Irrational Economics and Regional Cultural Life

Susie Elliott

Abstract


Introduction

Australia is at a particular point in its history where there is a noticeable diaspora of artists and creative practitioners away from the major capitals of Sydney and Melbourne (in particular), driven in no small part by ballooning house prices of the last eight years. This has meant big changes for some regional spaces, and in turn, for the face of Australian cultural life. Regional cultural precincts are forming with tourist flows, funding attention and cultural economies. Likewise, there appears to be growing consciousness in the ‘art centres’ of Melbourne and Sydney of interesting and relevant activities outside their limits. This research draws on my experience as an art practitioner, curator and social researcher in one such region (Castlemaine in Central Victoria), and particularly from a recent interview series I have conducted in collaboration with art space in that region, Wide Open Road Art. In this, 23 regional and city-based artists were asked about the social, economic and local conditions that can and have supported their art practices. Drawing from these conversations and Bourdieu’s ideas around cultural production, the article suggests that authentic, diverse, interesting and disruptive creative practices in Australian cultural life involve the increasingly pressing need for security while existing outside the modern imperative of high consumption; of finding alternative ways to live well while entering into the shared space of cultural production. Indeed, it is argued that often it is the capacity to defy key economic paradigms, for example of ‘rational (economic) self-interest’, that allows creative life to flourish (Bourdieu Field; Ley “Artists”). While regional spaces present new opportunities for this, there are pitfalls and nuances worth exploring.

Changes in Regional Australia

Australia has long been an urbanising nation. Since Federation our cities have increased from a third to now constituting two-thirds of the country’s total population (Gray and Lawrence 6; ABS), making us one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Indeed, as machines replaced manual labour on farms; as Australia’s manufacturing industry began its decline; and as young people in particular left the country for city universities (Gray and Lawrence), the post-war industrial-economic boom drove this widespread demographic and economic shift. In the 1980s closures of regional town facilities like banks, schools and hospitals propelled widespread belief that regional Australia was in crisis and would be increasingly difficult to sustain (Rentschler, Bridson, and Evans; Gray and Lawrence 2; Barr et al.; ABS). However, the late 1990s and early 21st century saw a turnaround that has been referred to by some as the rise of the ‘sea change’. That is, widespread renewed interest and idealisation of not just coastal areas but anywhere outside the city (Murphy). It was a simultaneous pursuit of “a small ‘a’ alternative lifestyle” and escape from rising living costs in urban areas, especially for the unemployed, single parents and those with disabilities (Murphy). This renewed interest has been sustained. The latest wave, or series of waves, have coincided with the post-GFC house price spike, of cheap credit and lenient lending designed to stimulate the economy. This initiative in part led to Sydney and Melbourne median dwelling prices rising by up to 114% in eight years (Scutt 2017), which alone had a huge influence on who was able to afford to live in city areas and who was not. Rapid population increases and diminished social networks and familial support are also considered drivers that sent a wave of people (a million since 2011) towards the outer fringes of the cities and to ‘commuter belt’ country towns (Docherty; Murphy). While the underprivileged are clearly most disadvantaged in what has actually been a global development process (see Jayne on this, and on the city as a consumer itself), artists and creatives are also a unique category who haven’t fared well with hyper-urbanisation (Ley “Artists”). Despite the class privilege that often accompanies such a career choice, the economic disadvantage art professions often involve has seen a diaspora of artists moving to regional areas, particularly those in the hinterlands around and train lines to major centres. We see the recent ‘rise of a regional bohemia’ (Regional Australia Institute): towns like Toowoomba, Byron Bay, Surf Coast, Gold Coast-Tweed, Kangaroo Valley, Wollongong, Warburton, Bendigo, Tooyday, New Norfolk, and countless more being re-identified as arts towns and precincts. In Australia in 2016–17, 1 in 6 professional artists, and 1 in 4 visual artists, were living in a regional town (Throsby and Petetskaya). Creative arts in regional Australia makes up a quarter of the nation’s creative output and is a $2.8 billion industry; and our regions particularly draw in creative practitioners in their prime productive years (aged 24 to 44) (Regional Australia Institute).

