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Melbourne vs Sydney: neither city has a monopoly on the arts

Earlier this week, the City of Sydney announced that Sydney’s tallest residential building (due to be completed in 2017) will house a $25 million, five-floor “creative hub”. The announcement, a possible coup for Sydney artists, comes as the council is in the middle of finalising a “cultural policy” and action plan, designed to see Sydney become one of the world’s leading “creative cities” with the investment of $480 million on cultural initiatives.

Not to be outdone by Sydney, City of Melbourne distributed a media release the following morning, reminding the media that it has a recently endorsed, new and improved “arts strategy” (which they say is absolutely not a “cultural policy”, but an artist-focused strategy) in the pipeline to ensure that Melbourne remains the “arts capital”.

And if the veiled competition between Melbourne and Sydney councils wasn’t enough, the state governments continue the fight, with Victorian Arts Minister Heidi Victoria telling the media, at practically every arts launch, that Victoria is the “arts capital”, while recently replaced NSW Arts Minister George Souris consistently claimed that NSW was the “cultural capital”.

As somebody who has lived in Sydney for his entire life, until moving to Melbourne seven months ago, the Sydney-Melbourne culture battle has never seemed more redundant or, frankly, more boring.

I arrived in Melbourne in November last year, the week before Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle opened, which also happened to be the week the National Gallery of Victoria’s blockbuster Melbourne Now opened. The first few weeks involved the Ring Cycle and the attached festival (which saw me sitting outside the Arts Centre watching cabaret at midnight while drinking artisan beer) and exploring the NGV, for the first time, with thousands of other excited visitors.

It certainly felt like I’d moved to a buzzing, cultural, cosmopolitan city where the citizens would just get out and about and “do” art. But as the buzz dwindled down to a gentle hum, post-opening, I started to feel like I hadn’t really moved at all.

The two cities are not as different as many of us would like to believe. Yes, Melbourne has better public transport and you can get a decent drink or bite to eat post-show. Yes, Sydney has one of the most iconic arts-related buildings in the world in the Sydney Opera House. But beyond a few obvious differences, the basic attitudes and spirits of both cities are, more or less, the same. Perhaps that’s why they’re engaged in a constant battle.

It’s a battle that goes further back than the last 15 years, when state governments have considered their major cultural achievements to be whenever they secured the Australian premiere of the latest Broadway blockbuster. It goes back further than when Jeff Kennett was making broad, bold decisions and statements in his quest to improve Victoria’s arts scene in the late ‘90s. It probably goes all the way back to when Canberra replaced Melbourne as the nation’s capital in 1927, putting it on the same political level as Sydney. And neither city has come out definitively on top.

There are so many different ways that you could measure whether a city is excelling in terms of culture or the arts; attendance and participation, investment, the number and size of events held, the number and size of companies and galleries, the ability to attract big international artists or events, the quality and number of venues, the strength of arts education, whether public transport and late night bars and restaurants make theatre-going a “great night out”.

In fact, there are just too many factors to take into account, and things shift far too quickly for either city to stake a definitive claim as the culture or arts capital. And, in any case, each city’s culture responds to the needs and interests of its citizens, its artists and its geography as best as it can. Culture is not a contest. But if it were, the two cities are absolutely neck-and-neck.

I’m moving home to Sydney in a week’s time. When I told this to another Melbourne-based arts writer, they snidely asked, “Well, how are you going to cover the arts?” I get these kind of responses from Melburnians all the time. They seemed shocked that, as an arts person, I would choose to not be in Melbourne. But I don’t feel any great difference between the cities, and feel like I’m missing out on brilliant arts events whether I’m in Melbourne or Sydney.

I try not to engage in the debate too much, because it bores me and I feel like I’m not comparing apples to oranges, but Granny Smiths to Golden Deliciouses. But if the discussion is directly about theatre, I might gently remind them that Sydney Theatre Company draws bigger audiences than Melbourne Theatre Company, and does so with riskier programming, while Sydney’s second-tier company, Belvoir, draws about three times the audience of Melbourne’s second-tier company, Malthouse. But then I will acknowledge that Melbourne has a healthier indie theatre culture (although the disconnect between the mainstage and the indie companies is concerning). But the reverse is true in musical theatre; Sydney has developed an indie musical theatre culture whereas Melbourne is more blockbuster-friendly. But Melbourne has a better range of theatres able to accommodate such work. But those are all crude generalisations. See! It’s far too complicated to even make any definitive statements in just one artform.

I suppose so long as governments and councils and citizens keep up their constant battle to outdo each other they’ll have some kind of impetus to forge ahead with the arts. There are many things that shape a city’s culture, one of which is the commitment of its politicians. Both Melbourne and Sydney are lucky to have mayors that are proactively supporting and encouraging artistic endeavour. But hopefully Melburnians and Sydneysiders can acknowledge that there’s no such thing as the “cultural capital” or the “arts capital” and just be thankful they don’t live in Canberra.

12 responses to “Melbourne vs Sydney: neither city has a monopoly on the arts

  1. Art is art wherever it is – and quite honestly a lot more needs to be done to create more cheap/free space for artists of all persuasions! Stop fighting each other and fight the establishment – become more avant-garde and creative…eg east Belin and Hoxton, London!!

  2. Interesting reading! Why can’t each city be comfortable living in it’s own skin and support each other rather than battle? And, after living in the US for 15 years, I was pleasantly surprised at how Canberra had developed in culture, arts, outdoor “art”, architecture, amazing food and wine, and a much friendlier ambience than once. Be done with the Canberra bashing so the world can see we have a capital to rival Washington, a stunning city with a harbor that puts San Francisco to shame, a city with more soul and depth(and alleyway haunts) than New Orleans and Chicago together, an island state with more diversity and more beautiful beaches than Hawaii, and even better truffles than France! Let’s celebrate the diversity of our cities!

  3. I attend performances and exhibitions in both Sydney (where I live) and Canberra (where I’m spending an increasing amount of time), and have been pleasantly surprised by what’s available in Canberra. I’m guessing that Ben Neutze’s ignorance about Canberra (as displayed on 12 June) is matched by his ignorance about Sydney. So I’ll pass on the Daily Reivew in future.

  4. I arrived in Melbourne from Sydney more than thirty years ago and after a month was ready to lie on the floor and scream if I ever heard another Melbourne/Sydney ‘joke’. Nice to know nothing has changed.

  5. Melbourne & Sydney competing to have more arts policies, cultural centres etc.
    So they provide more arts resources.
    Competition Policy at work!

  6. Well done Ben. This tribalism inhibits serious discussion. I am an horrendous Melbourne chauvanist (architecture is an artform also *nudge, nudge*!), but it pains me that our blinkered mindset cannot help but let us see that our two main theatre companies here in Melbourne are lagging seriously behind their Sydney counterparts. And I categorically don’t think it’s because the audience isn’t there.

    What is Malthouse’s strategy to properly fill the space Belvoir does in Sydney? What is Arts Victoria’s strategy to assist/force them there?? *sound of tumbleweeds*


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