As a long-time Canberran, I am proud that this city leads the nation in our enthusiasm for arts activities. I know this not just from the evidence of my own eyes – the packed crowds at theatre shows, exhibition openings and festival events – but from official statistics.
We consistently have the highest rates in the country for attendance at cultural venues, participation in cultural activities, and household spending on culture. This is unsurprising; Canberrans know the intrinsic value of the arts to our humanity.
The ACT region meets this high demand for arts activities through an extraordinary range of arts experiences and a remarkable array of cultural venues, from national institutions to innovative local arts hubs. Canberra punches well above its weight in the variety, quality and accessibility of its arts.
As well as their intrinsic importance, the arts represent an important industry sector in the ACT in terms of employment, value adding, and attracting visitors to our city and wider region, through cultural tourism.
Live entertainment is particularly important for the night-time economy of our city. Theatre shows, live music acts and classical music concerts all draw visitors from the region and beyond, often resulting in a night’s stay in the city, a restaurant meal, and some retail therapy.
One example was the three-week season of MAMMA MIA! at the Canberra Theatre Centre in 2017, which delivered $2.5 million in direct expenditure to the visitor economy. The potential benefits to our cultural life, to our community, and to our economy lie at the heart of the current studies into a major new theatre for Canberra.
The Canberra Theatre Centre opened in 1965 when major international venues, like New York’s Lincoln Center, were being built. As Australia’s first multivenue government theatre complex, it opened before the nation’s other major performing arts centres like the Sydney Opera House and the Adelaide Festival Centre.
Having led the field over fifty years ago, the Canberra Theatre Centre is now entering an exciting new period of renewal, with the opportunity for expanded facilities and the scope to be a key aspect of revitalising the city centre.
A new Canberra Theatre, of around 2,000 seats, could provide an auditorium size and technical facilities to cater for a much wider range of shows than the current venue allows: large live music concerts, major musicals, large scale opera and ballet, to name a few.
Canberrans often travel to Sydney or Melbourne to see these types of shows, losing this entertainment spend to the ACT economy. A new venue would help retain that spend in Canberra, attract more cultural tourism dollars to our city, and lead to a greater sense of civic amenity as well as giving our community wider access to such performances.
Adding a major new theatre to the suite of facilities at the Canberra Theatre Centre would not just result in more large-scale shows, but also provide scope to repurpose the existing Canberra Theatre for other performing arts and community uses. At present, the high demand on the Centre’s venues for touring shows restricts their availability for dance school performances and local theatre product.
The new theatre would also require supporting facilities, like a multipurpose studio and areas dedicated to access and learning. These would further extend the Centre’s ability to cater to the needs of our vibrant local theatre and dance sector, and for theatre education. An expanded Centre would, therefore, add real value to the arts throughout our community.
All these matters are being considered in the current preparation of a business case for a new theatre. The early results of the costs and benefits analysis are positive, and the ACT Government’s commitment to this in-depth study suggests we are on the cusp of what I see to be an exciting new era for Canberra’s city centre, and for the cultural life of our region.
Richard Refshauge is the Chair of the Cultural Facilities Corporation, which manages the Canberra Theatre Centre. His other roles include Deputy Chair of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Chair of QL2 Dance, and former Chair of the ACT Cultural Council. He is a former Judge of the ACT Supreme Court.