WORA Conservation Series

In 2018 artist and curator Helen Mathwin and myself received a local shire grant to record a conversation series with 23 artists who were based in the Central Goldfields region of Victoria as well as further afield, but who had a connection to the regional arts space we run, WideOpenRoadArt (WORA). In videoed, in-depth, approximately hour-long, semi-structured interviews conducted throughout 2018, we spoke to artists (16 women and 7 men) about the relocation phenomenon we were witnessing in our own growing arts town. Most were interviewed in WORA’s roving art float, but we seized any ad hoc opportunity we had to have genuine discussions with people. Focal points were around sustainability of practice and the social conditions that supported artists’ professional pursuits. This included accessing an arts community, circles of cultural production, and the ‘art centre’; the capacity to exhibit; but also, social factors such as affordable housing and the ability to live on a low-income while having dependants; and so on. The conversations were rich with lived experiences and insights on these issues.

Financial Imperatives

In line with the discussion above, the most prominent factor we noticed in the interviews was the inescapable importance of being able to live cheaply. The consistent message that all of the interviewees, both regional- and city-based, conveyed was that a career in art-making required an important independence from the need to earn a substantial income. One interviewee commented: “I do run my art as a business, I have an ABN […] it makes a healthy loss! I don’t think I’ve ever made a profit […].” Another put it: “now that I’m in [this] town and I have a house and stuff I do feel like there is maybe a bit more security around those daily things that will hopefully give me space to [make artworks].”

Much has been said on the pervasive inability to monetise art careers, notably Bourdieu’s observations that art exists on an interdependent field of cultural capital, determining for itself an autonomous conception of value separate to economics (Bourdieu, Field 39). This is somewhat similar to the idea of art as a sacred phenomenon irreducible to dollar terms (Abbing 38; see also Benjamin’s “aura”; “The Work of Art”). Art’s difficult relationship with commodification is part of its heroism that Benjamin described (Benjamin Charles Baudelaire 79), its potential to sanctify mainstream society by staying separate to the lowly aspirations of commerce (Ley “Artists” 2529). However, it is understood, artists still need to attain professional education and capacities, yet they remain at the bottom of the income ladder not only professionally, but in the case of visual artists, they remain at the bottom of the creative income hierarchies as well. Further to this, within visual arts, only a tiny proportion achieve financially backed success (Menger 277). “Artistic labour markets are characterised by high risk of failure, excess supply of recruits, low artistic income level, skewed income distribution and multiple jobholding” (Mangset, Torvik Heian, Kleppe, and Løyland; Menger). Mangset et al. point to ideas that have long surrounded the “charismatic artist myth,” of a quasi-metaphysical calling to be an artist that can lead one to overlook the profession’s vast pitfalls in terms of economic sustainability. One interviewee described it as follows: “From a very young age I wanted to be an artist […] so there’s never been a time that I’ve thought that’s not what I’m doing.” A 1% rule seems widely acknowledged in how the profession manages the financial winners against those who miss out; the tiny proportion of megastar artists versus a vast struggling remainder.

As even successful artists often dip below the poverty line between paid engagements, housing costs can make the difference between being able to live in an area and not (Turnbull and Whitford). One artist described:

[the reason we moved here from Melbourne] was financial, yes definitely. We wouldn’t have been able to purchase a property […] in Melbourne, we would not have been able to live in place that we wanted to live, and to do what we wanted to do […]. It was never an option for us to get a big mortgage.

Another said:

It partly came about as a financial practicality to move out here. My partner […] wanted to be in the bush, but I was resistant at first, we were in Melbourne but we just couldn’t afford Melbourne in the end, we had an apartment, we had a studio. My partner was a cabinet maker then. You know, just every month all our money went to rent and we just couldn’t manage anymore. So we thought, well maybe if we come out to the bush […] It was just by a happy accident that we found a property […] that we could afford, that was off-grid so it cut the bills down for us [...] that had a little studio and already had a little cottage on there that we could rent that out to get money.

