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Edition 23

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Essay

A tale of two cultures

UNDERSTANDING OF ART can no longer be limited – as it often appears to be in the popular imagination – to something in a frame on a wall, or a piece of sculpture. Contemporary artists offer vaster, more engaged and more venturous resources than this. As part of its mission to address the stereotypes that exist about contemporary art and its audience – particularly the notion that contemporary art is elitist – the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney (MCA) has considered very seriously the problem of how to engage with new audiences and identified improving connections with Western Sydney as an important priority.

In 2000, the museum formed a partnership with Blacktown Festival, running buses to the Sydney Biennale for local people. As a result, the Mayor of Blacktown became a strong advocate for the MCA. In turn, the museum supported the establishment of Blacktown's contemporary gallery, which continues to flourish. Access to the MCA became free in 2000 and a major press campaign encouraged people who had never been to a contemporary gallery before to come. In 2001, 38 per cent of those who came were first-time visitors. In 2007, the MCA was named the city's favourite museum in a survey conducted by the Sydney Chamber of Commerce.

Building audiences requires a shift in attitude. Over the past twenty years or so, museums and galleries around the world have developed sophisticated ‘outreach' projects. The MCA also saw the need to move beyond conventional marketing. As Australia's only museum dedicated to working with contemporary artists, providing new opportunities for artists is at the heart of the MCA's ambitions. Contemporary artists look at the world differently. We believe that, because of the way they are able to reorient our view of the world, artists are an under-utilised resource that can be mobilised to help to solve many problems faced by diverse sectors of society. The full realisation of this potential will require a shift in mindset of the kind called for by the Prime Minister in closing the 2020 Summit in April 2008 when he spoke of ending the false divide between the arts and science, between the arts and industry, between the arts and the economy. The MCA is committed to finding those new ways of working that will help make that shift over the coming decade.

One such initiative is the MCA's involvement in C3 West, which aims to broker close collaborative relationships between artists and businesses in Western Sydney. It moves beyond conventional models of arts-business engagement such as sponsorship or public art commissioning to align business strategies with arts practices, while involving communities in innovative ways. C3 West helps to deliver two key aspects of the MCA's mission: building new audiences for contemporary art; and creating new working opportunities for contemporary artists. Although C3 West is still underway, it is already showing how contemporary visual artists can innovate in what might seem like unexpected directions. One of the more exciting outcomes to date has been the establishment of a truly unique and groundbreaking collaboration with the Penrith Panthers, creating a potential role model for urban renewal, sustainable lifestyles and community development throughout the world.

C3 West had its origins at the 2001 Parallax Perspective conference held at Metro Arts in Brisbane on developing audiences for the arts, at which both I and arts consultant Jock McQueenie gave presentations on our work in this area. McQueenie, originally trained as an artist, had developed a new model of arts practice called the 3Cs – community, commerce and culture. His model aimed to forge new partnerships with the commercial sector, providing opportunities for artists and engaging with people who had little or no experience of the arts. The model challenged the orthodoxies of community art by bringing in business partners, tapping into sources of money that would not normally be available to artists.

The MCA commissioned McQueenie to undertake a feasibility study with funding from the Western Sydney Program of the New South Wales Ministry for the Arts, researching potential business partners in Western Sydney. The study encompassed the partners' strategic objectives and common aims, government priorities in the region, the needs of local artists and emerging debates around the social engagement of art. The MCA was well aware of the potential criticism that is often levelled at mainstream institutions going out into the wider community. The sensitivity of this was especially acute because of the dynamics of Sydney, with the strong stereotypes of East versus West. During his research, McQueenie met with cultural institutions as well as businesses in Western Sydney, and a proposal for the MCA to work in partnership with Casula Powerhouse and Penrith Regional Gallery was enthusiastically adopted. Campbelltown Arts Centre also joined C3 West as a partner in 2007.

One small but very useful practical demonstration of the C3 West approach occurred in the feasibility phase. The recycling and waste management company SITA wanted a video to promote its new recycling facility. Rather than use a video company, McQueenie suggested that SITA employ an artist and that the artist proposed by the MCA, Ross Harley, involve participants from the local community. SITA got its outcome but with a level of imaginative visualisation and community engagement – well regarded by the local council – that would otherwise not have been achieved. A further dimension was added to the project after the initial feasibility study. Researchers from the Centre for Cultural Research (CCR) at the University of Western Sydney were interested in C3 West because they recognised that extending the curatorial brief beyond the cultural institution was potentially an innovative way of bringing arts-based creativity to a wider constituency. C3 West gave CCR the opportunity to research new models for collaborative creative production, and to document and evaluate the extent to which these processes could genuinely engage with the challenges of community and regional development. CCR successfully applied for funding through the Australian Research Council's Linkage Projects scheme for a project entitled The Art of Engagement, which runs until mid-2009.

