This morning I woke to another review of Cementa Festival in Artlink Magazine (5 February 2020), that referred to the inclusion of regional artists in the biennial regional contemporary art festival program as “appropriate openness that mitigated the risk that the event may be perceived as a get-together for city artists looking for a bucolic sojourn.” I nearly choked on my green tea.
I’ve been working in and on my art practice for about 20 years, always seeking to push the boundaries, always chasing opportunities to grow audiences for my work, always seeking to learn. I worked out early on, that as a regionally-based artist, I had to be responsible for creating those opportunities, working with those organisations around me, creating partnerships to make those opportunities more robust.
…aimed at raising the bar and showing artists what it meant to take their practice seriously.
Back in 2004/05, I became the first part-time Regional Arts Project/Publicity Officer and eventually acting Regional Arts Development Officer with the newly formed regional arts board, Orana Arts. Even after I left the organisation, I worked with them, and our regional gallery and the then-new artist-run initiative that I’d co-founded, Fresh Arts Inc., to deliver professional development workshops for artists in a program that went on to run for seven years called This Business Called Art. It was aimed at raising the bar and showing artists what it meant to take their practice seriously.
When I was setting up Fresh Arts in 2004 we had a three-pronged objective of creating exhibition opportunities to show the work of regional artists, fostering audiences for that work, and developing professional practice. These were things I longed for and I was fortunate to have the support of Dubbo Regional Gallery who gave the group its first exhibition in early 2004, a few months before we incorporated — and again five years later at the new Western Plains Cultural Centre. I’m no longer involved with Fresh Arts, but the group persists — obviously working for those who are now members.
Artists told me they couldn’t see any benefit in paying for the publicity of being in the directory even if the galleries could.
In 2011, I launched a State-wide online regional visual arts directory and blog, called Where is the Art (WITA). Five regional galleries across the Central West and Tablelands of NSW paid subscriptions to run their program calendars on the site, along with a small number of commercial galleries, and an even fewer number of artists. The sticking point was I wouldn’t deal with artists who didn’t have an ABN. Very few did.
WITA’s blog was published fortnightly and eventually monthly, profiling regionally-based artists, gallery directors and curators across the State – including Lara Scolari (then based in Dubbo), Barkindji artist Eddy Harris, Luke Sciberras (Hill End) plus many others, and regional gallery directors Richard Perram (Bathurst) and Alan Sisley (Orange), and many in between. I had art publicists and galleries contacting me to profile exhibiting artists. I knew there was nothing like it in hard copy or online, and I was told it was being used as a resource at art schools and TAFE. Some of the profiles were even picked up by the glossy art journals and yet I couldn’t sell enough directory listings, advertising or advertorial space on the site to make it viable. Artists told me they couldn’t see any benefit in paying for the publicity of being in the directory even if the galleries could. It folded in 2013 after two and a half years.
Then there was #bringtolightprojects – a contemporary art in public spaces project I initiated in 2014 (to 2017) to create ephemeral, out-of-the box works and put them in places that took audiences by surprise. Think open-air malls, cafes, grain silos on railway lines, shopfronts next to busy post offices, and blank walls outside pubs – shown on a busy October long weekend. The 12 artists who participated loved it.
In its third year, it even went interstate with a work presented in Victoria. The project was planned months in advance, coordinated to a schedule, and publicised with each artist expected to play a role in promoting their work within their town. It was great fun but mostly a lot of work for me. I didn’t ask for payment from artists, but I did try to secure grant funding — unsuccessfully.
I consider myself a professional artist with a commitment to creating globally-relevant work from my regional heartland, contributing to the narrative of my time.
When and where possible, I’ve worked with supporting organisations – be it regional arts boards, regional galleries, local government, Create NSW, or the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA). From time to time, I’ve applied for grant funding — utilising my regional arts board to proof-read and provide feedback on submissions, write letters of support, and as a sounding board for project ideas. On top of all of this, I run a consultancy business of 24 years, have a family, I ran a farm for 10 years through the Millenium drought, look after rescue animals, support my local arts organisations, and try to make time for extended family and friends. There are never enough hours in the day.
In monetary terms, my artmaking costs me far more than I get paid in sales, grants, exhibition or loan fees, but I consider myself a professional artist with a commitment to creating globally-relevant work from my regional heartland, contributing to the narrative of my time.
I’m as big on the process as I am on output. I utilise the resources available to me and I’ll be the first to criticise those organisations who aren’t being as supportive as I think they should be. But for every criticism, there should be a proactive solution offered. You either help fix the problem or walk away (and I’ve done that too). Criticism for criticism sake achieves nothing.
It’s parochialism that throttles.
I believe in creating your own opportunities. When given the chance earlier this year to be part of a new artist platform with Orana Arts, utilising not only my two decades of art-making but my professional communications and community relations experience, I jumped at it. By being part of the change I get to help shape it. Why not help change that are no longer working well?
Going back to where I started with this idea of what it means to be a regionally-based artist…When you read a review of a regional contemporary arts festival you’ve been part of twice (2015 and 2019), where the author refers to the inclusion of local and regional artists as “appropriate openness”, you know it’s not a level playing field. So, why not create your own sand pit or pits?
The idea of lines drawn on a map determining where arts activity can occur has never made sense, particularly when it carves up what’s already a smaller population or market (compared to metro areas). It’s why Where is the Art (WITA) was a State-wide initiative (with a focus on regional areas). I wanted to work across boundaries, giving regional artists a place to profile their work and develop a critical mass of activity that metro artists often take for granted.
Interestingly, the biggest blockage to that model of operation were several of the regional arts boards, who felt I was doing something they were already doing. The problem was they operated, and still largely operate, within lines on a map (determined by Local Government Areas). As an artist, I truly don’t care what LGA I live in or my projects are centred on. It’s parochialism that throttles. My artmaking is not determined by boundaries. I’ve worked internationally for the past three years, and the artists I’ve collaborated with don’t care what LGA I live or work in either.
If it’s confidence you’re lacking, jump in clothes and all and you might be surprised as to where the current will take you.
The arts of regional Australia are diverse in location, form, scope, intent and output. There’s room for it all. If your focus is keeping your art form as a hobby, that’s fine. Community-centred arts isn’t exclusive of professional practice and if you want to continue working in your local filmmaking, writers, craft or visual art group, that’s great — you can and should support your local groups at whatever level you want.
Me? I want to work with other artists who appreciate the unique regional voice we have (more often grown from the bottom up and not generated in an art school hothouse), across artforms and across the globe, who seek to be better, more innovative, more committed to being sustainable in their practice, and who think big. If it’s confidence you’re lacking, jump in clothes and all and you might be surprised as to where the current will take you.