Western Sydney's Cultural Push

By Professor David Rowe and HDR candidate Cecelia Cmielewski

Oneness sculpture - displayed outdoors on a grassy area with trees in the background. The scupture is egg-shaped and off-white in colour with patterns running from top to bottom. It sits on a brown stand. 

Photo above: Oneness by Michael Purdy, winner of the UWS 2014 Urban Growth Acquisitive Sculpture Award.

Arts and Culture in Western Sydney has become a major focus for public discussion, cultural policy, and corporate philanthropy. The lead up to the New South Wales election has seen the release of the ‘NSW Arts and Cultural Policy Framework’ (opens in a new window), the Deloitte Report ‘Building Western Sydney’s Cultural Arts Economy: A Key to Sydney’s Success’ (opens in a new window), and the ‘Crown Resorts Foundation’s Western Sydney Arts Initiative’ (opens in a new window).

This attention to the cultural life of Western Sydney is welcome, although it inevitably involves considerable political disputation. For example, the proposal to move the Powerhouse Museum from inner-city Ultimo to the Western Sydney hub of Parramatta has received a mixed response (opens in a new window).

The debate, though, has been rather limited, tending to focus on the pros and cons of arts and cultural investment in Western Sydney by importing institutions from the centre of Sydney. It has concentrated on large cultural institutions, rather than support for local talent and smaller-scale organisations that have been doing highly creative cultural work in Western Sydney for decades.

Western Sydney has also been characterised as an urban zone blighted by cultural neglect and consequently suffering from a cultural deficit. While there is no doubt that arts and cultural funding has been massively weighted towards inner Sydney (as the Deloitte Report makes clear), it is also important to recognise that Western Sydney is a place of exciting artistic and cultural innovation, not least among the culturally and linguistic diverse communities who are too often ignored by Anglophile art elites.

At ICS, we are addressing this topic with our cultural partners (Auburn, Fairfield, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith and Sydney City Councils and the community arts organisation Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE)) through an Australian Research Council Linkage Project Recalibrating Culture: Production, Consumption, Policy.  

The Project’s aim is to document and analyse the changing ways in which culture is produced and consumed in Australia through a case study of the cultural economy of the country’s most dynamic urban area, Greater Western Sydney. Its researchers are examining networks of contemporary cultural employment and activity, exposing and exploring interactions among the key agents forming the practitioner communities within Western Sydney’s growing cultural economy.

Diverse communities and artists are at the centre of much of art and culture activity in Western Sydney, providing sites of creative inclusion and experimentation. The Recalibrating Culture researchers and their partners are especially focusing on artistic projects arising from the interests and constraints that pertain to local conditions, with the aim of increasing the capacity to ‘upscale’ cultural production to the benefit of artists and the wider community.

The uniqueness of creative practice in Western Sydney, where constraints have been used innovatively by local artists, include over the past decade the development of the freestyle urban movement discipline parkour and guerrilla video making. Fairfield is the home to parkour performers Ali Khadim and Team9Lives – self-taught via YouTube, they teach, experiment and display their well-honed skills locally and, on occasion, perform at prestigious inner-metropolitan cultural venues like the Sydney Opera House.

Curiousworks is a community-based media company which has also traversed the borders between East and West: in their case from Surry Hills to a welcoming base at Liverpool’s Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre. Known for their prodigious output that genuinely brings community members into the life of their projects, the latest production in their Meet+Eat series was made with the communities of South-Western Sydney and Hume in Northern Melbourne, and will be screened in Bonnyrigg and Broadmeadows as part of Harmony Day this year.  Such fluid movement across and between cities reveals the inadequacy of thinking about culture and creativity in terms of local government boundaries.

Casula Powerhouse has presented brave, well-curated exhibitions since the re-purposing of the de-commissioned power station in 1994, including Australian, Nam Bang, Onside and the current Nahrain. These exhibitions are amongst the most absorbing and challenging of any being presented in a contemporary arts space in Australia. Wider exposure to such high-quality exhibitions would undoubtedly enhance Australia’s public culture.

The Peacock Gallery and Auburn Arts Studio are experiencing rapid growth, providing functional spaces for artists and festivals such as the annual Autumn Colours, Cherry Blossom and Sacred Music festivals attracting over 20,000 visitors. Parramatta Artists Studios also provides additional welcome studio spaces for use by locally-based and visiting artists. 

The importance of access to creative spaces for artists to make and show their work cannot be underestimated in any review and ensuing support of cultural infrastructure. This small selection of current cultural activity demonstrates the potential to build on the dedicated work of the energetic arts communities inspired by life in Western Sydney itself. 

It is important, therefore, to place Western Sydney’s creative capacity at the centre of any discussions around the cultural future of Sydney and Australia. Debate on this subject should not be restricted to advocating or resisting the redistribution of resources and infrastructure, including by relocating cultural institutions westwards (opens in a new window). More attention – and support – should be given to what is already going on in the cultural sphere of Western Sydney, as well as to the multi-directional flows of artists, works and practices that create a vibrant cultural metropolis. 

19 March 2015