make those sort of high impact statements, I think, the better,” he said.

“Online games, for example, is probably as big an industry sector at the moment as movies are,” Gaal said. “It requires design, it requires writing, it requires performance, it requires technical areas – so I think NIDA’s challenge is to find the right balance between what we might call our traditional aspects, of what we know and understand and believe to be the ways in which stories might be told, but also to arm our students with enough skill and enough knowledge to keep creating industries that don’t yet exist.”

As to whether it’s easier or more difficult to start new organisations today, Stanhope – who is, of course, also a composer and lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – said: “I think it actually is much more difficult these days, than it has been in the past.”

“We’re training more people, it’s much harder to do start-up, these days. There’s just simply not the resources to go around,” he said. “It’s extremely difficult. State, Federal government funding – just the percentages of the number of applications that get through are tiny.”

Sydney is particularly tough, he explained. “It’s an expensive place to live, and so when you are out of the Conservatorium, out of an institution, wanting to do something new, wanting to do something interesting, wanting to do something that’s experimental, where are the spaces for that?”

He did single out City Recital Hall’s Extended Play festival, however, as a success story. “Fantastic full day of new music, it was absolutely wonderful.”

The issue of venues, at both the big end and the smaller end of the Australian arts industry, is a fraught one. “I think ‘venues’ has evolved over time, we are not just a shell,” said Chia. “We are the connection point between artists and audiences. Venues do not survive without either party.”

The physical bricks and mortar are also vitally important for arts organisations, as Bonachela knows full well, with Sydney Dance Company awaiting the completion of its new home at Pier 4/5, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020. “The physical demands that come with being a dancer, you know, to have a sprung floor, to have the space above you to be able to lift dancers and everything… Unfortunately you do need to have everything in place for the dancers to be performing and to be delivering at the level that we want,” he said.

Lawrence also raised the significance of rising youth activism around the world and Allchurch highlighted the work of one of Gondwana’s Indigenous choirs, Marliya. “They’re on tour, almost full-time at the moment, with Felix Riebl from The Cat Empire, singing this incredible music by Felix, but with really serious political messages – it’s art about stuff that matters.”

“It’s important that we listen to our young people,” he said. “Art has to say something and it has to mean something.”

Overall the event was more laudatory than probing, and in the tight 60-minutes it was only possible to scratch the surface of a number of the issues raised (there were no questions taken from the audience, nor was the Arts Minister, Don Harwin, available for questions on any of the topics discussed) but the discussion nonetheless touched on a wide range of challenges facing the industry. Ultimately, however, it was a warm celebration of each organisations achievements, which have been on display throughout the year in each one’s anniversary season.

And the celebrations aren’t over yet, Universal Music’s Eloquence label turns 20 this year, it’s the 200th anniversary year of Clara Schumann’s birth, and next year’s big anniversaries include Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ centenary and Musica Viva Australia’s 75th birthday – not to mention, of course, the ubiquitous Beethoven celebrations.