City culture in the age of the global mega

JWP-0165In September 2014, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore brought together key arts & cultural players for a session designed to raise ambitions for a more integrated cultural experience in the city. Partly driven by the recent release of its own Cultural Policy for the city, and the unfinished work of the ‘cultural ribbon’ that first appeared in Sydney 2030, the major focus was on the potential for a more ‘joined up’ network of cultural institutions. This is backed up a few months later by the announcement of major arts & cultural funding by Premier Mike Baird – with some early hints found between the lines of the days discussion. I was asked to help frame the day and facilitate a 3 Act play.

What follows is a kind of real time journal I took from the day (pics thanks to the City of Sydney, and Jamie Williams).

Almost 20 years ago, Australia’s then arbiter-in-chief for all things sophisticated and cultural, Leo Schofield, spoke at a Sydney Institute event. At the time, he was Director of the Sydney Festival – having just finished his role as Creative Director of the Melbourne Festival of Arts (the title of his talk was The Accidental Melburnian, actually). Summing up reflections on both cities, Schofield reached for line cleverly designed for his Phillip St audience; “when I sit in Melbourne cafes, all they talk about is Sydney. But when I’m at a cafe in Sydney, all they talk about is Tuscany”. A put down worthy of Oscar Wilde. But his broader point was that Sydney – 18 months in to preparations for the 2000 Olympics – was Australia’s portal to global culture.

So, 20 years on, is this still the case? Blockbusters like Wagner’s Ring Cycle find a home on the newly expanded Southbank in Melbourne, the NGV attracts twice the visitors of its Sydney cousin, GOMA and the State Library of Queensland anchor even more work announced in the last few months. Perth will shortly get a $900m stadium, and $428m has been announced for a new museum in Perth’s Cultural centre.

This may sound like serious investment. And it is. But it pales in to insignificance when you consider the figure of US$250bn forecast to be invested globally in cultural precincts and infrastructure in the next 10-15 year, according to Adrian Ellis – founder and director of the Global Cultural Districts Network.

So where is Sydney in all this? Not where it should be, or could be, it seems. But it was one of the questions being asked by the City of Sydney last week at a set of talks, a workshop and design excellence panel discussion intended to light the spark and mobilise a movement to boost the cultural life of the city – all under the banner of ‘cultural collaboration’.

The city’s own response has been to pose the idea of a cultural ribbon – a foreshore link between the city’s large cultural institutions to connect culture to place. The ribbon appears in the original Sydney 2030 strategy document, but is viewed by most as a kind of conceptual move in the right direction – to link up and make more of the journey between venues and experiences, than a literal, linear promenade. It plays nicely in to the city’s work on Creative city and the Cultural policy – both of which have seen intelligent public art installations, live music and events like Vivid go viral – pulling/putting cultural expression in to the public domain. But it also recognises the pivotal role of the NSW state government in supporting and funding our large cultural institutions – and possibly the role of the City of Sydney in curating the spaces in between. Not to mention the potential for Sydney’s commercial class to play a role; like city hotels and visiting cruise ships; bars and restaurants. Or the many schools that bus our kids in to wander and wonder around the bones, books, rocks, canvas and things that go ping.

What does this all mean? A working example tabled as a way of thinking about the question for the day was to imagine institutions and others working on ‘big thematics’ shared across venues and the public spaces in between. Say the Botanic Gardens in the Domain pulled out their seed bank collection from pre-European species just as the AGNSW mounted an exhibition of pre and post settlement city growth, the State Library showed early diaries from the period, while down the road, Sydney Living Museums cooked up the first recipes of Kangaroo and Wombat in the courtyard of The Mint or the Australian Museum coaxed you across Hyde Park to understand how climate change or natural resource management had changed the foreshore of the Harbour over centuries.

Sounds like a good way to turn a lazy Sunday afternoon wandering galleries, into a long weekend of culture, learning, reflecting and moving about. Which, of course, all relies on getting there (transport, ticketing and way finding have to make it easy), finding the intriguing stop for lunch, beer or coffee at cafes (that aren’t always open on the weekend). The city is waking up in parts. But this new civic life is not yet evenly distributed.

So to bring a focus to these questions, the City of Sydney welcomed almost 100 people from the arts, design, science, policy, infrastructure and more to Level 17 of Town Hall house. When the city originally planned this event, the Lord Mayors reception room was mooted as the space. But level 17 – a floor ‘between uses’ – was decided on for 3 reasons; it’s a white space that is yet to reach its potential (maybe like Sydney’s cultural identity). It houses the city model – reminding us to ground our work in the city. And it looks out over the city – reminding us of what we’re talking about.

