A recent arts congress held in Perth provided an opportunity for local players to engage with international performing arts leaders in a unique, creative environment.

The International Society for the Performing Arts Congress was hosted in Perth for the first time in its 75-year history, with 350 delegates from 30 countries in town from April 30 to May 3.

Perth-based national arts organisation PAC Australia secured the event to promote Western Australian talent on the international arts stage.

ISPA hosts two congresses a year, one in New York where the organisation is headquartered and one overseas.

The events deliver a mix of educational events and arts performances for delegates over a four-day period. PAC Australia executive director Katherine Connor said there were common challenges threading throughout the global arts sector.

“There are definitely different cultural contexts that come into play, but there are so many similarities in what we’re dealing with universally,” Ms Connor told Business News.

“Getting audiences to return to the performing arts in a post-COVID world is going to linger for a long time.

“Operational things like workforce are a huge issue for the arts sector … skills development, availability of staff, how we actually recruit and retain staff. That’s definitely a universal issue.”

Ms Connor said there was a sense of urgency post-pandemic that now was the time to fix issues in the arts sector.

“I feel like the whole sector has been bubbling away with a lot of issues and many of the structural changes we’ve been looking for are starting to take place, but change is slow,” she said.

“The advantage of that is you can have these gatherings while that change is happening [and] you’re getting multiple cultural contexts feeding into the solutions throughout time, rather than just those snap structural changes.

“While there [are] things that absolutely do need to change, taking the fact that it’s slow means there are many more opportunities to feed into what that change is going to look like.

“Things we needed to see changed three years ago have changed again already.”

The ISPA Congress presented an ideal platform to facilitate these discussions and share solutions, while additionally showcasing the strength of WA’s arts scene to international leaders.

PAC Australia secured the congress in 2021 and spent three years developing the program.

Ms Connor said winning the hosting rights was an implicit recognition of Perth as a cultural hub of significance.

“This year’s ISPA Congress … was really to position Perth as the international gateway for the performing arts into Australia,” Ms Connor said.

“For many delegates, this was their first time in Australia, so it was really incredible for their entry point to be Perth.”

ISPA Congress events were held at several arts venues across Perth, including His Majesty’s Theatre, the State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth Concert Hall and Subiaco Arts Centre.

Included in the diverse program were roundtable conversations, collaborative project pitching workshops, professional development intensives for emerging arts leaders, leadership talks, and networking opportunities.

Ms Connor said every day consisted of sessions and there was a performance every night.

“We started the congress with a gathering of global First Nations artists and arts workers … which was around cultural protocols and creating space for those delegates to gather prior to the event,” she said.

“PAC Australia did a major arts marketing research project over the last few months, so we held a full day arts marketing symposia … which was another way to entice performing arts managers to come to Perth.

“One fascinating session … was called Competing Desires and the Sustainability Imperative, which was about the things we’re trying to move forward with as a sector but are actually in conflict or are incompatible objectives.

“[F]or example, we want to expand and [improve] performing arts touring, but touring is inherently climate unfriendly … so, how can we make touring sustainable?”

The events were designed to encourage active engagement from delegates.

“I don’t like conferences or any kind of gathering where everyone is just passively consuming content for the whole week,” Ms Connor said.

“We like to mix up the delegate experience … so everyone feels like they’re part of every conversation.”

Delegates also visited Perth’s key attractions, with Ms Connor saying it was important to showcase local tourism offerings in addition to the rich arts scene.

“There’s a beautiful cultural scene spread all across Perth and WA, but then all the delegates also went to Kings Park and … Rottnest, and we did a closing lunch at City Beach and watched the sunset over the ocean to wrap up the congress,” Ms Connor said.

PAC Australia also hosts an annual conference called the Australian Performing Arts Exchange (APAX) to bring arts leaders together to engage in meaningful discussion about industry.

Ms Connor said the sector was changing faster than ever, which introduced a new challenge for program planning.

“When we program the APAX, the congress itself happens in about August or September and it used to be that we’d have the program locked and loaded by February,” she said.

“Now, the conversations we want to have in February are not conversations that are going to be live in August, September.

“It means we’re programming quite late, which can be a little nerve-racking for the team, but for delegates, they have faith that the conversations will be relevant.”

Ms Connor said keeping discussions relevant was key to the success of the recent ISPA Congress.

“It’s an indication of the trust our delegates and core audience have in us, that the conversations are going to be what they need to be, they’re going to be pitched at the right place and time,” she said.