 

THE CONNECTION WITH Penrith panthers, one of the businesses that McQueenie had identified in the feasibility study, was initially established through Penrith Regional Gallery's chairman, Peter Anderson. Panthers seemed an ideal partner because of its position within the community: Panthers is much more than a rugby league club or entertainment precinct. A major business with significant investments and strong community links and the second largest employer in Penrith, the club has a fascinating history and was facing a number of challenges. Anderson's connections with the club were crucial. He was able to open the door and establish initial interest. At the first meeting, we set out to Panthers' executives the objectives of the proposed partnership: to work with the club to achieve some of its aims by involving artists. There was some initial wariness, until examples of the work of contemporary artists were shown. The idea that artists were working with video, for example, was clearly new and exciting to them.

Panthers' marketing manager Max Cowan saw the potential of C3 West for the club from the outset. One of the lessons of C3 West has been that having a strong internal champion within the company is essential to the development of the relationship. There was, however, some concern about getting involved initially, as the club had had the experience of arts projects being ‘done to them' – projects that had purported to be of benefit to them but had failed to deliver.

One of the aims of C3 West is to persuade businesses to allocate money from existing budgets, and so a strong understanding of what the business is trying to do and an ability to spot opportunities to add value by working with artists is essential. It was this vital brokerage role – essentially one of ‘joining the dots' – that Jock McQueenie played, drawing on his experience in Tasmania working with employers, communities and the trade union movement, and more recently in Queensland and New Zealand. An ability to articulate the opportunities to the relevant players was critical in the early stages of building the relationships with Panthers and other potential partners. Once the business needs were established, it was the job of the cultural partners to bring in the artists. Staff from the three cultural partners – MCA, Casula Powerhouse and the Penrith Regional Gallery – proposed a number of artists to the steering group. The intention had always been that the project should bring international artists to work alongside Australian artists, from Western Sydney and beyond. It was also important that artists who had not necessarily worked in a community context were included to give them an opportunity to extend their practice.

An initial list of artists was prepared and all were asked whether they would be willing to participate. This was a task that had to be undertaken with great diplomacy. Artists needed to accept that the work they would propose had to answer the objectives of the company. The artists selected had to be open minded and prepared for robust debate. Although artists working in the area of public art are accustomed to working to a brief, the C3 West approach differentiates itself from conventional commissioning in its refusal to be prescriptive at the outset of the relationship. It was essential to leave room for the artists to develop solutions and ways of working that no one had thought of previously – which is indeed the role of the artist. A delicate balancing act was needed to encourage the participation of artists who would offer a new vision, but who would also be prepared to understand and accept the business dynamics of each situation. The good relationship that all three institutions had with the artists was critical.

Arts NSW and the Australia Council funded this stage of the project through a three-year funding agreement, with a requirement for the public funding to ultimately be matched by the companies involved. The inherent flexibility of this model, essential to the exploratory and open-ended nature of the developing arts-business relationships, proved something of a challenge to the funding bodies. There could be no fixed outcomes, simply aspirations. There had to be an element of trust: that three highly experienced cultural institutions could deliver something new and of benefit to the artist and the public. The project tested the boundaries of funding – it did not fall neatly into any category. The timescale was also challenging – building up the trust and respect of the companies would not happen overnight. Results could be years away. A number of artists were invited to make site visits and to submit proposals. Three were chosen to develop their ideas for Panthers: Craig Walsh from Brisbane, Regina Walter from Western Sydney and Sylvie Blocher from France. The proposals of Walsh and Blocher have resulted in outcomes already, while Walter's is in development for implementation in 2009.

 

CRAIG WALSH WAS selected for his ability to make engaging video works on a large scale. Initially it was thought that he might propose something for the stadium redevelopment. However, he came up with three different projects, and the club is keen to undertake each of them. Max Cowan was particularly interested in Craig's ideas as a new way of marketing the club, focusing on the fans and the players. Walsh proposed capturing the essence of the emotions of the game by photographing the players and the fans immediately after losing a game. Getting the involvement of the players was no mean feat – the last thing they wanted was to have to pose for the camera at this moment of vulnerability. They all rose to the occasion, as did the fans aged from eight to seventy-four; Craig selected seventeen of the resulting images to produce as large-scale prints intended for the club's new premises. At the various games, the project was announced over the loudspeakers.

As Craig recalled: ‘Ultimately this project has provided portraits of both the players and fans; not only do they reflect an emotional response to the loss, but most dominantly they present the complexities of being a subject for a photographic portrait under these difficult emotive conditions. Heads Up as a title reflects this condition and the response taken by the majority of the sitters. "Keep your head up!" is a term often used in response to loss or disappointment and these portraits capture this attitude. Pride in oneself and the team is reflected in their faces through an attempt to disguise the disappointment of the loss.'

