Does Brisbane have culture?

Matt Condon, writing in The Courier-Mail, says “yes”, but I’m not so sure.

Brisbane City's "Creative City" strategy was a leading piece of Landry/Florida worship - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

The Brisbane City Council's "Creative City" strategy was heavy on the Landry/Florida rhetoric - but has since failed to deliver any meaningful policy outcomes

Condon’s article points out that the city has a historic legacy of under-appreciation of culture and the arts:

In an anguished letter published in The Courier-Mail on March 27, 1934, one T. L. Smithson Jones asked: “Sir, May I ask if there is any culture in Brisbane? For many years I have spent some months of the year here, and I frankly am appalled by what I see.”

In August this year (75 years after poor T. L. Smithson Jones’ lament) the same question was being batted about on that new-fangled thing called the internet. Acclaimed young Australian festival director and cultural commentator Marcus Westbury incited an interstate debate when he asked similar questions about culture and its comparative robustness in Australian capital cities. “This week, I’ve been discussing the respective state of cultural life in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide and been amazed at the passionate vitriol that comparisons evoke,” Westbury wrote. “It seems we love taking potshots across state lines.”

Former Queensland historian Ross Fitzgerald has described the state as a “cultural wasteland”.

And in an article in Artlink magazine several years ago titled “The New Brisbane”, local writers Stuart Glover and Stuart Cunningham pointed out our city’s “coming of age” had been announced several times in the past three decades, from the 1982 Commonwealth Games through to the Smart State manifesto.

It’s worth taking up on that final paragraph. In that Artlink article, Glover and Cunningham mentioned two festivals in particular as unique and exciting models showing Brisbane was creating new ways of presenting culture: the River Festival and Straight Out of Brisbane.

Today, neither festival exists. River Fest was gobbled up by the influential but charmless  Lyndon Terracini in his crusade to dominate Brisbane’s festivals sector, while Straight out of Brisbane (which I founded and helped to organise) died an agonising death waiting for Arts Queensland funding that never arrived. Add the previously successful Livid Festival to that list and Brisbane now has three fewer nationally-recognised  festivals than it had in the early 2000’s.

Other aspects of Brisbane’s cultural health are also open to question. While ABS data for Brisbane is not disaggregated from the total Queensland figures, across the state employment in cultural industries barely grew at all – flatlining at 48,000 jobs from 2001 to 2006. This was during boom years for other parts of the state’s employment market.

When you add in the substantial growth in state cultural employment at big institutions like the State Library and Queensland Art Gallery in that time, it appears as though private sector cultural employment in Queensland actually fell between 2001 and 2006.

This is in stark contrast to the rosy forecasts predicted by the glossy cultural policies developed by both the Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council in the early 2000’s – policy documents with ambitious titles like “Creative City” and “Creativity is Big Business.”

In fact, if you talk to cultural practitioners in Queensland, you find that the micro-economic conditions for cultural growth are stagnating. Music venues are struggling with high costs imposed by tougher licensing and bouncer regulations, while small galleries and incubators are finding it hard to pay the rent in Brisbane’s appreciating property market. While music festivals such as Parklife and the Big Day Out continue to draw strong crowds, government-run cultural centres like the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Brisbane Powerhouse have not lived up to expectations, neither commissioning as much local work as first claimed or creating significant new audiences for their venues. During one recent week of the Brisbane Festival, the Brisbane Powerhouse was nearly completely empty, running only one 60-minute show, Elbow Room’s There.  One show in an entire week of the Brisbane Festival!

Ironically, Elbow Room is basically an expatriate Brisbane company, composed of Brisbane actors, playwrights and directors who left the state for greener pastures in Victoria, where there is a far stronger independent theatre scene.And there are plenty more stories like this.

Film production in the state is another good example. It remains essentially a chase for Hollywood production dollars rather trying to develop local stories and film-makers. The result is that local production is  highly vulnerable to currency fluctuations like the current strong Aussie dollar. Meanwhile, the state film funding body, the Pacific Film and Television Commission, has gone through a series of internal convulsions that have seen a clean-out of top management whom had comprehensively lost the confidence of the local film industry.

In fact, despite the publicity lavished on Brisbane and Queensland’s  so-called “creative indsutries” policies, the evidence suggests that they have failed – even in terms of the economic and employment goals they set themselves.

It’s not all bad. Brisbane’s fertile music scene continues to spawn new bands with significant national and international appeal, while many of the state’s writers are also gaining wide appeal. And Fortitude Valley’s game design sector has grown into a significant employer. But in sectors like the performing arts, dance, visual arts, artist-run initiatives and commercial visual arts galleries, design, festivals, media and advertising and even food and dining,  Brisbane and Queensland trails badly behind its southern cousins – and the gap is if anything widening.

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2 thoughts on “Does Brisbane have culture?

  1. Hey Ben, great article. In your last paragraph you mention the games industry, but here too there has been significant shrinkage of the local industry. Locally-grown company Auran collapsed, and the Brisbane office of Pandemic was also closed down. There are still established houses, like Krome and Big Ant, doing large projects and a few smaller shops. But the industry isn’t as large in Brisbane as it was even two years ago, and right now the centre of gravity is really more oriented towards Sydney and Melbourne.

    The local writers are doing alright though. 😉

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