In 1999 the New South Wales State Government announced “strategic initiatives” to increase support of the arts in Western Sydney, an area historically negatively stereotyped as ‘culturally barren’. Previously the majority of State Government support for arts infrastructure and funding of arts specific projects was distributed to the major regional centres of Newcastle and Wollongong. This new initiative extended that support to Blacktown, Campbelltown, Casula, Penrith and Parramatta. The program was aimed toward promoting place, identity, pride and participation in Western Sydney through ‘redressing historical imbalances between the west and ‘the rest,’’ (Chesterman and Schwager, ‘Arts Development in Western Sydney’, 1990). In effect the State Government recognized the shift of ‘cultural consumption’ away from Sydney’s CBD toward the west, and the development of cultural precincts in these areas was determined to be supportive of Western Sydney as a growing economic and cultural centre.
The State Government’s 2006 Progress Report on Arts in Western Sydney, proclaimed the successes of the infrastructure program through the support of larger sites and projects in the development of Blacktown Arts Centre, Campbelltown Arts Centre and Casula which have emerged as serious players in Sydney’s art scene. While these institutions have enjoyed rising reputations, competing with the CBD art scene, the boundaries of NSW Government Arts Strategy support to these major areas has overlooked some significant areas of Western Sydney where support for arts programs would be very much appreciated.
Auburn is one of New South Wales’ most culturally diverse areas, with at least half of its population born overseas. Over 200 identified subcultures are represented in Auburn and the main cultural backgrounds represented are: Chinese, Vietnamese, Turkish, Lebanese, South Korean, Afghan, Indian, Philippine, Sri Lankan and New Zealander. Auburn has a history of welcoming refugees beginning with those who came after World War Two. Initial arrivals of Anglo-European migrants in the 1960s was followed by an increase of Asian migrants, particularly Chinese, and in the last twenty years Auburn has fostered emerging African and Middle Eastern communities. In 2004, Auburn was a self-declared ‘Refugee Welcoming Zone’. Despite its burgeoning cultural diversity, Auburn has been left off the NSW State Government’s list of ‘cultural consumption’ zones.
Auburn is challenging their omission by consciously deciding not to compete with the big galleries; instead it is developing its own creative support networks. But with the State Government’s increased expectation on local governments to support their own arts infrastructure, and because Auburn is Sydney’s second most disadvantaged Local Government area, arts development has become a long-term project. With the timely assistance of the Federal Government’s Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan grants, Auburn’s eight-year plan for a community integrated art program was fast-tracked by seven years.
Brooke Endycott, Auburn City Council’s Community Development Officer, says that allocation of State funding to larger and established art centres contributed to Auburn artists’ exclusion from the art spaces nearest to them in Parramatta and Bankstown. New artists found it difficult to access non-local arts infrastructures which, while very encouraging of Western Sydney locals, was supportive of more established artists.
Auburn has also been overlooked by the Australia Council Partnerships, which has seen significant funding of local arts infrastructure in partnership with Western Sydney City Councils including Campbelltown and Bankstown. While these Creative Community Partnership Initiatives have aimed to increase opportunities available for people to become engaged in their local art communities, according to Endycott, Auburn artists have continued to find it increasingly difficult to become involved in these opportunities for the same reasons of artist development.
Peacock Gallery located in Auburn’s Botanical Gardens has begun to change this by focusing on local artists, offering opportunities to develop and exhibit their work. Opened in October 2009, it is the first arts specific facility in Auburn and provides both practical and professional development opportunities for artists.
The Gallery’s residency program focuses on supporting Auburn’s artists. When an artist is accepted for the Residency Program they have full use of the spaces, equipment and resources at Peacock Gallery for a four-week period that culminates in an exhibition of their work. The council supports the month-long exhibition assisting the artists with promotional material, marketing and curation of their show. The City Council also provides regular professional development opportunities for artists including group work facilitation skills programs – preparing artists for employment. The Gallery takes no commission from the sale of any works and has links to CBD galleries such as Mori Gallery where some of Peacock’s artists have gone on to exhibit.
