Explainer: what are ‘regional arts’ and why do they matter?

The arts have an important role to play beyond the major cities. Tony Bartlett/AAP

At last year’s Regional Arts Australia Summit in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Attorney-General George Brandis announced more than A$1 million in funding for regional arts projects across Australia, asserting that regional arts was one of the few areas to be quarantined from budget cuts.

But what are “regional” arts, exactly, and why do they matter?

Given the widespread usage of the term, you’d think it was clearly understood. But definitions vary considerably.

To determine who is or isn’t “regional”, many funding bodies adopt the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia – a model which defines all areas outside the major capital cities as “regional” and classifies their degree of “remoteness” based on proximity to service centres.

But other arts bodies prefer to base their classifications on the Rural, Remote and Metropolitan Areas index, which excludes all centres with populations of more than 100,000 from regional funding. It means the “regional” status of centres such as Newcastle and Wollongong, and their eligibility for funding, depends on which organisation is ticking the boxes.

In short, “regional” lies in the eyes of the beholder.

During his press conference at the Regional Arts Australia Summit, Senator Brandis affirmed that:

quality arts and cultural activities are not only the domain of capital cities.

But artists living in the grey areas between clear-cut metropolitan and rural areas must pay careful attention to the geographic and demographic criteria of individual funding bodies if they hope to be eligible for grant money set aside for regional artists.

What is a regional artist?

Geographically speaking, a regional artist is anyone living and practising art in a regional location. This includes large regional centres, small towns, villages and the bush.

In terms of their creative practice, regional artists are most likely to pursue visual arts and writing, but actors, dancers, designers, musicians, and digital media artists are among many others who would self-identify as regional artists.

Similarly, there is no unifying theme to regional artists’ work: some explore the environment they work in, some focus on the social fabric of their location, while others ignore their surroundings entirely.

Mark Booth, 25.150-88° at BRAG. Clare Lewis

This diversity is reflected in the iconic arts village of Hill End in Bathurst, New South Wales, where the works of local landscape artists sits alongside the PVC piping sculptures of Mark Booth and the architectural sculpture of Hui Selwood.

But while regional artists can enjoy the benefits of working in places they love, as well as cheaper overheads and being closer to family, they also face challenges including limited access to professional development programs, fewer networking opportunities and reduced market access.

This is where regional arts funding can make a difference.

Regional arts funding

There are several major funding programs targeting regional artists. The federal flagship is the Regional Arts Fund, while each state offers its own funding program. There is also non-arts-related funding that organisations can access when they use the arts to develop works that have health, economic development or social cohesion outcomes.

Federal funding comes through a variety of means: primarily the Ministry for the Arts, which sits within the Attorney-General’s office, and the Australia Council, where government takes an arm-length’s approach to funding decisions – a principal established at the Australia Council’s foundation in 1973, but seemingly jeopardised following last year’s Sydney Biennale boycott.

It’s difficult to estimate how much money is allocated for regional arts due to the vast array of funders, funding pools and individual programs, but grants can range from as little as A$500 for individual artists to A$150,000 for arts fellowships.

While major funding bodies insist the amount of grants going to regional Australia is consistent with the population – around 32% of Australians live regionally – the actual amounts are often less, arguably due to these bodies' city-based locations.

That said, some of the Australia Council’s programs have clear regional benefits. These include Visions of Australia, Playing Australia, the Contemporary Music Touring Program and Festivals Australia: Regional Festival Projects Fund, all funding pools that offer incentives for artists to perform in regional areas.

The Arts Start grant, which helps young artists to develop their careers and business strategies, also has a track record of supporting regional artists.

Art across Australia

There is a strong history of participatory arts projects providing benefits for both regional artists and their communities. The arts have helped rebuild communities in the wake of droughts and bushfires – such as Regional Arts Victoria’s Illuminated By Fire artist in residency program run in the wake of the 2009 Black Saturday fires – and have assisted communities to access health and welfare services through programs like “Smashed Arts” and “Binge on Art” – binge drinking arts/ educational programs that ran in Bathurst and South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula.

But that isn’t the whole picture and regional arts practice works on many levels. Regional artists and arts organisations have a responsibility to ensure their work is documented and evaluated with rigour, capturing the complex and varied ways in which regional arts funding can have a positive effect on the individual artists and their communities.

Inside Australia, Lake Ballard, WA. Amander Slater/ Flickr, CC BY-SA

It is also vital that regional areas aren’t only seen as “receivers” of art, waiting to consume metropolitan arts practice, but are recognised as centres of arts creation in their own right with potential markets in metropolitan and international areas.

Artists need to have choice about where they live and create work on a reasonably level playing field. With the targeted support of regional arts funding, Australia’s assorted “regional artists” can show that regional arts are not only valued in remote areas, but right across the country.