Every note sounds with a story of its own, and in the velveteen halls of one of Australia’s finest acoustic venues, there is urgency to the ostinato thrumming through the orchestra onstage. Blue light ripples in waves across the faces of the 83-strong ensemble, highlighting the power and promise and passion that can flow when performers are united under a shared artistic vision.
It’s a collaboration made possible by WA’s largest oil and gas company: Woodside.
These are the opening moments of Become Ocean, being performed in a unique side-by-side concert of the same name by leading professional musicians from the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and WA Youth Orchestra.
The piece, being debuted to Australian audiences as part of this year’s Perth Festival, is an existential musing on the perils of climate change.
“Life on this earth first emerged from the sea,” writes composer John Luther Adams in his opening notes to the conductor.
“As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
Beyond the comforts of the Perth Concert Hall foyer, there’s a crowd of protestors giving a performance of their own in resistance to the ironic sponsorship that has made the evening possible. The cognitive dissonance between the concert’s artistic endeavours and Woodside’s ecological impact is not lost on these artists, whose steady drumming can be heard in snatches from inside the concert hall.
In an open letter to Perth Festival organisers, these artists from the Fossil Free Arts WA collective say Woodside’s fossil fuel funding is a co-opting of young artistic talent and creativity.
“By permitting Woodside to exploit the artistic licence of Perth Festival, you are tacitly endorsing a future where many of the great coastal cities of the world literally ‘Become Ocean’,” the letter reads.
“We urge and encourage you to create an ethical sponsorship platform, and assess how you can be a part of a just transition away from fossil fuels.”
It’s part of a growing movement of people calling on the arts to divest from WA’s extractive industries to seek more ethical funding alternatives elsewhere.
But for many arts organisations emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate partnerships are a lifeline for survival. A national survey of over 3,000 professionals in the sector indicates that the impact of COVID-19 restrictions has led to at least 32,000 gigs being cancelled Australia-wide since July 2021, and nearly $94 million in lost income.
Transitioning away from so-called fossil fuel donors can be a luxury for organisations struggling to stay afloat – and Australia’s nearly 70-year history of arts funding tells a story of just how precarious the economic landscape is for Australian artists.
The funding landscape
Government spending on the arts and cultural sector has declined over the past decade, but the good news, according to JBWere’s 2018 Support Report, is that the fall in government funding has for the most part been matched by private donations. The caveat: private support is coming from fewer donors, giving more in total.
A 2019 report by independent think tank A New Approach into Australia’s government expenditure on the arts indicates that the biggest public spend occurred in 2017-18 with $6.86 billion.
Private sector support over the same period totalled $608 million in comparison, but according to Creative Partnerships Australia’s 2020 report, Giving Attitude, arts organisations can expect to shift away from government reliance for funding towards public sector support over the next five years.
And if government policy directions and Keynesian economic theory is anything to go by, it’s what has been expected all along.
Australia’s first arts sector fund was established in 1954 as the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, distributing temporary funds to select arts companies on the basis that they would eventually become self-supporting.
But writer, performer and Fossil Fuel Free Arts Network co-founder Dr Vivienne Glance says economic outputs can’t be the only determinant of value for a microcosm as culturally enhancing as the arts.
“It’s hypocritical to say that the arts should be moving towards self-sufficiency when we have $10 billion in subsidies being given to fossil fuel industries,” she argues.
“Most government funding is distributed according to how the community values whatever is being funded. And I’ve had this conversation with many people in the past – is art actually valued in this country?”Dr Vivienne Glance
Figures from The Australia Institute last year estimate the cost of Australian fossil fuel subsidies in 2020-21 to be $10.3 billion – leagues ahead of the $6.86 billion contributed by the public purse to the arts during its peak funding year.
It may be disappointing, but it’s not unexpected. WA’s 2022 economic profile affirms the fact that mining forms the backbone of the state’s economy, contributing a staggering 47 per cent to state GDP. Construction, which ranked in at second highest, contributed only 5 per cent in comparison.
Now advocating for climate change action through her platform at Clean State, Dr Glance understands the power of the important conversations in the quiet room.
“Fossil fuel free arts is a transition that has to be acknowledged, and it has to take place. But as with any other transition, it does need to have the government behind it.
“We need governments to work with organisations to help them transition into more ethical funding, not just throw a few dollars here and there. We’re talking about structural reform here.”
A future for the arts
Despite the complexities of the arts funding landscape and the nuance to WA’s particular funding ecosystem, Dr Glance is optimistic the dial is beginning to shift in public discourse around fossil fuel free funding. But the timeline for progress is unclear as the world seeks to emerge economically from the haze of a pandemic.
“It’s not going to happen soon. We’re still in COVID – we’re still desperate,” she says.
“We also have to recognise that several board members of major organisations in Perth are from fossil fuel industries, and it’s the board’s role to make sure the organisation survives.”
Speaking from the comforts of her leafy Shenton Park home, she’s battle-worn but compassionate about the advocacy work which still needs to happen. It starts with empowering more diversity across the board makeup of arts organisations and working with government to increase equitable access to event spaces – many of which are government-owned, and costs of which can be enormous for events organisers.
Most importantly, she’s insistent on the need for cultural conversation to critically re-examine the values and contributions of the arts to society.
“Art is a way of internalising a question in a safe space. It gives you an emotional rehearsal for life,” Dr Glance says, quiet and thoughtful.
“If you’re privileged and haven’t experienced poverty, hunger or shame – how do you relate to somebody who has? How do you make decisions about their future in a democracy without really understanding what their position is?”