Nick and Sophie Dunstone have absolute belief in the recovery of the Australian arts and culture sector. So much so, they were willing to use their own funds to establish a cutting-edge performing arts and hospitality venue in the thick of 2020 lockdowns. F&P’s Fiona Atkinson caught up with Nick to find out more.
“Art, technology, and hospitality collide inside LIGHT to create breath-taking experiences as broad as imagination itself,” says the proposal for one of Adelaide’s newest and most innovative performing arts spaces.
Established through philanthropy, but set up to grow independently, LIGHT is an ambitious venture founded in the midst of the pandemic and opened in early 2021 by Nick and Sophie Dunstone.
For this endeavour, the couple have recently been recognised with Creative Partnership Australia’s Emerging Philanthropy Leadership Award.
The award acknowledges the couple’s generosity and their visionary approach within Australian arts and culture, but it also recognises their bravery. Because opening a performing arts and hospitality venue during COVID-19 may, on the surface, seem like an act of folly, but look a little further and you’ll realise that LIGHT may offer just what the arts sector needs to emerge into a ‘new’ world with strength.
To understand LIGHT, it helps to first understand the people and award winners behind it.
Nick and Sophie Dunstones’ lives are intricately entwined with music, and they started their relationship with arts and culture on the performing side of the stage. Nick studied at the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music, Sophie has been a singer with the Philharmonia Chorus in London, and the couple met through music. They now have four children who have all inherited the music bug.
Nick describes a life “defined by creative endeavours”, which have shaped the couple’s beliefs. This includes a notion that the arts are critical to the way societies develop and, Nick says, “even in the darkest of times, people need to find a [means of] expression”.
“Society has progressed into a more individualistic and materialistic zone. So now more than ever, particularly with the pandemic, there is a need for us to embrace and enhance the creative spirit.”
This gives you a good idea about the couple’s motivations to found, fund and lead their nonprofit venue, LIGHT, in Adelaide: “For us to not only be involved in a project where we can contribute capital, but also one that we’re passionate about and have an intrinsic belief in, means we can give a combination of both vision and funds,” says Nick.
“Sophie and I think the best way of contributing to the world is to do something we are both passionate about, but also something that is audacious, and aims to be self-sustaining and creative – and as we know, achieving perpetual self-sustainability is extremely challenging in the Arts.”
All this is not to say that LIGHT is the couple’s only venture. Nick is involved in the finance industry and Sophie is a clinical psychologist running her own practice. But the career pause created by the pandemic was exactly what they needed to realise the long-held dream that LIGHT became.
What COVID-19 did was create “a seismic shift to the way we operated,” says Nick. “For me personally, it made me to reflect on ideas I’d had about what was problematic in the entertainment and creative industries.
“And it accelerated ideas we already had about reinventing the creative canvas for performing arts, which had become, like a lot of industries, quite undynamic and inefficient. We felt it could benefit from a significant amount of technological innovation. Innovation that would also equip us well for issues such as COVID; issues associated with the lack of travel or environmental concerns associated with running shows that move around the world.
“We also felt there was a growing desire for intimacy [in the arts]. Not everyone wants 100,000-seat stadiums.”
Much of the inspiration for LIGHT was driven by the pandemic. “We could see that there was a crying need for hope and optimism. And critically, people needed engagement, employment opportunities and a path.”
To date LIGHT has employed 75 people and will host an estimated 500 performances a year. So what exactly is LIGHT and how does it work?
“LIGHT is a revolutionary social enterprise and registered charity with a vision to provide a home for accessible excellence and innovation in creative expression, the arts, entertainment, hospitality and related technologies,” says the organisation’s website.
In simpler terms, it is a beautiful venue in a historic Adelaide building that hosts artists, audiences, diners and event-goers in several unique spaces that use cutting edge technology.
LIGHT’s main space is The Lab, its central showcase of immersive technologies, meaning screens and audio-visual equipment with the capacity to ‘transport’ audiences into exciting experiences and locations. It is a trailblazer and template for performing arts in an increasingly digital world. Nick and Sophie arrived at the idea by observing the amount of capital and expense in the big touring shows. At the same time, they enjoyed some intimate performances where there wasn’t much equipment, but the interaction between the audience and the artist was clearly very valuable and visible.
So they decided to combine those two things using the very best of technology, creating a multi-functional, and multi-genre immersive performance space that supports art and culture while leading it in entirely new directions.
The Lab has 50 square metres of LED screens, fits an audience of 200 and its program is curated by artistic director Anne Winberg to ensure a full range of artists can present their creations, from digital sculptors, bands and DJs, to theatre, dance and classical recitals.
One of Nick’s favourite performances was from former AFL player and Indigenous musician, Marlon Motlop, who performed in the Lab with a band that included Aboriginal electronic music duo, Electric Fields. What was special about using The Lab was that the screens could be used to create a sense of country.
“I’m absolutely convinced this is going to increasingly be the future,” says Nick of the state-of-the-art space. “There are a lot of very high-end immersive art spaces around the world in places like Tokyo and New York, but they tend to be involved in creating an experience that’s focused the sense of being ‘somewhere’.
“And I always felt it was more powerful if we could give that canvas to performing artists who can play in an immersive space that lets them play ‘anywhere’ – taking the audience with them. It’s more than just having a square with the visuals that accompany the artists. [With our technology], the barriers between audience and artists really breakdown because the artist is taking you physically on this journey where you can time travel. You can place travel. You can take imagination anywhere.”
