Why our cultural centres can be regional

Brooke Boland

To change the conversation on national and international cultural centres, we need to re-examine the creativity of regional cities.
Why our cultural centres can be regional

Image: Elysha Rei. Untitled 2017. Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery

A recent visit from New York artist, writer and curator Sharon Louden has people talking about the regional Queensland town of Toowoomba on an international stage – especially given she even bypassed Melbourne to do so. Why? For Louden, Toowoomba tapped into a re-thinking of who “owns” the label of cultural centres, and how regional cities can be equally empowered and global in their thinking.

‘On that day we had the federal member, the state member, and a couple of councillors there as well. So we had the three levels of government, which, as Sharon said, was interesting in some respects but very gratifying that we have an interest in what she was talking about,’ said Councillor Geoff McDonald.

‘Her comments about Toowoomba reinforces why the local council has a strong interest in art, culture and diversity, and bringing people together through art.’ 

Read: Why New York is interested in Toowoomba, and not Melbourne

The example of Toowoomba as a centre of cultural activity in Australia raises some interesting questions: Can a regional city be the capital of the arts in Australia? And why do we often see this question of cultural capitals play out as a battle between Melbourne and Sydney, while creative regional towns are relegated to the sidelines? Is it really just a question of scale?

In the end defining a cultural capital means attributing that geographical space with the particular assets that a flourishing creative arts scene brings. It needs to be both local and international, it needs to have infrastructure in place - galleries to visit, theatres to enjoy - but it also needs to attract artists and audiences alike, and develop a reputation for pushing the boundaries of creative practice. 

If we remove the question of scale from this, we create more space for regional towns to participate in a national conversation - and Toowoomba is the perfect example of this kind of creative regional city.

The ambitious Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery (TRAG), which mounts around 60 exhibitions and houses eight galleries is at the centre of the cultural infrastructure that the regional city has in place.

‘TRAG plays a significant role…Because TRAG is right in the middle of town, its location near the new library and city hall means that area is becoming a precinct that has a beating heart where art provides, if you like, the blood through the veins. We are seeing this with the various exhibitions at the art gallery,’ said McDonald. 

But it doesn’t just stop there. The innovative First Coat Intl’ Art Festival is also putting Toowoomba on the map. Curated by Grace Dewar, First Coat transforms public spaces with giant murals all over the city. This year the theme is ‘choose your own adventure’ and festival-goers are encouraged to participate, attend talks and workshops, as well as explore the city as canvas. 

To celebrate First Coat this year, Toowoomba Regional Council has set aside five sites where the transformation will take place. One of these is TRAG itself, which is painted by artist Elysha Rei. This mural adds to TRAG’s participation in the festival, with last year’s artist Mununjali woman Kim Walmsley’s mural Cultural Consensus: One Culture Many Nations adorning the wall facing Gallery Park.

Image: Kim Walmsley, Cultural Consensus: One Culture Many Nations 2016. Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery.

A Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF) Grant resulting from a partnership between Toowoomba Regional Council and Arts Queensland provided financial assistance to First Coat to include a month long professional development residency for 5 emerging local artists. Kontraband Studios working with First Coat and TRAG provided the mentor artists, studio space and exhibition space to develop the skills of the emerging artists in large-scale mural painting, add to their portfolio of work and increase their opportunities within the creative industries. The residency culminated in an exhibition of new work by the emerging artists which was displayed at Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery and the opening event was held over the festival weekend. Each of these artists also contributed a mural to this year’s First Coat Festival.

As part of the First Coat Weekend TRAG also hosted a panel discussion on the role of public art in a regional setting with Australian Festival organisers; Grace Dewar (First Coat Intl’ Festival, Toowoomba & SE QLD), Emily Devers (Sea Walls Festival, Cairns) and Simon Grant (Wonderwalls Festival, Wollongong & Port Adelaide).

‘The comments that I get from visitors, or new arrivals and new citizens, is that. That we have a community that is tolerant and respectful of other cultures and there is a common thread quite often that is around art. That’s what art can do in a society,’ said McDonald.

First Coast Intl’ Art Festival was staged from 19 – 21 May 2017 across the city of Toowoomba. 

The Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery is located at 531 Ruthven Street and is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am – 4pm and Sunday 1pm – 4pm.

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW.