We had talked over email about this text being a ‘postcard from sunny Perth’, but it’s hailing as I write this and the state deficit for 2017-18 is forecast to be $2 billion.
What can I tell you about the state of the arts in Perth, Western Australia? The usual WA line is that everything is fine and we are getting by, that the community if you reach out for it is strong and supportive, just as good as anywhere else, that there is a long list of names worthy of recognition and celebration. All of this is true. But in the present moment, in mine at least, it no longer feels right to pretend towards exuberant productivity.
Here are a few terms of reference.
The Department of Culture and the Arts, gatekeeper of visual arts funding, has been reborn under Mark McGowan’s newly elected Labor Government as the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries. The financial and administrative threat to the arts that such competition for portfolio attention might present is perhaps tempered by the retention of former DCA Director General Duncan Ord, rather than the installation of a more sports or government-focused Director General. What is certain though is that there has been, and will continue to be, less money to go around. In June it was forecast that the already struggling state budget would be hit by a further $350 million loss, driven by the plummeting price of iron ore. This West Australian story is by now a classic.
The change in government in March - after nine years of Liberal debt and deficit, after a Premier who towards the end had become almost openly hostile towards his constituents and the media - seemed to signal an era of new possibility. But what McGowan has inherited offers little room to move. Predictably, broken promises and projected cuts are amassing, while around us the former government’s runaway capital projects keep up the appearance of the boom. There will be a new football stadium opening soon, and while a museum building designed by Rem Koolhaus has a projected completion date of 2020, the central Western Australian museum site – a quarter of the Perth Cultural Centre - has in the meantime closed its doors. There is a new retail square boasting a towering 360-degree screen named for Yagan, the Noongar warrior whose other memorial, a bronze figure on the island of Matagarup, used to be desecrated as though it were sport. A few new high-rises are also in the works, although office and retail vacancies are double what they were during the GFC. That’s 16% for retail, a 20-year-high, and 21.1% for offices, four times the office vacancy rates for Sydney, but still better than the figures from this January past.1
A different city might consider what other mean-time uses such vacant spaces could be put to. Success, the megalodon of an Artist Run Initiative in the basement of the empty Myer Fremantle, might have been an instructive lesson in this regard, although it too is gone, closed in late 2016 after a year of operation. A 40,000 square meter gallery run on volunteered enthusiasm and hubris can only survive for so long. The few ARIs and project spaces that do remain in Perth are challenged both by their physicality – embedded in retail outlets, real estate agents and cafes, or with architectural flourishes hostile to the installation of art – and their rental costs. Pop-up galleries, one-night-only exhibitions, site-specific practices and the pursuit of projects in other states have become the norm for artists emerging into a sector limited in exhibition opportunities.
The School of Art and Design (SoDA) at Curtin, which has long promoted itself as the sector leader in tertiary art education, is facing the recommendation that it be ‘disestablished’ and its respective components incorporated into other humanities departments. A 'SAVE SODA' Facebook page currently has about 100 follows but in the last decade ‘SoDA’ has already been organised under a host of other acronyms (BEAD, DofA) and as-many-if-not-more heads of school, now-trending majors like textiles and ceramics were internally ‘disestablished’, and studios have been consistently lost to co-working spaces and multi-use classrooms. What is likely at stake this time are sessional jobs.
Meanwhile, The Art Gallery of Western Australia is leading its 2017 season with an exhibition about sneakers.
I know these challenges – higher rents, lack of space, the difficult position of the space-hungry art school within the neoliberal university, the funding squeeze – are not unique to Perth. Certain uniquely local factors, though - the unshakeable perception of Perth’s isolation, for example, or the miniscule size and inherent territorialism of the scene - tend to exacerbate their affect. And artists, as always, as everywhere, continue to meet and exceed those challenges, even though the enthusiasm and care and devotion of artists are resources perhaps even less sustainable and more volatile than iron ore.
How Perth differs from other Australian capitals in responding to those challenges, though, is that what is often labelled the arts ‘ecology’ - tacitly understood to be an interrelated network of grassroots activity, small-to-medium organisations, commercial galleries and big institutions - does not substantially exist. ARIs are provisional and temporary, or run without boards or succession planning; the commercial gallery sector has all but collapsed – it is perhaps telling that few of the Western Australian artists who might be described as ‘mid-career’, or who have established national and international profiles, are represented in their home state; the State gallery, like all of us, tries to do the best it can with what it has, grasping for goodwill and a broader audience. Broadly, Western Australia has been slow to the realisation that arts and cultural infrastructure and events are valuable not just as a tool for the economic ‘activation’ of place or the pursuit of tourist dollars - although we are lagging behind on that, too - but as heritage, and as an expression of place and time. Consequently, cultural policy and strategy on all levels tends to be reactive, lacking long-term impact, quickly undone.
If Perth does have an arts ecology it is best described as seasonal, based on cycles of attrition and regrowth. This is perhaps reflective of our economic cycles of boom and recession, although in real terms the last boom passed the arts sector by almost entirely. I mostly mean this figuratively – seasonal in the endless exodus of artists to more supportive climes and the emergence of their replacements, in the forgetting and remaking of the same critical arguments across decades, in the galleries that appear and disappear, periods of incremental progress followed by the restructuring of the wheel. These conditions make us adept at experimentation, at forming interesting hybrids and partnerships and models, and they make us defensively proud and persistent. But at present we seem to be faced with a coming period of extended attrition – in national and local funding and in local exhibition and market opportunities - and to weather it we will likely need more than coping mechanisms and spin.
Absurd as it will sound, I mean it literally, too. You see, in four months the beaches will be beautiful again, the festivals will be in full swing, and all of those expats will be home for the holidays. Then I might forget amid the noise and colour that the mirage of critical mass will fade once again with the summer.
Then I might send a different postcard, but for now my winter mood colours everything.
Gemma Watson is an independent artist, curator and writer based in Perth.