Alas, arts precincts don’t make cultural cities

Arts precincts have a tendency to become an arts ghetto, shut off from the broader community. PreciousBytes, CC BY-SA

Melburnians are oft to claim that they reside in the “arts capital” of Australia. Such self-perception (justified or not) reflects and helps to elevate the profile, quality and ambition of artistic activity in the city. But does it also leave the city vulnerable to bad policy?

One long-standing government policy response which aims to match this ambition with reality has been the ongoing investment in a cultural precinct in the city’s Southbank, which includes a cluster of organisations such as the Melbourne Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, the Malthouse Theatre, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

The strip of land bordered by St Kilda Road and Sturt Street is aiming to become the arts equivalent of the sporting precinct on the north side of the Yarra River.

Thus we saw the release earlier this month of a Melbourne Arts Precinct Blueprint by Arts Victoria, which encourages development – around the existing arts cluster – that “talks to the street” and gives more attention to the pedestrian experience. That has since been followed up this week with an announcement by Premier Denis Napthine of a A$42.5 million major redevelopment project centred on the campus of VCA at Southbank that aims to open up the institution to the broader community.

The blueprint appeals to planners looking to enhance those much vaunted “synergies” between substantially public-funded institutions. After all, what could be more sensible than the placement of one such institution after another, and (yet) another.

Convenience vs community

Lincoln Centre, New York. focusc, CC BY

But if there is one sure law of urban planning, it is the law of unintended consequences.

In a New York Times article marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York 2009, the music critic Anthony Tommasini noted that if such a sprawling multi-disciplinary performing-arts complex were proposed in New York City today, “it would never be built”.

Setting aside cost and planning obstacles,

[the] idealistic assumption … that orchestras, opera companies, ballet troupes and theatres would have much to gain by becoming partners in a centralised complex would not stand up to challenge today.

The promise of arts organisations working together, he further suggested, can become a “daily grind of competing boards and directors stifled by bureaucracy”.

Even more problematic, however, was the tendency for such complexes to result in something more akin to an arts ghetto, shut off from the broader community.

The very idea of the Arts Precinct, Tommasini argued, has arisen out of a fundamentally negative view of the modern city as crowded, chaotic and forbidding.

It offers instead the apparently attractive prospect for arts lovers to travel in the safety of their car from the suburbs, have a meal, attend a performance, and return again, without having to set foot in the heart of the city itself.

The Arts Precinct thus places functional convenience above the desirability for the arts to be surrounded by, and more importantly, owned by, a community. (I made a similar argument recently in a Platform Paper about why Performing Arts Schools should ideally be located on the main campuses of their host Universities, not isolated from them.)

Lack of critical debate

Victorian College of the Arts. Reinis Traidis, CC BY

Tommasini is not alone in voicing such concerns — there is an emerging consensus of opinion among commentators and academics around similar projects, such as the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Los Angeles Music Centre.

Given the shared challenges, it is surprising that the planning principles driving the Melbourne venture have attracted so little critical debate. Certainly this was the case around the time when I first wrote on the topic for the inaugural issue of the Melbourne Review in 2011.

Critical articles in the last month by Leon Van Schaik and Ben Eltham for ArtsHub, however, suggest that the climate might well be shifting.

The lack of such debate until now might be in part because voicing such criticism can feel a little like apostasy. The Southbank blueprint while quietly acknowledging a lot of these problems (with the use of words such as “trapped” and “alienated”) nevertheless seems from the outset to presume the solution.

Is this because government interest and investment in the arts must be seized before it is questioned? Yet, with the total cost of all proposed redevelopment work in Southbank estimated a few years ago at as much as A$1.2 billion, a robust public debate is surely also essential.

The sum is potentially so large because the problems faced by Southbank are considerable (as anyone who has spent any time trying to walk through it only knows too well): the area is cut off from the rest of Melbourne’s centre, and indeed parts of itself, by immovable objects such as City Rd and the CityLink expressway and poorly situated high-rises, as well as being vertically challenged by a descent of several metres below the level of the city’s main southerly boulevard, St Kilda Road.

Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. afagen

Similar geographical challenges are faced by the Dallas Arts District in Texas, and the LA Music Centre, both of which are also cut off in part by major inner city freeways – but the blueprint makes no mention of these, or any other similar examples, that might sound a cautionary note.

In Dallas, it has been widely acknowledged that its location has served to emphasise the Arts District status as an enclave of high culture separated (symbolically as much as physically) from nearby communities.

The design of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall was a concerted effort to try and counteract similar problems in Los Angeles.

In Melbourne, the design and location of the Melbourne Recital Centre, has only added to the challenges faced at Southbank (a fact quietly acknowledged in the blueprint).

How cultural cities evolve

Melbourne Recital Centre. Roger528, CC BY

Are we at risk of throwing good money after bad, chasing an undoubtedly appealing, but ultimately chimeric civic dream?

We should be much more open and energetic in considering alternatives. The continuing disquiet surrounding Melbourne’s Docklands development, which I have seen variously described as “soulless” and “uncharismatic” may present as much an opportunity, as a problem. Docklands, west of Melbourne’s CBD currently lacks a cultural centre or facility of any significance.

I wonder what might the impact have been if the Melbourne Recital Centre had been located there, designed by an architect best able to make use of the potentially stunning waterside locale?

Or what if they had taken advantage of the until-recently vacant block of land at the top end of Swanston Street, north of the CBD. Imagine what it might have said about the city’s cultural ambitions were its central axis to have been punctuated by the Shrine of Remembrance at one end, and a major arts facility at the other!

In this instance developers Grocon came up with something just as powerfully symbolic, a 32-storey portrait of Wurundjeri tribal leader and artist William Barak.

But maybe that’s how cultural cities really should evolve. Culture is, after all, not a destination. It should not be confined to planned precincts, but be given the space to be expressed in myriad ways and myriad locations – to be propagated ultimately by and through the imagination of all residents.


Do you work in urban development and planning? If you are an academic or researcher with relevant expertise and would like to respond to this article, email the Arts + Culture editor.

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