marcus westbury

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In praise of initiative – or why Bob Carr made me move to Melbourne

December 10th, 2010 by marcus


Why i moved to Melbourne

I HAVE described myself on more than a few occasions as a cultural refugee from New South Wales. Many young artists and creative types – some very talented and some obviously less so – left the state during the Carr years. Some went overseas, some went north and played a part in the reinvention of Brisbane, but most drifted south to Melbourne.

Bob Carr for all his erudition was almost certainly the worst arts minister in recent Australian history, with no understanding of the dynamics of a living culture. If you had to write a prescription for a policy mix that would send keen, talented and enthusiastic young people into exile, it was Bob Carr’s NSW.

I recently met an adviser to a senior NSW politician. He asked me why I had moved to Melbourne a decade ago.

I had wanted to move to Melbourne as I think many of my friends and peers had from the very first moment we visited. Was it the galleries? The theatres? The festivals? The nightlife? The laneway bars?

Yes, and no. All of those were part of the picture but at a deeper level there was something far more fundamental. Melbourne, I explained, wanted my initiative and that of those around me. Try being young, not rich, but desperately keen to put on a show in Sydney in the late nineties or early noughties and see how far it got you. It’s was bloody difficult.  For many years it was damn near impossible or effectively illegal  amid insane rents, the physical obliteration of small-scale space near the city, the poker machines and the absurd place of public entertainment licensing. Sydney was a city where buckets of cash were needed to get anything done.

Melbourne seemed totally different.  For reasons both accidental and planned  worked at the scale that many young creative types and I worked at. It was bouncing back from a recession, it had small, cheap spaces, it had a culture of community and great community radio stations that promoted and talked about interesting things. It was possible to do things here. It was a city that seemed to like the idea that people wanted to do things in it. It’s hard to explain how vital that is until you have lived in one that doesn’t.

Many of those things are intangible when we talk about the cultural life of cities and yet they are incredibly significant.

Yes, Melbourne has great galleries. But so does Canberra. When was the last time anyone said they were moving to Canberra because they wanted to be part of the cultural life there?

Melbourne has great festivals, strong flagship companies and a great arts centre, but so does Adelaide. Yet Adelaide has a large net exodus of young people who move east, chasing initiative and opportunity.

Yes, Melbourne is big, has scale, great arts centres and blockbuster shows. Sydney has all of the above but it makes little difference if you are trying to do something there.

At a forum I once hosted when i directed the Next Wave festival in Melbourne, about three-quarters of the young, keen, enthusiastic and talented artists in the program were not native-born Victorians. Most were originally from NSW, some from Tasmania, many had fled the Festival State and a few were from Queensland. All had somehow wound up in Melbourne pursuing initiative and opportunities.

When you are young and mobile you want to be part of making a culture, not simply a consumer of it. You want to pick up the guitar, grab the camera, the turntables and the paintbrushes and apply them to sorting out and ratcheting up whatever happens to be coursing through your veins. It may not always be pretty but it’s vital in every sense of the word. The idea that you can do it and that the place you live in wants you to do it is as good a reason as any for being there.

Melbourne is still a place where the young “initiativists” come but with each year it seems to geta little less so. It has become more expensive and opportunities are crowded out by the influx, NSW to their credit have fixed up the PoPE laws and the liquor licensing and some of the worse legislative bits of the Carr era, and Brisbane on the surface at least seems to be dynamic and welcoming of the young and keen.

Now that NSW politicians and their advisers are thinking about this stuff it will be interesting to see whether the next generation makes the same move south that many of mine did.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 john walker Dec 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    When was the last time anyone said they were moving to Canberra because they wanted to be part of the cultural life there?

    Marcus- That is an offensive slight on the circular city, I have heard that some of them have feelings .

  • 2 Shannon O’Neill Dec 11, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Some of us stayed in NSW to fight the good fight, resulting in arguably more edgy and interesting culture. See the Lanfranchis doco, for example.

    Btw I was hoping this article would contain insights into Carr and his policies.

  • 3 Dermott Banana Dec 11, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    I can remember getting together with other managers of unknown rock bands around that turn-of-the-century period. The common question was “Where’s the Australian Seattle? Where is the next ‘scene’?”
    Back then, Melbourne was always the cultural Mecca where aspiring musos ended up. But an increasing number were coming out of the self-supportive scene around Brisbane. It was the days of Custard, Regurgitator, Powderfinger, George.
    Sadly, stuck between these two centres of vibrancy, I was managing bands in Canberra and we struggled to be heard in the desert of Canberra, Sydney and our shared hometown Marcus.

  • 4 TimT Dec 12, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Hey Marcus, I’ve heard you make this argument before, I think on this blog –
    “Melbourne is still a place where the young “initiativists” come but with each year it seems to geta little less so. It has become more expensive and opportunities are crowded out by the influx,”
    I hope – and think – you’re wrong about this. Your seem to take a cyclical view of cultural history, but I don’t think the patterns of cultural growth and decline are that simple.
    Many of Melbourne’s most enduring and lively cultural institutions date back well before the ’90s. Melbourne’s pub/cafe poetry scene (in its modern form) goes back probably to the ’70s, and that in turn, I’m sure, derives from earlier poetic institutions in and around the city. (It probably helps that we have in our history modern-minded poets like C J Dennis who regularly wrote verse for the newspaper, but that’s by the by). Other events like the Fringe and the Writers festival date back to 1982.
    And of course the excessive beauty of the city, and the elegant combination of the19th century architecture, the trams, and other longstanding institutions (hello, AFL), and, yes, the general good manners of the people, helps a lot too.
    I think part of Melbourne’s cultural success has been the existence of long-term cultural institutions like those mentioned above, and the existence of (sometimes small) but enthusiastic participants and audiences. And I don’t see this changing all that much in the near future or even the medium-term. Hopefully I’m one of those new-ish enthusiasts (been here 5 years, going on 6 years, now) that will keep the culture chugging along for decades to come. And I’m sure there’ll be more people in the future.

  • 5 Zane Trow Dec 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

    Yes indeed, Carr was a terror as an Arts Minister. As was his arts advisor, who’s name I forget but he was just an arogant know nothing.

    As for Melbourne, yes it remains, IMHO the only city in Australia that is “broadly” arts friendly. And yes, this stretches back many many years (the first state in Australia to have arts on school curriculum for example..). I doubt I will ever be able to afford to move back there tho…. 😉