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Geelong cash-splash supports edifice not artists

Ross Mueller

The Victorian Government and Opposition are both promising cash for Geelong Performing Arts Centre, but not Geelong’s artists.
Geelong cash-splash supports edifice not artists

The Playhouse at GPAC

Geelong has two marginal seats and three sitting Councillors standing for State election. None have stepped away from council and so the city is in a constant conversation of Council and State Election. It revolves around promises, jobs and votes.

The city has been hit by the closure of Alcoa and Ford. Unemployment is 9.2 %. Youth unemployment is running faster at 18.3%. This time last year the figures were 5.0% and 11.1%. New ideas are needed to promote the growth of jobs.


A few weeks ago the State ALP launched a rejuvenation plan. If elected, they have pledged $70 million to develop the football stadium and $30 million for Geelong Performing Arts Centre. In the following days these promises of hundreds of jobs for Geelong filled the papers. Big construction projects like these always bring hype about jobs. The Liberals derided these plans from the sidelines and simply demanded to know: ‘Where’s the money coming from?’

Then on Monday 21 October, the Premier of Victoria, the Minister for the Arts, the Liberal Party-aligned Mayor of Geelong and the local Liberal candidates gathered in the Geelong Performing Arts Centre foyer.

On the red carpet they announced that a re-elected LNP Government would be providing $35 million for GPAC ($5 million more than the ALP).

The Mayor was ecstatic and proclaimed this promise as the game changer. This money was a win for Geelong. He did not agree that the LNP were playing politics. In fact he tweeted:

Giddy up indeed.

The bidding war for the GPAC votes may not be official, but it’s totally happening.

It’s on like Donkey Kong.

Money for regional arts rarely wins elections, but in this case the GPAC redevelopment became ‘a thing’. The ALP promise was so huge that it had to be matched. The reason? The lobbying was so public. And it could be argued that this new approach to searching for money has been influenced by our new Mayor.

Cr Darryn Lyons is a former Paparazzi and an old Geelong boy. He made his millions selling pics of Di and Becks and Posh. He came home when his Big Pictures Photo Agency went bust. Now he’s our Mayor and he’s living on the water front and he believes this is ‘legacy time.’

The Mayor is not scared of money. Not like artists. He makes everything public and he does it loud. He wants $30 million for the Yarra Street Pier. To get this cash, he has built a major ad campaign around himself. His public demands for attention and money is clearly now ‘on trend’. GPAC adopted his model. The Chairman placed himself in the forefront. Deep pockets paid for regular three quarter page colour ads in the News Corp Geelong Advertiser. The ads featured Robert Costa from the Arts Precinct Leadership Group in front of GPAC with a shovel. The subtext was not so much sub... more just text. This project was shovel ready and this Trust wanted money in election promises.

Repetition of the ads, week after week placed the perceived GPAC need on the public agenda. The major parties could not back away from this shirtfront approach and so despite the city having a 9.5% unemployment rate, despite losing the two major employers of the town, despite a youth unemployment rate of almost 20%, the man with the tool got the cash. But these election promises will change nothing for the artists of Geelong.

Geelong Performing Arts Centre is not a centre for excellence. It is not a national leader. It is a carbon copy of every other regional arts centre in Victoria. It was built to present touring product and local amateur musicals. It does not employ any artists.

$30 million for expansion will not grow employment opportunities for artists living in Geelong. It will generate construction jobs and that’s it. In the current economic climate, $70 million for the football stadium makes a lot more sense in this city.

Kardinia Park is a presentation venue. But it is also the home ground of the Geelong Football Club. This is a nationally recognised, elite group of professional athletes.

They make their work in Geelong and they tour the country, entertaining and spreading the brand. The young people they employ are role models in the community and they provide genuine leadership and support for the town.

The $70 million will help to develop real opportunities for local talent. It will encourage young people to stay in the city. The

Geelong Football Club is a successful business model with a unique voice in the community that reflects the city and the ambitions of the town and it has approximately 40,000 financial members.

The arts centre is a different model. There is no development program for young artists, no tangible career opportunities for mid-career or established artists. It not a national leader or producer, it is a conveyor belt of external influences. It imports and promotes external influence. It does not reflect the arts or culture of Geelong. It is a state-owned presentation venue. Does it deserve $30 to $35 million when unemployment is 9.5%?

No matter who wins the election, GPAC has won the cash. The development is assured as long as the promises are kept, but bricks and mortar do not create employment opportunities for regional artists. They just build bigger walls. The GPAC cash will benefit touring companies and further entrench the Cultural Cargo Cult that is taking root in Victoria’s second largest city.

This is old school regional arts and it’s been in place for decades. Tribute bands and Long Paddock packages will come to town for a night or two. They will book out the big theatre, take the box office and get out of Dodge. The attendance figures are huge because the centre is state-funded and has a monopoly, but there is still nothing being spent by the state or the Council on the development of an authentic arts experience, career opportunities or professional development for regional artists. For that, you need to leave. This is investment in passive consumer culture. It does not stimulate art and it stymies creativity.

All over the Pacific during World War Two, entire islands were overwhelmed by US military operations. Communities formerly based in a traditional lifestyle had become dependent on 20th century hardware, money and food supplies. The war changed their lifestyle immediately and irrevocably.

When the war ended, the foreign powers went home. They left much of the hardware behind. But many people who had grown up in these communities were lost. They had no warning this lifestyle would end and now they had little direction and no economic stimulus.

As a reaction to this separation Cargo Cults began to appear. People would wait on the beach for flotsam and jetsam to arrive. They would build life-size grass and straw replicas of airfields and aircraft, in the hope that the foreigners would return.

The Cargo Cult phenomenon was driven by a belief that local people did not have the imagination nor the means to create their own community.

Geelong is currently experiencing a similar phenomenon. The message both major parties are sending to regional Victoria goes like this: ‘Vote for us, we will give you millions. And if you want art? Just sit there and wait.’


About the author

Ross Mueller is an Australian playwright and freelance writer. He is the winner of the Wal Cherry Play of the year 2007 and the 2008 AWGIE Award for Best New Play. You can tweet or follow him @TheMuellerName