marcus westbury

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Sydney v. Melbourne v. Brisbane v. Adelaide

August 17th, 2009 by marcus

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THIS week, I’ve been discussing the respective state of cultural life in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide and been amazed at the passionate vitriol that comparisons provoke. It seems we love taking potshots across state lines. In Perth this week, the shadow arts minister took a swipe at Melbourne by declaring that premiering Bran Nue Dae at MIFF would place it at the “arse-end of a lesser, to be honest, film festival”.

Yet I’d like to think there is some value in genuine comparisons. I’ve spent nearly a third of the past year on the road, working on festivals, new cultural centres and other projects in different Australian cities. It has given me a chance to reflect on the creative dynamics of Australian cities and to realise that they are constantly changing and evolving.

The old stereotypes that Brisbane is a big country town, that Sydney is all commercialism, that Adelaide has festivals to die for or that Melbourne is the leader on most fronts, are misleading. They’re not without a grain of truth, but the way that Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide are developing is far more interesting than that.

It pains me to admit it, but Sydney is becoming a really interesting place. The city has woken up with a hangover and the mess of a party that finished years ago. Yes it’s broke, and sorry for itself, but it’s just had that life-changing revelation that it’s time to make amends. After decades of complacency and entropy, Sydney feels like a city with zeal and curiosity again.

While the arts and cultural community is probably the least of NSW’s problems, it is pleasing that they are suddenly part of the solution. New things seem possible. The pressure is palpable for small venues without poker machines, for new ways to access space, and new ways of thinking about the city. The Vivid Sydney festival — an initiative of Events NSW and not the Arts Ministry — shows that other parts of the NSW bureaucracy have realised that culture might be a potential solution, in part, to the malaise.

Sydney is also blessed with the most dynamic and interesting underground arts scene in the country at the moment. Melburnian artists rarely need to fight for much. Sydney, meanwhile, has reacted to a culture of stifling stupidity by becoming a city of speakeasies, unlicensed venues, barely legal festivals, and guerilla events. In coming years, the energy that has created these things threatens to be transformative.

Further north, something equally interesting is happening in Brisbane.

Compared with its complacent southern sisters, Brisbane feels young, dynamic and eager to try things. Brisbane is well beyond aspiring to be Sydney or Melbourne and is becoming a city that connects with Asian centres to the north and across the Pacific archipelago. Signature events such as the Asia Pacific Triennial, Multimedia Art Asia Pacific and programs of Chinese and other Asian art at the Gallery of Modern Art all reflect this.

Brisbane is also home to a creative tension and fusion between art and pop culture, culture and technology — itself reflective of an Asian dynamic — that makes for distinctive creative ground.

My recurring frustration is with Adelaide. The city that surged to the head of the pack in the Dunstan era suffers because too much of its cultural thinking is still back in 1975.

Aside from a genuinely impressive film festival, too much of Adelaide is stuck somewhere between the 1890s and the 1980s. Adelaide’s love of big institutions and imported major events has created a top-heavy culture dominated by too many too big things. Many of Adelaide’s best and brightest, its young and its innovative, its creative and keen, find the opportunities at their level disappointingly poor.

Next year I hope to spend enough time in Perth and Hobart to get beyond their cliches. Both wrestle with the challenge of isolation yet offer potential for distinctiveness.

Here in Melbourne, I fear a danger of complacency. Few doubt that Melbourne has created a rich culture, the envy of others. It has become a magnet for many creative types. It is blessed with impressive institutions and layers of small and vibrant scenes in music, performance and the visual arts.

Yet Brisbane and Sydney remind me that there is something to be said for the hunger, for looking to the next opportunity and not sitting comfortably on the last one. I’m reminded that you can’t take assumptions — particularly the one that Melbourne is Australia’s cultural capital and will remain so — for granted.

Cultures, like cities, are constantly changing.

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17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Van Thanh Rudd Aug 17, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Interesting….great observations. I’m curious because I left Brisbane (grew up in Nambour 18 yrs, lived Brissy 5yrs) for Melbourne playing in a rock/pop band in 1995. Our perception of Brisbane was one of backwardness with about 3 venues worthy of playin at. Melbourne seemed overwhelmingly rich and diversified in the arts and there were/are venues for music and art all over the place. Yet, right now, 19 years later, I feel that I look towards Brisbane with admiration and a little regret – perhaps, from an arts perspective, staying there wouldn’t have been that bad. Brisbane seems to have a little more freshness and naivete than Melbourne – which seems to leave it open for more ideas etc. I’m a bit jealous that QLD has embraced (like you said) the Asian influence with gusto – being half asian myself , I’m feeling like I have to reconnect with the rugby league state once in a while. Anyway, I could go on forever… are you building an article for somthin?

  • 2 marcus Aug 17, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    It’s interesting you should say that Van. My fascination for Newcastle endures long after i’ve stopped living there. [it also involves Rugby league to some extent].

