29 October 2021

Ambition signals cool new dawn for Canberra's culture

| David Caffery
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'CBR' artwork curated by Dionysus

CBR artwork curated by Dionysus. Photo: Martin Ollman.

In a single statement, ACT Minister for the Arts Tara Cheyne has signalled the end of Canberra’s reputation as physically and culturally grey.

It doesn’t matter if we become Australia’s arts capital, by uniting local government, Canberra’s arts sector and the city’s businesses on the obstacles to this vision, we will be known for what we are becoming: cool.

No more whinging about parking, here are real city issues to solve as we come out of COVID-19 lockdown: affordability, planning restraints and the ambition of our arts sector.

Affordability is a key issue for the minister’s ‘Statement of Ambition for the Arts 2021-2026’. The bulk of artists don’t earn much, so a vibrant arts ecosystem needs a Lonsdale Street hub without Lonsdale Street prices.

Where are mass venues with cheap food, or the cheap precincts that don’t sleep? With the extension of light rail and some clever footwork by the planning department, places such as Fyshwick or Phillip could become the new Braddon – a mixed-use hub for creatives.

Fire burning at LESS Solstice event

The LESS Solstice event at Dairy Road. Photo: Gupi de Zavalia.

But clever footwork isn’t a common move by the planning department unless it’s to silence cultural activity. Mixed-use precincts – the vogue planning solution for our city – have impossible sound laws.

In the past year alone, MusicACT is aware of three separate residents who purchased apartments – recently approved by the planning department – beside two venues and one restaurant, and made noise complaints with the aim of reducing their trading hours.

One of those places has been trading since 1857. The 164-year-old pub had to lower its support of live music and has been denied a development approval because they breach an impossible definition of ‘excessive noise’.

Cultural venues will always lose to one grumpy resident under the current sound laws, but the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) sees no problem.

D-Nox performing on the Soul Defender truck

D-Nox performing on the Soul Defender truck. Photo: Caitlin Welch.

Perhaps, like them, we should go to bed at 10 pm in the arts capital of Australia. But that is not Minister Cheyne’s intention.

Gordon Lowe, director of planning at Molonglo Group, knows this pattern well.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that the ACT Assembly agrees – they’re only a parliament of the people’s representatives,” he says. “It’s the government agencies that seem to have the final say.”

But times, they are a changin’.

The Statement of Ambition for the Arts 2021-2026 is an economic masterstroke and city businesses should pay attention.

Performers dancing in water

Australian Dance Party at Shine Dome. Photo: Maria Koulouris.

An active night-time economy (NTE) – with evening events in public spaces, restaurants open after 9 pm, later retail, and a diversity of theatres and venues for locals and tourists – can counter the economic downturn in the CBD brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2018, Canberra’s NTE employed 29,915 workers, or 12.9 per cent of the total ACT economy, contributing a turnover of $3.345 billion.

Seventy per cent of this massive number were just food establishments closing at around 9 pm. This offers the single largest economic move available to the city – to inspire an NTE – and planning for it is already a focus of Minister Cheyne’s ‘Better Regulation Taskforce’.

I applaud our progressive government, but worry about the omnipotence of the current EPA – they are silent but deadly to progress.

The Statement of Ambition for the Arts 2021-2026 implicates more than policy and tourism.

We need to talk about bad art in Canberra. Yes, it’s subjective, and it can happen in every city, but we’ve seen too much. Bad art will slow audiences, investment and the maturation of the sector.

One solution is to develop and attract great artists to flood the ecosystem so when you choose from lots of local shows, you can find something to love.

Citizen Kay performing at Let Music Live

Citizen Kay performing at Let Music Live. Photo Martin Ollman.

We need to stop the brain-drain of top artists leaving to ‘make it’ in Melbourne, Berlin or New York. This is a tall order, but not impossible.

As Canberra becomes renowned as a great place to live, the artist exodus has already slowed – the real trick is keeping the best artists because, let’s be honest, superstars are the beacons.

eX de Medici stayed here. So has Safia. Why? Other than being good enough to succeed from another planet, they enjoy Canberra and they have roots here.

But they made many deals away to get back here. Countless stayed away.

All of our cultural organisations need to contribute at a national standard. To establish more great artists, more people need to discover our local culture. They need to grow roots here, and they must be nurtured with enticing pathways and industry connections so they flourish inside the ACT.

This probably means fresh thinking.

If Canberra works towards this Ambition, COVID-19 will mark the end of our grey reputation.

What is your role? My company, Dionysus, has a submission site for new ways to enliven the city here.

Now let’s rock and roll.

David Caffery is the founder of Dionysus, president of MusicACT, chair of Australian Dance Party, and owns the Soul Defender.

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canberra is and will always be dull its the nature of canberra , i saw a u tube video posted by someone of the city by night , a few lights but not a soul around other cities around the world have much worse winter weather than canberra , people here do not go out , including me , but its safe , and people tend to go away overseas , for holidays , me , normally . north america, mexico , it will change in time . invite bill byson back for an opinion ,every where is different , even so called exciting places can be boring, state of mind ,yes .

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