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Regional Arts Australia: Meeting Place 2004

The uses of art

Chloe Smethurst

Chloe Smethurst attended Meeting Place in the role of Conference Documentation Coordinator. She has a Bachelor of Dance from the Victorian College of the Arts and is currently studying towards a Graduate Diploma in Arts Management from the University of Melbourne.

Fire Dog—Smoke Lizard, Meeting Place Fire Dog—Smoke Lizard, Meeting Place
photo Melissa Powell
In the dusty heat of Horsham strange things were happening to the showgrounds. Two oversized silhouettes of bright yellow dogs sniffing each other were fixed to the historic gates, the skeleton of an enormous eel trap was being constructed by the river, and the finishing touches were being added to a sculpted stone fire pit. The Meeting Place 2004 Regional Arts Australia conference was about to begin.

As Artistic Director of the "part festival, part conference", performer Donna Jackson lent her signature style to the event: great art and ideas minus the waffle. The focus on frank discussion of meaningful issues carried throughout the conference, as management tried to steer away from topics that had been done to death and to concentrate on questions relevant to the artistic program and, more importantly, today’s regional arts environment.

Keynote presentations included The Great Koala Debate, a satiric discussion of the merits of the Giant Koala on the Western Highway; the Ladies Committee Address by comedian Tracy Harvey, which looked at the role of the Ladies’ Pavilion in Australian show culture; and a presentation by Rick Farley on leadership in regional Australia. Meanwhile, the majority of the debates and discussions were held in the numerous participatory Showdown sessions, where invited guests, including artists, academics and arts managers, discussed a range of topics with the delegates.

While the majority of the conference looked at issues involving the broader arts community, there was a particular focus on regional arts. The large artistic program of Meeting Place was testament to the fact that great art is being made outside Australia’s cities. A large proportion of the work came from the vibrant community in Horsham and nearby Natimuk.

Space and Place, a hybrid performance work featured interactive animation, music, aerial dance and shadow play on the 27m high Natimuk silos, attracting an audience of 2,500 to a town of 480 people. The work was directed by Jillian Pearce and performed by physical theatre company Y Space, with animations and still projections by Dave Jones, puppetry and shadow play by young people from Natimuk led by local artist Mary French, choral music and sound by Warburton artist Santha Press and the Wallup Mara Indigenous dance group directed by Farren Branson. Another striking work on the program, Fire Dog–Smoke Lizard combined sculpture, neon, fireworks and sound on the Wimmera River and its banks. It was created by visual designer and artistic director Catherine Larkins with pyrotechnics by Philip and Rachael Aitken, sound design by Vincent Lamberti, art fabrication by Delta Neon, neons by Dean Phillips and pontoon design and construction by Glen Critchley.

Working the resources

Methods and strategies to support the development of regional arts were examined in a number of sessions. One suggestion was greater utilisation of existing community resources, such as Horsham’s showgrounds. While unconventional, the venue was ideal for a regional arts event, combining history, character and the beautiful, natural surroundings of the Wimmera River.

The role academic institutions play in the survival of regional arts was also discussed. Professor Peter Matthews of Ballarat University argued that art schools have a responsibility not only to their students but also to provide experiences for the community, and to advocate on behalf of the arts. Gippsland-based artist Catherine Larkins explained how the establishment of the Gippsland School of Art in the 1970s allowed "a network of artists to be created that otherwise may never have met, exhibiting works that may never have been seen." In the current climate of extreme funding shortages in Australia’s educational institutions, arts resources which once enhanced and enlivened communities may soon disappear entirely.

Rick Farley’s inspiring address drew on his experience coordinating major projects in regional areas, such as the development of Landcare and the Cape York Land Use Agreement. His contention is that without extensive consultation and research there can be no ownership of the outcomes of a project, leaving the parties involved disenfranchised and unsatisfied. This scenario can easily be transferred to any arts or cultural project involving government, business, community or Indigenous groups where a consensus must be reached between stakeholders.

Whose art?

One of the challenges of Meeting Place was the definition of art? Who can make it, and who is it for? The inclusion of wearable ‘hair art’ and a new take on the show tradition of the Ladies’ Pavilion were prime examples of the blurring of the boundaries between art, craft and other creative activities not traditionally viewed as art, such as hairdressing and body piercing. Lisa Eltze's towering hair sculptures were cunningly created to blend in with the wearer's natural hair and were worn to stunning effect at the Dinner Dance. The Ladies Pavillion exhibition featured works by local artists and guest artist Yvonne Koolmatrie looking at the ideas surrounding women's traditional show entries, such as handbags, preserves and quilts.