Cultural collaboration workshop

The event was a simple 3 act play;

Act one

Act 1 was a rapid fire cataloguing of plans, programs and proposals from just some of the city’s cultural players with capital works under development that included;

Dr Michael Brand outlined the AGNSW’s Sydney Modern project – a well developed initiative to transform the gallery by doubling its size, extending towards Woolloomooloo and share a new civic square with the Botanic Gardens (a process further detailed the next day in announcing an international competition & jury process)

Louise Herron walked us through what the Sydney Opera House is calling its Renewal framework for a site that Deloitte calculates has a combined physical and social asset value of $6.9bn (and, incidentally, has 6.2m livestream views annually compared to 1.4m bums on seats – a real measure of how venues are moving from physical experiences alone, to broadcast platforms to the world).

Rose Hiscock reminded the room that the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences actually comprised Powerhouse, the Sydney Observatory and an open collections facility in Castle Hill (a cultural cluster in itself). And that its Ultimo flagship was in the process of being ‘built out’ – something Hiscock sees as a positive so long as some thinking is done early. Which explains the focus of its 2020 Vision on connecting with the city; Powerhouse to the new Goods Line, and the potential for the Sydney Observatory to connect in to Barangaroo.

The State Library’s Dr Alex Byrne marvelled at Sydney’s fragmentedness – asking why the 8.2m visitors to the Opera House forecourt each year don’t filter back up Macquarie St to Martin Place or Hyde Park. “Our institutions are of their place”. A two edged sword when your brief is to serve the people of NSW and not just those in the CBD.

The Australian Museum’s plans for a new entrance promises to right the wrong of the difficult (and originally temporary) entry off College St. Yet to formally announce details of the project, the Museum will go on to master plan a better use for the Yurong St carpark with the aim to be the premier museum in the asia pacific region according to its project manager, Michelle Dunn.

It’s often said the job of an opposition leader is the worst job in the world, but that of an arts bureaucrat at a time of fiscal constraint must rank a close second. So for Executive Director of Arts NSW, Mary Darwell to speak on the work of the agency in preparing the cultural venue infrastructure plan and plans for Walsh Bay as a place for rehearsal, workshop and performance for the likes of STC, Sydney Dance Company, Bangara, Bell Shakespeare Company, Gondwana and more, helped ‘fill in’ the gap in the map between Circular Quay’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the promise of new cultural infrastructure at Barangaroo. And, you’ve got to give it to Arts NSW – November’s announcement of major funding (after the 2015 election) is significant money.

Some of the funding has been earmarked for an Indigenous centre at Barangaroo. Barangaroo is a difficult one for the City of Sydney. A vast site anchoring the west of the CBD but without the usual levers and incentives available to the city as a co-ordinating consent authority. So it was big news for Barangaroo’s David McCracken to be there – restating the ambitions for the site to contribute a National Centre for Indigenous Culture, a design centre and landmark public art installation(s). Again, this one looks like it has legs.

This inventory of plans revealed a lot on the drawing board, and a lot more needed to join the dots and produce the sort of impact to make Sydney that global cultural hub we all want. Which is where Act 2 comes in.


Act Two

Act 2 paused for a ‘keynote’ from Adrian Ellis to bring these plans together and place Sydney in the context of global cultural planning. Ellis’ message was that as cities find they have to work harder to secure investment, tourists, resources, knowledge workers, local cultural identity is a powerful part of differentiating what’s unique about a place.

Ellis’ research suggests that districts, precincts and clusters all around the world share similar characteristics, including;

  • an essentially human scale
  • well maintained public realm that draw people from all walks of life to see and be seen
  • animated street life
  • public space that’s programmed with free public performance
  • street life; street fairs, food fairs,
  • mixed use, and mixed form – neither wholly historic or wholly contemporary architecture but some sense of living organic development
  • variation in scale including large cultural anchors alongside smaller players
  • the co-location of consumption and production (meaning making alongside retail)
  • distinctive character related authentically to a sense of place
  • thriving anchor organisations with international profile and clear relationships and connections to the rest of the city.

That’s all fine. As Ellis says; who wouldn’t vote for that? The bigger question is; how to get it? Ellis’ research points to 3 traits evident in successful places;

1. Strong visionary leadership – pulling together public, private and city institutions for a common goal. Leadership that invites people to move beyond individual interests to a common goal.

2. An indicative planning framework that ensures some sort of masterplan to ensure short terms goals don’t prevent the long term from coming together

3. Willingness of the public sector to do three things;

  • assert importance of public realm
  • pump prime for infrastructure
  • be prepared to use the levers of a planning framework to protect & promote the vision

Act Three

Act 3 was a sleeves-up workshop; handing the marker pens to participants to help answer two questions through a series of short exercises aimed to answer them. The questions – set by the City – included, ‘how can our institutions improve their position in the city? and ‘what can we do to improve the spatial quality of the city’? The exercises broke this down to ask first; where are the city’s natural cultural clusters? How would we know? What cues are there in the wayfinding, programming or events?

