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Regional Art Stories Reflections on Artlands 2023 and beyond

On 6-8 September, 80 purposefully selected participants from across Australia gathered on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country for ARTLANDS 2023. Over three days they explored the transformative potential of regional creativity and tackled the challenges and opportunities presented by the provocation: The Future of Regional Australia is Fundamentally Creative.

Lucy Hawthorne, an independent writer, researcher and artist based in Lutruwita Tasmania, was one of the ARTLANDS 2023 participants. Discussions on fair exchange, in the development of creative vibrancy in local communities, led Lucy to reflect on examples closer to home in the regional town of Queenstown. Lucy shares her thoughts below.

One of the wonderful things about discussing art with artists is that there’s no need to convince anyone of its benefits. We know it’s a necessity. We live and breathe art.

Instead, the discussion at Artlands 2023 interrogated the barriers faced by artists, areas of success, and opportunities for positive change. Many of the issues raised related to notions of exchange and balance. For instance, how do we balance creative work with the need live and pay bills? How do we ensure a fair exchange of art for pay? How do we ensure a balance between free creative expression and the administration of art? How do we find the balance between art work and life to avoid burnout?

The cycle of gentrification came up multiple times, often in negative terms, given that the rising costs associated with gentrification can push artists out of the very communities that they help create. On the final day, one particularly memorable discussion about a prominent urban renewal project revealed that the city was so gentrified, that the artists were so successful, that there was no longer any need for the artists and the council has ceased support altogether. For one friend and fellow Artlands participant, who had been involved in the project in its early days, this news was understandably distressing.

It takes a level of trust and perhaps even idealism to invest so much hope, time, energy, enthusiasm, goodwill and talent - not to mention creativity - into such projects. Unfortunately, trust is hard to regain once lost. For while Artlands celebrated the arts, it also revealed a significant level of burnout, due to what could be considered a lack of fair exchange. In the case of the beforementioned urban renewal project, the lack of support for artists once the act of ‘renewing’ was - in the eyes of the council - complete, seems like a betrayal. With local artists now pushed out of the area due to rising living costs, it appears the balance isn’t quite right, that the exchange isn’t fair. It reads like a cautionary tale. While the gentrifying aspects of art can be a great sell to councils and corporations, the balance between renewal and affordability remains a challenge.

“When all else fails… fall back on the arts,” wrote Lucy Lippard. In 1999, Lippard described the trend of bringing in the arts as a rescue squad, ready to boost the spirits and the economy, when small regional towns lose a founding industry, whether it be mining, manufacturing, or forestry. Arts and heritage are promoted for tourist consumption. We see this model replicated across regional Australia in response to economic change, but how do we ensure the creative energy invested by artists is fair and sustainable, and that there’s a place at the table for artists when and if a community is “renewed”?

This question bugged me on my recent trip to Queenstown on Tasmania’s remote West Coast. I was there to attend (and review) The Unconformity festival, which focusses on the town’s mining history and unconventional landscape. In the wake of the local mine closure, Queenstown has a thriving arts and cultural scene. It’s also well known for its geotourism, and, like many regional Tasmanian towns, is also a popular mountain biking destination. Those who haven’t been to Queenstown may be familiar with its heritage theatre façade and brutalist motels from the recent ABC series, Bay of Fires, which was discussed by co-creator, producer and lead actor Marta Dusseldorp at the RAA 80th anniversary dinner, which took place during Artlands 2023. Dusseldorp spruiked the financial boost to the Queenstown community, many of whom are still hoping the local mine will reopen following the accidents that forced its closure in 2014. However, as many noted at Artlands, short-term boosts - whether it be the Tamworth Country Music Festival or the filming of a Hollywood blockbuster on the Gold Coast - while welcome, need to be accompanied by other long-term initiatives. Ongoing investment in the arts, particularly local arts content, is vital.

Queenstown, for instance, is more than a film set and its biennial arts festival. In the television series, camera angles exclude the many prominent murals by local and visiting artists scattered around the town. There’s a print studio, Press West, launched two years ago, which hosts workshops open to the public. Galleries catering to a range of budgets and tastes dot the main street. Q-Bank Gallery hosts arts residencies, some of them funded, attracting artists from the rest of Tasmania, interstate and beyond. This strategy of bringing artists into Queenstown is not a new phenomenon either – renowned artist Raymond Arnold has been bringing artists to Queenstown long before he moved there in 2006. But since settling in the town, which is his muse as much as his home, Arnold and his partner and fellow artist Helena Demczuk have hosted artists from around the world under the banner of LARQ (Landscape Art Research Queenstown), resulting in an exchange of ideas that cannot be underestimated. The relatively cheap house prices have also attracted artists escaping Hobart’s increasingly prohibitive real estate markets, many of whom featured in the 2023 Unconformity program. This is an important point because as many at Artlands pointed out, it’s important to support and celebrate artists who work in regional communities, who make work not just about a place, but are of a place and have that connection to community and environment.

While the mix of short-term boosts and long-term art projects and resident artists makes Queenstown seem like a creative mecca, it’s never that simple. Unemployment in Queenstown is still high, incomes are low, and those relatively low house prices are now not quite so cheap in the wake of the pandemic. According to the lessons learned at Artlands, only time will tell if Queentown will find the balance between gentrification and affordability, and make sure artists are not just used in times of bust, but also supported when fortunes boom. As one Artlands participant put it, art is a “long, slow, deep, and cyclical process”, and so stability is key. If, as the 2023 Artlands provocation states, the future of regional Australia is fundamentally creative, then we need a diverse and sustainable arts sector with a fair exchange for artistic labour and creative output. Our challenge going forward is how we gain stable, long-term support for artists.

3 Artlands 2023 Day 3 Photo by Tim Ngo
Participants at Regional Arts Australia's Artlands 2023. Photo by Tim Ngo.