In 2023, we delivered one of the most ambitious artistic programs in Phillip Adams BalletLab’s history.
As we head into 2024, PABL and our beloved queer dance temple, Temperance Hall, face a dire financial position – reflecting an arts sector in peril.
You might have heard it on the grapevine, but we wanted to let our community know first hand:
with no State or Federal funding, Temperance Hall cannot continue to operate and will be forced to close by June, 2024.
We’ve looked everywhere for support.
In early 2022, at one of the most vulnerable points for the organisation following 2 years of lockdowns, we lost our multi-year organisational funding from Creative Victoria ($128,250/year). We were offered 18 months of reduced ‘Strategic Initiative’ funding ($75,000/year), on which to pivot, but with no acknowledgement of where or to what?
Last month, to mark the conclusion of our Strategic Initiative funding, we were invited to update CV project officers on our circumstances. After outlining our grim financial forecast, the project officer drew the meeting to a close by saying: “I just want to be very clear – there’s nothing we can offer you.”
For the past 18 months, we have lobbied our State Member for Albert Park, Nina Taylor MP and her predecessor Hon Martin Foley, as well as the Victorian Creative Industries Minister Hon. Colin Brooks and his predecessor Hon. Steve Dimopoulous, for State Government support, to no avail.
In 2021, PABL received $598,566 in the Federal Government’s emergency RISE funding, which we stretched over two-and-a-half years. However, this exceptional pandemic-related program has had no prospect of renewal, and we are one of many organisations now watching our revenue walk off a cliff.
In 2023, with deep reservations, we opted to put forward an application to the Australia Council’s (now Creative Australia) Four-Year Investment Program. We were unsurprised when we were notified we were unsuccessful.
Deep reservations because, like many other organisations of our scale, we haven’t been successful in this program since the 2016 Brandis cuts, from which the small-to-medium sector never really recovered. Since then, the cohort of supported companies has generally shrunk and consolidated. Only 5 dance companies are currently funded through this program nationally, and 3 of these are in Melbourne. This week, recipients of the next iteration of this program were announced, with five more dance organisations added nationally, spreading the love evenly across the country in accordance with Creative Australia’s national remit. However no new organisations were supported in Melbourne – the epicentre of the artform, and home to the greatest number of professional independent dance practitioners in Australia.
Deep reservations also because of the demoralising experience of engaging with these funding programs when there are such slim chances of a positive outcome. Our last opportunity for Federal Government support was the September round of Creative Australia project funding, and we were unsuccessful. Successful applicants were announced last week, with only 5 independent dance artists and 4 dance organisations funded nationally; of these, there is only 1 independent artist based in Victoria, and 0 organisations, effectively amounting to a single $40K investment in Victoria’s hundreds of dance professionals through this program.
The new Labor Government’s modest increase in funding is barely scratching the sides of the demand that’s built up in the sector over decades of diminished funding, to say nothing of inflation. The supply-demand ratio that sees every single Creative Australia program swamped with applications and tiny success rates, shows the agency’s remit is too broad and its resources are spread too thin. The real world impact of this is a sector spending a scandalous amount of time crafting grant applications. This might seem like a commonplace gripe, but it’s an absolute sector blind-spot – celebrating administration above art making at every turn.
BalletLab currently receives $26,000/year in Key Organisations funding from the City of Port Phillip’s Cultural Development Fund, and we regularly receive about $12,000/year in project grants for programs like Midsumma and Fringe. The Key Organisations funding, while steadfast, covers just over two-thirds of the ~$33,500 in rent we pay to our landlords Working Heritage.
For the past six months, we have heavily lobbied the Council for emergency funding to sustain our venue-for-hire operations, which would in turn enable our artistic program. This is a stop-gap emergency request to buy us time, but we have struggled to secure Councillors’ support.
A relative bright spot is support that has come through private foundations and individuals. At the start of the year, with support from the Besen Family Foundation, we were able to engage philanthropy consultancy ‘A Good Plan Group’, to help us to develop our philanthropic prospects, including strategy and collateral.
With this support, in the past 12 months we have secured $159,734.70 from private commissions, giving, sponsorship and philanthropy. This is a 5-fold increase on preceding years, and a big effort for a micro arts org like ours, however, in an Australian context, the amounts available via private giving and philanthropic foundations, is limited and can only ever be supplemental to an operational budget.
Temperance Hall has some capacity to earn revenue as a venue for hire. In the face of State and Federal funding losses, this has taken on increasing importance for the organisation, and we have invested staff time in upgrading our venue hire processes. And yet this income when optimised can sustain little more than our rent, utilities and one employee to answer phone calls and emails to keep the wheel turning.
