The car went first. Then the furniture. Finally, on Wednesday, I drove Luscious and the kids to the airport and they went too. I’ve a couple of days of work and house tidying left, and then I’ll follow them. Rockingham is over, and our future– at least for the next 2 years– lies in Karratha.
I’ve lived in Rockingham, on and off, since the age of eight. That’s a gnat’s breath short of forty years. It’s my home. No matter where I travel– including this move, for however many years it lasts– no matter where I move to, my new location is viewed in terms of where it lies in relation to Rockingham. I’m not moving 1600 kilometres to Karratha, I’m moving 1600 kilometres away from Rockingham.
When I successfully applied for the job of Arts Officer here it was, in almost all the ways that counted, the job of my dreams. When my Coordinator departed just over a year later, and I was promoted to fill the position, I was suddenly in charge of the art and culture department for my Council: that really was the dream job, one I’d been preparing for for almost twenty years. Just on eight years later, the job has soured. I’ve grown weary of the constant fighting needed to get people in my field to see what I see, to trust me, to rally behind my vision, to overcome the deep-seated and recalcitrant conservatism that pervades all levels of Council administration and much of the local community. I can’t deal with the idea that I’d soon be having to deal with the Manager that drove me into the 18 Month Plan when she returns to her position in February. As good as things have been in her absence, that’s not a place I’m prepared to revisit. It’s nobody’s fault: that’s just the way things are in a big organisation in a big City. But it’s burned me out, and now I’m leaving.
And I’m saddened by that. Working in the arts is not a year-to-year proposition. Rather, it’s defined by the projects upon which you work, and many of those can take years to bring to fruition. Some take decades. Someone else will complete the Christmas lights program. Someone else will oversee the artwork at the new Foreshore redevelopment, and the Arts Centre, and the Sculpture Garden– all of which I’ll have initiated but abandoned. I’ll not be in charge of the interstitial sculpture gallery project I’ve developed. The festivals to commemorate the Catalpa Rescue and our Cultural precinct? Who knows if they’ll even go ahead? They exist only in my mind and in whatever enthusiasm I’ve managed to infect my staff with. I’m excited for my own and my family’s future, but when it comes to the artistic direction of my hometown, it’s hard not to feel like I’ve abandoned the job half-done.
So, after all that, what am I leaving behind? What do I look back on with pride? What have I left my community? I administer a program worth in excess of $1 million a year. Here are 5 of the things that give me a glimmer of pride.
5 for Friday: Things Left Behind
I love sculpture. Good sculpture, particularly in the public domain, has the ability to inspire, to capture the attention, and to become an iconic part of people’s sense of civic identity and place. Since I started in the position, I’ve raised the City’s public art budget by a factor of three, and tried to acquire works that combine a strong sense of Rockingham’s heritage, history and lifestyle with styles and materials that move away from mere representation into a more abstract, intellectually-challenging direction.
It’s a mission that can never be completed, only abandoned– I’m leaving with three major projects for the City’s major foreshore redevelopment in the scoping stage: I’ve written the scopes, but the actual commissioning and installation will be left to others who I can only hope share my philosophy. But I’m proud of what I’ve managed to achieve.
Three examples of works: New Horizons by Andrew Kay stands outside the library in Baldivis. Little Penguin is an older, traditional piece we rescued from an overgrown garden in a failing community facility and installed in the Arts Centre’s sculpture garden. And the Sculpture Garden itself: to the left you can sort-of see three wire-mesh birds created by Irene Osborne, and to the right, a 9-foot high dancing starfish made from metal, wood and stone by Jason Maxlow.
Rockingham Arts Centre
A converted ambulance storage facility that was converted from a fire station that was converted from something else further back than that, set in a street of more recent, better designed commercial buildings, the Arts Centre was not the most inspired choice of building. Neither was the design particularly helpful: I inherited a building that was not quite right for purpose. But.
After five years of graft, we run over 250 hours of workshops a year, none of which conflict with, or compete with, offerings from the local arts organisations. We’ve fomented, encouraged, and housed writing groups, printmaking groups, and a ceramics studio that operates 5 days out of 7. We’ve staged one-person theatrical shows. We’ve yarn-bombed the trees. We’ve commissioned the largest mural in Rockingham’s history (until that point. There are 2 that are coming in 2018 that will be bigger, and guess what? We commissioned those, too.) And when we did, awarded it to an abstract piece that my (conservative, and thankfully, long-gone) Director called “A dragon vomiting a rainbow”. We’ve installed a sculpture garden, moved a one-tonne concrete couch across town and repainted it as a mad neon WTF work. We’ve commissioned a giant mural for the front courtyard that will have visitors stepping over a whirling vortex on their way to the entrance. We’ve toured, staged, and created exhibitions on any subject that made us snort with disbelief (Our first was an exhibition of decorated doors. An exhibition of Kaaron Warren short story collections turned into sculpture was another).
We’ve been as mad as all fuck, and after five years, it’s a fun place to practice art. If I had another five years, I could make it– if not the best, then certainly the maddest— arts location in the South of Perth. But there it is: I got a crap building, and I made it mad. That’s not bad.
The frontage, complete with eagle sculpture made out of a recycled motorbike engine block. That big beige space will be filled with a 400m square mural of a whirling vortex two months after I’m gone. Somebody needs to send me pictures.
