Working Arts and Cultural Lives in Western Sydney: New ICS Report

A new report by Western Sydney University's Institute for Culture and Society (ICS) paints a complex picture of the role of the arts and cultural activity in the Greater Western Sydney region of New South Wales.

The Recalibrating Culture: Production, Consumption, Policy study is to be launched on Saturday 10th June at 1pm at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.

Recalibrating Culture: Production, Consumption, Policy is based on work carried out as part of an Australian Research Council-funded Linkage Grant (LP130100253), led by Professors Deborah Stevenson and David Rowe. The research project explored the working environment of artists and cultural practitioners who live and/or practice in Greater Western Sydney. This is a region where cultural arts funding and support has been traditionally low.

A young man stands behind a clapperboard and in front of a muralCuriousWorks Stories Project. (2014). Photograph: Courtesy of CuriousWorks.

Chief Investigator, Professor Deborah Stevenson notes, "Previous research has found that Western Sydney represents 1 in 10 Australians, yet attracts only 1% of Commonwealth arts program funding, and 5.5 % of New South Wales' cultural arts, heritage and events funding".

"Such findings point to how important it is to understand the extent and nature of the creative work that is being undertaken in Western Sydney and to consider what this means in terms of cultural policy."

Professor David Rowe, the other Chief Investigator adds, "The research indicates that there is widespread arts and cultural activity across Greater Western Sydney, and that it's connected in various ways to all of metropolitan Sydney."

"Like most artists and cultural practitioners, the working lives of our research respondents are quite complicated and precarious. They are organised in ways that allow them to be as creatively active as possible while largely supporting themselves by other means".

"Although many creative people in Western Sydney feel rather marginalised and under-supported, there is some compensation in a strong feeling of community and of being less aesthetically constrained than those who may receive greater attention in the inner city", he said.

The report contributes to debates surrounding contemporary cultural employment and activity in Australia, with a particular, much-needed focus on the complex and changing Greater Western Sydney region. It discusses key project findings, with a focus on the nature of artistic and cultural practice, respondents' creative work and support systems, where and how their work is undertaken, and what is needed to enable arts and cultural practice to thrive in the region.

The report finds that:

