He Said, She Said – The Childers Group Forum

As promised to some folk following the event, here is the discussion paper I gave at last week’s Childers Group Forum. I prefaced the five minute talk by pointing out that this is NOT my area of expertise, but as the theme was ‘burning issues and radical ideas’ I decided to go right ahead a stick my nose where I possibly ought not, with limited understanding or concern for the way things work ‘in the real world’. I think that was largely the point of the night, after all.

I travel to Newcastle regularly for my work with the This Is Not Art festival. On a visit about eighteen months ago I was browsing some locally produced zines and in one publication I came across a full-page hand drawn pie chart entitled ‘How To Create A Cultural Precinct’.

The pie chart was divided into sections showing the necessary ingredients for cultural precincts, the largest sections being labeled  ‘more parking space’, ‘Melbourne’s café scene’, ‘Gold-Coast style apartments’ and ‘markets like the ones they have at The Rocks’.

A note at the bottom of the page reads: “oops, we forgot to add some local flavour”.

Obviously, the artist behind the chart was frustrated by the state of affairs in their hometown – While I had laughed out loud on first read, the longer I looked at the chart the more depressed I became, in realizing that it reminded me of my own hometown, Canberra, and the bizarre current trend for ‘arts precincts’ and their curious relationship to high-priced residential developments.

This brings me to my ‘radical idea’: What if Canberra did gentrification the right way around?

What if we had the patience to let these cultural or arts precincts grow on their own accord, in their own spaces and in their own time, rather than speeding through a process that is meant to take decades in the hope of creating some shadow of what exists in other cities.

An example (extremely hypothetical and full of holes but bear with me):

In 1997 the Molonglo Group acquired Acton blocks and the old Hotel Acton (which were at the time zoned for social and community use…by 1999 they had been rezoned to residential and commercial). What if, at this point, these buildings had been handed over to artists as is.

What if the small allotments within each building, typical of early Canberra hostels and as seen at Gorman House Arts Centre, were filled with artists of all persuasions; not just visual artists but writers, dancers, musicians, performers – any creatively inclined group or individual. What if the building’s communal dining halls became spaces for exhibition, performance or community gatherings?

In close proximity to the School of Art, the School of Music and the Street Theatre, these artist complexes could have been buzzing and vital. Maybe this use could ultimately have informed the development itself, and demand from persons using and visiting the space could have eventually directed the addition of cafes and retail. Then could come the apartments. By which time, some folk who carved out careers in these complexes could have done well enough to consider buying one. Tellingly, columnist Elizabeth Farrelly wrote of NewActon in the Sydney Morning Herald in February that it was “like a bit of Surry Hills escaped to the lake shore.” Unfortunately for us, we never got the incredible Surry Hills art history to match.

And what of the Kingston Foreshore development, also known as the Kingston Arts Precinct? It is, after all, the classic light industrial district like that from which all gentrification success stories emerge, if they do things the right way around.

A big old empty building or two, now long ago demolished, could have formed a bustling multi-discipline studio complex and the central nervous system of a future arts mecca. Instead, the development currently has little more to work from than retail shops, lakeside restaurants, and of course, apartments, while the fight continues over the Fitters Workshop.

And right here in this neck of the woods (Childers Street), we have another recently anointed Arts Precinct. But why then (aside from a probable asbestos problem) were ideally positioned small demountable buildings demolished, just as they were beginning to encapsulate the very essence of what arts precincts want? Such as fantastic live music, including international touring acts, at the old MacGregor Hall.

The relationship of artists to property developer should not been seen one of charity or consumption (with the developer funding arts activity or buying artworks), so much a mutually beneficial arrangement in which the artistic or creative community is recognised for the surprising power it brandishes as the soul of a city, with an influence capable of molding the desires of the rest of its residents. Artists transform cities wherever they congregate, and the rest of the populace wants in.

You can read the wrap-up of the Childers Group event on their brand new site, where they are also encouraging feedback from punters on the night.

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