In a session entitled "Who is art for?" the complex topic of disability and the arts was tackled, particularly by a number of delegates who were simultaneously involved in the Awakenings regional arts and disability festival. When is a performance about an experience for the audience, and when is it for the benefit of the performers? How can the audience know what standard of performance to expect? Back to Back Theatre Artistic Director Bruce Gladwin expressed his frustration at having to prove the professional status of his company which involves artists with disabilities. The company sees itself as part of the community but, at the same time, different in its aims from amateur groups. The argument was intense, and little was resolved in the time allocated.

There was a push towards the notion that anyone can make, and be involved in, art. Singer-songwriter Fay White explained how through involvement in Vocal Nosh sessions of singing and sharing food (, an audience is not so much ‘developed’ as invited in to discover. Following this logic, if more people had the opportunity to be engaged in significant arts activities, the notion of audience development would become redundant. Taken a step further, this idea suggests that audience development resources should be redirected from publicity campaigns and instead target specially conceived, participation-based arts projects.

The issue of popular culture in art was raised and passionately debated, down to the very definition of the concept. Next Wave director Marcus Westbury in particular was adamant that there should be no distinction between high and pop culture, but that we should be supporting, sharing and driving the existing culture. It was claimed that the current funding bias towards high culture has its basis in cultural cringe, but may also be due to the fact that capital ‘A’ arts are ‘safe’ and ‘known’, both for funding bodies and audiences. This argument comes down to a fundamental issue around government funding: by favouring certain projects or companies, some censorship inevitably occurs. "Let’s not prostitute ourselves to bureaucracy", shouted one delegate. "Funding does not equal culture!" It seemed that a majority of delegates were in favour of broadening the definition of art, taking in elements from the wider world.

Useful art

Another question running through many of the discussions was ‘what is the point of all this art?’–what can it do, and what purpose does it serve? The answers were many and varied. PhD student Kate MacNeill was a proponent of the ‘art can be subversive’ argument, awakening people to new possibilities and changing patterns of thought. According to Di Shaw, the City of Greater Geelong’s Arts and Culture Manager, art was successfully employed to help change the public’s perception of Geelong’s waterfront when the council redeveloped it. A large number of distinctive bollards developed by local artists were installed, changing the image and ambience of the area for both locals and tourists.

Tom Zubrycki explained how his documentary film, Molly and Mobarak (RT 60, p15), used art as a means to understand our culture more fully, even if the consequent insights were disturbing. The film focused on the recent integration of Afghan refugees into rural Australia. Zubrycki highlighted that the humanising aspect of the film made it important in the debate over Australia’s intake and treatment of refugees, enabling asylum seekers to be seen as people rather than just government statistics.

For many delegates it seemed the process of creating art was as, or even more, important than the end result. Community arts practitioners promoted the fact that making art can also facilitate healing, self-understanding, confidence building and celebration, both in individuals and communities. Even back in October 2004, it was recognised that the Community Cultural Development Board of the Australia Council was narrowing its definitions, making funding applications more difficult. Now that the board is to be dismantled, the funding for broad-based community arts projects is likely to become even more fraught.

The concept that art making can be used, alongside other activities, as a means of identifying, maintaining and sharing local culture was generally agreed upon. Yet it appears that it is being underutilised in some regions. The symptoms of this manifest in a number of ways, but as one delegate announced, "If I see one more menu in Australia with focaccias on it, I will vomit!" In terms of cultural tourism, there was a general understanding that each region must find what makes their area unique in terms of arts, food, wine and any number of other elements in order to reflect an authentic cultural experience to locals and visitors, rather than relying on the bland, homogenised fare symbolised by café culture.

Looking at all the functions that art fulfills within our society, it became increasingly obvious that for many people, art and culture are inseparable from other daily activities. Meeting Place was an up-beat event, full of positive energy and motivational ideas underscored by serious exploration of the state of regional arts.

Meeting Place—Regional Arts Australia National Conference 2004, Horsham, Victoria, October 21-24, 2004

Chloe Smethurst attended Meeting Place in the role of Conference Documentation Coordinator. She has a Bachelor of Dance from the Victorian College of the Arts and is currently studying towards a Graduate Diploma in Arts Management from the University of Melbourne.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg.

© Chloe Smethurst; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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