Endycott says that the main ambition of Peacock Gallery is to provide links into employment for Auburn artists. It is through the Gallery’s connections with Mori, Blacktown Arts Centre, Parramatta Artists Studio and others that artists exhibiting at Peacock can take the next steps in their career. The Gallery aims to foster relationships between artists and larger, commercial galleries, thereby creating employment pathways.
Auburn’s Chinese Calligraphy Group was recently in residency and produced an exhibition to coincide with the Chinese Moon Festival, aptly titling it ‘harMOONy Celebration’. The Moon Festival is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar, celebrating the end of the harvest and emphasizing family unity. The calligraphy group used this opportunity to reconnect with their fellow Auburn Chinese community and extend the hand of friendship to all cultural backgrounds in Auburn.
Engaging with material and object, surface and texture, the Calligraphy group express their heritage in both traditional and progressive manners. Particularly interesting was the calligraphic lamp. Showing a thoughtful connection between concept and content, the lampshade is decorated with Chinese characters and traditional calligraphic motifs from nature. The shade becomes a new and innovative source for the traditional rice paper of Chinese calligraphy, reminiscent of the paper lanterns used in Moon Festival decoration. The shade provides a continuum for traditional meaning as well as a vehicle for the introduction of contemporary themes to the work. The Auburn artists have brought to this harMOONy Celebration a new way to practice their histories, shaped by their experiences of Auburn’s diversity.
At the exhibition opening there were calligraphy demonstrations and guests were delighted to listen to Erhu (a Chinese stringed instrument akin to a violin) and Gu-Zheng (Chinese Harp) performances by local artists. Lion Dancers awoke the spirits, summoning luck and fortune to the gallery before guests were welcomed to view the works. The energy of the gallery coupled with the excitement of the artists to see their work displayed on the walls of Peacock Gallery was priceless. A group of local artists were empowered with the opportunity to culturally express themselves, connecting and extending on their personal history and context. The harMOONy Celebration hosted free community programs, including calligraphy workshops – allowing the wider community to become involved and connected with their fellow creative Auburners. These monthly exhibition openings transcend the individual artist or group and become whole community integrating events. Endycott says that Peacock Gallery “not only showcases cultures but actually connects communities which wouldn’t otherwise get to connect.” The social benefits of Peacock Gallery are evident in the harMOONy Celebration – by exhibiting the works in parallel with a significant cultural event the Gallery builds harmony and understanding amongst Auburn’s diverse community.
Not yet one year old, Peacock Gallery’s success is the result of its focus on opportunity, inclusivity and popularity. Exhibitions such as harMOONy Celebration and the residency and exhibition programs assist in the continuation of cultural traditions and activities not just amongst the perceived owners of those traditions, but by all cultural distinctions in Auburn. With the exhibition coinciding with an annual cultural event, Peacock Gallery manages to increase local knowledge of Auburn’s diversity and allows participation of the community in cultural events. Endycott notes that the Gallery has been well received by the broader community as seen in its attraction of at least 150 visitors per week, whose diversity ranges from picnicking families to tour groups and tai chi participants.
But the real success of Peacock Gallery and the commitment of the City Council to support art in Auburn became clear in the provision of further funding for a second gallery space. The atrium adjacent to the gallery will soon be renovated to provide extended floor-space for exhibitions. The demand of local artists applying for residency and exhibition programs and the increasing visitor interest proves the success of the contribution which art makes to daily life in Auburn.
Peacock Gallery demonstrates the value of arts in breaking down social barriers despite being overshadowed by neighboring art centres in Blacktown and Parramatta. The Gallery connects Auburn’s cultures, recognizing that the essence of Auburn is its diverse community. The support of artists through professional development programs and links to bigger galleries allows artists to gain the valuable skills they require for future exhibitions and in employment as an artist. Peacock acts as a protector of cultural integrity by investing in the continuation of artistic tradition through the broadcast of knowledge, fostering understanding and inclusion whilst maintaining diversity of cultures. A marker of cultural value and offering, Peacock Gallery proves Auburn is an area of “cultural consumption”.