The Fight

Op Ed: Dr Jonathan McBurnie

It’s on. We’re fighting. We’ve been fighting for some time.

I recall a Christmas lunch, being questioned on why I would ever want to do a visual arts degree. ‘What’ll that get you?’ the age old question spat at every person who ever sacrificed money or a house in the suburbs for their own particular dream. I’ve been exhibiting for almost 20 years, and people still ask.

I work for an arts organisation based here in Townsville, Umbrella Studio contemporary arts. This is my hometown. My folks still live here. Townsville is a great city, and a great place to live, with its own rhythms and quirks. When I left in 2000 for Brisbane, I found myself having to defend my hometown, and its cultural offerings, regularly, to people that had never been north of the Sunshine Coast. When I moved to Sydney in 2011, I found myself having to defend Queensland and its cultural offerings, to people who had never been north of Brisbane. In both instances, I found actions would speak louder than words, and as a proud North Queenslander, it became easier to show the naysayers what we had to offer simply by outdoing them. Bigger, better, smarter.

We emphasize the ‘bigger’ a lot here in Queensland. It’s a big state, full of big dreams, big personalities and big fibreglass fruit. It is part of what gives southerners a chuckle, but it’s also the way we dream things up: always bigger. I think we’re especially guilty of this in Townsville, but it is also time we started putting more emphasis on the better, the smarter. I found upon my return, unfortunately, that Townsville’s reputation as a regional hub for the arts was slipping. While it was a world-class exhibition at Pinnacles Gallery, A Permanent Mark, curated by Eric Nash, that convinced me that Townsville was a place I could return to, it wasn’t long after I had relocated to my hometown that some unfortunate decisions were made. The Manager of Gallery Services was made redundant in the Council’s controversial 2016 restructure. To put this in context, at the time, Gallery Services was running one of the most expansive and well attended regional gallery programs in the country, and it was being put at risk. As a city struggling to adapt to various economic challenges, we needed this like a hole in the head; the bureaucratic equivalent of cutting off the right arm because the left has gangrene. So what did we do? We made noise. And I am not talking about undisciplined trouble-making, I am talking about cohesive and well-reasoned arguments with numbers to back them up.

Many have advised us against protesting such changes, but they forget that it is our right, as voters and as citizens, to do so. Several of us now act on Council’s Arts Acquisition Working Group and the Arts and Culture Advisory Committee, I know that Council can rely on me for a clear opinion on any matter within my purview. Perhaps I am on a black list or two, but they know I will speak my mind in a cohesive fashion. Last year, I publicly criticised the Abbott/Turnbull government on their shortsighted treatment of the arts, with an open letter to Prime Minister Turnbull, which was published in the Townsville Bulletin. No formal response was uttered, of course, but the PM did happen to visit the day of its publication (there is a photo of him going through the paper, looking rather stern. I like to imagine he was reading my letter). I expected fallout, as I did not measure my words, but there was none, bar a complaint by a friend that my comments about Brandis were mean-spirited (which I am happy to own). The day somebody need fear uttering a clear and reasoned point of view to their elected representatives is the day I leave. Fortunately, the Federal government did eventually course-correct their Arts policy, by restoring funding to the Australia Council for the Arts, but not before dozens of organisations, many of them in regional Australia, closed.

We are every day looking for new ways to make money to offset the diminishing support of various bodies. This is not an entirely bad exercise, if only it didn’t take so much of our (very small) staff’s time chasing philanthropic rainbows. The solutions offered to us day after day are tethered to this dream of corporate sponsorship and philanthropy. This does exist here in our region; Glencore’s generous support of the Strand Ephemera and the Percival Art Prize, and Maidment Development’s support of the Matthew Clark Young Artist Scholarship come immediately to mind. There just isn’t enough of this kind of philanthropic support to go around.

I look at our city and see a lot of potential. People carry on about the CBD being dull and dead, but there is so much that could be done with it. It is still a beautiful part of our city, and with the right tweaks, we could see it come back to life. All the basics are there; we have the spaces, now we just need to find a little vision, and understand that under the right conditions, you will see interesting shops and pop ups come in and bring life. Newcastle must be one of the closest cities to Townsville in terms of temperament, attitude, and its industrial history, and their embrace of the Arts and creative business transformed it from a city with a reputation for a bit of rough and tumble to a vibrant cultural hub. We have the capacity for that here, and it is not an expensive exercise.

Read any report you like and you will find that the most successful economies are diverse. The most radical to the most fiscally conservative study will tell you the same thing. To put it in terms that apply to Townsville, the more things we are good at, the safer our city is from the sudden fluctuations of a fickle global economy. This applies to tourism and the Arts every bit as much as industry and recreation. If you like, take a look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ reporting during and after the GFC. Investment plummeted, industry was thrown into a tailspin, but one of the industries that actually increased in productivity during this time? The Arts. Check out tertiary enrolment figures that year. Enrolments in degrees typically associated with wealth - law, medicine and so forth - plummeted. What stayed steady, or even increased in many instances? The Arts. Degrees typically baulked at for not leading to jobs. Yet here we are. We Artists are stubborn, smart, and used to improvising. I would back us.

Remember that next recession, when your fairweather friends vanish for greener pastures. In fact, take a look at what’s going on right now in our city. Who is putting on concerts, festivals, performances, exhibitions, workshops and lectures? Who is refusing to give up? We’re lucky to have some truly great thinkers and doers here, working in the Arts. They’re everywhere – Gallery Services, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Theatre iNQ, Renegade Handmade, Queensland Wrestler’s Alliance, Dancenorth, the Townsville Art Society, La Luna Youth Arts, the Townsville Writers and Publishers Centre. And that’s just a short list. Take note, demand more, and reward those giving it a crack with your patronage. Townsville has a long and proud tradition of exemplary Arts practitioners but we are in danger of losing it through neglect. Townsville, has held up a reputation for punching above our weight for a long time. For a city of our size, we have an excellent cultural scene, but it’s running on fumes, having outgrown its own infrastructure. Townsville is more than just a ‘training ground’ for arts practitioners. We have some of the best artists in the country right here, doing their thing without fanfare, and largely without support.

Let’s do this.

Dr Jonathan McBurnie is the Director of Townsville’s Umbrella Studio contemporary arts and a member of the Townsville Arts and Culture Advisory Committee.  
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