Dr Bill Dunbar, Keeley Allen & Torin Allen,
SGS Economics & Planning

After White(le)y—the Role of Cultural Planning for Sydney

The defining cultural image of Sydney was nailed by Brett Whiteley in The Balcony 2 in 1975—an immense ultramarine pond fringed by Harbour icons. In fact, Sydney is the opposite of this image. A ‘real’ map of Sydney shows a vertical blue strip of ocean, three green boundaries of national parks and a vast, variegated urban expanse of 5 million people.

Whiteley’s image reflects Sydney’s cultural history. Our major cultural institutions were built on British models out of Pyrmont Yellowblock sandstone in the nineteenth century. Cultural practitioners clustered in cheap places like Kings Cross, jazz haunts like the Ironworkers Club in The Rocks and port-side pubs frequented by The Push. As Sydney grew, cultural practitioners were forced out of town chasing cheap studio space. A new type of cultural practitioner also emerged after 1945 reflecting Sydney’s burgeoning social diversity.

As a result of these forces, Sydney’s cultural offering in 2017 is yoked to the far eastern slice of the city with the centre and west of Sydney under-resourced. There is a collective will across Sydney at all levels of government, amongst cultural groups and in the community at large to redress this imbalance.

We don’t need to look to overseas case studies to understand the cultural landscape of Sydney and how to fix our problems. A lot of thinking, data collection, mapping, analysis and planning about Sydney’s cultural offering has already taken place. A recent SGS report on a single strand of the cultural sector in NSW referenced over 20 major reports. Recent work has been led by the NSW Government through Infrastructure NSW and Arts NSW. There have been extensive programs by many LGAs and cultural stakeholders. The City of Sydney has led this work by virtue of its responsibility for the global core of our city. The forthcoming NSW Cultural Infrastructure Strategy will represent a comprehensive response to Sydney’s cultural needs and, critically, it will be backed by significant budget investment by the NSW Government. We have gathered enough evidence. We need to get on with the job.

Cultural mapping by SGS has provided evidence of what Sydney really looks like and where its strengths and challenges lie. We have found what most people would instinctively expect: that cultural diversity and social disadvantage are most pronounced in Western Sydney and that the cultural offering there is less substantial. This imbalance is reflected in the fact that Western Sydney has only 15% of total employment in the creative industries across Greater Sydney. In total, this sector contributes just 1% of Gross Regional Product and jobs to Western Sydney. This doesn’t mean that there is a lack of commitment. Volunteering as a proportion of the adult population in Western Sydney (13.1%) is virtually the same as Greater Sydney (14.7%).

Cultural planning requires recognition that culture is not merely bigger institutions and ‘arts plus’. Cultural expression includes the professional writer or performer developing and exhibiting a new work; the local amateur ceramics group; festivals and gatherings in local parks; and everyday activities and practices founded on shared culture.

A key element of cultural planning is creating opportunities for people to meet, collaborate and innovate in their arts and cultural practices. Experts often talk about activating urban space. This means more than just converting high streets into malls. Culture is the defining element in activating urban spaces through exciting experiences like public art, street theatre and live music. Cultural offerings also engender controversy that makes us think about our aesthetics, and even ethics, as a society. Sydney has notable examples of cultural controversy from Bert Flugelman’s stainless steel ‘shish kebab’ in 1978 to Hany Armarnious’ inverted blue milk crate today. The recent discourse over the sale of ‘Blue Poles’ is another contribution.

Cultural planning shows that urban evolution has given a lot to eastern Sydney. This supports the government decision to create major cultural offerings in Parramatta and Western Sydney. The relocation of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) to Parramatta is therefore defensible so long as MAAS is supported with sufficient capital investment to realign its core functions to meet the demand of the new target market in Western Sydney. MAAS should become a magnet—not an end in itself—to attract people to Parramatta who will stay and enjoy other cultural experiences sponsored by government and increasingly by the private sector. At present there is no private art gallery in Parramatta and very few between the Inner West and the Blue Mountains.

Different art forms and localities have vastly different access to appropriate spaces across Sydney. For example, there are no dedicated rehearsal spaces for dance practitioners in Western Sydney despite the fact it is home to FORM Dance Projects, the leading dance network for professional and community dancers in NSW. For many cultural practitioners, the greatest need across Sydney—and particularly in Western Sydney—is access to studio spaces to create, take risks and form networks.

Cultural groups in Western Sydney are taking the initiative with performances that reflect their demographics and dynamic stories. ‘Bankstown Live’ by Urban Theatre Projects was a remarkable event in the streets and backyards of Bankstown in 2014. It offered nine works about this diverse community including ‘The Tribe’, by Mohammed Ahmad and Janice Muller based on his novel about a Lebanese family in Australia; ‘Bayanihan Hopping Spirit House’ by Alwin Reamillo about communities in the rural Philippines; and ‘Van’ by Vinh Nguyen, a visual timeline of his father’s journey from Vietnam to Australia.

Cultural planning is doomed to under-deliver if it remains locked in conventional thinking and governance. The new MAAS cannot reproduce a 19th century museum model. It needs to examine Western Sydney demographics, contemporary user preferences for interactive experiences and the role of technology so that it becomes a ‘must visit’ and ‘repeat visitation’ place. Sydney also has magnificent Indigenous and Pacific Island cultural collections dispersed across different institutions. They remain largely un-exhibited. We need to consolidate and share these collections and not allow them to remain trapped in institutional storage facilities.

In the end, cultural planning provides governments with an evidence-based methodology for investment. In both NSW and Victoria, SGS has helped state governments develop cultural infrastructure investment frameworks. These frameworks examine policies, infrastructure portfolios, practitioner requirements, community demand and economic impact to make sound investment decisions. Key criteria are given a weighting which can be altered or substituted as government priorities change. The outcome is cultural investment that can be sequenced and funded effectively.

So what are the outstanding elements of Sydney’s cultural offering?

On the basis of our work at SGS, we believe that Sydney should focus on four areas for cultural investment:

  1. Revitalisation of our core CBD institutions to make them fit for purpose and connect them into a genuine cultural precinct.
  2. Sustained investment in Parramatta building off the relocation of MAAS with contemporary cultural offerings that attract flow-on activity and private sector involvement.
  3. Better use of existing cultural infrastructure in Western Sydney reconfigured and expanded with new spaces to meet demographics and practitioner needs.
  4. Completing Sydney’s global tourist offering with a major Indigenous Cultural Centre.

This final project is critical in our opinion. An Indigenous Cultural Centre in Sydney would deliver a multitude of positive outcomes. It will showcase Aboriginal cultures from across NSW and act as a meeting place for different Aboriginal nations and people. It would assist reconciliation at a time when Australia is finally seeking to deliver constitutional recognition to Indigenous people. It would be a source of immense civic pride to Sydney. It would fill the missing piece in our cultural offering by satisfying the number one aspiration of tourists coming to Sydney. Finally, it would provide economic development for Sydney and meaningful employment for Indigenous people in particular.

Sydney is a global city, an open city, a magnet for Australians and a leading global tourist destination. Cultural experiences are a critical part of Sydney’s attraction. We must intensify and spread our cultural offering across the whole city so that instead of just seeing the soothing illusion of Whiteley’s ultramarine harbour we see the colourful weft of the real Sydney.