Our organisational purpose is not to operate a venue for hire with no artistic programming.
There is currently a great deal of discussion about artists’ wellbeing – and, since the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing across society generally. Programs like Arts Centre Melbourne’s Arts Wellbeing Collective were established in recent years to ‘[promote] positive mental health and wellbeing in the performing arts industry’, offering resources to encourage ‘positive psychology and psychosocial safety’ in the workplace and workshops on ‘Creative Self-Care’ and ‘Responding to Mental Distress’.
What’s often missing from this discourse – especially as it relates to the independent and small-to-medium sector – is an acknowledgement of the ridiculous baseline conditions of a professional pursuit that is structurally precarious and poorly remunerated. No other professional sector could tolerate the chronic eleventh-hour uncertainty of, for example, the many programs that announce funding outcomes often only weeks ahead of the proposed funded activity’s implementation, compromising forward planning, job security and strategic direction in the process. The lack of agency afforded those delivering the activity – the artists and their facilitators – is taken for granted. Another sector would see this as a total absence of business confidence, and completely dysfunctional.
The past few months have been some of the most challenging – and distressing – for our tiny staff of 4, as we have navigated the implications of our organisational position, likely closure and job losses. And yet the precarity and uncertainty we face pales in comparison to the lot of independent artists who are the primary producers of our sector.
OUR LOSS IS YOUR LOSS:
In an Australian context, the arts function as an ecosystem, which requires investment and tending; the arts do not thrive when treated like an open market of rivals competing for scarce resources in a zero-sum game. Thriving organisations strengthen and provide infrastructure in support of each other’s operations; and they provide scaffolding upon which artists can build substantial careers and make meaningful contributions to our collective cultural life.
Melbourne dance has a vital and world-renowned history of practice. Phillip Adams BalletLab has made a major contribution to that over the past 25 years through major works such as Aviary, Amplification, Axeman Lullaby, Brindabella, Origami, Miracle and Fiction, and through extensive teaching and mentoring of next generation artists. Over the past 7 years, Temperance Hall has premiered PABL works Ever, Glory, Paradise, The Prelude, Laceship, SICK, and this year’s Triptych.
These works are wild, queer, transgressive and highly sophisticated. They are demanding and exhilarating for performers and audiences alike. They are provocative, and always refuse mildness or compromise for the sake of conformist public pressures of propriety, bankability or trend. In this fearless approach, they are an exceedingly rare contribution in an Australian artistic context. It is especially rare to see this commitment to experimentation and form-pushing persist over a 25-year career.
Temperance Hall has also become a vital home to independent artists – especially for the queer, the radical, the rebellious and the experimental – many of whom would struggle to find opportunities in other arts institutions in Melbourne. PABL and Temperance Hall have directly cultivated some of Australia’s most significant dance artists – too many to name – and our legacy extends far and wide into the broader art form and cultural ecosystem, often providing ‘upward pressure’ onto the art making and programming of more establishment spaces.
The most important measures of our success as an organisation have never been easily captured in KPIs and Annual Report statistics. The success of our work is most keenly demonstrated in our relationships with the artists we work with and platform, and it will be most keenly felt in the hole our absence leaves.
We believe that Temperance Hall’s closure augurs poorly for the sector, and the culture, more broadly. It is happening in the context, and as a result, of an economically stretched, zero-sum game operational environment. And in response to scarce resources and volatile conditions, funding bodies, curators and festival programmers grow more cautious, populist and conservative in their decisions around what art they platform.
It all leads to a more mild, less interesting artistic landscape and a culturally poorer society.
Our Board recently extended all staff contracts until March 2023. After that, we have limited reserves for about 3 more months to keep the ship afloat before handing back the keys and bidding farewell.
We think we have left no stone unturned, however you can lend your voices to amplify ours, by signing our Open Letter of Support for Temperance Hall.
And by calling or emailing:
- Mayor Heather Cunsolo and the Councillors of the City of Port Phillip
- Our State Member for Albert Park, Nina Taylor MP
- The new Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Colin Brooks
- Our Federal Member for Macnamara, Josh Burns MP
- The Office of Federal Arts Minister Hon Tony Burke.
With love and sadness,
Phillip Adams BalletLab and Temperance Hall
Temperance Hall acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land in which we dance and create, the Boon Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation, and pay our respect to Elders both past and present and, through them, to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.