The Age MAY 17, 2009 - by Steve Dow


Sydney is launching a quintet of big, brash events in an effort to position itself as Australia's arts capital, but Melbourne is quietly holding its own, writes Steve Dow.

What's a big, brassy lass to do when her cool little sister gains the arty edge? Languidly bathing in her harbour beauty and bling for the two decades Melbourne has spent stoking its arts and ideas economy, Sydney will later this month flick its rusty buzz switch to rich configurations of colour - with a water view, naturally.

For twenty-one nights beginning on May 26, the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House will be lit with a continuously changing "freeform painting" created by English artist and soundscape musician Brian Eno, lured to Australia to curate a new Sydney music festival called Luminous. Eno will also display what's promoted as his audio-visual "masterpiece" - 77 Million Paintings - on luminous screens inside the Opera House.

In a sure sign NSW wants to unsettle Victoria's claim to the high ground of ideas, on May 27 Events NSW will also launch an annual Creative Sydney festival to become "an annual hub for the creative industries throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific", with three weeks of conferences and talks on music, design, architecture, writing, performance and film.

Says Events NSW boss Geoff Parmenter, the former head of marketing at Football Federation Australia: "I'd like to think that people throughout the region would come to Sydney every June to get their ideas."

The two events are part of Vivid Sydney, which is being launched as a "festival of music, light and ideas" itself, but in reality is an umbrella title for Creative Sydney and Luminous, as well as Smart Light Sydney, for which the harbour and historic Rocks area will be lit up at the same time, and an event called Fire Water, celebrating "food, flame and spectacle".

The NSW Government, having salivated over the Victorian Government's established and successful calendar of arts, cultural and sporting events, created Events NSW with an annual thirty million dollar budget in late 2007. It strung together the "first ever" NSW master events calendar - and created a flurry of new festivals into the bargain.

Vivid Sydney, one of five "anchor events", including a rebranding of the New Year's celebrations as Vivacity and a new outdoor food, wine and lifestyle festival in October called Crave, is the culmination of this push to market Sydney as Australia's arts capital.

The idea of making cities "creative" captured imaginations across the West when US academic Richard Florida argued in his influential 2002 book The Rise Of The Creative Class that cities made more welcoming to designers, musicians, writers, actors, artists and architects gain economic benefits such as greater international competitiveness.

Vivid's festivals and events are projected to generate ten million dollars in economic activity for NSW, but many critics argue that the problem with Sydney's approach to the arts is its focus on being big, festival-driven and "top down", at the expense of emerging artists at the bottom of the rung, who are better supported in Victoria.

Discussing Vivid with The Sunday Age last week, Parmenter threw down some big claims for Sydney, setting it above other cities, particularly Melbourne. "Sydney and NSW is the capital of the creative industries of Australia - certainly, it's over-represented in terms of the share of the economy," he proclaimed. "I don't think we've showcased that proactively or effectively prior to now, and part of the motivation for creating Vivid Sydney is to reclaim some of that ground."

Melbourne, he says, has done "an extraordinarily good job" of promoting its creative credentials, while Sydney has "done very little". "It sat on its hands after the Olympics... but at the same time, pretty much all the (national) creative institutions, bar the Australian Ballet, are headquartered here in Sydney, and we have a disproportionate share of people working in the creative industries."

The truth is, big bucks are at stake, and with creative industry employment growth slowing in recent years, and likely to fall with the recession, the states are hungry for a bigger slice of the creative pie, their forks poised above each other's helpings.

Melbourne had great success under Jeff Kennett in 1998 when the Victorian Government wooed Gideon Obarzanek's Chunky Move dance company to relocate from Sydney. The Bracks government followed up by luring film crews away from pricey Sydney locations by helping fund location shoots and script development. NSW, despite hanging on to more creative workers in most fields, is eyeing off Melbourne and Brisbane's share of the computer games industry, worth big export dollars.

Parmenter insists there should be more "cross-fertilisation" between Sydney and Melbourne creatively, and that the cities' festivals are not mutually exclusive. So has he inquired about the Victorian Government's initiative of the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas? "I haven't seen it, no; I must look into it," he says.

In 2006, Australia's creative workforce stood at 486,715 people - fifty thousand more than in 2001. Collectively, they earned $27.8 billion in salaries and wages, according to an analysis by Queensland University of Technology's ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. Victoria's share of the creative workforce was 27.5 per cent in 2006, essentially unchanged since last measured in 2001, but NSW's share fell slightly from 38.9 to 38.3 per cent over that period.

