Is gentrification good for community arts?

Residents of Melbourne’s inner-western suburbs are used to challenges. While the “inner-west” includes gentrified pockets from leafy Williamstown to family-friendly Seddon, these enclaves statistically mask ongoing problems in its other neighbourhoods. The local Maribyrnong council which covers the inner-west also takes in Braybrook, the second most disadvantaged suburb in Victoria.

Add to this the presence of scores of cultural groups, including newly arrived immigrants and refugees, and what seems like a permanent state of construction as property developers and the controversial state government Regional Rail Link project rumbles on, it’s a wonder that more and more people are moving into the area.

They are drawn not just by cheaper rents but a counter–intuitive sense of “community” that binds those who live there. What makes Melbourne’s west so paradoxically cohesive is difficult to say, but it might be its history of disadvantage and how its community arts organisations have grown in the past 40 years to address those disadvantages.

“I think there’s a real sense of community in the west, as much as there’s diversity amongst the 130 cultural groups that are represented here,” says Jade Lillie, the CEO of the Footscray Community Arts Centre. She says that all of the arts and culture organisations in Melbourne’s west are “community engaged”, unlike other areas.

“What’s interesting is the people that were the founders of Footscray Community Arts Centre were also the founders of the Community Health Service which is now Western Region Health Centre,” Lillie says. “And they really came from a trade union background with some really core values about access for all, and primarily about working with migrant communities, women, and indigenous communities.”

Footscray Community Arts Centre was founded in 1974 and claims to be Australia’s “leading centre for contemporary arts and community engagement”. It is certainly one of the longest-running, and is responsible for kick-starting many other arts organisations based in the inner west – an area of 220 square kilometres and home to 338,000 according to 2011 figures.

Lillie says these historical roots might why community arts organisations in Melbourne’s west are so successful.  A 2005 Brotherhood of St Laurence/Centre for Public Policy social policy working paper, for example, said: “There is repeated evidence in the literature that participation in the arts strengthens and diversifies personal networks. In addition, there are consistent findings that arts activities build social capital and enhance social cohesion within communities.”

Vic Health’s 2010 – 2013 Building Health through Arts and New Media plan is based on using community arts to combat everything from social exclusion and racism to mental health. An arm of the Western Region Health Centre, Barkly Arts Centre in the eastern heartland of Footscray works with individuals and communities with limited access to arts and cultural opportunities.

“The model that we use – it’s about trust. it’s about long term relationships. It’s not a traditional model of participatory arts where artists are dropped into communities for short amounts of time,” says Liss Gibb, Barkly’s program coordinator.

“I see the role of Barkly (Arts Centre) as an important interface between the changing demographics,” Gibb says, noting how the arts break down barriers between the more dominant culture and marginalised communities.

But Jade Lillie argues that “gentrification” is ”is our biggest challenge”. “With gentrification, quiet voices get quieter,” she says.

But she paradoxically notes that gentrification is also one of Barkly’s biggest opportunities. Affluence means more income as more residents can afford “workshops, short courses, school holiday and training programs.”

These courses cover everything from kids animation and toddler circus to adult learning and Certificates in Visual Arts. They also help train non-community organisations in how to engage with communities through the arts.

The biennial 10-day Big West Festival (November 22 – December 1) has grown bigger as the inner West has gentrified. It began in 1997 as a grassroots council initiative to address the social isolation of a communities in the Maribyrnong area, and is now the host of more than 65 mostly free events across parks, pubs, shopping centres, street parades, community halls, cafes and traditional art venues.

Braybrook’s Big Day Out, a walk-and-ride celebration of a new community garden space, rubs shoulders with Roadside Haiku, poems submitted by members of the public displayed on illuminated road-signs. Sculpture, theatre, and fine arts contend with Mobile Radio, a portable radio station which will travel to different locations on each day of the festival, allowing community members to book a slot and broadcast themselves.

Marcia Ferguson is the new artistic director of Big West’s artistic director whose family have had a connection to the area for more than a century. She
is a director, writer, and curator of contemporary performance with an interest in experimental and community arts.

This year she is trying to bring together audiences that remained separate at last year’s festival.

“In 2011, the festival director was responding to input from various cultural groups who were saying: ‘we just want to do something on our own’,” Ferguson explains. The result led to six different community partnerships and six different audiences for events.

So this year is different. “Everyone was talking about the compulsorily acquisition of homes along the Regional Rail Link,” Ferguson says. “[State Planning Minister] Mathew Guy superseding council’s development height limits, shadows across schools. That theme has really informed everything. It’s all about territory. It’s about acts of construction: literal, metaphoric, cultural, that’s the project with this festival and I think the range of ways in which artists are creating work around that is really fascinating and beautiful.”

Dance Republic, is an example of how Big West Festival can brings the diverse communities together. It allows anyone to learn the moves online and join more than 200 people from across the west in a mass fusion of traditional, urban and social dance.

Ferguson says the festival is multi-cultural, although she says she doesn’t like that word.

“Because (Big West) really is about art rather than culture, it’s actually about people being delighted through skill and the skills of people and I guess that’s what I’m more interested in.”

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