marcus westbury

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The dynamics pushing artists to the regions and regions to the world

September 29th, 2010 by marcus

THIS weekend I’ll be heading to Launceston with about a thousand artists and arts types for the biennial Regional Arts Australia conference. Against some of my best unreasonable prejudices, it’s a nice opportunity to remind myself that some of Australia’s more interesting creative dynamics are a long way from Southbank.

I might be lynched down south for admitting it, but the term “regional arts” for me still conjures up images of doilies and fetes, watercolour landscapes, and a general sense of quaint, trapped-in-time rural nostalgia. Of course, it’s not particularly accurate. It is one of those areas where perception and reality have long been on diverging paths. My recent experiences of dealing with artists living and working outside the major cities is not only that there’s a lot of good stuff out there but even a sense that it might be where a lot of the action is or soon will be.

Inner-city arty cultural types in Australia still have a strange relationship to the regions. We pride ourselves on looking to our internationalised cities for cultural cues. Yet we still mythologise and romanticise the bush. We are one of the most urbanised nations on earth and yet we are steeped in rural mythology. We think Australia’s cultural success and place on the international stage is a product of our internationalism and big-city sophistication. Yet many of our most successful and enduring recent cultural exports particularly our indigenous visual and performing arts — come from far away from all that.

Plenty still cringe at the thought of regional arts. Yet the very mention of places such as Woodford, Meredith, Wangaratta, Castlemaine or Byron Bay conjures up enthusiastic associations with the festivals and cultural events held there. And, of course, many love to flee the major cities in search of the fine wine, food and produce that have become prized cultural trappings.

There have always been talented regional artists, but structural changes are pushing more city-based artists to the regions and pushing more regional artists to the world.

One obvious reason is property prices. Our prolonged property boom has left many artists economically squeezed. The very types who make interesting things happen are being priced out of what were once their cheap, accessible inner-city haunts. Many are skipping over the suburbs and heading further out in search of a better life. Our inner cities seem to have fled to places such as Daylesford, Castlemaine, Natimuk and even Geelong in search of relatively low prices and those vital commodities that many artists desperately need: space and time.

A second great factor is telecommunications. Our regions connect direct to the world. Artists I know living in small towns can now find audiences around the world — often bypassing Sydney and Melbourne entirely.

It’s not just transplanted city folk either. I once stood on the shore at Elcho Island off Arnhem Land with the late Frank Garawirrtja. He’d put a performance by his son’s group The Chooky Dancers on to YouTube — sparking a global phenomenon seen by millions. Frank was born in an era when Elcho had no same-day communication with the outside world and was now enjoying a constant flood of international tour offers complicated by the ever-present challenge of spam. There are few better examples for regional artists and communities that there are real community and economic opportunities in local creativity. Done well, culture and creativity can provide a valuable lifeblood to economically challenged communities.

Success stories are hard to replicate and yet one thing stands out. While luck, geography and natural appeal all play a part, the regions that become creatively and culturally successful all have a common trait: they are confident in their local culture, they support their local artists to experiment and grow. They’re confident enough to celebrate what makes them unique and not feel insecure about what makes them different. They’re not simply trying to import their culture fully formed from the big cities or win a race for the most McDonald’s with the next town over.

In a world of global communication, defined by what connects us instantaneously it’s actually what makes a place and a culture different, unique and worth seeking out that attracts a premium.

Australia’s regional centres and artists are uniquely ready to capitalise on that.

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