The Lab also offers exciting promise for commercial use, such as the delivery of mining training where employees can move through a mine virtually. A wine company recently used the space to host a wine tasting room that ‘took’ guests into different places across their vineyards. An architecture firm has used to space to show its designs. And a building company used the room to take its staff on a world tour.
The couple are also installing a second immersive space, Level 1, which has larger screens than The Lab, including a screen floor.
Finally, the Studio is another immersive space and a key milestone in LIGHT’s quest to develop the future of live performance venues. In partnership with the ABC, 150 square metres of LED screens and virtual production technology is being harnessed to create responsive, photo-realistic digital worlds that can be used as the background for any genre or style of filmmaking.
These spaces will also offer the exciting opportunity to connect people virtually across the world in live time. Think Zoom, but on a much larger scale and without “I think you’re on mute”.
The marriage between the arts program and commercial use are what make LIGHT such as clever brainchild, with commercial income streams supporting the creative process.
When they started venue-hunting, Nick and Sophie were looking for a space that offered itself to performances, but also to hospitality, which is a crucial revenue stream. It needed to be a hub that embraced the culture of hospitality, especially in South Australia, which has a deserved reputation as a food mecca.
63 Light Square, located in central Adelaide, was the final pick, a 150-year-old building that Nick and Sophie purchased with their own funds.
After its original use as a tobacco store in the 1800s, the building was used for a variety of purposes, from the headquarters for a meat factory, to brothels, night clubs and even the infamous topless restaurant Cobbs.
“The eclectic history is fantastic and that history in the walls is what drives the character, artistry and creativity,” says Nick.
The building has been restored with sensitivity, using existing features and materials where possible. It also houses the venue’s several hospitality outlets: fine dining restaurant, Aurora, outdoor dining and bar area, Beags, café, Little Mission, and soon-to-launch The Bar Upstairs, which will connect with the Level 1 immersive space.
These outlets, combined with the performance spaces, also allow for an important revenue stream from events. Add the income stream generated by film and television production, and you arrive at the final piece of the funding puzzle: philanthropy.
Nick and Sophie have heavily invested their own money into LIGHT, contributing $10 million that included the purchase and restoration of the building. They had hoped income from performances, events, hospitality and production would be enough to fuel their vision beyond their initial cash injection, but the pandemic has driven up establishment costs and philanthropy will now play a key role in these early years of LIGHT.
“We recognise that the amount which LIGHT can impact others will be enhanced massively by other philanthropists,” says Nick.
“On its pathway to self-sustainability, LIGHT now needs the support of the Australian community to continue to provide this unique creative canvas to artists and tech creatives through tax-deductible donations to Light Cultural Foundation.”
The concept appeals to both seasoned philanthropists and those with more interest in technological innovation. LIGHT has a foundation board of well-connected people, and Nick and Sophie’s lifelong exposure to the arts has formed connections across the globe. But that is not to say the philanthropic landscape for LIGHT does not have its challenges.
Nick recognises that with a new concept comes a nervousness from philanthropists who may be more comfortable with established nonprofit projects. This is especially challenging in the current environment, when many arts organisations are reaching out to their loyal donors. But community engagement with LIGHT has been strong to date and with that, the couple feel there is a growing awareness and acknowledgement of the venue’s value and contribution to South Australia. “And once people recognise the value, then obviously they’re more inclined to be supportive with their philanthropic capital,” says Nick.
The ultimate aim is to reach self-sustainability, with the website stating:
“LIGHT began with a significant injection of philanthropic capital from its founders, Nick and Sophie Dunstone, and aims to be self-sustainable in perpetuity through revenue generated from its complimentary businesses in the building including the bars, restaurant, hosting corporate events and virtual production.”
For now, Nick and Sophie have chosen not to pursue government funding (with the exception of COVID-relief received for their employees during lockdown), worrying about the potential infringement on the creative process. Independence and artistic freedom is what they strive for.
So, Nick and Sophie have provided generous proof of their own belief in this innovative venture – a belief that has deservedly earned them the recognition of the Creative Partnership Australia’s Emerging Philanthropy Leadership Award.
And they have established a revenue model that stands LIGHT in good stead to flourish in a post-pandemic world which will, hopefully, be bolstered by further philanthropic support. With all this in place, what do they believe is the future for the arts industry in 2022 and beyond?
“I think the light at the end of the tunnel is not being afraid to innovate,” says Nick. “The desire for people to engage with artists, the demand for people to feel that sense of community through artists is as strong as ever. So it’s about innovation and the way we meet the demand.
“To me innovation is really thinking about what engages people and rethinking how people have experiences.”
Nicks mentions that Australian arts and culture tends to fall into distinct lanes. “If you go to a classical concert, it’s likely everyone will be over 50 or 60. That’s not so much true in Europe, but it is in Australia, so we need to find ways in which we can mix it all up and get people to engage in different experiences.
“LIGHT is a canvas for creativity and togetherness. We want to advance human connection by harnessing future technology to create infinite possibilities. Together, we can channel the magic of human chemistry for the digital world and transform artistic expression into breathtaking experiences.”
The annual Creative Partnerships Awards celebrates exemplary individuals from Australia’s philanthropy, business and arts sectors who show leadership in private giving, philanthropy and business partnerships with the arts.
The 2021 award recipients are:
To find out more about these inspiring fundraisers and philanthropists, click here.