Harping on about the arts


The Brisbane Philharmonic strings with Emily Granger (harp) and Jonathan Henderson (flute). Photo by John Connolly.

In the aftermath of ‘Albo’s first 100 days,’ it could be constructive to talk about one good thing the previous Federal government did – creating the RISE scheme for the Arts.

The $200 million RISE (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand) grants scheme was designed to arrest the declining financial health of arts organisations and creative individuals. The Covid-19 stimulus program was welcomed by the arts community as organisations large and small shared in the bounty.

We were witness to the fruits of one such grant application by the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra. The BPO has been touring regional towns with its newly acquired Salzedo concert harp. This $75,000 instrument looks and sounds gorgeous. The BPO toured a string quintet with two soloists – Emily Granger (harp) and Jonathan Henderson (flute). This ensemble played for 110 people at Warwick Town Hall last Saturday. Apart from the interesting and varied programme (Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Schoenberg, Faure), this was an occasion for ‘show and tell’.

Audience members were invited to come up to the stage after the concert and inspect the concert harp close up. BPO director John Connolly told the audience the custom-made concert harp used up a lot of the grant the orchestra received last year. He briefly explained the complexity of the instrument, built from maple and spruce and invited the audience to come up and inspect it after the concert.

The BPO’s application brief was to acquire this instrument and then take it on tour to places where people have probably never seen a concert harp. On this tour, the ensemble played at Pomona, Maryborough, Warwick, Toowoomba and Brisbane.

The RISE Fund was established to support the arts and entertainment sector to re-activate after two years of Covid disruption. The program offered arts and entertainment sector organisations assistance in the presentation of cultural and creative projects. The funding of activities and events was aimed at rebuilding confidence amongst investors, producers and consumers (hate that word.Ed).

The first RISE grants were issued in December 2020 in support of artists and organisations affected by COVID-19. The aim was to fund the delivery and presentation of activities across all art forms to audiences across Australia. Projects aimed at audiences in outer metropolitan, regional and remote areas were taken into account, as were projects that involved tours and use of local regional services and support acts.

The grant scheme provided $200 million over 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 to assist the financial viability of arts organisations. Among the first grants awarded was $1 million to the Byron Bay Blues Festival and $1.46 million to Woodfordia for its smaller-scale Bushtime festival.

Queensland grant recipients included Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband and musical partner Keir Nuttall. The pair, known for ‘Muriel’s Wedding – the Musical’, received a $200,000 grant to produce a new musical, Bananaland. QMusic, the umbrella organisation that represents musicians in Queensland, was another grant recipient.The Granite Belt Art and Craft Trail received $80,000 to help present a three-day showcase of artists and artisans around the region. Some grant awards have attracted criticism, however (see footnote).

In what one might term its ‘death throes’, the Morrison government allocated a further $20 million to the scheme in March this year. Just this week Opposition Shadow spokesman for the Arts Paul Fletcher took aim at Arts Minister Tony Burke for failing to distribute the last batch of funds. I reached out to Mr Burke’s office to ask (a) has the money had been allocated and (b) did this Labor government intend to extend or supplement the scheme.

Citizen journalists don’t often get a response to approaches like this. We make do with public statements, published details of grant schemes and quoting other publications. In this instance, given there was no response from Mr Burke’s office, we’ll let the Opposition have a free kick.

Fletcher took the chance to turn Albo’s headline into ‘100 days of lost opportunities for the Arts’.

“Since the election, Minister for the Arts Tony Burke has repeatedly failed to confirm $20 million in funding from the last round of the (RISE) program,” Mr Fletcher said in a statement.

“The RISE fund helped to create over 213,000 job opportunities across Australia by assisting the arts and entertainment sector re-establish itself post-pandemic,” he added.

“In recognising arts and entertainment as one of our hardest hit sectors during the pandemic, the Coalition Government extended the RISE program as part of the 2022-23 Budget.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anthony (Albo) Albanese spent much of the week explaining what he and his government had achieved in its first 100 days. A lot of what was said had been said before – diplomatic forays into the Pacific, the mercy dash to Ukraine, the Quad meeting, mending fences with France and all that. There was the commitment to reducing the impact of climate change, and, if you did not know, the quiet scrapping of the cashless debit card previously imposed on some welfare recipients.

As the Canberra Times pointed out, the first 100 days was not without its challenges. The incoming Labor government was met by a perfect storm – rising interest rates together with high inflation and the subsequent higher prices at the petrol pump and supermarket checkout. Mr Albanese is already flagging budget measures in October to tackle soaring energy prices.

All up, it seems ‘Albo’ is still enjoying a honeymoon, although some of the Opposition’s gainsaying is gaining traction. I’m fairly sure that allowing ex-basketball giant Shaq O’Neill to make a surprise visit to the PM was what young people would call a ‘fail’. The story was that Shaq, a black man from the US, was lending his support to Albo’s campaign for recognition of indigenous Australians. Shaq is these days maybe better known for betting ads than his time with the LA Lakers. Besides, he made the PM look small, and we can’t have that.

It will indeed be interesting to see what kind of funding Albo and his team direct to the arts and entertainment sector. It would be great if organisations like the BPO or talented individuals like Keir and Kate could depend on more of the same. Covid-19 has not gone away and there are still many challenges facing those providing live entertainment.

Anyway, we thought the Brisbane Philharmonic Orchestra’s travelling concert at $20 concession was the bargain of the year. The BPO’s grant application proposed just such a concert series. The aim was a regional tour built around the acquisition of a new Concert Harp. The $102,000 grant was released in July last year. It shows how long it can take for an arts group to plan for and execute a tour like this. As with most arts presentations, the door take was clearly not going to cover tour costs, not to mention wages.

The BPO is Brisbane’s leading community orchestra with up to 200 musicians a year performing a variety of orchestral music.  It is sustained by donations, sponsorship and grants.

We looked around Warwick’s beautiful town hall, built in 1887, and were astonished by how many faces we recognised. We’ve only been here two years or so, but somehow seem to have gravitated to the side of town that loves a bit of culture. I hear the famous Birralee children’s choir is coming here later this month. You might have even read it here first.

Today’s FOMM is brought to you by the letter P for patronage. There should be more of it.

Footnote: The RISE scheme has its critics

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