Elizabeth Ann Macgregor OBE,
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

A Tale of Two Sydneys

‘It’s all the fault of the Vikings—or rather the lack of…’ opined a senior government bureaucrat recently. European cities, he went on to explain, were established inland, upriver from the coast to keep them safe from the marauding invaders. His point being that the perfect location for the development of Sydney would have been Parramatta rather than the current CBD, perched on the edge of the harbour with no room for expansion. He suggested that Sydney’s planning problems stem from this geography. Topographically, Parramatta is indeed the centre of Sydney. There are stories (probably apocryphal) of tourists booking accommodation in Parramatta on that very premise. However, the ‘power’ of Sydney has developed and continues to reside in the east of the city.

The east vs. west debate has in recent years taken on a new life, fuelled by The Daily Telegraph’s laudable ‘Fair Go for the West’ campaign which recognised the economic necessity of giving Western Sydney a fairer share of government spending. How to address the constraints of this harbourside focus has become an acute issue, as the impossibility of continuing to bring more workers into the CBD each day has become apparent. But the divide between east and west is more than geographical.

Following the establishment of a new AFL team in Western Sydney, the GWS Giants, as part of the AFL’s campaign to make the game truly national and challenge the predominance of rugby league, football commentator and Collingwood president Eddie Maguire referred to Western Sydney as ‘the land of the falafel’ and sometimes the media can be even worse. An AFR columnist mocked the idea of supporting the arts in Western Sydney with the headline ‘Wasting art on Westies’. Tongue in cheek? Maybe. But the sneering tone is nonetheless a symptom of a deep-seated prejudice stemming from ignorance about the range and diversity of cultural activity in Western Sydney, and a belief that the rugby league supporters of the west have no place at arts events.

Wrong on both counts. Far from being a cultural desert, Western Sydney is home to some of Australia’s most innovative and ambitious arts organisations. Casula Powerhouse in the 1990s pioneered curatorial programs that enshrined diversity and the collaboration of artist, curator and community. Campbelltown Arts Centre exhibited the work of world renowned Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei long before the recent blockbuster at the National Gallery of Victoria. More recently, with Secrecy and Despatch, its extraordinarily moving response to the Appin massacres with work by Canadian and Australian Aboriginal artists was an ambitious exhibition worthy of any state or national gallery. Urban Theatre Projects in Bankstown has a 30-year history of ground-breaking work re-imagining what theatre might be and in Fairfield, under the artistic directorship of artist Karen Therese, PYT has created a program for emerging artists that has included transforming a group of local young people who enjoyed street acrobatics (parkour) into a sought after performance group, most recently selling out the studio in the Sydney Opera House. In Parramatta, as well as the dynamic Parramatta Artists Studios and the Riverside Theatre that houses the recently established National Theatre of Parramatta, Information + Cultural Exchange creates opportunities for some of the most vulnerable communities to work with artists to tell their stories. They produce engaging digital content that would not be out of the place on the screens of the major broadcasters.

This is a small sample of the energetic, quality arts organisations that thrive on the challenges and possibilities offered by their location in Western Sydney, home to some of the most diverse communities in Australia.

Yet Western Sydney gets only 5% of the arts funding, when its population is 30% and projected to grow to over 50%. Cultural equity is a serious issue, hence the proposal to relocate the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences to a new building on the river in Parramatta and Tropfest, the short film festival, to Paramatta Park.

The MCA has been challenging for years the prejudice about Western Sydney through its ground breaking and increasingly internationally recognised program C3West. To achieve its objective of increasing access to all sectors of the community, as well as breaking down preconceptions about the audiences for contemporary art, the MCA needed to reach out from its harbourside location.

C3West aims to broker partnerships between artists, communities, businesses and government to bring new ways of thinking to issues of concern, drawing on the specific circumstances of Western Sydney for inspiration. The MCA is committed to developing ethical partnerships with the thriving and highly entrepreneurial arts organisations in Western Sydney: Campbelltown Regional Gallery, Blacktown Arts Centre, Penrith Regional Gallery, Casula Powerhouse, PYT and I.C.E.

A six year collaboration with the Penrith Panthers began a long term commitment to working in Western Sydney. Panthers’ visionary marketing manager Max Cowan saw the potential of C3West for the image of club from the outset. Panthers Entertainment Group was an ideal partner because of its position within the community. More than a rugby league club or entertainment precinct, Panthers is a major business with significant investments and strong community links and is also the second largest employer in Penrith. The club has a fascinating history and at the time was facing a number of challenges. The first commission was Craig Walsh’s photography project Heads Up involving the players and fans.

The most far-reaching project led over a number of years to a highly ambitious plan for the city—the Future of Penrith, the Penrith of the Future by Campement Urbain. This is a collective founded in the late 1990s by the internationally renowned video artist Sylvie Blocher and Urban Planner/Architect Francois Daune on the outskirts of Paris—an environment not dissimilar from the suburbs of Western Sydney.

Ambitious and experimental, this artist-led process addressed the issue of urban sprawl and how the cities on the fringes of major urban conurbations can develop their own character and ‘liveability’—an issue faced by countries across the world. It was launched by NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell in the Sydney Opera House—the location being provocatively selected to emphasise that what happens in the west will impact the east in the long term and that it has as much importance as the more conventional cultural activities on the harbour. Innovation, which is what artists do, often comes from the places away from the so-called centre.

C3West also works with the vibrant community of artists from Western Sydney. Last year, in collaboration with Blacktown Arts Centre, a project was developed around the highly contested site of the Blacktown Native Institution. It was here, between 1823 and 1829, that Aboriginal children were removed from their families and institutionalised, marking the beginning of government policies of forced assimilation designed to disrupt Aboriginal connections to culture, kin and land. Its cultural importance for the local Darug people and other Aboriginal people is profound. Artists Darren Bell, Karla Dickens, Steven Russell, Kristine Stewart and Leanne Tobin joined with community members, local artists and various experts to share and collect stories, develop an achievable vision for Aboriginal ownership of the site, and create new artworks. As a result, Blacktown Council has committed funds to develop a feasibility study for the future use of the site. A major outcome of the project was the development of a website (bniproject.com) as a keeping place for stories, histories and plans for the sites gathered during the project, as well as for soliciting community contributions.

This snapshot of C3West projects demonstrates the vibrancy of Western Sydney, its arts organisations and local councils. Socially engaged work, where artists propose new solutions has become increasingly prominent in the international art world. Last year the collective Assemble won the prestigious Tate Turner Prize for their work in collaboration with local communities. In Australia, it is Western Sydney that is at the forefront of this kind of work. Whether it’s urban planning, the environment, food security, youth disenfranchisement, waste disposal or the coming to terms with our history, artists can bring us to a new awareness and offer alternatives to conventional outcomes. Challenging prejudice of any kind has a particular resonance in Western Sydney which has first-hand experience of it.

The establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission marks a shift into a new era: a rethinking of the east/west dichotomy as key to Sydney’s economic future. In her recent Bradfield Oration, Chief Commissioner Lucy Turnbull proposed a radical solution, suggesting that Sydney should become a three city metropolis—Western, Eastern and Central—with Parliament eventually moving to the Central City; Parramatta.

In the short term, while the debate may rage about how to create greater equity of arts funding, the arts organisations and artists will continue to make engaging and thought-provoking work—work that could and should be appreciated by all Sydneysiders, regardless of where they live. As transport links improve and the physical barriers are removed, so should the attitudinal ones. The importance of the cultural contribution of Western Sydney in creating a vibrant international city will eventually come to be recognised—better late than never!