By Amy Upton Stokes, Mishelle Tongco, Rafael Gerster and Yiran Xue
From street art and galleries to local theatre and festivals, the western suburbs of Melbourne have one of the most vibrant arts industries in the country.
But according to Dr Brian Long from Arts and Cultural Management at Melbourne University, it needs a lot more community, and government, support.
‘Here in Victoria we’ve had a progressive Labor government for a while,’ he says. ‘It has a reasonable record on supporting the arts and cultural industries and it’s run a series of successful cultural policies over the past 20 years or so.’
But despite these successful policies Dr Long says the arts industry generally still lacks support.
‘The arts are often seen as an area which can be chopped or reduced without much electoral harm,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a wide social community support for maintaining higher levels of funding for the arts.’
In 2022, the Victorian Government introduced the Go West Fund, a $2.3 million plan to help support local artists in Melbourne’s inner west.
It was the first time creative industries in the region were included in the state budget, with the funding going towards companies like Melbourne Fringe, Snuff Puppets, The Substation and Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Melbourne Fringe CEO Simon Abrahams says the fund has been ‘absolutely vital in paying local artists to enable some really ambitious art making’.
‘We’re filling Melbourne’s western suburbs with new and experimental public art,’ he says, adding that the fund allows for ‘community engaged projects’ which ‘celebrate the locality of where they are’.
‘That’s what the people of the west are going to love, they’re going to see themselves in the works we’re bringing out to the west’.
But despite the success of art festivals such as Melbourne Fringe, Dr Long says more support is needed.
‘The west is the fastest growing geographical area in terms of population, so I think the fund is very worthwhile but I’d like to see even more money going in that direction.’
West versus the rest
While the Go West Fund has granted new opportunities for local artists and creative workers in areas like Footscray, Werribee and Caroline Springs, it falls in comparison to the rest of Melbourne.
In the past two years, art organisations located outside of Melbourne’s west have received regular funding support ranging from $4.5 million to $1.46 billion.
Leading art companies like NGV, Geelong Arts Centre, Melbourne Recital Centre, Art Centre Melbourne and ACMI, received a collective $127.4 million to support their recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Long says the money going to the west is ‘maybe only one or two per cent of what’s going to those other major institutions’.
‘If you were to show that people in the western suburbs don’t come in and go to ACMI and NGV, then you might want to divert the money that’s going into the downtown CBD institutions out into the western suburbs.’
Richard Ponsford, Executive Officer at Melbourne Western Tourism agrees that the west doesn’t receive equal government support and focus.
‘They put more focus on regional areas, forgetting about us,’ he says.
‘The Go West Fund was initially announced to be around seven million, but we’ve only seen money of up to 2.3 million. We aren’t sure where the whole fund is being spent.’
Ponsford says the state government should also invest more to promote these events to attract people from other areas of Melbourne.
‘We would be keen to see more promotion of what’s being developed for the Go West Fund,’ he says. ‘A lot of it is about creating jobs which is great but there needs to be general consumer awareness and understanding.’
‘It’s intricately a part of Melbourne we would like to see more exposure for,’ Ponsford says.
The Go West Fund shows great potential for growing the arts in the inner west, however a question mark hangs around the longevity of the fund and there are fears local institutions will suffer without a long term commitment.
The Footscray Community Arts centre has relied heavily on mainly state and local government funding but has recently lost its triennial funding from Maribyrnong Council.
‘It was felt by council that it probably needed to be treated a little differently to the other organisations that applied for the triennial funding,’ says Councillor Bernadette Thomas.
‘Footscray Community Arts is the largest community arts group that we’ve got in Maribyrnong and because of that it holds a special place in our arts community,’ she says.
‘Instead of continuing to include them in that kind of funding, we take Footscray Community Arts out and then have a special arrangement with them given the nature of their work and their size.’
But Footscray Community Arts brings benefits to not just locals. Its programs support, develop and present collaborations with artists from across Victoria and Australia with an emphasis on supporting diversity. It works with First Nations and LGBTQIA+ communities and its renowned Art Life program for artists with disability is one of the few in Australia backed by the NDIS.
‘There’s always more demand than council can provide, which in one way is a good thing because it means we’ve got a vibrant and active arts community but we can’t give money to everybody because we’ve got a limited bucket of money,’ Cr Thomas says.
‘We really need the state to step in because they’ve got larger budgets and they can really make or break an organisation by bringing in those much larger levels of funding.’
‘Youth arts, and arts developed by multicultural communities, are largely in their early stages of development,’ she says. ‘So any injection in those emerging parts of the arts community could go a long way to adding more vibrancy and diversity across our arts centre.’
But according to Dr Brian Long there is another way to boost support for arts in the west that is perhaps long overdue. ‘Maybe there’s an argument to be made that it’s time for a major arts institution (to be based) in the western suburbs.’