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Arts in the West of Sydney: the Great Divide?

Islamic Art-inspired surfboards by artist Philip George at the Casula Powerhouse in Western Sydney in 2008. Casula Powerhouse/AAP

Over the past three years, a group of four researchers (of whom I am one) have been looking at the way artists and artworkers live their lives in the Western Sydney. The outcome of this research is being launched tomorrow at Liverpool’s Casula Powerhouse. The title of the research report is Recalibrating Culture: Production, Consumption, Policy.

This project was originally conceived by Dr Michael Volkerling who sadly passed away suddenly in mid-2014. The project was supported by an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant as well as Arts NSW, six local governments, and the Information and Cultural Exchange. The Chief Researchers on the project were Professor Deborah Stevenson and Professor David Rowe and the fourth member of the team was Cecelia Cmielewski; all of whom are based at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University.

Much attention has been paid to Western Sydney over the past five years in relation to its lack of cultural investment and the fact that more than two million people live there. The Deloitte’s Report Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Arts Economy — A Key to Sydney’s Success (2015) revealed that,

Western Sydney represents 1 in 10 Australians yet attracts only 1% of Commonwealth arts program funding, and 5.5 % of the State’s Cultural Arts, heritage and events funding.

The implication of this might mean that there are fewer artists, arts workers and creatives generally living in Greater Western Sydney. However according to the 2011 census, there were 82,792 people working in the creative and cultural field who lived in Greater Western Sydney.

So what did our research discover?

Certainly there was a feeling of frustration and disappointment in the current lack of cultural facilities in the Greater West Sydney region. A visual artist noted,

… the equity between how much funding the galleries and the institutions in Sydney get as opposed to Western Sydney – there’s quite a huge gap. A huge divide…

This meant that many artists had no place to do their work and ended up working in their bedroom or on the kitchen table. Their demands are quite modest. They talked about wanting usable spaces and not expensive, inaccessible “white elephants”. These spaces could be artists’ studios, workshops, storage, exhibition, teaching and performance spaces.

Artists and art workers in the West are mostly highly qualified (many holding university degrees or similar), but they are very poorly paid. Practising artists did not usually receive a liveable income from their artistic work and relied on other work or their partners to support them. This meant that they were engaged in a daily struggle to survive and were anxious about their future.

Nevertheless they talked about their deep commitment to their work and described an environment in the West that they felt provided more freedom artistically, and supported both risk and diversity. Many, in fact, had made a conscious choice to live and work in the West because of this sense of community and artistic freedom.

As a film/media artist noted,

… it’s quite a common thing that we can all work together. We’re all different ethnicities but we can still understand that same, similar stories. … There’s a sense out in Western Sydney that you can be your own identity and ethnicity, and celebrate it.

Many artsworkers in the West worked within their various communities, framing their arts practice as being one of social and community engagement. They could be from Lebanon, Vietnam, Chile, or be Indigenous Australians, but they see their role to broker relationships as well as facilitate arts activity. They described a practice of working inclusively with others to share knowledge and skills.

While this research discovered further evidence of social and economic inequity, it also revealed the richness of the artistic and cultural activity in the West of Sydney. It is a great pity, that despite their political hyperbole, governments are such a long way behind in supporting and valuing it.

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