Regional excellence won’t take second place to a pandemic

Regional art doesn’t exist; rather art practice that happens in other places does. It is about excellence and diversity, and Artstate 2020 celebrates the Riverina region in a conference that thinks big.

‘Walking Together’ and ‘Shaping Tomorrow’ are placards pitched perfectly for a 2020 conversation, and yet these themes were well in place for Artstate Wagga Wagga before we even muttered the word pandemic.

The annual conference and arts program will present its fourth and final edition from 5 – 8 November 2020, a concept developed in the wake of the national event, Artlands Dubbo in 2016, and designed to demonstrate that what happens beyond our major cities is worth celebrating.

CEO of Regional Arts NSW, Elizabeth Rogers told ArtsHub: ‘We’ve always had really clear objectives – we wanted to showcase regional excellence. While we might work locally, we think globally, and we wanted to demonstrate that across four very different landscapes of regional NSW.’

She added: ‘There is no such thing as regional arts practice, there is only arts practice and it just happens in regional areas.’

This year takes a solid dip into the arts and cultural scene of The Riverina, in the south west of NSW, and pays particular attention to the Wiradjuri narratives that continue to shape that place.

Rogers says the key is ‘having that local partner on the ground to truly reflect the nature of their region’, and this year Regional Arts NSW has worked closely with Eastern Riverina Arts.

She said that Artstate chose to go ahead this year, despite the challenges we all are facing, ‘because we are the arts sector, and we should be nimble, and we should show events can go ahead. And that the arts will lead us through this.’

Sassy Burlesque queens,Titty Titty Bang Bang, performing at Artstate. Image courtesy the artists.


Rogers says it has been ‘a very winding path but we have adjusted in a pandemic, with a completely reimagined Arts Program and a livestream Digital Pass for those who can’t make it.’

With her helicopter view, Rogers is constantly in contact with the regional arts network in NSW, and said responses have been mixed when it came to thinking forward, as we march out of the pandemic.

‘It is very split. There are two views at the moment: people who still want to stay put, and others who want to get out and re-engage with live art experiences,’ said Rogers.

It is for this reason Artstate has chosen to offer both experiences.

‘We barely had a program out there and the immediate take up of registrations was incredible, which demonstrated that there is a great thirst for people to meet in a face-to-face environment and share conversations when we most need that connection,’ Rogers told ArtsHub.

Space is limited for those to physically attend – so the message is to register quickly.

‘But it is also important that those presentations and panels can be experienced, and the work being done in NSW can be seen.’

Rogers said the real win has been working with the Civic Theatre, describing its live streaming equipment on par with the Sydney Opera House. ‘We feel very confident on delivering those digital passes.’

While outdoor events in the Art Program have been required to move indoors for accurate COVID monitoring, Rogers said Artstate 2020 has the same structure as the past three years – a 2-day conference complemented by a city-wide Art Program of live performances and exhibitions.

‘The Festival Club and chilling out in the courtyard listening to music might be gone, but we have kept a late night venue for performances at The Playhouse. We have also made a point of contracting and paying local artists, who showcase the diversity of the Eastern Riverina area, in this year’s program.’

Horizons Made Wide. Image by Struan Timms.


Rogers said there will be a ‘lot more talk with artists than ever before,’ signaling an embrace of this year’s themes Walking Together, inspired by the concept of Yindyamarra, and Shaping Tomorrow, taking its cue from the value of connected communities and collective outcomes.

Artstate will commence with an opening ceremony, conceived by artist Jonathan Jones and created with Senior Wiradjuri Elders. It will be livestreamed for digital pass holders.

Among confirmed speakers are: Associate Professor Faye McMillan, 2019 NSW Aboriginal Woman of the year for her work in mental health; and Gayle Kennedy, an Award-winning writer, Wongaiibon woman, and wheelchair user who will put her own unique spin on the theme of walking together. While Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director, Sydney Dance Company calls this year the ‘Ultimate Disruption’ and says we can change the way we reach and connect with audiences.

ABC presenter Sally Bryant will join internationally celebrated, locally-based musician Heath Cullen, sound artist Sarah Last, also Artistic Director and CEO, The Wired Lab, Cootamundra, and Harrie Fasher, a renowned sculptor best known for her large scale steel installations inspired by the horse, in a conversation about making cutting edge work regionally while recognised nationally, and internationally.

Another panel will explore the creative journeys of three young Aboriginal artists, comedian Dane Simpson, fashion designer Lillardia Allirra Briggs-Houston and dancer Joel Bray.

Plus Riverina-based artists John Wood and Vic McEwan will team up to present SIGH – a collaboration between a Blacksmith and a musician that will be displayed as a performance in a working blacksmith’s studio.

To peruse the full list of speakers at Artstate 2020.

‘One of the changes has been to rethink the annual exhibition curated by the local Regional Arts Development Organisation Because we can’t get enough people into the venue, due to number restrictions, these artworks have been printed on vinyl and will be hung down Fitzmaurice Street, where they will have greater engagement,’ said Rogers.

It defines the immersive city-wide aspect of Artstate, further played out this year with CALL, a live performance by Lisette Bolton and Clare Brassil, which will be broadcast from the Balcony of the Civic Theatre and to several vehicles featuring oversized stereos that will be placed around the city for all to hear.

Art in times of social distancing can still be fun, is the message from Artstate’s Program Director, Scott Howie. ‘He has also taken that spirit to our digital pass holders with a “mixed tape” curated program of music that people can download and rock along to,’ said Rogers.

Rogers concluded: ‘We are aiming to end up on a note of hope. It is about working together, thinking together and shaping tomorrow together.’

Artstate Wagga Wagga will be held from 5 – 8 November 2020.

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