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.

What’s new in the International Journal of Arts Management: Jennifer Radbourne on audience metrics

In the IJAM, a team led by Jennifer Radbourne reports the findings of a fascinating study entitled “The Audience Experience: Measuring Quality in the Performing Arts.” 

We propose that the “quality” of an artistic performance can be defined by the individual audience member’s personal definition of quality based on her or his experience of the performance.

The Audience Experience:
Measuring Quality
in the Performing Arts

There’s some highly valuable insights from the group of focus groups that they conducted. For instance, Radbourne’s team probes the idea of knowledge and risk in watching a performance:

Non-attender A: “I was amazed the audience [was] raptured at the end . . . and I thought, what for? . . . I heard some people, when . . . we were in the queue going in, talking about him, so he’s obviously renowned. Clearly, I missed that.”

Non-attender B: “It’s just that thing of everyone sitting down and . . . that’s why I find live performance quite difficult. . . . When people started laughing . . . it’s, like, are they in the know? . . . Did they know the people, did they know stuff about the play? I mean, I don’t know anything about it . . . I didn’t know he wrote plays.” 

On risk:

Non-attender A: “You pay $50 [for a theatre ticket] – that’s a big night out for me . . . If I’m outlaying a lot of money, I want a guaranteed good night, and if it’s a band, then . . . that’s going to be a guarantee, but generally I wouldn’t take a punt on it for that amount of money.”

Non-attender B: “But that’s what live performance or theatre is. It’s not free – it’s a gamble.”

There’s plenty of other insights in the piece, which is published in the current edition of IJAM, with the following citation:

Jennifer Radbourne, Katya Johanson, Hilary Glow, Tabitha White (2009) The Audience Experience: Measuring Quality in the Performing Arts. International Journal of Arts Management 11(3), Spring 2009: 16-29

The Brisbane arts scene with Gen Canavan

I’m currently in Brisbane visiting my family (my father has recently retired) and I got the opportunity to visit my friend and colleague Gen Canavan, a former board member of Straight Out of Brisbane.

Gen is a bit frustrated with the Brisbane arts scene. As keen observers of the scene here, we are both disappointed by the continued “all or nothing” approach to arts funding that seems to characterise the cultural funding priorities here. So, while our festival Straight Out of Brisbane was allowed to wither on the vine, millions more are thrown at Lyndon Terracini’s achingly middle-brow Brisbane Festival; similarly, the big state-funded institutions like the Queensland Art Gallery and State Library of Queensland enjoy budgets that exceed those of the entire Queensland small-to-medium sector combined. (Perhaps this explains why they  seem to be the only ones with the resources to pursue interesting and innovative programming up here with decent marketing campaigns). 

Queensland is also the home of the Australian “creative industries” movement, often described in overseas literature as the “QUT school.” I note that Robyn Archer is publishing an essay defending art-for-arts-sake funding in a forthcoming Griffith Review … stay tuned for an analysis of that when I get my hands on a copy.