Brett Clegg & Michael Rose AM,
The Committee for Sydney

Introduction: Only in Sydney

Global Cities have a distinct voice. They talk to themselves, and to the world, through a unique mix of landscape, history, commerce and neighbourhoods. These combine to give each city a syntax; a vocabulary and structure through which they define and express themselves to the world. They are animated and articulated by a complex interaction of people, culture, ideas and exchange. It is this ‘voice’ that makes a city a home for locals and alluring for visitors.

Sydney is undoubtedly a great global city. Yet what can we say of its unique voice and character? How is it expressed through its cultural and artistic institutions? What is the cultural identity of our city and how do we want to shape it in the years ahead?

This compilation of essays steps up to such big questions and delivers some exciting, and at times challenging, answers.

Sydney has a rich cultural identity. It includes its ancient and enduring Aboriginal inheritance, a history of openness and creativity, waves of immigration and strong civic and educational institutions. Sydney’s layered urban culture contains an unusual mix of contrasts and contradictions: nonchalance and ambition; scrappiness and restraint; colonial pomp and twentieth century thrust; and both a proud parochialism and an eye to the world. Mix it all together and it is undeniably Sydney. But while there are many Sydneysiders, there are also many Sydneys.

Not everyone everywhere gets to experience the range and depth of Sydney’s character and identity. For visitors, our cultural richness is often masked by other extraordinary aspects of Sydney's character—its landscape, climate and lifestyle. Too often the tourist doesn’t get beyond the postcard, or off the beach. Too many don’t allow time to experience the more subtle and surprising aspects of Sydney culture. Those that do, don’t always know where to start. Our city’s beautiful voices don’t always sing in harmony. We lack much of the cultural cohesion and way-finding of other cities.

For Sydneysiders the challenge is different. For some, the challenges are accessibility and visibility. Others are alienated from cultural life of the city, feeling unwelcome or uninvited. And for some of our citizens, our city barely sings at all.

The problem of visibility and accessibility is particularly pronounced with Sydney’s Eora heritage and continuing Aboriginal culture. These are part of Australia’s only truly unique cultural inheritance. The world’s oldest continuing culture is here, all around us. It is rich and extraordinary, but unknown or unrecognised by a large part of our non-Aboriginal community. The tragic and unresolved business of our history stops us from seeing and celebrating something that Aboriginal people want to share. Making the timeless and continuing Aboriginal culture of Sydney more visible and accessible should be one of our cultural ambitions; connecting all of us to the landscape of our city.

Our multicultural fabric is another great and unique part of our culture. Best understood in neighbourhoods like Marrickville, Auburn, Fairfield, Cabramatta and many other places where the different tide lines of post war immigration overlap. Yet how many Sydneysiders or visitors move between these places? How can we encourage a stronger cultural connection with the food, languages, festivals and music of these remarkable communities?

We have extraordinary cultural assets, but for too many they are too far away or too hard to get to. The transport revolution taking place in Sydney offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the accessibility of our cultural life and cultural institutions. We must not miss this chance.

The Committee believes in the intrinsic value of the arts for the community and the individuals who create, engage with otherwise enjoy them. For the Committee, it is self-evident that music, visual arts, literature and performance are to be supported and embraced as ends in themselves. There is no greater sign of the health of a city than the extent to which arts and culture are practised and supported by its communities, business and government.

We also know that a vibrant arts ecosystem is strongly associated with economic success and social development. Cities that do the arts well also do innovation well. The emerging understanding of the importance of innovation districts—where workers and tech startups want to work, live, share and mingle with people of diverse skills and backgrounds—is leading us to understand the powerful role that creative arts practitioners and institutions can play in creating great places. Such places are home to Richard Florida’s creative class that has reshaped cities and their economies across the globe—and is doing so in Sydney today.

We welcome the Government’s initiative to create a new arts precinct in Parramatta, as well as the City of Parramatta’s recent discussion paper, ‘Culture and our City’. These important initiatives encourage inclusion and participation beyond those places and communities currently well served. They will also add to the number and range of cultural producers and institutions in Sydney, and the capacity of other key places and communities in our city to grow the kind of high productivity innovation economy currently only enjoyed closer to Sydney’s CBD.

In growing these arts and this economy for ourselves, we are also promoting Sydney on a bigger stage. In a world in which talent and investment go where they want, the quality of place becomes paramount. Sydney’s economic offer is hugely reinforced by its arts and culture offer as two sides of the same coin in a global economy in which a city’s liveability, and indeed culture, are core assets.

A dynamic city needs a diverse, accessible and thriving cultural base. It needs strong cultural institutions, creative precincts and a calendar of festivals and events that activate the different neighbourhoods of the city. It needs to nurture creative activities and industries and support arts education. It needs to ensure its culture, its voice, is heard by all of its citizens and across the world.

For Sydney to experience a full flowering of its cultural potential, we believe we need to recognise and strengthen our existing arts, heritage and cultural inheritance, and foster an even greater openness to innovation, creativity and diversity in our cultural and creative life.

These essays bring together the thinking of many of the leading participants in Sydney’s cultural life. The authors represent the unique range, diversity and focus of our artists, institutions and cultural experience. They reflect the dynamism of Sydney’s culture, its openness to change and the aspiration for Sydney’s artistic and creative practice in the future.

At times provocative, illuminating and inspiring, the end result is an important contribution to the narrative and collective understanding of our city today. As Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Ian Innes write in their essay, this is, 'a restless city that is constantly making and remaking itself'. Or as Lisa Havilah says, 'cultural institutions should... lie in the heart of our communities'.

The Committee for Sydney sees Sydney's cultural identity, and its cultural capacity, as essential to the life of the city. But they are also enablers of its future growth, liveability and prosperity. Our essayists emphasise the importance of Sydney's cultural life in the day-to-day lives of its citizens and the way in which they experience and enjoy their city. Surely that is the main thing for us to focus on. If we get that right, the rest will follow. We would like Sydney to have a new conversation about its cultural life and identity and we want to spark this conversation through these essays.

Welcome to the conversation.