On the Western Line to Parramatta express trains rumble past what used to be the central core of Australia’s rail manufacturing industry. Now an arts venue, conference space and market site, Carriageworks on March 23 played host to 500 arts professionals who debated the future of the arts in NSW. They had been assembled in the old Eveleigh rail yards by Arts Minister Don Harwin and a priority item on the agenda was engagement with Western Sydney as it transitions from the home of manufacturing in Sydney to a cultural region of equivalence to central Sydney.
Two days earlier, Harwin had announced a one-million-dollar boost for arts funding in Western Sydney through three programs, the Emerging Organisations Program, the Strategic Opportunities Fund and the continuation of the Making Spaces Initiative. All of these programs are now accepting applications. As Sophia Zachariou, Director of Sector Investment at Create NSW argues, “it's about activating spaces around Western Sydney to create really vibrant, liveable communities.”
Western Sydney is designated by the NSW government as a priority growth area, yet the place of the arts within this rapid development remains an unanswered question. However, these recent funding announcements by Create NSW, point to the direction that these discussions will take as they look to focus on the interaction between artists and property owners, a conversation that local and state governments aim to broker.
For Western Sydney-based artist Rebecca Gallo, the funding from Create NSW are a sign of support for the arts, in particular “grassroots artist run initiatives happening in Western Sydney.” Gallo, whose practice ranges from sculpture to installation and performance, is working with five collaborators to establish an artist run initiative (ARI) in the Parramatta CBD. If successful, the ARI will be the only gallery of its kind between the Blue Mountains and Summer Hill.
Gallo is working alongside artists Kalanjay Dhir, Alex Tanazefti, Sasanki Tennakoon, Justine Youssef and Tian Zhang, all of whom either live and work in Western Sydney or have grown up in the area. By placing an ARI in the heart of Western Sydney, they hope to centre Parramatta and Western Sydney as a place of cultural and artistic production.
“We'll probably be looking for work from established Western Sydney artists and bring in younger or early career artists who haven't had many opportunities to show their work,” said Gallo.
Opportunities for Western Sydney artists have been limited by a lack of government funding and support. Western Sydney, home to one in ten Australians, receives only one cent in every Commonwealth Arts Funding dollar, according to a 2015 Deloitte report. Within New South Wales, Western Sydney accounts for thirty percent of the population, but only receives five and a half per cent of NSW Government Cultural Arts Funding. Harwin’s recent funding announcement aims to go some way to redressing this imbalance.
Lizzy Marshall, Acting Curator at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, concurred with the direction of Create NSW, highlighting that “from a geo-political framework, Create NSW has been an industry leader in terms of their funding policy. They have proven in the past couple of years that they can be flexible and adaptive to the evolving needs of the cultural landscape.”
While Harwin’s one million dollars might seem like a lot of money, on its own it cannot support the diversity of artists working across Western Sydney, whose numbers will only continue to grow. Natalie Wadwell is one of those artists and is seeking to promote alternative models of support for the arts.
Introducing the concept of the artist as entrepreneur, Wadwell reflected that “I think we're beyond the time when we need to be knocking on director's doors saying ‘hey, you need to create opportunities for local artists.’ I think we need to actually work together as a collective and pool together resources and coordinate better to activate other pockets within alternative spaces.” This approach has seen Wadwell work with LendLease and other organisations through the Stepping Up Macarthur program from 2013 to 2015.
Gallo problematized this idea of the artist as entrepreneur, as “it implies the complete subsumption of the artist into a neoliberal framework.”
For Zachariou, moving beyond pop-up exhibitions enables the development of a sustainable artistic environment.
“To create viable sustainable livings for artists then we need to see those partnerships between the commercial sector and artistic sector thriving, so it's about putting together professional artists, cultural groups, artists’ organisations with property owners.”
For as much as alternative models of exhibiting art can be discussed, the core issue in Sydney is the cost of real estate. Alicia Talbot, Senior Strategic Project Leader – City Identity, Experience and Engagement at the City of Parramatta, knows what kinds of resources are available and is looking at what this means for the future of the arts.
“Because of the pressures in Sydney in terms of real estate and resources it means that new conversations around partnerships … begin to open up,” explained Talbot.
As outlined in the Greater Sydney Commission’s plan, by 2056 Sydney will be comprised of three CBDs. The current harbour CBD, a river CBD in Parramatta and a parkland CBD centred on Badgerys Creek Airport. To realise this vision, over the next few decades Parramatta will be characterised by significant commercial and residential development. The place of the arts and cultural institutions within this rapid development remains an open question, however it is one that Gallo and her collaborators are intent on asking.
Across two floors of one of the many low-rise commercial buildings built during Parramatta’s last boom is Parramatta Artist Studios. As an artist in residence for 2018, it is from this perch that Gallo continues to observe Western Sydney’s arts ecology, “I moved to Parramatta just over a year ago and what struck me is that there are lots of people doing really amazing creative things in Parramatta and surrounding areas but there are very few opportunities to present that work here.”
Marshall supported this observation, noting that “there is a huge need for the Western Sydney arts ecology to evolve even further to include larger and smaller government funded galleries. It would be even more interesting with the evolving economy to see a thriving commercial gallery scene.” While central Sydney already has many commercial, state and artist run galleries, there is no permanent exhibition space in Parramatta for visual art.
To address this gap, in 2017 Parramatta Council released its cultural plan for 2017 to 2022. Entitled Culture and Our City, the plan identifies a need for a permanent exhibition space and the value of supporting smaller initiatives such as ARIs. This is not matched with an immediate commitment to satisfy the need. The numerous action items within the cultural plan are split into current, short, medium and long term time frames; the research and the development of a feasibility study for a gallery, as well as the provision of seed funding for ARIs are grouped in the medium and long term time frames.
