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Feature: Regional Arts in New South Wales

Innovation and the dialectics of distance

Keith Gallasch

Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series
The nurturing and celebration of innovative art are in evidence right across New South Wales. Distance, once a tyranny, has become a virtue as towns and communities embrace the arts as means for expressing local distinctiveness, at the same time reducing the sense of cultural distance between city and country. The interplay between urban, rural and outback artists is increasingly complex and rewarding with city artists moving to the country for the short or long term, collaborating and workshopping with regional artists who in turn are influencing the shape of things to come.

Our survey of regional arts in New South Wales is the first of a series taking us around Australia. You’ll read about innovative events like Electrofringe and Live Sites in Newcastle, unsound in Wagga Wagga, the exhibiting of new media and video art in Broken Hill and Bathurst and beyond, the revival of rural cinemas and a surge of new filmmaking in numerous towns, and regenerative community development through workshops and projects driven by committed artists. There’s also much state government support and encouragement and a progressive regional arts infrastructure which encourages self-determination.

Once upon a time, cultural deprivation outside of Australia’s major cities was addressed by taking art to the countryside. Nowadays, Regional Arts NSW (RANSW), the peak body for the arts and community cultural development in regional and rural NSW, declares that it is “fostering and enhancing the capacity of regional communities for sustainable, self-determined cultural development.” Of course, that doesn’t mean the end of touring art to regional centres; in fact the case for touring grows even stronger as urban and regional artists search for new audiences and markets within Australia as well as overseas. Wollongong-based Circus Monoxide, for example, casts its touring net widely across NSW.
Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series
RANSW’s comprehensive quarterly magazine, ArtReach, reveals the enormous extent of contemporary arts activity across the great distances of the state and reveals the organisation’s capacity to co-manage the big picture with 13 Regional Arts Boards (RABs) around the state. This network services over 100 local government areas over 662,000 square kilometres, with a population of 1.7 million people and some 1200 local arts and cultural groups.

As a peak organisation RANSW acts as advocate and lobbyist, and is involved in audience development, collaborative marketing and cultural mapping. Additionally, it offers seed funding for one-off community projects as well as major funding to 2 to 3-year projects, and advises on governance and administration. RANSW communicates with the sector through ArtReach, its website and an e-Bulletin. Financially, RANSW CEO Victoria Keighery explains, “The core budget is largely provided by the NSW Ministry for the Arts, but it is local government contributions that increase the capacity and reach of an RAB” (ArtReach, March 2004). Federal funds for regional development add to the budget.

The RABs comprise representatives from local arts groups and councils, from local government, tourism, community organisations, individual artists and community members. Each employs a Regional Arts Development Officer (RADO) who manages the delivery of cultural programs in their area. Regional Arts NSW acts as the secretariat for the RABs and RADOs as well as assisting with their recruitment, supervision and coordination.
Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series Linsey Gosper, 2NDSK1N: Modern Machine Girls series
The NSW Ministry for the Arts statistics on cultural participation in the state show that people who live outside Sydney collectively make good audiences as well as potential arts practitioners. They make up a large part of the population, 21% to 32%, who attend galleries, cinemas, museums, libraries, popular and classical music concerts, theatre, dance and opera performances ( pubs/NSW_Cultural_data/cultdata.htm). The refurbishment of old cinemas in country towns and the building of new arts centres (some with cinemas as well as theatre, gallery and workshop spaces) will doubtless strengthen attendance levels and suggest that Playing Australia, Visions Australia and Mobile States will all play major roles in the future of Australia’s arts.

A significant initiative in this era of networks and clusters has been the NSW Ministry for the Arts 2003 appointment of Clarissa Arndt as Cultural Development Broker for the Lower Hunter region—Newcastle and the local governments of Lake Macquarie, Port Stephens, Maitland and Cessnock. Brokerage is the latest of a string of terms borrowed from business to enter the arts, with Arndt “to play a key role in building and facilitating partnerships across the arts, community, private and education sectors in the Lower Hunter region”, said then Director of Arts Development, Susan Donnelly. This appointment is no mere ‘top-down’ imposition but a response to some significant and idiosyncratic activity much of it from young artists in Newcastle exemplified by the Octapod Association and the This Is Not Art festival incorporating Electrofringe. The 2 Til 5 Youth Theatre, Newcastle Region Art Gallery and Rocketart gallery also play key roles.

The arts are crucial in the regeneration of Newcastle. Theatre Kantanka’s Michael Cohen has moved from Sydney to Newcastle to manage Newcastle Live Sites, a free cultural events program designed to enliven the city, taking place in 6 public spaces. It has included concerts, dance, circus, a Legs on the Wall workshop, a fire spectacle (with 500 jumbo-sized burning candles, 3 commissioned sculptures including a gigantic burning brazier, 4 burning log sculptures and public lantern-making); installations (eg illuminated tents created by artists Vicki Sienczuk and Caroline Hale, and sculptors, performers, artists and craftsmen creating contraptions from scrap material, under the direction of Stalker Theatre’s Joey Ruigrok van der Werven); the Reeldance dance-on-film program; and a wide range of music from gypsy and swing to electronica and the truly eclectic Randai Circus Project. True to the pervasive contemporary principle of partnership, the program is jointly funded by the Newcastle Alliance, the Honeysuckle Development Corporation, the Newcastle City Council and the NSW Ministry for the Arts.

The report on regional arts in NSW on these pages can only be introductory, offering some sense of the context in which artists practise, the support and networks available, and the vital interplay of local, regional, national and international that is part of the emerging picture of regional arts. You see this in the current Newcastle Region Art Gallery’s Auto Fetish, The Mechanics of Desire (, a contribution to the city’s hotted-up car culture with, for example, images from Bill Henson side by side with Newcastle photographers including Linsey Gosper whose work featured on the cover of RealTime 62. Electrofringe mixes international new media innovators with locals in an event that draws artists, emerging and established, from across Australia to its workshops, forums and events. At the same time, regional artists develop on their own terms. This dialectic of independent development and mutual influence is vital to the evolution of regional arts. Rachael Vincent, editor of ArtReach writes in “Finding the voice of many in one” that RANSW could be thought of “as a decentralised organisation made up of diverse components, each with their own distinctive needs and characteristics. But we are also a group, which must at times speak with a singular voice...” (ArtReach, March 2004; As Fiona Martin’s account of the arts on the NSW North Coast makes clear, local cultural ecology can evolve in complex ways, breeding its own identity and networks of support. The very acknowledgment of that difference, created in part by distance, is fundamental to the future of regional arts.

Newcastle Region Art Gallery’s Auto Fetish, The Mechanics of Desire, Nov 27-Jan 23

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 4

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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