    I wrote this peice for my Age column. I was stuck for an idea and reflecting on how much travel i’d been doing. I posted on facebook asking for peoples thoughts and found interestign was the way so many people assumed that i was going to write a “which city is best” type piece.

    THe more i think about it, the more i realise that each city be it NEwcastle, Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne defines a unique set of possibilities for what may happen. Cities make some things easier and other things hard. Which tends to make them all interesting for different reasons.

  • 3 Freemanski Aug 17, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    For some reason I too am fascinated with the city rivalry particularly between Sydney and Melbourne – even though I do not live in either. I love the way it provokes robust discussion; it almost reminds me of the theatre of parliament! With the minor parties being represented by the smaller cities of Australia.

    I definitely think there is more to be be discussed on this topic Mr Westbury. Kudos to you for the work you’ve done in letting people know about new revitalised creative places in cities too: like Newcastle.

    With the bigger cities there is that cyclical nature of each place having “a good run”; yet always evolving…

    Can we make a doco on said rivalry; with the reverence it deserves? Maybe we can get Bernald Salt on board!

  • 4 Emmeline Aug 17, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    This article and the Margaret Olley exhibition make me want to go to Brisvegas 😉

  • 5 Carley Aug 17, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    This is a huge issue in Perth. We have lost so many young creative people to Melbourne because there is not very much going on in Perth. It creates a catch 22 situation; all the creative people leave because there is nothing going on, and there’s nothing going on because they have all moved to Melbourne! Almost every week I hear of friends moving.
    Something I have noticed about Perth is that most events are linked into massive arts festivals. This is probably due to government funding applications etc. I would like to see Perth be a bit more spontaneous.

  • 6 Adeline Teoh Aug 17, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    I’ll declare that I’m a Sydneysider straight up, but will note I’ve spent a significant amount of time in Brisbane, Melbourne and yes! Newcastle over the past few years.

    In my friend Lee Tran Lam’s zine on Sydney she writes that she convinced a friend to stay in Sydney through guilt: “But if everyone moves to New York or London, how is anything cool ever meant to occur in Sydney?”

    I think this happens intercity as well, without people realising that they are the culturemakers; if they’re not changing the cultural landscape, then that’s why the landscape isn’t being changed.

    I also like your point about complacency because I do think that complacency is the antithesis to innovation.

    I also see it’s true that Sydney has started to wake up to the fact that it can do more for the arts, and creativity in general, through non-big-ticket events and general supportiveness. I refer to community-based art galleries, FBi Radio, authors’ library visits… Let’s hope it lasts.

  • 7 Hannah Aug 17, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    I’d like to check out Adelaide and Newcastle in the near future!
    Brisbane, not sure about the comment regarding Asian connections – it’s not the first thing that comes to my mind regarding that. Rather, the first thing to come to mind when I think of Brisbane (btw, I’ve lived here since 07 after living in Toowoomba) is the e word (Emerging). There doesn’t seem to be a ‘barrier’ in terms of experience or specialisation. I think it’s because Brisbane is emerging in the scene so in a sense, everyone here is in the same boat and moving forwards to define the city. I guess another word that I’d like to point out is collaborative (size of the city + social networks = have something to do with it?). I am currently starting a couple of projects and some people’s responses to those projects aren’t surprising to me due to the collaborative nature aka “Wow, that’s a very Brissie response! :)”

  • 8 Patrick Pittman Aug 17, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    You didn’t include my town in the punchout, but you know I’m still going to bite. Perth is an interesting liminal sort of space post-Boom. While everything Carley says in the first part of her comment about the Melbourne Catch 22 is true, and something I’ve been ranting about for a long time, it’s not the whole story. Over the last few years, on the blank canvas of the dead zones of this place, there’s been a quietly strong independent arts scene springing up in bars, galleries and hovels outside the mainstream. Lots more DIY projects ACTUALLY working. Some of them actually genuinely impressive (and just as many embarrassingly bad, but that’s the point in this phase). It’s not really true that most events are linked into massive arts fests, though PIAF has been a largely uninspiring lumbering beast for the last few years (outside of its excellent contemporary music programme). ARTRAGE, on its day, is still providing a space for quality work. Though its days are rare. Anyway, we had lots of money flowing down to us from the drunk miners and enthusiastic investors. Some of it was used well. We don’t have any great signature events, but we’re maybe where some of the east coast cities were a decade ago, doing a few smaller things really well, kids in the 20-26 age burning with enough fire to make magic happen before they almost inevitably leave. We’ve got new things to play with now like small bar licenses, but we’ve also got a new government who don’t seem to get this side of the arts nearly as well. How that then translates to the next rung up the ladder, to what happens after the formative and the underground, that I don’t know. The art that I talk about isn’t part of the fabric of the city, like it is in Melbourne or Brisbane to a lesser extent — it’s something that keeps the kids of the inner city stimulated and a little bit full of hope, and it’s kept me here long enough, but 5 minutes on the train and you’ll realise that this town is about other things entirely. The beach, mostly. We have a hell of a beach.

