Perth: Festival Town

By Darcie Boelen
Image credit: Weekendnotes 


One festival season finishes in Perth, and another begins. The culture and arts festivals have finally come to a close, the summer music festivals are also winding down. Summer turned slowly into autumn, bringing comedy with it as it is wont to do.

Would you believe that in other cities they sometimes have various genres of culture and art performances and exhibitions – including dance, music, theatre, art, film and comedy – happening simultaneously? I know it might sound blasphemous, but it is actually possible.

We’re not starved for culture in Perth, but culture in Perth is impermanent. We do have plenty of music and comedy clubs, but they are all attached to bars, and we have quite a bit of theatre and plenty of musicals, but the seasons don’t last particularly long. Art exhibitions, galleries, and museum collections come and go like the wind.

And my word, we have so many festivals.

They’re quite good festivals, which is good. The Perth International Arts Festival is the longest running cultural festival in Australia, and the 2015 festival sported 1000 artists and cost $22.4 million. To put that in perspective, the annual Sydney Festival’s budget for 2015 is a mere $18 million, and Sydney is over three times the size of Perth – and that’s just for the International Arts Festival.

We also have Fringe World, the Perth International Comedy Festival, the Fashion Festival, Summerset Arts Festival, the Awesome Arts Festival, Sculpture by the Sea and Rottofest to name a few. There are enough more outdoor cinemas and film festivals than you can shake a stick at, and the Form Public Art festival founded in 2006 is becoming bigger and better every year.

In terms of music, we have Groove in the Moo, Southbound and Blues ‘n Roots music festivals. We’ve had to say goodbye to Rock It, Soundwave, Big Day Out and FutureMusic in the last few years, too, but in the past we had at least six major music festivals taking place each year.

I’m not sure what it’s like to live anywhere else, but six music festivals in the space of six months always made me feel like we had too much going on. The budget for an entire music festival could fund several smaller arts spaces across a full year. So why do we always have festivals? Are we really that festive?

The reason why we don’t have permanent spaces for arts and culture is that there simply isn’t enough of us. I know it seems like the queues at the petrol stations are just getting longer and there’s about twice as many people taking public transport, but I honestly believe we need more people to sustain a permanent arts scene.

While you can operate eight never-ending Cirque de Solei shows in Las Vegas, that’s not something that could happen in Perth. We don’t have permanent entertainment venues like Copacabanas or Draculas because there aren’t quite enough for us to keep permanent shows or galleries or installations going. Everybody in Perth would have to go to every arts event for such spaces to survive, and that includes children, elderly and people who hate arts. Not to mention that a disproportionate percentage of Western Australians are fly-in fly-out workers, therefore mostly absent from their hometown.

Places like Las Vegas, New York and London which have famous and historic permanent art spaces have not only huge populations, but also a huge number of people passing through. We do get a lot of tourists in Perth, but not nearly enough to keep Cats going for twenty years non-stop.  It’s hardly the West End over here.

The other main reason why Perth sports so many festivals is because we’re far too isolated to attract regular interstate or international shows, and if we didn’t spend huge lump sums of money to bring artists to our doorstep, they simply wouldn’t come. I think most Western Australians know the frustration when a beloved performer goes on a ‘national tour’ and misses Perth, or an incredible art collection doesn’t make it out West.

The culture of festivals works in Perth really well in Perth because we’re isolated, and we love having so many amazing international artists and performers come to our city, but we are losing more and more of our permanent cultural spaces. I’m not sure what the solution is, because we’re in a particularly tricky circumstance where we don’t have enough people and we can’t substantially increase tourism fast enough to get longer lasting culture.

It’s not as though we don’t have the material. Perth already has a huge amount of local talent, and with population growth and better accessibility, Perth will eventually be able to sustain permanent arts spaces. But at the moment we seem to be stuck between a festival and a hard place.