As part of Panthers' agenda was to challenge the image of the club – and indeed of rugby league – it became clear that exhibiting Craig's project at the MCA was important, something which had not been planned from the outset. A partnership between contemporary art and rugby league was certainly going to challenge stereotypes on both sides, and Panthers wanted the project to have wider visibility in Sydney. The MCA was able to accommodate it for an eight week showing, coinciding with the National Rugby League finals and the beginning of the Rugby League World Cup 2008. The NRL was persuaded to sponsor the exhibition and present adverts for it on video screens at all the finals matches, although sadly Panthers did not make the finals. Press coverage was good and numbers exceeded expectations.

 

FRENCH ARTIST SYLVIE Blocher took her project in a direction that was totally unexpected. Blocher is a video artist and has made an impressive body of work in collaboration with different groups of people. She was invited to meet with the Panthers because of the work she made with American football players, asking them about their emotions. This work had been included in the MCA's Sporting Life exhibition in 2000.

However, Sylvie did what all good artists do: she came to the residency with a totally open mind and became fascinated by the history of the club, with its strong roots in the community and the challenges it faces to make money. She spent her first week in Penrith talking to people who are involved with Panthers at all levels, from poker machine players to club executives, as well as exploring the suburban landscape of Western Sydney. This resulted in her writing a ‘warts and all' analysis of the issues facing the club, which was presented to the board. Her paper was entitled ‘The Panthers of the Future, the Future of the Panthers'. As often happens, artists can both ask and then rearticulate the difficult questions. Sylvie was particularly concerned about the club's interaction with the community beyond the football fans, and its contribution to Penrith generally. Panthers' CEO Glenn Matthews agreed to meet Sylvie while in Paris on business, and was deeply impressed with her perceptive analysis and her spirited attitude.

As a way of shifting the thinking about the club and its relationship to Penrith, Blocher focused on the club's proposal to develop eighty hectares of land, including the club and the land between it and the river. She sees this as a golden opportunity for both the club and the city of Penrith to do something truly remarkable. After a second visit, she prepared an extraordinary video: a fable about the future of the city, referencing key figures from Penrith and the club and incorporating the views and aspirations of members of the community that she interviewed for a project called What is Missing? She then proposed a solution: to create a world-class development, a model environment that would shift Penrith from subservient suburb status to being a centre in its own right, a centre in which its community can and should feel proud to live. It is a lofty ambition, but Blocher's proposal has received the enthusiastic support of both the council and the club and has provided a catalyst for a closer working relationship between them. Blocher speaks with some authority about the ‘problem' of the suburbs, as she lives in Saint Denis, a suburb of Paris best known for the widely reported rioting of its disenfranchised youth. Working with her partner François Daune in the collective Campement Urbain, she has been involved in a number of projects which directly tackle these issues through a new model of urban intervention.

It is too early to say whether this visionary ambition can be realised. She is poised to undertake the next stage of the feasibility study. Nonetheless, both the Blocher and Walsh projects have very clearly shown what artists can do to address issues in new and innovative ways. C3 West has the potential to demonstrate a way of artists working with businesses that can provide unforeseen and highly beneficial solutions to their needs, which go far beyond writing a sponsorship cheque. At a launch for C3 West in early 2008, Max Cowan described the relationship from the corporate point of view: ‘Panthers is not buying or commissioning any works of art. We're not buying or commissioning any art installations. We're a company like any other company. We're a business that faces challenges, issues, problems, opportunities: every day of the week. At any one time we have a number of projects going on. They range in size and scope. All these issues that we need to face need to be resourced, and they have to produce outcomes. When the guys from C3 West came along and said: "What if you used an artist to design and deliver the outcomes that you require from the issues that you face in the everyday business world? Wouldn't that be interesting?" We thought it would be interesting. That's the nature of this relationship.'

It is a relationship, Cowan attests, that could lead to rewards that are ‘unimaginably great': ‘By being part of this collaboration, the C3West project, we're taking a step outside. We're looking at the world anew. We're reinventing ourselves.' C3 West presents challenges for all concerned. As a process rather than a product, there is a risk in this kind of work: there is no way to predict what is going to happen. It is essential that artists are able to bring their creative vision to bear on the issues without too many constraints. Trust between the partners is essential, as is the clear elucidation of objectives and roles.

Conventional art critics will find this kind of work difficult to comprehend. Part of the new role for the MCA is to be an advocate for ground-breaking work. The MCA is committed to extending and exploring new ways of thinking about contemporary art's engagement with business and the community. By 2020, the kind of changes that we've seen at Panthers could be the foundation of a new national attitude which recognises the important role that artists can play. At both the community and corporate levels, this new perspective is an investment towards a creative Australia.


From Griffith Review Edition 23: Essentially Creative © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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