    I’ve been trying to formulate something slightly more logical than this comment after being in far too many cities on far too many continents in the last year, and wrestling with the different ideas they all seem to have of what makes a creative city. You may just have provoked me into actually writing it.

  • 9 ms violet Aug 17, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    comfort leads to complacency and laziness … adversity fuels invention, creativity, resilience … both states (comfort and adversity) are actually required for growth … it is a cyclic process

  • 10 TimT Aug 18, 2009 at 8:10 pm

    Slightly edited version of me facebook comment.

    Yeah, good piece…

    You could be right about Melbourne culture, though in some ways I’m cynical about the wealth of ‘official’ culture at Melbourne as well as self-appointed ‘underground’ arts scenes such as in Sydney.

    I must admit if I saw an underground artist doing poetry or theatre or whatever on the streets of Melbourne I’d duck my head down and walk right past thinking, ‘sheesh! what a wanker!’ …

    Complacency is one possible reaction to the arts scene in Melbourne, though in the end I think it all depends on the energy and creativity and will of us folks living here: what happens in the next few decades depends on us, not any simplified ‘cyclical’ view of history.

    One thing about Melbourne culture that I don’t think you mentioned: the tendency for people to gather in small groups and cliques.

    Frustration with these cliques and their self-exclusionary methods can often be quite creatively stimulating: people either try to make groups of their own, or to break into other cliques, or just to make fun of the whole ‘clique’ scene.

    Though in other cases the function of a clique may be simply exclusionary.

    Thankfully I think Melbourne’s cultural scene is big enough and broad enough to encompass many different people, and if the culture in one particular scene isn’t doing so well, more likely than not, the culture in another area will be flourishing.

  • 11 TimT Aug 18, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    The artistic brain drain from other states to Melbourne is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing thing.

    This phenomena happens in cities all around the world. Sydney has the cliche of being the ‘gay capital’ of Australia. San Francisco holds that mantle in the US, I believe. Melbourne is the best place for poetry; it also has a huge Greek population, apparently one of the largest in the world.

    People go to be where their friends and fellow professionals are: people with the same interests tend to gather together. It’s one of the things that gives cities a particular character.

  • 12 Tamagin Blake-Smith Aug 23, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    You frame an very interesting point of view!

    I am from new zealand, studied design at uni in melbourne and now live in brisbane, 12 years in total now – at various stages.

    I always felt that (in the 90’s at high school) brisbane was heavily influenced by american culture (especially in the fashion’s around at that time), mixed in with a strong football (rugby league) culture and had a rather ‘small town’ feel to it, which had both its good and bad points and still does.

    I moved back here in 2005 aware of the boom that was coming in the built environment (and to be nearer to family)!

    Reflecting on your article it confirms my thoughts that brisbane is developing culturally because the built environment is now offering more opportunities for things to happen ie Goma bringing the Asia Pacific Triennial amongst other things.

    I’d like to put it out there that it is up to the next generation to understand and retain the significant values and ideas of our history here and keep pushing for things that create a positive and challenging dynamic so that brisbane as a place grows in a sustainable way!

    Look forward to hearing your views about perth and Tasmania. Highly recommend seeing the Perth Gaol!

  • 13 kate Aug 24, 2009 at 9:15 am

    I haven’t travelled much in the last few years so I can’t speak about the other cities, but I know Melbourne. I think the big challenge (and potentially opportunity) for Melbourne artists, especially as they get to their mid-twenties or thirties, is the cost of rent. As people get to an age where they have partners and children they find they can’t afford to stay in the city where the existing action is and do the work they want to do. So they either commit to being artists and move out, to the outer west and north, and to rural areas, or they stay in the city and give up on being artists. Every second person I meet in my small town and the surrounding towns seems to have moved so they could work fewer hours for money and spend more time and energy on their creative or socially activist work (if they’re not artists they’re campaigning for new public facilities). The cost of living has a huge impact on people’s capacity to be socially and creatively engaged.

  • […] <– sydney vs. melbourne vs. brisbane vs. adelaide […]

  • 15 Mark Sep 15, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    I grew up in Adelaide and live in Melbourne. Your reflections on those cities ring true. Melbourne is a little too caught up in self-celebration; no hunger or struggle, as you point out. And in between Adelaide’s (largely excellent) major events, it’s really missing the texture and colour that comes from emerging artists, architects, designers. Those who stay around are happy with the comfortable status quo; the rest leave.

  • 16 Who Cares Jul 7, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    The 4 of them are hideous. Demolish them all and start again. Here are there real names:


    Move to London or New York and experience REAL life

  • Brisbane is growing quite quickly in the areas of music, art and photography. However there are still more abundant scenes in the larger cities and more momentum.