Hazelhurst Arts Centre and Regional Gallery – located in Sutherland Shire near Cronulla. Photo: Paul Costigan

“As residents’ experiences have shown, local politicians have no interest in working with residents on developing local arts and community cultural facilities,” writes Canberra Matters columnist PAUL COSTIGAN. 

THERE’S a heap of data that sets out how much Canberrans participate in cultural activities. The arts are part of many people’s lives in this city.

Paul Costigan.

Data also exists in bucket loads on how participation in arts activities benefits people’s health and well-being.

All this is taken as a given by planners, urban designers and decision makers around the country who use such national and international evidence to guide their work with communities to foster improved urban environments.

The evidence from the last decade or two on how things happen here in Canberra, is that ACT politicians make urban planning decisions for us (not with us) based on their own mysterious scraps of information while avoiding historical data and real research. Heritage and culture must be banned topics to be considered.

A couple of days ago I visited one of the best arts centres in NSW – The Hazelhurst Arts Centre and Regional Gallery – located in Sutherland Shire near Cronulla.

The place was busy with people in the main and the corridor galleries, some children were at a special table making their own art, one of the three studios had a class on, people were sitting quietly in places in the parkland, a group of mums were enjoying a picnic and loads of people were in the café. There was a wonderful buzz inside and outside the centre’s buildings.

Given this city’s interest in the arts and cultural activities, it would follow that each major town centre would have at least the equivalent – not necessarily in the centre but close by so that people can easily access arts facilities. We don’t.

While the modest extension to the Belconnen Arts Centre will be great (thanks to the political lobbying there) and the small Tuggeranong Art Centre does its best to be relevant to the huge population base outside its doors, for the rest of the city our ACT politicians just miss the point.

Woden has been crying out for an arts centre for a decade or more and Gungahlin just is not on the agenda for fully functioning cultural facilities. The government has been talking of a Kingston Arts Precinct but the initiative lingers – and lingers and lingers.

In the inner north, locally elected politicians display a lack of attention to cultural matters. Yes, there’s Gorman House and other facilities with a citywide focus, but no local community focused suburban arts centre. There is a big difference and their latest junk data on facilities and community needs proves nothing.

Section 72 (Dickson Parklands) in Dickson should be a very active centre of a range of community cultural and arts activities. The ANCA artists’ studios and their gallery are there and would benefit from a mix of arts activities alongside them. In fact one wonders why the management of ANCA have not been more vocal about the use of the sites outside their door.

Another major problem (there are many) with how urban decisions are made is that the government’s bureaucracy is locked into their own silos. This is an on-going fault not addressed by our elected wonders. No-one is making decisions based on addressing the issues across all the political portfolios.

Take for instance the in-house bureaucratic advocates for the plonking of housing on Section 72 in Dickson. The ministers are taking advice from bureaucrats running housing programs who are desperate (all tricks are on the table) to get something done in the inner north – having cleared out so much of the social housing for the Northbourne area developments linked to building the tram.

Questions about keeping the parklands, trees, biodiversity and building arts facilities are silly topics for these silo-focused bureaucrats and their ill-informed ministers.

The ACT politicians are supposed to represent their own communities and have an eye on the future of the whole urban area and the well-being of the residents. They should work with the residents on cultural and urban matters. Ours pretend to do so by concentrating on pumping out far too much useless and superficial spin.

As residents’ experiences have shown, local politicians have no interest in working with residents on developing local arts and community cultural facilities.

Regrettably the ACT political system throws up those best at playing political games rather than with an interest in building better societies. Link this to how the ACT bureaucracy continues to operate in silos with blinkers to other important urban issues and we have a government that is blind to the realities of the aspirations and the lives of residents.

This Labor/Greens government should not pretend to be building communities simply through having lands sales and pushing an infill agenda to try to balance budgets. In the 21st century, Canberra should be the home to numerous active town centre arts spaces.

What does it take to inform ACT politicians that arts, community identity, well-designed open spaces and well-being are important?

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Ian Meikle, editor