For a prominent artist we spoke to this issue was starkly reflected. Despite large exhibitions at some of the highest profile galleries in regional Victoria, the commissions offered for these shows were so insubstantial that the artist and their family had to take on staggering sums of personal debt to execute the ambitious and critically acclaimed shows. Another very successful artist we interviewed who had shown widely at ‘A-list’ international arts institutions and received several substantial grants, spoke of their dismay and pessimism at the idea of financial survival. For all artists we spoke to, pursuing their arts practice was in constant tension with economic imperatives, and their lives had all been shaped by the need to make shrewd decisions to continue practising. There were two artists out of the 23 we interviewed who considered their artwork able to provide full-time income, although this still relied on living costs remaining extremely low. “We are very lucky to have bought a very cheap property [in the country] that I can [also] have my workshop on, so I’m not paying for two properties in Melbourne […] So that certainly takes a fair bit of pressure off financially.” Their co-interviewee described this as “pretty luxurious!” Notably, the two who thought they could live off their art practices were both men, mid-career, whose works were large, spectacular festival items, which alongside the artists’ skill and hard work was also a factor in the type of remuneration received.

Decongested Living

Beyond more affordable real estate and rental spaces, life outside our cities offers other benefits that have particular relevance to creative practitioners. Opera and festival director Lindy Hume described her move to the NSW South Coast in terms of space to think and be creative. “The abundance of time, space and silence makes living in places like [Hume’s town] ideal for creating new work” (Brown). And certainly, this was a theme that arose frequently in our interviews. Many of our regionally based artists were in part choosing the de-pressurised space of non-metro areas, and also seeking an embedded, daily connection to nature for themselves, their art-making process and their families. In one interview this was described as “dreamtime”. “Some of my more creative moments are out walking in the forest with the dog, that sort of semi-daydreamy thing where your mind is taken away by the place you’re in.”

Creative Hubs

All of our regional interviewees mentioned the value of the local community, as a general exchange, social support and like-minded connection, but also specifically of an arts community. Whether a tree change by choice or a more reactive move, the diaspora of artists, among others, has led to a type of rural renaissance in certain popular areas. Creative hubs located around the country, often in close proximity to the urban centres, are creating tremendous opportunities to network with other talented people doing interesting things, living in close proximity and often open to cross-fertilisation. One said: “[Castlemaine] is the best place in Australia, it has this insane cultural richness in a tiny town, you can’t go out and not meet people on the street […] For someone who has not had community in their life that is so gorgeous.” Another said:

[Being an artist here] is kind of easy! Lots of people around to connect—with […] other artists but also creatively minded people [...] So it means you can just bump into someone from down the street and have an amazing conversation in five minutes about some amazing thing! […] There’s a concentration here that works.

With these hubs, regional spaces are entering into a new relevance in the sphere of cultural production. They are generating unique and interesting local creative scenes for people to live amongst or visit, and generating strong local arts economies, tourist economies, and funding opportunities (Rentschler, Bridson, and Evans). Victoria in particular has burgeoned, with tourist flows to its regions increasing 13 per cent in 5 years and generating tourism worth $10 billion (Tourism Victoria). Victoria’s Greater Bendigo is Australia’s most popularly searched tourist destination on Trip Advisor, with tourism increasing 52% in 10 years (Boland). Simultaneously, funding flows have increased to regional zones, as governments seek to promote development outside Australia’s urban centres and are confident in the arts as a key strategy in boosting health, economies and overall wellbeing (see Rentschler, Bridson, and Evans; see also the 2018 Regional Centre for Culture initiative, Boland). The regions are also an increasingly relevant participant in national cultural life (Turnbull and Whitford; Mitchell; Simpson; Woodhead). Opportunities for an openness to productive exchange between regional and metropolitan sites appear to be growing, with regional festivals and art events gaining importance and unique attributes in the consciousness of the arts ‘centre’ (see for example Fairley; Simpson; Farrelly; Woodhead).