Yet the creative workforce share of NSW's total employment - 6.4 per cent - is still higher than in Victoria, where it is 5.9 per cent. And that differential was enough to prompt the NSW Government to crow in a December 2008 state and regional development document, NSW Creative Industry Insights, that the state is the "home to Australia's creative industry".

This comes as news to Ian Maxwell, head of the department of performance studies at Sydney University. "Every year, I have handfuls of students who come to me to explain that they're not going to be in class for four weeks because they've got a gig at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. The buzz is all about that... I don't think that they see that in Sydney so much."

Maxwell's own studies began at the Victorian College of the Arts in the late 1980s, when theatre companies in Melbourne were closing and the future for those working in the arts looked dire. Gradually, the City of Melbourne encouraged people to move into town and make use of the burgeoning laneway cafe and bar scene, an idea the City of Sydney has more recently latched onto.

While the former Kennett government's emphasis on big events - from the Three Tenors to the Grand Prix to the AFL Grand Final - was a "bread and circuses" approach to marketing Victoria that conflated arts and sport into a "bland" culture of events, says Maxwell, he believes that Melbourne has managed to nurture local scenes successfully at the same time.

Driving into Melbourne, "it feels like a place that's growing and quite dynamic", Maxwell says. "Sydney doesn't feel it has to make the effort because it's a global city. It's a place that's managed to get through on charm and opportunity rather than a coherent vision of what it might be."

The arts in NSW are largely market-driven, Maxwell says. Newer festivals such as Luminous, after initial NSW Government funding, are expected to become self-sustaining. Parmenter confirms this, and says the private sector has shown "substantial interest" in investing in Luminous.

The NSW Government's own figures in its 2008 Creative Industry Economic Fundamentals report reveals Victoria spends much more money directly on artists and developing the creative industry than NSW does - an annual average of $86.8 million, or twenty-eight per cent of Victoria's total creative expenditure between 2001-02 and 2005-06, compared to a NSW average of sixty-nine million dollars, or sixteen per cent, over the same period - in large part because the older state has to spend more of its money to upkeep decaying buildings housing its arts institutions.

From an artist's point of view, Melbourne is also a cheaper place to set up base. "I've got lots of friends who would rather chance their arm down in Melbourne because you've got a better chance of having a sustainable existence," Maxwell says.

Ben Eltham, a Melbourne-based writer, musician and theatre producer, agrees. Eltham, originally from Brisbane, moved south in 2007 to take up an internship with the Melbourne Fringe Festival, which receives funding from Arts Victoria. He says that while he has noticed that some artists are being forced by high rents to move from traditional creative suburbs such as St Kilda and Fitzroy out to the likes of Brunswick and Preston, he has been able to find reasonably cheap digs in Collingwood.

Eltham, who is researching a PhD in cultural policy at the University of Western Sydney, and is a fellow at the Sydney-based Centre for Policy Development, says Melbourne's virtue is its "ecosystem of cultural enterprise", which Sydney fails to emulate because of a lack of proper funding at the lower end.

"In Melbourne, there are big companies and there are big performing arts venues, but there are also small companies and small venues. So, if you're an artist trying to work your way through the system, or a director or a person who's a stage manager or works in a crew, or simply a cultural entrepreneur, there's a ladder there, a stepping stone."

Eltham is highly critical of Luminous. He sees it as a form of "cultural cringe", importing the likes of Eno and ignoring local artists, although Events NSW insists local artists are important players in all its festivals being launched this month. Eltham says the NSW Ministry of Arts largely ignores much of the "really awesome underground stuff" going on in Sydney. "The classic example is a fringe festival... Melbourne's had a fringe festival for twenty-six years, Adelaide's had one for forty-nine years. Sydney doesn't have one at all."

Ultimately, say critics, Sydney and Melbourne's relative success at harnessing the creative economy will depend on how well they look after creative people at both ends of the economy. Not only the advertising and marketing types who have a mean income of about $65,800 in Sydney and $59,100 in Melbourne, but those at the lower end: musicians and performing artists who earn a mean of $40,000 in NSW and $37,700 in Victoria - provided they're not waiting on tables instead. The little artists of today could be the big, money-spinning artists of tomorrow.

That requires more money for fringe activities, as well as involving the little artists in big festivals. Parmenter is at pains to point out Vivid is both "top down and bottom up", but ultimately rejects the idea that Sydney is losing out to Melbourne in the creative economy when fed-up artists head south."Creative people are going to try and absorb influences from all over the world," he says. "London's not all that cheap a place to live but there's plenty of people go and do a stint over there."

As for the perception there's lots of interesting, creative things for emerging artists to experience in Melbourne, he says nonchalantly: "I agree completely."