Queensland Ballet’s executive director Dilshani Weerasinghe has a succinct and emphatic response to the Federal Budget: “What the hell?”

Much was made about arts funding in the budget and Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke declared “the culture wars from Government are over” – but apparently the “Arts State of Origin” wars are not.

Because NSW and Victoria get the lion’s share of attention, according to Weerasinghe.

“Queensland Ballet remains the lowest funded of the five larger dance companies in Australia,” she says. “Perhaps more alarming is the complete lack of consideration for the Queensland Ballet Academy, which receives no funding from the Federal Government’s Office of the Arts, the organisation that provides lifesaving annual support and ad hoc grants to eight elite training organisations in NSW and Victoria.

“The quantum of the funding disparity across both federal funding bodies is a minimum of $8 million per annum and in the absence of this much-needed funding for a Queensland-based organisation Queensland Ballet has been relying on its passionate donors and corporate partners without whose visionary support its endeavours would not be possible.”

Weerasinghe says she is already taking calls from donors who are asking why Queensland has to rely more on philanthropy covering the shortfall than interstate counterparts.

At this stage Queensland Ballet, now an internationally renowned company, only gets $800,000 from the feds, although Weerasinghe points out that the Queensland Government is very supportive with just over $4 million coming from the state.

She says the Queensland Ballet Academy gets no funding from the Federal Government and she is devastated that this budget continues to ignore it while the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne gets $4.4 million a year.

“It’s very disappointing that Queensland has been forgotten again,” she says. “I’m delighted that other institutions interstate are being funded and I would say that to Tony Burke, but I would also say – what about us?”

Weerasinghe has even thought about mounting a campaign with dancers and students wearing t-shirts emblazoned with words to that effect.

It takes about $28 million to run Queensland Ballet each year and the Federal Government’s meagre contribution would be laughable if it wasn’t so outrageous. Weerasinghe notes that not even having a treasurer who is a Queenslander (Jim Chalmers) helped.

The struggle for federal funding has been ongoing and was a constant strain on the health of former artistic director Li Cunxin, Weerasinghe points out. Li was a master of attracting philanthropy, although perhaps that made the feds think the company could go it alone, she suggests.

“Are we a victim of our own success?” she wonders.

What she would like to do is sit down with Federal Arts Minister Tony Burke at Queensland Ballet’s swish revamped Thomas Dixon Centre so he could get an insight into the company.

She says the minister has not been available and that he wouldn’t put aside any time to meet with the company’s new artistic director Leanne Benjamin, a Queenslander who has had a stellar international career and who is the perfect person to step into the ballet shoes of Li Cunxin who departed late last year due to ill health.

“They don’t want to face us and eyeball us so we get advisers and well-meaning members of his team,” says Weerasinghe, who has been with the company for 13 years.

Weerasinghe usually stays in the background, but meeting with her the day after the budget is handed down she steps up to challenge the feds to put aside their southern bias and give Queensland Ballet a fair go.

But she does have some positive news to impart, with the company planning for a new production centre after it purchased property almost next door on Montague Road in West End. That property will become the Roy and Nola Thompson Production Centre, named for the patrons who made that possible.

The Thompsons enabled the company to buy land at Yatala for a production centre, land which the company flipped for $12 million, basically doubling the philanthropist’s investment since they only paid $6 million for it.

Some of the profits from the deal will now go into consolidated revenue and an endowment fund while the remainder will be used to purchase the site for a new production centre for about $6 million.

Having the production centre nearby will be a boon since sets and costumes are currently held in disparate locations. It will also add to the vibrant precinct that Queensland Ballet is at the heart of.

Weerasinghe says the stunning revamped Thomas Dixon Centre has been designed to be “a world-leading home for its residents as well as a welcoming destination for all in its wider community with an embedded ‘come and stay awhile’ ethos”.

In the meantime, despite being dudded again by the feds, the company will continue to build on the legacy of Li Cunxin and to thrive under new artistic director Leanne Benjamin.


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