Difficulties of Regional Location

Despite this, our interviews still brought to light the difficulties and barriers experienced living as a regional artist. For some, living in regional Victoria was an accepted set-back in their ambitions, something to be concealed and counteracted with education in reputable metropolitan art schools or city-based jobs. For others there was difficulty accessing a sympathetic arts community—although arts towns had vibrant cultures, certain types of creativity were preferred (often craft-based and more community-oriented). Practitioners who were active in maintaining their links to a metropolitan art scene voiced more difficulty in fitting in and successfully exhibiting their (often more conceptual or boundary-pushing) work in regional locations.

The Gentrification Problem

The other increasingly obvious issue in the revivification of some non-metropolitan areas is that they can and are already showing signs of being victims of their own success. That is, some regional arts precincts are attracting so many new residents that they are ceasing to be the low-cost, hospitable environments for artists they once were. Geographer David Ley has given attention to this particular pattern of gentrification that trails behind artists (Ley “Artists”). Ley draws from Florida’s ideas of late capitalism’s ascendency of creativity over the brute utilitarianism of the industrial era. This has got to the point that artists and creative professionals have an increasing capacity to shape and generate value in areas of life that were previous overlooked, especially with built environments (2529). Now more than ever, there is the “urbane middle-class” pursuing ‘the swirling milieu of artists, bohemians and immigrants” (Florida) as they create new, desirable landscapes with the “refuse of society” (Benjamin Charles Baudelaire 79; Ley New Middle Class). With Australia’s historic shifts in affordability in our major cities, this pattern that Ley identified in urban built environments can be seen across our states and regions as well.

But with gentrification comes increased costs of living, as housing, shops and infrastructure all alter for an affluent consumer-resident. This diminishes what Bourdieu describes as “the suspension and removal of economic necessity” fundamental to the avant-garde (Bourdieu Distinction 54). That is to say, its relief from heavy pressure to materially survive is arguably critical to the reflexive, imaginative, and truly new offerings that art can provide. And as argued earlier, there seems an inbuilt economic irrationality in artmaking as a vocation—of dedicating one’s energy, time and resources to a pursuit that is notoriously impoverishing. But this irrationality may at the same time be critical to setting forth new ideas, perspectives, reflections and disruptions of taken-for-granted social assumptions, and why art is so indispensable in the first place (Bourdieu Field 39; Ley New Middle Class 2531; Weber on irrationality and the Enlightenment Project; also Adorno’s the ‘primitive’ in art). Australia’s cities, like those of most developed nations, increasingly demand we busy ourselves with the high-consumption of modern life that makes certain activities that sit outside this almost impossible. As gentrification unfolds from the metropolis to the regions, Australia faces a new level of far-reaching social inequality that has real consequences for who is able to participate in art-making, where these people can live, and ultimately what kind of diversity of ideas and voices participate in the generation of our national cultural life.                                     

Conclusion

The revival of some of Australia’s more popular regional towns has brought new life to some regional areas, particularly in reshaping their identities as cultural hubs worth experiencing, living amongst or supporting their development. Our interviews brought to life the significant benefits artists have experienced in relocating to country towns, whether by choice or necessity, as well as some setbacks. It was clear that economics played a major role in the demographic shift that took place in the area being examined; more specifically, that the general reorientation of social life towards consumption activities are having dramatic spatial consequences that we are currently seeing transform our major centres. The ability of art and creative practices to breathe new life into forgotten and devalued ideas and spaces is a foundational attribute but one that also creates a gentrification problem. Indeed, this is possibly the key drawback to the revivification of certain regional areas, alongside other prejudices and clashes between metro and regional cultures. It is argued that the transformative and redemptive actions art can perform need to involve the modern irrationality of not being transfixed by matters of economic materialism, so as to sit outside taken-for-granted value structures. This emphasises the importance of equality and open access in our spaces and landscapes if we are to pursue a vibrant, diverse and progressive national cultural sphere.

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Keywords


Art; Irrational Economics; Regional Australia



Copyright (c) 2019 Susie Elliott

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