17 May 2023

A bank that gives money away to make creative dreams a reality

| Jen White
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Woman on beach with suitcases from a theatre production

Director and performer Ali Gordon was one of last year’s successful applicants for Culture Bank funding. Photo: Ali Gordon.

It’s a bank with no branches, tellers, or even ATMs, but for hundreds of Illawarra residents, it has made dreams into reality. Culture Bank Wollongong celebrated its 10th birthday last year and, more significantly, took its tally of funding for projects big and small to an impressive $100,000.

Feargus Manning, who describes himself as a “massive supporter” of the member-run group, has a simple explanation for what Culture Bank does: “It makes projects happen that otherwise may not.”

Culture Bank has provided funds to small one-off projects for budding poets and artists, including some that have become household names in the Illawarra, such as the Yours and Owls Festival and the Women of Steel documentary.

Culture Bank members like Feargus, who joined eight years ago, share a common passion for nurturing and developing a richer cultural environment for everyone to enjoy, using a grassroots crowdfunding model of raising money within the community.

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Members contribute a monthly amount – usually $20 or $10 unwaged – which is pooled and once or twice a year a funding round is held. The community at large is invited to make submissions for funding for projects and members get together to review the submissions and decide which are successful.

Funding may go to one-off projects for artworks, theatre, books, music or installations, but often it supports “seedling” projects that grow and develop into bigger things.

Culture Bank currently has 75 members, but the philosophy is simple – the more members, the more money in the “bank” to go around. Businesses are also welcome to join and there is a special offer of $25 per month for businesses (usually $50 per month) for a 12-month membership.

Feargus says A Practical Guide to Self-Defence was one of the most memorable Culture Bank projects. Photo: Noni Carroll Photography.

Feargus has no shortage of memorable projects from over the decade, but said there were a couple that had stayed with him, including the theatre production A Practical Guide to Self-Defence. Written by Wollongong resident Hung-Yen Yang (Yen), the “step-by-step guide” mashes up martial arts, storytelling and digital animations, with a contemporary perspective of growing up Asian in 1980s Australia. It played at Merrigong Theatre and the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta last year.

He also made special mention of the Omnibus Poetry Project by Ali Jane Smith. “It was a simple proposal to catch Illawarra buses ‘a lot’ to see, listen and smell, capturing the scenery and geography of the community and produce a book of poetry,” Feargus said. The poem ‘Number 65’ later inspired artwork by fellow Wollongong artist Tania Maria Mastroianni.

A Jam n Bread get-together at Port Kembla’s Our Community Project. Photo: Our Community Project.

The 2022 funding round went to diverse and innovative projects, representing the diversity of works that Culture Bank has supported over the past decade.

Sarah Hudson received funding to work with Liz Tadic and the Jam n Bread music project to document “the secret, beating heart and musical soul of the Illawarra”. They will explore the concept of “hidden maestros” and the histories of local musicians, their connection to their own culture, the rhythms that sustain them and the common language they share.

Narelle Happ’s project will be about Native Food Plant education, cooking, weaving and stories. It aims to educate the community to identify, plant, cook, weave and appreciate stories about local plant species.

Illawarra Potters Incorporated will be able to sponsor two people for six months who are currently experiencing financial disadvantage but would like to start learning pottery.

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Lucy Mills will develop a debut album and supporting content with the help of other creatives in the Wollongong area, and Holy Pavlova is creating an accessible, contemporary sound bath experience featuring Wollongong-based instrumental bands.

Director and performer Ali Gordon was another of last year’s successful applicants, receiving funding towards a theatre production based on the children’s book The Incredible Freedom Machines by local author Kirli Saunders. Ali said she was in awe of Culture Bank for the work it does to improve Wollongong’s arts and cultural life and thanked members “from the bottom of her heart”.

“What a unique place Wollongong is, and what wonderful people its members are to put their money into this work,” Ali said. “[COVID] lockdowns proved a simply devastating time for my art practice, and I am only starting to rebuild my work and begin to emerge with new energy. It is such an incredible lift to receive funding at this time.”

still from We Are Conjola, a film that received special funding after the 2019-20 bushfires

A scene from the film We Are Conjola, which received special funding from Culture Bank after the 2019-20 bushfires. Photo: We Are Conjola.

While projects are usually based in the Illawarra, a special funding round was held for the South Coast community after the 2019-20 bushfires. Among other projects, the funds supported a local indigenous art and craft business at Mogo and the creation of a film We Are Conjola, which has been shown at festivals around the world.

“It’s a simple process but it works,” Feargus said. “And the delicious process that is the decision dinner is wonderful – all members are welcome to come along for a potluck dinner and lively discussion to review the submissions we’ve received.”

Culture Bank is one of the projects within Port Kembla’s Our Community Project. Other projects include Tender Funerals, Southern NILS (no interest loans), Jam n Bread, Port Locals and Port Kembla Community Development.

Submissions are open until Saturday 20 May for the latest round of funding. For more information and the application form, visit Culture Bank’s website.

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