  • Western Sydney is a complex space regarding arts and cultural practice, and is connected in various ways with inner-city Sydney and other parts of the metropolis.
  • Respondents lived and/or worked in geographically dispersed areas throughout Western Sydney, ranging from the Blue Mountains to the regions of Blacktown/Penrith and Parramatta/Fairfield, to the areas of Bankstown/Liverpool/Campbelltown. There was also a range of working and living connections across metropolitan Sydney. Among respondents there was recognition of the region's geographic and demographic diversity, and of the elusiveness about what constitutes 'the West'.
  • Among the project's survey respondents, Anglo-Celtic, older, middle-class and well-educated women predominated. While this demography is indicative of those artists and cultural practitioners who found and responded to the survey online, it is not representative of Greater Western Sydney's general demography. Additionally, there was a significant difference in the demographic characteristics in the Blue Mountains region as compared to other parts of the Greater Western Sydney region. The interview cohort was thus selected to recognise and incorporate the diversity of the backgrounds of the respondents to the survey.
  • Survey respondents work in a variety of artistic or creative disciplines, with three-quarters often working in multiple disciplines, usually in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way. Interviewees expressed notable commitment to their artform, and cited it as an important factor in their life decisions and in their chosen lifestyles. Passion was also a strong feature in interviewees' artistic engagement with cultural identities and personal trajectories. The report also notes that, in the still-developing field of digital technologies, engagement was focussed more on promoting, communicating and discussing work than on using digital technologies as part of the creative process.
  • Arts and cultural practitioners are generally engaged in working across multiple industry sectors, including in commercial, professional (including local councils), and volunteer roles. Many research participants noted a preference for work and income streams across three sectors, although few wanted to commit a lot of time to the commercial sector. A common theme arising from the interviews was the importance of brokering – both in developing relationships and in facilitating creative activity. Some interviewees had transitioned from creating art to working in brokering roles (for a variety of reasons ranging from a commitment to community, to retaining a steady income, to maintaining an active non-practising role within their artistic/cultural community).
  • Cultural working lives tend to be precarious and need careful management. Despite being highly qualified (with over 70% of respondents having a university degree or higher), respondents were poorly paid for their creative practice. Median income from artistic and creative activities was only approximately $15,000 per annum. However, although earning a living was noted as important to respondents, full-time employment was not considered a high priority. Creative collaboration and recognition by family, peers and the community was more highly valued. Practising artists either took on a range of 'portmanteau' employment in order to continue their creative work, and/or were supported by a partner. In some cases, lower artistic income was a deciding factor in why respondents were living in the Greater Western Sydney region.
  • The types of network viewed as most important by respondents were local artist-focussed and community networks, and personal networks. The more remote national, state and regional networks were among the least-valued. The activity of networking was viewed simultaneously as an obligatory mechanism which could enable professional advantage, and as a positive process of mutual engagement with peer and organisational support.
  • Arts and cultural organisations have a significant role and impact at the community level, and respondents engage with them in many different ways. Research participants looked to local government more readily than state or federal governments, and its spaces and initiatives were seen as important. Local infrastructure, resources and networks, and access to them, are part of the narrative of the 'the West' juxtaposed with metropolitan Sydney, as many interviewees expressed a strong sense of being undervalued and under-resourced compared with other parts of Sydney.
  • The resource needs identified as most important by artists and cultural practitioners included financial support, help in selling and promoting work, discounted supplies or services, and opportunities to meet with others or show to audiences. Survey respondents and interviewees from non-English speaking backgrounds noted the importance of opportunities to meet other artists and network outside their immediate circles. Interviewees particularly emphasised the need for inclusive long-term decision-making in the creative and cultural development of Western Sydney, as well as for more investment in cultural facilities in the region. Several research participants also noted a 'class divide' in relation to arts and culture, with 'high' European arts (such as opera and classical ballet – usually based in inner Sydney) consuming much of the available funding.

The report makes a series of recommendations concerning the needs and priorities of artists and cultural practitioners which need to be made more central to the processes of cultural policy and planning. The imperative of cultural recalibration is to adjust arts and cultural policy settings in ways that nurture and value creative practice, wherever it is located and irrespective of the social status of those engaged in it.

Summary report recommendations are:

1. Establish permanent arts/culture working spaces in Greater Western Sydney.

2. Undertake an audit of existing arts and culture presentation spaces across the region.

3. Establish paid or subsidised artist-in-residency programs in the West.

4. Develop a small grants program for arts and cultural activities in the region.

5. Celebrate 'success' stories in the Greater Western Sydney region through a targeted campaign.

6. Enhance the arts and culture profile of Western Sydney through advocacy and partnerships.

7. Establish a continuous research program to enable longitudinal analysis of arts and culture in the region.

8. Tackle the issue of training and establish a mentoring program for different levels and types of arts and cultural practitioner career.

9. Create innovative cultural infrastructure in the region.

10. Counter creative and cultural worker stereotypes within and beyond Western Sydney.

While the research report argues that Western Sydney's arts and cultural sector should be given unprecedented attention, its method, analysis and argument can be adapted to other city and regional contexts that have experienced comparable under-recognition.

Recalibrating Culture: Production, Consumption, Policy provides the basis for a new approach to Australian cultural policy which reflects rapidly changing conditions in technologies, precarious income sources, portfolio practices, and working conditions for artists and cultural practitioners.

The full report is published on the ICS website (opens in a new window).

Industry partners of the project were Auburn, Fairfield, Liverpool, Parramatta, Penrith and Sydney City Councils, and Information and Cultural Exchange. Additional support was provided by Arts NSW (now Create NSW).

Dr Josephine Caust of JoCaust Arts and Ms Cecelia Cmielewski of ICS were the other members of the research team, and are joint authors of the report. The research was originally conceptualised and developed by Dr Michael Volkerling, who died suddenly in mid-2014. Recalibrating Culture: Production, Consumption, Policy is dedicated to Michael in memoriam.

Posted: 6 June 2017.