As we continue to face the immediate issues of the COVID-19 pandemic and plan for the way ahead, I well recall taking the Hong Kong Arts Festival through the SARS outbreak in 2003, and trying to steer a pan-Asian TV travel channel through the decimating effects to the tourism industry of 9/11.
There are many parallels and differences to our current predicament, but one fundamental is the same: the belief in recovery and planning for it.
In Hong Kong in 2003 nearly 300 people died and all of us were mainly thinking about immediate survival, with public events being severely curtailed.
Nonetheless through this difficult time there was an optimism that it would eventually end and the community would start to prosper again. And that arts and entertainment would have an essential role to play in that bounce back.
Despite its terrible consequences, the current pandemic, like SARS and 9/11, gives us time and space to think about fitting responses and future initiatives.
For the creative and cultural sector it is an opportunity to take a fresh look at what our communities and audiences will want and need, and then get ready to deliver it to them.
Over the last few weeks in my role as Chair of the Asia Pacific Arts Centres network, I have listened to many thoughts on the recovery plans of more than 70 cultural organisations and precincts from Tokyo to Singapore, and Mumbai to Auckland.
Each in its own way acknowledged that we must all recognise changing civic and community needs as we go into recovery. Many see also the vital role of arts and entertainment precincts in city and state tourism rebuilds and that audience requirements will change and the demand for events that support wellbeing and health that are outdoor and free or low cost will grow.
Further, that the arts and creative sectors everywhere have a distinct capability to bring communities together and make sense of the current difficulties and future implications.
We all agreed that our sectors can meaningfully help rebuild public confidence.
So how might we apply some of this to Adelaide?
In recovery mode, our city will be presenting itself anew as an attractive and viable place to live, work, study, visit and invest.
The combined potential of our leisure and public precincts and the importance of community cohesion in this recovery are areas where the creative sector can make significant contributions.
Let me focus on two of our city precincts.
In the area between the Morphett and King William Street Bridges, we have a unique cluster of public attractions. There is arts and entertainment, sports, conventions and exhibitions, gaming, hotels and restaurants, all in a beautiful riverside setting. This is already a very valuable Adelaide asset, with even greater potential to be realised.
The new Festival Plaza will become its gateway and we will see all the organisations and partners within the precinct work together with the state government to better coordinate and present Riverbank’s collective attractions.
Similar cooperative thinking would also be useful for the North Terrace cultural grouping of the art gallery, museum, library and also the Adelaide Festival Centre.
Secondly, we need to support renewed momentum in the Chinatown/Market precinct. The impressive new Her Majesty’s Theatre will become an anchor attraction in this area which is already richly endowed with great restaurants, retail, many new hotel and residential developments, along with a truly multi-cultural character which well reflects the changing dynamic of modern Australian cities.
The new Maj in Grote Street is ready to resume work. Since first opening in 1913, she has seen South Australia through two World Wars, the 1919 pandemic and the Great Depression.
Now, completely redeveloped, and more inviting and accessible than ever, she will continue to serve South Australians as soon as it is safe for us to gather again.
The Asian Australian communities and students, living, working, shopping and dining alongside the Maj will be a big part of her future, providing a rich seam of new artists, new works and new audiences.
All these precinct opportunities mean enhanced, social, creative and economic benefits, community and visitor engagement, and more jobs.
Indeed, central to the preparation for the 1997 reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty and maintaining it as a world city into the 21st century was the determination to retain its edge as a creative industries hub.
There was a massive investment in the West Kowloon Cultural District – a strategic commitment for community, city tourism, their creative economy and international reputation. This sort of vision and initiative has served many Asian cities well through the diverse social and economic challenges of the past couple of decades.
Regrettably in our country the pandemic has also exposed vulnerable community fault lines. Thus, protecting our precious multicultural achievement and growing it through Australian/Asian cultural engagement and better involvement of Australian Asian communities is increasingly necessary now.
The Adelaide Festival Centre has over the last decade, become a national hub for this multicultural engagement. So the appointment of one our best Asian/Australian creative identities, Annette Shun Wah, to direct OzAsia Festival will reinforce Adelaide’s national leadership in this regard.
At the same time we must not forget the creative and economic significance of our reputation as the nation’s year-round festival capital – and those strongly branded arts festival events that we have nurtured over many years that make that reputation possible.
The Fringe, Womad, AFA, Dream Big, Cabaret, Guitar, Our Mob, OzAsia, History, Feast and Sala. All of them, albeit some currently in online form, clearly enhance the city’s attractions to locals and visitors.
Key to this success, is the sustaining of our artists, arts workers and organisations through these difficult times, and on to the road to recovery.
The experience of some of the hardest SARS hit cities in Asia was that cultural and entertainment activities and organisations were integral in the post pandemic reboot – not only in terms of community spirit and well-being, but also for real economic recovery.
Adelaide is a UNESCO creative city for music for good reason; there are outstanding musicians and music-making here. We must try and support all those music venues big and small, to be active again, when safe to do so.
In addition, the government is looking at the feasibility of a new music centre as a home for the ASO. And the Adelaide Festival Centre is working with the sector to develop the Playhouse complex as a renewed hub and platform for not only the State Theatre Company but also all small and medium performing arts companies.
As well as processing our shared dark days, the special capabilities of the arts will enable wide reflection on the many changes that are occurring around us.
These include strengthened connections with family, friends and a shared responsibility to protect vulnerable members of our community.
Again, drawing on the post SARS experience across Asia, I would say that there was a general recognition that arts and culture could help process negative emotions and be a therapeutic channel for collective concerns to be aired and shared with others.
I hope a new appreciation of the small but meaningful aspects of our daily lives will stay with us long after this current crisis has passed, and that these positive elements of our shared experience will percolate through the arts events we present and their relevance to audiences.
In all of this, I am confident that Adelaide will continue to be known across Australia and Asia Pacific as a creative capital that truly embraces and celebrates its diverse and multicultural community.
A wonderful and exceptional place to live, visit and enjoy.
Douglas Gautier is Adelaide Festival Centre CEO and artistic director
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