21 May 2018

Sport vs art: the changing face of Canberra

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Is an outdated Canberra Theatre holding back our arts economy? Photo: Genevieve Jacobs.

Another miserable last few weeks of footy with almost nobody watching. Around 5000 cold Canberrans saw the Brumbies play out a heart-breaking loss a few weeks ago at Bruce before trudging back inside to nurse their injuries in a miserable season.

Cue the calls for a new roofed stadium in Civic that will, according to its proponents, create jobs, boost crowds and the local economy. Raiders coach Don Furner says a new stadium would “definitely make the city a lot more vibrant”.

So how does a crowd of 32,000 with 24% interstate visitors stack up by comparison?

Pretty good? Pretty invigorating for the ACT economy? Those are actually the figures for last year’s three week Mamma Mia run at the Canberra Theatre, and they provide solid backing for the idea that the arts can drive our economy as hard as any sports facility.

Mamma Mia’s producer Louise Withers took a calculated gamble that Canberra could open her national production last year and says that it paid off in spades for the ACT. She reckons that in addition to locals, each of those interstate visitors spent around $500 to $750, and points out that happened night after night, not just in the course of a single weekend.

And, Withers says, there’s a significant opportunity over the next few years to bring in more big shows. “There are only two major commercial houses in Sydney and three in Melbourne, one of which is about to be occupied by the Harry Potter show for a long time. The venues in Brisbane and Adelaide have resident opera companies and orchestras. As government subsidised houses, they’re mandated to cover the whole arts spectrum, so it’s hard to book them.”

“If someone is putting together a major tour, Canberra could bridge that gap. It won’t make a whole stack of money on its own, not enough to pay the bills, but it allows a show to continue its tour and to be viable nationally.”

The catch is that the Canberra Theatre is just not big enough. It’s too old and there’s not enough room onstage, so many commercial producers and even ballet and opera companies shy away. Former Cultural Facilities Corporation chair John Hindmarsh has argued passionately that a new theatre complementing the old one would also create a “Town Hall” venue, making room for everything from school prize-givings to blockbusters.

Photo: Canberra Theatre website.

The Canberra Theatre stage. Photo: Canberra Theatre website.

Marcus Westbury’s creative arts strategy is credited with reviving the post-industrial Newcastle economy. “What we found was that creative enterprise played a significant role in helping the city reinvent its image. That in turn seeded new business and new activity in the city, which has flowed through to tourism, inward investment and other things that benefit a city. If you don’t invest in arts culture then you can’t harvest that.”

As a hometown Newcastle boy brought up on Rugby League, Westbury says it’s wrong to think that one form of entertainment has more intrinsic value than another.

“Stadiums are not hospitals or schools. They are also discretionary income that we spend to bring people together. In some ways, they are more similar than different to theatres or galleries. ABS data shows that more people attend arts events than sports events in Australia, ranging from school concerts to Ed Sheeran.”

“I live in Melbourne now and it’s common to see people wandering through the National Gallery of Victoria in their footy scarves. I think people stop going to the football when their team is losing, not because the stadium is rubbish.”

Critics say a new roofed stadium in Civic would bring back the crowds.

So how do the costs stack up? Roughly, $350 million for a roofed stadium in Civic, and $150 million at most for a new theatre. A private consortium is urging the ACT government to fast-track plans for a new city stadium, while the City Renewal Authority says we need to focus on developing an action plan for the Civic arts and cultural precinct. The chief minister has also floated the idea of a smaller 7000-seat arena in Civic that would host indoor sports, concerts, conferences and exhibitions.

But this is a perennially cash-strapped government that’s funding light rail and financing the Mr Fluffy buyout. It’s unlikely that we’ll see both a new theatre and a new Civic stadium anytime soon.

Louise Withers again: “When Matilda (the musical) ran in Sydney, 350,000 people saw it. How many stadiums is that? You have to develop offerings that are unique to Canberra and nowhere else, and opening Mamma Mia here was that. It showed a very clear path for economic returns.”

How would you spend the money? Does a stadium or a theatre make more sense for Canberra?

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Capital Retro1:56 pm 23 May 18

V8, VB and VD should all be banned.

The problem with these Art versus Sport attendance comparisons is that they don’t fully compare the level of interest between the two spheres of Entertainment. Whilst the Raiders may only have 12,000 fans at the game, half a million Australian’s are watching it on Pay TV and this is promoting Canberra as a city and tourist attraction.

Good cities need good sports stadiums ‘and’ good theatres. Canberrans are more interested and more involved in Sport at all levels, so I guess that drives the demand.

Andrew’s Barr’s $23 Million dollar funding of AFL and GWS at more than 5 times the level of Canberra locals the Brumbies and Raiders, should have come under much more scrutiny than it did. He shouldn’t have been able to make a Captains Call for this much money on his favourite sporting body.

Capital Retro8:34 pm 21 May 18

While the Raiders and the Brumbies are getting ongoing support from the ratepayers it is peanuts when compared to what GWS are getting as you correctly point out.

The common thread with all three teams is that they are not winning lately but hey, the money from ACT government will keep rolling in.

Capital Retro4:20 pm 21 May 18

If there are business people out there claiming a new stadium and a new theatre are needed in Canberra then let them put their money where their mouths, fund it themselves and let the end users pay them back.

This is the only fair way to ffinance these types of projects because there are hundreds of thousands of Canberrans who rarely use such facilities and they shouldn’t be expected to subsidise something that will benefit the relatively few that will regularly use them.

While I understand where you are coming from, extending that approach would mean no public facilities would ever be built, because there is someone out there that would always say ‘but I don’t use it, I shouldn’t have to subsidise it’….. at the end of the day, public goods are delivered by the Government

While in some circumstances, stadiums and theatres may be able to be paid for and operated solely by the private sector, I would think its unlikely to ever be feasible in Canberra for a stadium, and probably not for a major theatre such as a replacement for the Canberra Theatre.

However, that doesn’t preclude private sector interests from contributing towards the costs of such facilities, if as you say they are so keen for them to be built.

But they aren’t public facilities. They are venues for use by commercial organisations. If the ACT wants to spend public money on sport or arts, they should spend it on something that will encourage participation, not on something that will only encourage spectating.

Capital Retro1:30 pm 22 May 18

I would agree with you 50 years ago when all sport was amateur status only and local people played against people from the next town but these days, all the large “public” sporting facilities are used exclusively by professional sporting organisations with very few “local” people involved. The spectators are actually paying to watch “men at work”. A lot of young people would not realise how things have changed. I don’t see any obligation for government to fund these stadiums; don’t they throw enough sponsorship money already at the “teams” (the biggest with no connection to Canberra at all)?

bringontheevidence9:09 am 21 May 18

The two things are not mutually exclusive, and would in fact work quite well as a single building package with shared services.

An indoor stadium would not just provide for sport, but also be an excellent venue for big concerts and larger events. Then you could build the theatre at a scale (say 2000-3500 seats) that would make it appealing as a performance venue, something big 6000-7000 seat venues struggle with.

The arts and sports community should be working on this one together.

Capital Retro6:07 pm 22 May 18

Access Canberra is a “shared services” concept and what a dysfunctional disaster it is.

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