A Cultural Conundrum – Melbourne vs Brisbane, the new Black?

GoMa, a force for driving the cultural revolution at Brisbane

It was very interesting to discover that the cover story in the A2 Section (Culture and Life) of the The Age Newspaper on Saturday October 16, 2010  here in Melbourne was about Brisbane. The headline read  ‘Forget Melbourne vs Sydney. Is Brisbane our new cultural capital’? The byline added ‘Brisbane’s startling cultural renaissance has Melbourne’s arts mandarins worried’.

It was, as usual, illustrated by an image of big pineapple meant to be a put down inferring that people from Queensland, who grow this delicious fruit for everyone else to enjoy, don’t know about anything else, let alone the arts. Goodness when will they grow up and realize all they do is look foolish when they fall back on such an old chestnut,  like a naughty child. What a conundrum. It seems impossible for many to conceive that dear old BrizVegas may have quietly taken a major leading role in that traditional preserve of the Melbourne matrons, the Arts in Australia? It’s surely a scandal.

As someone who has worked within the creative world for over thirty years in Australia many in Sydney (where I was born), in Brisbane from 1998 until the end of 2009 and now Melbourne (2009 – ) it is an interesting conversation to have. As a rule it was always Sydney siders historically who underestimated Brizzie. That goes right back to the early days of colonial spats between the convict founded capitals. My father was born in Brisbane and used to talk about it a great deal, so it always held a certain fascination for me because it was part of the tales of my childhood.

Valentino, glamour and gorgous girls at GoMa Brisbane

When I was growing up in the fifties at Coogee Beach in Sydney the Arts matrons in Melbourne were among the most feared, and also the most revered people in the nation. They were always on the news, in the papers and magazines. They were at the races, at fashion parades and all the places glamorous people go.

The interstate rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney at that time was intense, fierce and totally tangible. Together with their copycat Sydney counterparts, the Melbourne Arts matrons assisted the arts become an integral aspect of the nation by holding art-related fund raising events to support their charitable causes. They wielded a great deal of power in those days those ladies. Stories for another day.

Sydney is the premier city of Australia, which is basically an undeniable historical fact. Today it is all grown up and very sophisticated.  First and foremost what Sydney has over everyone other capital city is ‘attitude’.  In Sydney 2010 they consider the arts integral to their way of life and would not waste time contemplating, having a conversation about, or even examining this type of cultural curiosity?

It was my experience, especially throughout the 90’s, that Sydney people didn’t really think about other Australian cities at all. They were far too busy getting on with it.  Only when they were traveling to one on business, or if another city popped up in the news, would they consider it. They were far more likely to be found discussing international affairs or talking about towns in Tuscany, Paris in Spring, The Tate Modern at London, the Metropolitan Opera and Museum in New York and, what internationally best selling book they had been reading over their latte. They earnestly believed they were part of the new global society and after hosting the happiest Olympics ever, well life and creative visionary concepts knew no bounds.

At GoMa - wonderful Warhol, a contemporary comment...

In 2009 when finalising a script, commissioned by Brisbane City Council for thirteen talented Brisbane actors to perform a re-enactment of the founding of Brisbane to celebrate the 150th anniversary of that city, I enjoyed an opportunity to research its colonial period. It was immensely colourful. Mayor John Petrie’s acceptance speech included a contemporary quote of the day. He said ‘ We are no rude, uncultivated horde of quarrelsome border men as systematically represented by the metropolitan (Sydney) press in the past. The faults others affected to find with us are all upon the surface. Beneath lies the strong sense of men who value the privilege too highly not to use it well’.

It was entirely evident Brisbane people in 1859 already had a handle on what Sydney thought of them. But they were so confident in what they were setting out to achieve they did not see it as an issue. This emboldening attitude lasted right up to and including Word War II when they hosted the American troops so well and endeared us all to that nation. All the stories I heard about those days when I was living there was of a brilliantly confident, resilient, quietly purposeful and caring community. They were certainly great ambassadors for Australia.

As far as I could work out their confidence seemed to have taken a bit of a nose dive during the lengthy Premier Joh Bjelke Peterson years, which took their toll on Brizzie, as well as the rest of the nation. Perhaps it was because he so systematically, coldly and quite ruthlessly destroyed the heritage the city had fought so long and hard to establish, without any form of care or consultation. Much like some country men coldly put down a dog when it outlives its usefulness.

When I first visited Brisbane in 1997 to teach a three months course on art and design history in the first week I was there virtually everyone told me about how he had knocked down Cloudland and the Bellevue Hotel over a weekend. These two deeply wounding scars impacted on the city’s cultural life and then festered, like sores for many years after he had been removed from office. It was the success of Expo ’88 that helped Brisbane people turn the confidence corner again.

