Arts community in shock at councillors’ Heart decision

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
Earlier this year, Arts Margaret River general manager Andrew Frith was looking forward to the opening of the redeveloped Heart venue.
Camera IconEarlier this year, Arts Margaret River general manager Andrew Frith was looking forward to the opening of the redeveloped Heart venue.

Arts Margaret River will be forced to reassess its offerings and the future of the community cinema and Readers and Writers Festival after the majority of councillors backed the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River this week to run its redeveloped cultural centre for at least the next 12 months.

On Wednesday, five out of six councillors said their hands were tied, with the legal complexities around the expanded Heart venue — which opens next month — offering a $150,000 funding pool to all arts organisations to run events at the centre.

Arts volunteers were fuming after the decision, which they said ousted the true heart of the community from the venue carrying that name.

Cr Mike Smart survived complaints from his colleagues during debate long enough to make clear he had warned as far back as 2014 that tying State and Federal funding for the Heart redevelopment to the business and conference sector meant there was now an obligation for the Shire to go into that business for itself.

“The whole business case rested on that,” Cr Smart said.

“We have no choice.

“We’ve made a decision and we’ve got to live by it.”

Arts Margaret River president Fred Affleck fronted Wednesday’s meeting saying the second of three options considered in a contentious governance review of Heart was preferred, but councillors instead backed option one.

Under the deal, the Shire will allocate more than $400,000 for more staff to run the venue, previously provided by volunteers, with a competitive Community Culture and Arts Development Fund to subsidise some events open to all, and a new Heart reference group “comprising a number of skilled and experienced community members from diverse backgrounds to reflect the broad range of focus areas for the Heart”.

Arts Margaret River could also get a sweetener, which Cr Naomi Godden said might continue into the future as a memorandum of understanding to make sure the community-run arts group stayed afloat while the Shire got a sense of the costs involved.

A report will come to councillors next year investigating the costs running the centre, with a follow-up in 2021.

Crs Godden and Smart said it was feasible Arts Margaret River could be offered a bigger role once costs were known.

Arts volunteer Ben Aitken won several rounds of applause from the 60-strong crowd for his criticism of the proposal.

“The report is geared towards ‘We want to run it and make all of the money out of it’,” he said.

“It has one basic flaw: the whole thing is based on economic return.

“The whole of our community benefits from a healthy arts culture.”

Arts patron and architect Theo Mathews said similar venues cost more to run than the Shire projected, and he urged councillors to consider the benefits – as well as wide community support – for Arts Margaret River in the key role.

“Any management structure that excludes Arts Margaret River would not adequately reflect the arts community in this region,” he said.

Arts Margaret River president Fred Affleck noted 6000 volunteer hours were provided each year by Arts Margaret River at a value of about $125,000. “Have you, the council, realistically considered the level of volunteering achievable if managed by Shire officers?” he asked.

Arts Margaret River doubted the Shire could attract the same events funding and said local government could struggle with the costs.

Mr Affleck said Arts Margaret River would submit another tender if required, but a request to combine aspects of options one and two was rebuffed due to legalities.

Shire Chief executive Stephanie Addison-Brown said no guarantees could be offered to the arts group, and forming a Shire-led Heart board to oversee the centre, similar to the Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre, was not viable because it risked State Government “tender avoidance” laws.

A fully outsourced option was not debated, with councillors noting Arts Margaret River was the only group to submit tenders when that option was last floated.

The report noted: “The Shire has an obligation to balance ‘business’ and ‘arts’ to ensure financial viability for the heart while delivering on the vision and relevant community outcomes.”

“In order to meet the outcomes of Heart, meet the needs and expectations of residents, and support our local economy, the new Margaret River Heart must evolve.”

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