Background Image

Winding Up

Jo Besley discusses the closing of a 25 year old arts and cultural organisation, what it achieved and what it leaves behind…

On March 20th, 2014 Contact Inc held a general meeting at the Brisbane Powerhouse where members voted on a motion put forward by the board to wind up the company. Just short of a year earlier, I had attended Contact’s Annual General Meeting at the same place and joined the board. Little did I, or anyone else present I suspect, have an idea of just what an intense year of difficult decision-making was ahead. Ultimately, the company closed and it’s important to reflect upon this significant ending.

The decision was precipitated by unsuccessful grant applications to the two bodies that had previously provided the company’s core funding – Arts Queensland and the Australia Council – in the space of five months. Adapting to these changed realities was tough. The company was well aware of the shifting policy and funding landscape and was busy exploring new ideas and models for sustainability. It was continuing to achieve artistic goals, with recent successes including the expanding Creative Recovery projects, establishing links with Thailand and Indonesia through various projects, finally cracking a tourable visual art exhibition with Transforming Pixels and a tourable performing product, with The Walking Neighbourhood gaining a space at the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM), making Contact the only Community Cultural Development company to accomplish this. The company’s mission of long-term social change through cultural innovation is far from being either fulfilled or irrelevant.

Casting over Contact’s 25-year history, it is apparent that the company has evolved together with community orientated arts practice in Queensland. From its beginnings as Contact Youth Theatre, through the groundbreaking Third Place Policy to the more recent focus on intercultural and intergenerational practice, the company has always been fresh and responsive and the community cultural development sector has flourished and diversified around it. In this period of time, the rhetoric certainly, and hopefully also the practice, of engagement has become part of the mainstream. Regardless, the closure of Contact Inc is a huge loss for Queensland, not only for the employees, board and broad network of artists and others who work with the company but also, vitally, for communities. Engaging communities takes enormous effort, skill and commitment and the question of accessibility remains potent when companies like Contact Inc, which had a core principle of providing affordable/free services, depart.

The definitive decision was fiscal: the company was facing insolvency and it is a core legal responsibility of the board to ensure this does not occur. Once this was inescapably apparent, the vital question became not so much whether to close, but how – how to die with dignity could be an appropriate analogy. Contact had secured project funding from Arts Queensland, as well as accruing hard earned savings from the previous year, so there were funds that necessitated strategic thinking, and also enabled expert advice and support in legal, financial and governance decision-making around the closure. Rigorous, fraught, productive, emotional and resourceful discussions and thinking took place. The board’s ultimate choice was to put the artistic work first and spend the final months and dollars on the transition of four key projects to community and artist ownership. So a new Creative Recovery Network has been formed to continue this work, The Best is underway with Inala Wangarra, Transforming Pixels returned to the artist for a possible further two exhibitions and The Walking Neighbourhood will carry on as an independent production. For the board, this resolution was both realistic and ethical – we could not in all conscience allow people to continue to work when there was so little money on the horizon. Arts companies may emerge in such circumstances but ferment and fervour are not what should accompany this particular stage of decision-making. Given the recent lack of success in securing government funding and the modest gains of a two-year project seeking philanthropic support, the board had to be prudent.

Ongoing effort is also going into safeguarding the company’s legacy by working with the State Library of Queensland to lodge Contact Inc material there. Contact Inc will close by celebrating its 25 years of operation – the ideas, the energy, the talent, the extraordinary projects and programs, the partnerships and collaborations, the participants who shone – plans for this significant milestone were already underway before the free fall began. Death is perhaps not really the right analogy, possibly (hopefully) this time is something more like a pause, a re-grouping, a clearing of space that will allow and encourage new concepts, forms and actions to emerge. Contact Inc leaves a substantial body of work and (several) generations of gifted practitioners as incitement for regeneration.

Jo is currently undertaking a PhD and teaching in Museum Studies at the University of Queensland. She was formerly Senior Curator, Social History at the Queensland Museum and Museum of Brisbane.






Feature image: The Walking Neighbourhood courtesy of Contact Inc.