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Tasmania should become a centre for definitive Australian art & culture

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Wednesday, 16 October 2002

It’s a lot tougher being an art critic in small-town Australia than it ever was in New York or London.

In New York or London you're only competing with hundreds of other extremely articulate well connected newcomers for column inches. In spite of vigorous state and federally funded regional strategies to upgrade contemporary culture's media coverage in the nation's provinces, In Hobart, where I live, arts organisations are so unused to informative critical feedback they tend to regard those of us supplying it regularly for regional newspapers with little more than intellectual hostility.

Although the front covers of daily provincial newspapers often feature pictures of dog shows and school outings, this shouldn’t confuse arts professionals. Regional Australians have an appetite for stories relating to immediate life in their various locations, but it’s no indication of the thresholds of audiences' intellectual interest in new artistic ideas given the incredibly swift pace of public acceptance for many challenging forms of technology, among other examples of our population's flexibility in the ever innovating marketplace. Yet, the limitations of expectations for cultural growth and public outreach in Tasmania are loudly echoed in provincial settings throughout Australia. In the months ahead, this column will evaluate this awkwardly counterproductive phenomenon by investigating contemporary solutions for overcoming the consequences of provincial culture's unnecessarily low self esteem.


The City of Liverpool, UK, is often said to have preserved some of Britain's deepest anxiety complexes. Yet decades of producing ear-splittingly brilliant music, award-winning films and long-running television series, plus recognition as the spiritual home for Mike Myers' and Alexi Sayles' acute humour, as well as the Tate North (by far the most lively member of the institution's decentralisation program, now in its second decade of existence) should actively disprove enduring perceptions that Liverpool is provincial and backward. As host to the Liverpool Biennial of International Art and its deliciously anarchic Fringe festival, together with the John Moores Painting Prize (sponsored by Littlewoods, once the city's most prominent employer) and the annual Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition, you'd think that the lingering perception that Liverpudlians are in some way not quite as bright as the rest of the population would have begun to disappear from middle England's mind. Decades of industrial strife have impoverished three generations of Liverpool families yet they've welcomed risky contemporary art from all over the world to their city with open arms. So who's doing this cultural hatchet job on some of western Europe's poorest 21st century survivors?

Ten years ago, Lancashire’s severe economic and cultural difficulties replicated many of the symptoms Tasmania, and indeed many regional Australian centres are currently experiencing. Using the arts to help reverse cultural self-deprecation in the provinces is potentially one of Australia’s most powerful social tools for strengthening the nation’s sense of international worth but this can only occur after an extensive reappraisal of 21st century audiences. Until then, the net effect of not reaching audience markets is exactly the same in the arts as it is in all businesses.

From external perspectives, Australia’s idiomatic conviction of itself as a captive urban market is a premature filter disqualifying a variety of globally accepted social and cultural innovations which actively contribute to the evolution of creative, intellectual and economic growth elsewhere. It is certainly bad for the distribution of new forms of artistic expression throughout this country. Australia’s cultural economies are differently wired than US and European arts markets. Historical perceptions of the impact of distance play an overly determined role in developing contemporary audiences’ involvement with the arts here. So, like all innovative products and new concepts entering the Australian experience, either from outside or within our society’s creative resources, contemporary art must perform a wider social function in Australia’s many smaller population centres because there are fewer comparisons to be made.

But it would be patronizing and economically dangerous to stereotype the pressing national need for contemporary art to win more friends in the provinces, as a particular symptom of regional cultural backwardness. Breaking down tacit managerial dread of the visual arts as a problematic cultural concept for provincial audiences means building public inspiration for critical strengths and standards. That’s going to be hard if Australia’s culture executives keep failing to understand just how engaged contemporary art has become with mainstream life elsewhere in the world.

Until contemporary art’s intrusion into mainstream imagery and popular imagination is more carefully measured in Australian life, we’ll go on missing critical fundaments in the industry’s strengths and weaknesses. Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough's signature contribution to the Liverpool's 2002 Biennial adds a healthy dose of geo-political irony to Liverpool's decentralised cultural initiatives. Her "Home Sweet Home (Forget Me Not)" was installed at the Biennial's inaugural 1999 show and studs the word "Liverpool" in intricate pinheads arranged as graphic lettering, now incorporated as a symbol of the City's international arts profile. Similarly, Tate North's support for local Liverpool designers' neo-pop fuzzy screen style lettering, designed to link the Biennial with related events, have made it south as London's magnificent Tate Modern's primary youth-orientated logo. Certainly, Liverpool is overdue recognition for its substantial contribution to British cultural growth. In reality, no matter how worldly and successful Liverpool has become at staging these cutting-edge international arts events, it will continue to struggle against big city Britain's inverted cultural self-consciousness. Why is this?

In the early 20th century, Liverpool's new wealth fled the province in droves to join the ranks of the south-eastern establishment. Provincially based Australian culture industry professionals also crave big cities as a more appropriate context for their artistic production. But isn't there something slightly absurd if not wickedly craven about the notion that being in a larger town somehow makes your art work (or your money) better? It is a natural critical preference to prefer to view works in the context of their peers and contemporaries but because Australia’s population bases are probably never going to be quite as mobile as Europe’s, the challenge to engage this country’s audiences has to be undertaken differently here.


In the meantime, dismissing regional audiences as a lesser priority for publicly subsidised arts events is fairly insulting when it comes down to it. Somehow, the serious problems caused by Tasmania's endemically underwhelming arts institutions, dotted with dead light bulbs, grumpy staff and out of date websites seems to be passing us by. Critics point this stuff out in the sincere hope of provoking change for the better but it’s often easier to shoot us before launching a lengthy departmental inquiry about why people complain, than simply changing the bulbs.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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