Like a dragon vomiting a rainbow. That’s the attitude I’ve spent 8 years fighting, mainly by ignoring it and doing what the fuck I wanted to in the first place. It looks bloody brilliant.
The Literary Community
A week before I started in the job, I was a guest at a small writers day organised by a local author and a teacher. Twenty or so people turned up to a local library, there were three or four short panels, it was all very nice, nobody got paid, and that was about that. The City had no literary budget or program. There were 2 writers groups: one operated out of a library, had 6 members, and had been a social circle for many years. The other operated out of someone’s living room, had 4 members, and folded the day I was due to attend my first meeting because the convener had to go to hospital and threw it all in.
The first writing workshop I ran had 6 attendees. Eight years later, I don’t run a literary program at all: after 6 years of work, there was enough of a critical mass of workshop attendees that they formed their own writers centre, and I was able to withdraw– which is how Community Capacity Building (the philosophy my department works under) is supposed to work.
The Rockingham Writers Centre. Good hands for writing in Rockingham.
One thing I have kept going, however, is the City’s Short Fiction Awards. With three categories offering a $1000 1st prize in each, and a unique prompt (all stories must use an image from the City’s art collection as a starting point), it receives more than 200 entries annually, and has received entries from every continent (Antarctica excepted). I’ve provided work to Perth authors as judges, and entries have been reprinted in a number of Year’s Bests. Any way you slice it, it’s a major short story competition. Of all the things I’ve done over the eight years, it’s the thing of which I am most proud.
The entry form for the 2017 competition, the project of which I’m most proud.
Paying the Artist
We can’t offer you much in payment, but it’ll look good on your CV.
Sound familiar? Yeah. I don’t answer those ones, either. Yet, when I arrived, that’s what we were saying to artists we wanted to conduct workshops for us. After a long fight, and eventually simply refusing to listen to anyone else and doing it anyway, we now pay authors at the recommended ASA rates and visual artists at the recommended NAVA rates.
Money flows towards the artist. Always. I can’t claim it for myself if I won’t pay it to others. Amazing how long it took me to persuade some particular nicely-paid public servants, but we got there in the end.
More Flavours Than Vanilla
Any large gathering of people will have a tendency towards conservatism. That’s especially true of cities, and doubly so of the organisations that administer them. The problem is, with conservatism comes homogeneity. And Rockingham– with a long history as, basically, an English retirement village– is a conservative town.
I’ve fought against that, and had fewer successes than I had hoped. But at least where I’ve succeeded, I’ve hopefully set markers for all those who succeed me: not to create an artistic and cultural landscape for the present, but for 50 years from now, and 100. That might sound grandiose, but the City has a 50 year plan, and a 100 year one. It’s not ego, it’s planning.
Let me show you what I mean.
Safety Bay Library. As the image shows, first opened in 1972. When I first came to Rockingham in 1979, it was pretty much unchanged. It was pretty much unchanged when I first left in 1992, and when I came back for the (so far) final time in 2010. For residents of my generation, this is what we see when the library is mentioned.
This is the library, now. Or, rather, this is the sculpture in the garden in front of the library. I’m not a fan of the work– two emus and a grass tree, in rebar, it’s exactly the kind of ultra-representative work in obvious materials that I find way too conservative for my tastes. But it’s by a local artist, it won a People’s Choice Award at one of our exhibitions, and it so it has significance for the City. And that’s an important factor.
Just as importantly, it’s a work that’s going to last for more than 50 years. And that means that, for generations of residents, this is what they’ll see when Safety Bay Library is mentioned. They won’t know that I bought it, or that I chose the place where it was installed. But by doing so, I’ve changed the physical nature of a local landmark: it will never be seen the same way again. No matter where I go, or where or when I die, I’ve physically changed my home town, in this one way, forever. That is grandiose, and egotistical, but it matters, somewhere deep inside of me, where my inner darkness finds things important.
But, you know, it’s still pretty fucking vanilla. So whenever I’ve had a chance to directly influence a matter of design or installation, I’ve fought for something a little more, well, distinctive.
This is a climbing frame. And a seat. And a fish. And an island within the soak area when this particular park floods during times of extreme rainfall. And it gave our Parks department conniptions when I worked with the City’s landscape architect to develop the scope, and ran the aquisition assessment, for what they thought was going to be a nice bench and a nice set of metal tubes like the ones you see in all the other parks. Created by the wonderfully talented Fiona Gavino, it was an early success for my philosophy.
Here’s another example:
It’s a couch. A concrete couch. It sat outside a youth centre, and it was painted like, well, a couch with a person sitting on it. Then the centre closed, and I got my hands on it. We moved it across town, to the front of the Arts Centre, and opened for submissions.
You can see it for miles down the street. And it does what art should: love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it, and you can’t deny its existence. It commands the eye. It demands you move closer, cross the street, come over to view it, contemplate it, comment upon it. I’ve overheard people talking: I’ll meet you at the couch. It’s a location, and less than a year after installation, an icon.
And it’s not fucking vanilla.
So, that’s it. I wish I could have had more time. I wish I could have pushed harder, gone further, dragged my hometown deeper into the future. I had such plans. But I made progress. That’s something, I guess.