Move over country music; Artstate Tamworth is capturing our nation’s ear

It’s not regional arts practice; it’s great art practice that happens outside our cities. Artstate Tamworth is cracking open thinking on one of Australia’s largest growing sectors – and it’s happening this October.
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Roger Knox will be performing at Artstate Tamworth. Supplied by the Artist

Four years ago, the NSW government under then Minister of the Arts Troy Grant, made a decisive choice in how it valued art practice in regional areas, committing $800,000 to promoting excellence in regional NSW.

The outcome was Artstate – part conference, part festival – which over the ensuing four years has been missioned to shine the spotlight on new work being produced outside our cities, but more importantly, to throw regional conversations on the national table.

Elizabeth Rogers, CEO of Regional Arts NSW told ArtsHub that it was an ‘obvious’ move.

‘This whole hybrid event is very clearly aimed at greater understanding that there is no such thing as regional arts practice. It is great arts practice that just happens to occur in regional areas, and it is no less than what happens in our metropolitan or city centres,’ she said.

Artstate Tamworth will be held on Gomeroi country in the state’s North West from 31 October – 3 November, and with an expected 250 delegates attending, it is testament to the confidence in regional practice today.

Registrations for Artstate Tamworth are open

Jonathan Monk, Dessins Isométriques (Afrique Cubique) D5 (2017) will be presented as part of the “Exploded Textiles” exhibition for Artstate Tamworth; Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 2017, Image Licensing Art Gallery of New South Wales

Rogers said that this year’s event will be the real litmus test.

‘While the second edition of Artstate, held in Bathurst last year, recorded a significant increase in participation on the inaugural event in Lismore, growing interest in this regional model shows that we are finally thinking beyond city-centric bravado,’ said Rogers.

She made the observation that each edition of Artstate has offered a very different experience. ‘You can’t just lump regional arts under a single banner’, Rogers said.

‘The whole idea is to get out and see the different landscapes that inform this practice, and different strengths of art forms. I think we have shown that the creativity in Lismore, especially in the wake of its flood, was resilient and high energy.

‘Bathurst had a different tone again, with the impact of theatre media students of this university town adding to a vibrant theatre and visual arts scene, while in Tamworth, what is interesting is a really strong stream of literature and writing in the northwest.’

Learn more about Artstate Tamworth’s program

Rogers reminded: ‘Tamworth is not just country music; Artstate celebrates art from the whole of North West region.’

The event draws on Tamworth’s history as a city of light – the first town in the southern hemisphere to make the transition from gas to electric streetlight. It was 15 years before Sydney installed this new technology. 

Artist Reko Rennie, along with five local artists, have created projections for Tamworth’s landmark buildings in the project Light – Art: The Night. Rennie provokes discussion surrounding Indigenous culture and identity in contemporary urban environments, combining his Kamilaroi heritage with stylistic elements of graffiti.

This visionary regional spirit continues today. Tamworth is planning for a new arts precinct, connecting a performing arts centre with the gallery and library. Plans will be unveiled at Artstate Tamworth.

‘The council wouldn’t be supporting Artstate and the arts more broadly, if they didn’t understand the value in attracting people to region cities,’ said Rogers.

That commitment is reiterated by Minister Don Harwin, who has cleared his diary for the 3-day event in Tamworth.

Greg Pritchard has developed the Arts Program for Artstate Tamworth. Among the highlights are the opening night performance by Roger Knox, aka the Koori King of Country or Black Elvis as he’s known in Country Music Circles; the Festival Club, where David Leha, known professionally as Radical Son, will perform along with others across the 3-day event.

A new play by Gamilaraay woman Donna Gayford McLaren will be premiered and performed in Gamilaraay and English languages, while Tamworth actor Daniel Gillett will perform Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning one man play, I Am My Own Wife.

Celebrating visual arts practice, Tamworth Regional Gallery, in partnership with the Art Gallery of NSW, will present Exploded textiles, and fibre performance artist Garth Knight will create a performance installation throughout Artstate.

Tamworth is also well known as a leader in textiles nationally, home to the Tamworth Textile Triennial (and its various iterations) since 1975.

Anita Larkin, The Breath Between Us (2014) will be exhibited in “Exploded textiles” at Tamworth Art Gallery; Courtesy the artist, PhotoPedro Altuna

A consistency across all three Artstate events is Regional Arts NSW’s commitment to working with Aboriginal elders in developing the festival program. ‘Talking to elders it is always a good place to start,’ said Rogers.

Roger’s said that Artstate Tamworth continues the conversations started by artist Jonathan Jones last year in his keynote address, and subsequent break-out sessions.

The theme of the first day of Artstate Tamworth is On Country – In Country: Respect for Country that deepens knowledge of arts, culture and regional practice. A particular focus will be approaching old learnings, and how Aboriginal culture can be applied to water management. Tamworth has been hugely impacted by the current drought.

Heading up the keynotes is Brad Moggridge, a water scientist, who will be followed by Haida man Patrick Shannon, an artist and storyteller who lives on country in regional British Columbia (Canada) but works internationally.

Patrick Shannon; supplied

Rogers told ArtsHub: ‘They are both really dynamic speakers, and there are parallels between Australia and Canada that are enlightening. One thing that grabbed me, in particular, is how Patrick uses the arts to teach culture back to young people in his community.’

This theme of Arts in the Age of Uncertainty is further developed as the focus of day two.  It is aimed at unpacking the current issues affecting arts practice in regional areas today and is led by a keynote address by Australia Council CEO, Adrian Collette.

Roger’s makes the point that this year NSW went through both State and Federal elections two month apart, and a shifting grant model for artists, so “uncertainty” has become the status quo.

Emma Hogg, Executive Director WILDWORKS, Cornwell (UK) will present the second keynote Nothing is certain but death and taxes looking at how a region theatre company hurdled the boundaries and has become a voice in national and global issues.

Roger’s said that while conferences are always great stimulators – and often provide affirmation – they are also collegiate and lead to new partnerships and opportunities. 

‘We give them the space to do it and they just go on and do it, on their terms,’ she said of the ongoing impact of attending delegates.

Artstate Tamworth
31 October – 3 November 2019

Register now for Artstate Tamworth

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina