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The Artists Go Marching Two By Two, Hurrah, Hurrah!

By ArrEmm - 28 July 2011 7

elk work on petrie plaza

On paper, Canberra has everything going for it in means of supporting the arts – Big institutions, educated and wealthy population, government and community support. So why do so many people feel like arts in Canberra is like clean air in Beijing?

Last night on ABC’s Arts Quarter there was a story about E.L.K., the stencil artist responsible for some of the artsy colour around Canberra. He’s like Canberra’s answer to Banksy.

He’s great! And it seems that all of the hard work, cash for paint, and time dedicated to his craft has paid off. He’s now recognised. He’s won big competitions, he’s been on the cover of Art Monthly, and he got a good 5 minute story on the ABC – a true sign of success. But what’s great about him is that he’s from Canberra.

Yep, another Canberran artist makes it big, and so naturally, he’s moving to Melbourne. Of course he is!

You can’t blame him; Canberra just doesn’t have whatever it is that is needed to keep certain artists here. But what is that element which Canberra lacks? Why do artists (visual, performance, writers, musicians, interesting people) leave?

Population? Maybe, but Newcastle has a good 60,000 less people than Canberra and they have a reputedly thriving arts community – having even made news in the USA on CNN.

The demographics of Canberra’s population? I think we have the right mix of people to have the potential to be an arts capital. We have several universities which attracts young enthusiasm, government jobs attract creative, educated and intelligent people. Canberra’s population is very transient, but that could be seen both as a negative and positive for the arts.

The layout of the city? It could have to do with distance. I sometimes like to think of Canberra as not a city, but a collection of neighbouring villages. A trip from Belconnen to Erindale for a gig would be next to unthinkable. First you have to find your passport, and then you have to make sure you have the relevant currency, notify your loved ones of your location, etc. Canberran’s have a weird perception of time and space and that may stop them from attending events.

Is it because we lack a beach? Paris doesn’t have a beach, New York doesn’t have a beach. We have some lakes. And nature – we have heaps of that.

Is it Canberra’s young age? Does a city need history for art to build on?

Is it infrastructure? Canberra has national institutions, many suburbs have an arts centre sitting, waiting to be used. There are no good central music venues (yet) which definitely lets down the live music scene in the city, and that drives music underground, and in turn that creates a beautiful community, but it’s sheltered and unknown by the outside world, which in turn, forces musicians who want to ‘make it big’ move cities.

Is it the fault of the artists? Are our Canberran artists too apathetic? Are they too disorganised? Are they not good enough to compete on a mainstream level? Do they spend too much time asking “why?” and not actually doing anything?

WHY?! What does Canberra actually lack? Why are people forced to leave in order to pursue their artistic careers?

What does Canberra need to encourage its rising stars of the arts to stick around?

Please tell me… (constructively)

What’s Your opinion?


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7 Responses to
The Artists Go Marching Two By Two, Hurrah, Hurrah!
Spinach 11:55 am 02 Aug 11

I think the inescapable ‘national’ focus of the city and the presence of large national institutions don’t do any favours to the grassroots artists. Canberra’s movers and shakers like to stage ‘big’ events that make Canberra look like an international city and these seem to be enough to satisfy many Canberrans. If you’re happy going to one or two blockbuster events a year why are you going to drive halfway across town after work to check out a minor local artist you might not even like? Just watch TV until Skyfire rolls around again.

Endrey 4:40 pm 28 Jul 11

For music, the key limiting factors are population density and price.

There are plenty of venues – the problem is quality. High property costs leave music as a secondary priority to almost all bars; particularly given that they can’t afford to charge much for live music due to the low population density. I imagine that the transient population might reduce the number of people investing themselves in local culture.

But that’s the nature of the beast. Where you have scenes you have scenesters. There’s not much room for pretension, money or genre-exclusivity here, which results in cross-germination and a more honest music scene that I love.

Last week’s triumphant ‘Improvention’ demonstrated that high quality events with exceptional international, national and local talent can be put on in Canberra.

Thumper 3:10 pm 28 Jul 11

Why do artists (visual, performance, writers, musicians, interesting people) leave?

For musicians it’s generally the lack of venues. There was a time not so long ago when there was live music everywhere but it seems that this is not what the punters want anymore. Maybe the pokies have finally won?

Then you look at Hobart and wonder why we can’t have a vibrant music scene like they have.

I don’t know what the answer is but it annoys the hell out of me that it’s hard to go and see live original music in this town, let alone play.

ArrEmm 2:37 pm 28 Jul 11

Well said Lulu and Kalfour. You’re right about artists needs to travel both for new audiences and influence, and about finding the right pace of life – at the right price.

I didn’t want to come across as negative. I know that Canberra is home to many amazing artists, some of whom sell on world stages. I just feel that this place is bagged out unfairly sometimes and although people are full of criticism, they never articulate why or what Canberra lacks.

la mente torbida 2:09 pm 28 Jul 11

Okay, I’m an old fart
but I appreciate ELK’s art around Canberra…sometimes it makes me laugh, sometimes it makes me cringe, sometimes it makes me wish I was so brave…

Kalfour 2:05 pm 28 Jul 11

lulu said :

Given the housing affordability crisis in Canberra, I can see the attraction for artists of either moving to a larger city where the cost of living won’t be any higher but the markets for thier work are bigger or moving to a more rural setting where costs are lower and life is slower…

I think this is a big part of it. Even quite successful artists are often lacking in wealth. Canberra is an expensive place to live.

Canberra’s art scene isn’t bad. We have decent galleries and decent public art (accompanied by plenty of awful public art) and the arts get plenty of funding.

Even so, not many artists would be happy to produce art for just one area. They want to be seen throughout the country, by getting public art projects and exhibition spaces in lots of places.

Some artists stay. I really don’t think we should be concerned by an artist shortage in Canberra.

lulu 1:28 pm 28 Jul 11

Almost any artist anywhere in the world who makes a successful career travels a lot and lives in more than one place. It’s part of the nature of the work. (Banksy’s work doesn’t only appear in London) I’m sure that our Luke (AKA E.L.K.) will retian his strong ties to Canberra as do many of our ex pat artists. Canberra does have a thriving arts scene but at the end of the day, it’s a limited market. Any artist in any medium who wants to make a living from their work must develop other markets. Usually this means moving away although online technologies and Canberra’s gradual cultural maturation are making this less necessery in some cases.

We also have strong regional artistic communities in our surrounding areas (Braidwood springs to mind). Given the housing affordability crisis in Canberra, I can see the attraction for artists of either moving to a larger city where the cost of living won’t be any higher but the markets for thier work are bigger or moving to a more rural setting where costs are lower and life is slower, allowing more time and space for creative practice and development.

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