As hoped, there were a range of responses from the workshop groups. Like a compelling conceptual idea that clusters of experiences were grouped in the east of the city (think AGNSW, State Library, the Mint, Australian Museum, Botanic Gardens), and the west (Powerhouse, Maritime Museum, the emerging Barangaroo). So the challenge was more about strengthening the EW connections between. Which was handled with audacious land bridges across the dividing ‘wall’ of the Bradfield Highway.


In contrast to this, another group was convinced the city itself is the cultural precinct, and that it was more important to focus on surfacing the narratives that differentiate places in the city through the stories of those present, trading, passing, working etc. A reminder that city’s are as much a psychography as a geography (meaning that segmenting your citizens by age and gender will never give you an insight in to their attitudes, behaviours or values).

Having said this, topography is a powerful part of the Sydney experience. “Sydney’s topography makes things seem further apart,” as one group put it. Having said this, light rail will also ‘shrink’ the city, another group thought. A great example of this ‘experience design’ by some European can be found here. To do this, we needed to focus less on mapping the offer of the cultural anchors themselves (they’re excellent, we get it) – and more on mapping the moods, needs and tendencies of the audience.

A similar theme was to avoid the institution as stand alone, and to focus on stitching the institution into the neighbourhood. Think more MOMA Manhattan overlooked by apartments than Washington Smithsonian’s surrounded by lawn. All this suggests a clear story for Sydney driven by a coherent, integrated marketing and ticketing strategy supported by infrastructure like transport. So if the first exercise was about defining points or parts of the city, the second exercise was about the potential for players and partnerships – that strong leadership Ellis talks about.


The question was put; ‘It’s 2019. The New York Times writes that Sydney has proved success looks different now, thanks to the ‘Sydney Partnership’. Describe the Sydney Partnership.’ The idea was to invite all of us to step outside the everyday arguments about local or state government roles, next years programming or headaches in the gift shop. And it was driving at a very real outcome – like to find a shared project to start work on. The theory being that a shared project requires shared effort. Shared effort being the thing that might just make a new kind of collaborative governance and strong leadership possible.


Shared projects included more of those Sydney bike lanes with e-bikes connecting venues and foreshore, digital wayfinding strategies including, yes, the app that would bring multiple options to your pocket and guide you there and beyond. A cultural master plan that overlays the cultural nervous system on the physical city plan might reveal hidden pockets of surprise – something tourists don’t seem to rate Sydney very highly for. And this mapping needs to include the counter cultural, as one group reminded – the arts don’t have a monopoly on culture, so where do the start ups and university research centres sit in all this?

This was developed as a plan mapping thematic as well as geographic clusters. For instance, the Australian Museum, Powerhouse, Maritime Museum and Sydney Observatory seem a smart cluster when grouped around a theme of, say, ocean navigation, space and the scientific obsession of the late enlightenment – even if they are sprawled across the city in a geographic sense. These relationships were called ‘cultural loops’ rather than ‘clusters’ or ‘precincts’. So what about the Sydney Partnership? It was sketched out, and involved the Premier and Lord Mayor, cultural and civic leadership being brought together with a purpose. A bit like Adelaide’s Capital City Committee that gets city and state in a room on a quarterly basis to tackle those tasks that can easily become a running sore. Or just need everyone on the same page to go anywhere. A parallel was drawn with the partnership Sydney pulled together in the lead up to 2000 Olympics. The example was a statement of what we can do when there’s a purpose to it – not to suggest we bring back SOCOG. Of course, the aim wasn’t to stitch up a new governance model for the city. But it was to reveal who was needed to lift Sydney’s cultural profile. Channelling Ellis again – as cities and precincts around the world compete to be different – and use cultural expression as a means to do this – Sydney seems to have a lot to be different about.

The City has committed to continuing to map, grow and connect its cultural identity. And the first step is a solid one. This didn’t end with a room asking what the city was going to do about it. There was a genuine sense of optimism that we were getting on to a similar page, and that the next few years might just see some of the dots join up. The day ended with a beginning – heading down to the Town Hall for a longer keynote by Adrian Ellis followed by a panel discussion on these themes. The workshop had primed the panellists – making it easier to get off to a running start. The City deserves huge credit for encouraging these serious players in to a room, and has committed to doing it again. For what? Well, as one group put it; the aim is that in five years time, global headlines might muse about Sydney that “where once people came for its harbour, now go for its culture”.



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