Music, News & Commentary, Screen, Stage, Visual Arts

A Lord Mayor for the Arts?

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Local government elections aren’t normally of national significance. When it’s a capital city mayoral election, however, all of Australia takes notice.

Lord Mayors lead programs, budgets and square kilometres that encompass their state’s major public spaces, galleries, museums, festivals and performing arts centres, as well as the sites of their major events. Artists of national and international renown present work there to audiences from around Australia and across the globe. World leaders meet there, key political decisions are announced there, and impactful political protests are held there.

With Melbourne going to the polls from next week, no lord mayoral candidate can be a serious contender without taking a strong, clear and ambitious position on the arts.

The Lord Mayor of Melbourne must be able to articulate an arts and cultural vision – that’s key to their success.

Last Saturday, the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) presented a panel of lord mayoral hopefuls and asked them exactly that. We heard from current councillor and musician Rohan Leppert of the Greens, former councillor Ken Ong of the Liberals, contemporary artist Katie Sfetkidis, and broadcaster, anthropologist and writer Sally Warhaft. Unexpectedly, former Manningham Labor councillor and independent candidate Jennifer Yang joined the panel just moments before we began, so it was a tight discussion whose passions ignited once our audience also became involved.

And indeed, there was a great deal to discuss, with many points of controversy – too many to cover here.

Ken Ong suggested that the City of Melbourne’s arts funding should be directed towards artists who live within its municipal boundaries – sparking debate about artistic excellence against parochialism.

Jennifer Yang spruiked a long service leave loan scheme to support artists’ incomes – confusing panellists and audience alike given it’s not a local government issue and not something for which most artists would ever be eligible.

Sally Warhaft said that there should be some arts grants and opportunities that are not competitively secured – stimulating good discussion about the balance of contested and uncontested funds in the ways that Council can support the arts.

Rohan Leppert revealed that Property Council lobbying had resulted in office space being classified as a designated community purpose in the planning scheme – an outrage considering that that particular section is what’s drawn upon to guarantee some form of percent-for-art allocation.

And Katie Sfetkidis, the audacious artist candidate running despite having no record, no profile and no financial backing, spoke passionately about the role of artists in decision-making – a hot topic given the range of decisions being made about us without us.

Melbourne’s next Lord Mayor must offer a compelling vision that inspires an ethical and courageous city culture.

All the while, we were enjoying the hospitality of West Space, the artist-run gallery occupying Level 1 of the City Village building at 225 Bourke St, and a space exemplifying everything that’s currently wrong with Council’s stop-start approach to spaces for the arts.

City Village was established as a home for a dozen or two organisations across all artforms to share space and draw on one another’s expertise in nurturing Melbourne’s arts ecology. Having been set up under the auspices of a few Council terms past, following the loss of its original councillor advocates its management was then transferred from Arts & Culture to Property Services.

It was downhill from there. Property Services treated us with disdain (I led Melbourne Fringe there across five festivals), never seeing it as their role to facilitate connections between us, and those of us who took the lead were constantly frustrated by their indifference or active attempts to thwart us.

Today, organisations have been what is disrespectfully termed “decanted” from City Village and relocated into other Council-owned buildings. What was supposed to be secure, affordable and long-term housing for the arts has fallen victim to changing Council priorities, at great disruption and expense to the organisations and the broader ecology it was established to support.

Just picture for a moment the efforts and costs of relocating a gallery or a radio station: West Space and JOY FM, still residents of the building but never a part of the City Village model, have an uncertain future there. As do all the City of Melbourne arts programs following the recent change in management of that team, which has resulted in a staffing exodus of some of Melbourne’s leading arts figures.

Melbourne is often referred to as Australia’s “cultural capital”, and more so than any other city in Australia, ardently claims its celebration of the arts as its point of difference.

The Lord Mayor of Melbourne must be able to articulate an arts and cultural vision – that’s key to their success.

The City of Melbourne has been one of the boldest leaders of arts and culture funding and programs in Australia: its laneway commissions, unexpected spaces for the arts, and celebration of experimental practice in public spaces have changed the face of Melbourne, and inspired other Australian cities to follow suit.

All of this is at risk if Council leadership were to become dominated by narrow business or property interests that fail to understand the city’s crucial role in leading strategic artistic programs of national cultural significance.

Melbourne’s next Lord Mayor must offer a compelling vision that inspires an ethical and courageous city culture. With ballot materials being sent to voters next week, NAVA welcomes all candidates to make their position on arts and culture clear well before voting closes on May 11.

[box]Main photo of Melbourne Lord Mayor hopefuls by Marcel Feillafe[/box]

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