Crowd around Brisbane Samba School performing free for Fete de la Musique - Queen Street Mall 2008, photograph Antoine Matarasso, Studio Matarasso

By strange circumstance I found myself living in Brisbane from August 1998 and over a decade grew to love the people and the place very dearly. By then they had shed the big country town label and were a vibrant city, big enough to get lost in and small enough to feel at home. It certainly seemed to be the friendliest capital in the country.

By the time I left late last year it had been a solid decade of growth and optimism. During that time it was a given that Brisbane, was not only gaining on the rest of Australia’s cities culturally, but also had in many ways already surpassed them all. My Melbourne and Sydney friends got tired of my spruiking about it as far back as 2005.

This had a lot to do with the new attitude, the weather, the expansion of the city and final completion of the great visionary arts precinct at Brisbane one that includes the original and more traditional, Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, the State Library, the fabulous GoMa (Gallery of Modern Art), QPAC (Queensland Performing Arts Centre and the Southbank park precinct.

Operapolitan Team for Westfield Shopping Centres photographed at Theme and Variations Studios Brisbane

Revamping the older buildings and garden surrounds when they opened the stunning new GoMa gave the people of Brisbane a sophisticated place to hang out in, one on an international level, which is really far above what Sydney and Melbourne both have in 2010.

At the opening of GoMa early in December 2006 Sydney and Melbourne Arts people were coming up to me all night and saying with great surprise WOW, Carolyn this is absolutely fabulous. We had no idea Brisbane was so progressive!

Some 18000 people attended the opening.  And, while it may not seem much to the other states, Brisbane people also helped complete the last Gothic style stone cathedral anywhere in the world still being built in 2008, just in time for their 150th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

The river city is certainly a wonderful one to walk in, constrained into a pleasant precinct by its river’s geography. It has an impressive braille trail, a bike trail, a ‘go between bridge’ and walkways everywhere, including one that links the CBD with the arts precinct. This means workers can stroll over and enjoy a visit in their lunch break.  It has a vehicle clear city  mall and a city cat service on the river second to none.

A great boost for Brisbane, at least for the moment, is a Premier with a genuine interest in the arts. One prepared to invest time and funds to ensure it is happening. Its biggest plus is a single Brisbane City Council headed up by popularly elected Lord Mayor Mr. ‘can do’ Campbell Newman, a huge asset. In his team’s second term the ‘Creative Communities’ Team that he founded is busy expanding the way the city interacts with the arts, especially music by providing free entertainment, including opera in its shopping malls, city parks,  city streets and on the City Cat. The Big City Draw in the Queen Street Mall in 2009 encouraged everyone from kids to mums, dads and grandparents as well as city workers to become artists for a day with 14000+ people drawing to the sound of music.

Brisbane 150 Years 2009 courtesy ABC Printing

So, Melbourne what have you been doing over the last decade while all of this was happening – resting on your laurels? Isn’t it time you enjoyed a renaissance of your own? You’re a fabulous town with your own special characteristics.  So I find it difficult to understand why you would want to compare yourself to Brisbane culturally, or in any other way. You are at opposite ends of the country, have totally different weather patterns, unique features and special people of your own.

You are very glam Melbourne, a gourmet, boutique city capital.  Your fashion and food and wine festivals are the best and daily life is fab. Sitting in a cafe in the Block arcade is like being in a little part of Paris. Since I have have been here during this past year however there is a real air, or sense of the departed. Perhaps your youth are now leaving and going to Brisbane?

While being a great place the city of Melbourne seems to have become disjointed. And, it lacks life except around Fed Square when something is being held there. While that is a great setting for great public gatherings it is, at this point anyway,  not really at the centre of the working and shopping town. That’s in so many ways still the Bourke Street Mall, where you certainly need a permanent stage as a focus for daily entertainment. But the trams make it difficult.

Melbourne - have you been resting on your arts laurels?

While the trams are a fab icon and great people movers for visitors and newcomers they seemingly intrude on every space. I am not saying ditch the trams, but a re-vamp of their inner city route would be helpful. Perhaps they could be disposed around a square grid and drop people off on corners and let them walk into the centre. Good for health and well being. There are surely experts in design who could work it out.

You certainly have the means, the knowledge, the people, the power and lots and lots of wonderful places Melbourne. Sure, the weather is a bit of drag, but then it’s just another challenge with a creative solution to be cleverly imagined.

At any time the arts and music reflect who we are, where we are at and where we are going.

In 2010 Brisbane is in a really good place. And Sydney, well they believe they always have been the best and just keep busily burgeoning ahead. So Melbourne don’t compare yourself with Brisbane, it’s like comparing apples with oranges. Also, please ditch the pineapple –  if you need to re-draw and stimulate your own arts and cultural life then put yourself into the frame and, for goodness sake, get on with it.

Carolyn McDowall October 2010

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