For Gallo, having these aims in the plan is encouraging, as it demonstrates that Parramatta Council is “dedicated to promoting the growth of cultural life in Parramatta. It's just a matter of finding the right people to speak to who can make that happen and I guess finding ways to work with them that meets everyone's needs.”
Currently, the City of Parramatta offers grants including a $20 000 Creative Fellowship Fund and a $60 000 Creative Project Leveraging fund, providing up to $20 000 per project in matched funding. Another emerging model of council support for creative initiatives are subsidised rents, however in Parramatta this model is difficult to implement. As Talbot, author of the cultural plan notes, property is at a premium in Parramatta.
“One of the critical issues the city has is a lack of own real estate assets. It had some spaces in the past but in order to bring together new developments such as Parramatta Square or the riverbank site then its existing assets have been redeveloped into spaces that will attract economic investment and business to Parramatta, or just to put it simply, jobs.”
Parramatta’s CBD has one of the fastest growing markets for commercial property in Australia, with rents growing at 17 percent over 2017 and a vacancy rate of three percent. This not only puts pressure on creative organisations; social infrastructure such as community centres, libraries and childcare centres are also impacted by the same trends.
In addition, the infrastructure plan proposed by Parramatta Council over the next forty years will cost approximately $1 billion, which will exceed Parramatta City Council’s income by between $394 - $549 million. This leaves little in the way of additional grants for artist organisations, and as Gallo notes, “it's one thing to have it in the plan and it's another thing to have it allocated.”
For Talbot, who prior to working for Parramatta Council was the Artistic Director of Urban Theatre Projects in Bankstown and is a practicing Western Sydney-based artist herself, this means looking to different models of support.
“At the moment if we think about not direct funds but what kind of resources could be made available … it may be some seed funding opportunities, it may be brokering conversations between developers and groups of artists [or] it may be working quickly to look at opportunities if spaces come up.”
Some outside observers, however, remain sceptical. Wadwell has seen numerous cultural plans come and go particularly in her local government area of Campbelltown.
“I think when you look at them on paper they look really aspirational, they look great and they make you want to jump on-board and make great things happen but the reality is that they're coming from local government, they're subject to cycles of changes in power and so they're only as useful as their ability to be implemented.”
John Kirkman, Executive Director of the Parramatta-based Information and Cultural Exchange, which initiates community and cultural development programs in the digital arts, sees the Parramatta cultural plan as unique, as Parramatta Council “didn't go to an agency or a consultant; they got someone like Alicia [Talbot]. I think it showed a different way of thinking, a much more interesting way of thinking and it resulted in a richer, a braver way of thinking.”
Rather than local governments being a sponsor or funding provider, new models of engagement between governments and artistic organisations are emerging. For Talbot, this means that “rather than the city government be the major investor it's about opening up to new partnerships and opening up to a bigger ecology of art and culture.”
What happens to the arts in Western Sydney over the next few decades will be an indicator of what is likely to happen to the rest of New South Wales. Western Sydney will be the focus of massive residential and commercial development and the quality of the physical and social infrastructure that goes along with it remains to be seen.
Church Street, the main commercial artery in Parramatta, runs between two churches; St John’s Anglican Church in Parramatta Square and St Andrew’s Cathedral. In between are local and chain restaurants, two university branch campuses and perhaps, Sydney’s newest ARI. Central to Gallo and her fellow artists’ proposal is the impulse to put the arts front and centre in Western Sydney.
“We want it to be something that you can see from the street and be curious about and come in and have a look around,” explains Gallo.
Part of this accessible vision for the gallery involves changing the ARI formula. Unlike other ARIs which charge artists to show their work, Gallo hopes that in future the gallery will be able to pay artists a fee, allowing for the exhibition of the work of artists unburdened by the economic or social barriers which have kept Western Sydney artists out of the city-based galleries and institutions.
With impending announcements of the nature of new institutions like the branch of the Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) which will be located in Parramatta, the success of these initiatives will depend on the kind of community involvement that they incorporate, something that Wadwell is critical of.
“I got to go to one of the [MAAS] consultations in Parramatta and I actually called out the fact I was the youngest person in the room,” said Wadwell. “If they're building a future museum why isn't the future generations engaged in the conversation, why is it the same stakeholders currently at the table, predominantly white men, which is not representational of the population?”
Diversity in Western Sydney not includes identity but also artistic practice. Unlike theatre, opera or ballet, the visual arts do not often involve a ticketing system, yet it receives less philanthropic or corporate sponsorship than these other art forms. As Marshall argues, “we do live in a culture — Australia — that does not support widely enough the role of visual arts to offer different, difficult perspectives on the world.”
Currently, most artists in Western Sydney have to supplement the income they gain from their artistic practice with other work, according to a study conducted by researchers from Western Sydney University. Kirkman, who has spent his life living and working for arts organisations across Western Sydney, saw these findings as indicative of a “a part time attitude to a part time culture.”
Encapsulated in the Parramatta Cultural Plans and others like it is an awareness that arts and culture will play a vital role in societies, providing distinctiveness but also a way of connecting to others. As Talbot advises, “there is a growing dialogue around the role of arts and culture and creative industries in really giving people a local and global experience.”
It is still too early to determine what affect these plans, funding announcements and proposals will have, but the artists of Sydney are already there, from music to animation, film to sculpture, stretching from Richmond to Campbelltown, Lidcombe to Penrith. With such diversity there is no singular Western Sydney art style or scene, and in fact, as Wadwell describes, “the artists in Western Sydney are like the artists anywhere else, our postcodes just happen to be in a particular geography.”