'The Australian Art Curator Blog' - Why a good hotel lobby should always spark the imagination

To me, a hotel lobby will always be a place of fantasy. Where, after all that planning and travel, you are finally standing in the lobby, bags packed away in your room, and ready to explore. Chance meetings with locals are only a whisper away, and a new city is just outside the door and you can barely control your excitement.

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'The Australian Art Curator Blog' - How to start a Community Art Project: a step-by-step guide

We’ve never been so uniquely positioned to get people involved in fantastic community art projects. But is it as easy as simply putting out a few sponsored posts, and letting the ‘community’ roll on through the door, brushes in hand? Probably not.

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'The Australian Art Curator Blog': Arts Festivals & the Importance of Reaching for more

This festival will offer you the chance to get involved in your local creative community.”

How many times have you heard these enthusiastic words (or similar) from the latest culture festival? The words are true - a good festival offers “the uninitiated” an easy way into the art world. The supercillious gatekeepers - of being in the know and invited - melt into the shadows.

But is this message of welcome getting across? Sometimes, the buzzwords of ‘community’ seem so overused the sentiment behind it feels a little trite. Like any platitude worth its salt, simply telling us that it will benefit the community in some vague manner fails to remind potential festival goers why it is important to get involved in the first place.

Arts Festivals are about cutting through real and imagined social structures to bring everyone together to celebrate art. If we could get this message across meaningfully, can you imagine the results? Community engagement wouldn't just be a box on a form to tick, but a state of normalcy.

It’s hard to reach certain people when it comes to arts festivals.

‘But why?’ cries the overworked festival director, as they throw more money onto their increasingly boosted Facebook post.

I ran the inaugural Sydney edition of The Other Art Fair in 2015 - lots of hard work to keep everything running smoothly

I ran the inaugural Sydney edition of The Other Art Fair in 2015 - lots of hard work to keep everything running smoothly

Maybe they just need a bit of gentle coaxing. Art should be for everyone, but sometimes it’s easy to see why people might not feel welcome. For those “in the know” the reason behind going to all the events associated with arts festivals seems obvious. ‘Get involved, world!’ we yell over our shoulder, as we run off to another fantastic opening.

There’s the traditional argument that that museums - where art is traditional hosted - are elitist ‘private clubs’, or that only a certain ‘type’ of people go to art events. Or that  even the structures (large, stonily imposing, heavy on the columns) are made to welcome some, and dissuade others. That money and class barriers are still an issue.

Musee D'Orsay, Paris and the Met Museum, New York, are two very traditional (and imposing) museum buildings

The more modern version of this argument might be that you have to wear, say or think a certain way to ‘fit in’ inside these establishments That you have to be an artist - or at least know the difference between oils and acrylics. The fear that, at any moment, you might be asked your thoughts on conceptual art, be exposed as the fraud you are; and consequently be chased out of the fashionable white cube gallery, by an edgily dressed mob, holding art-deco flaming torches.

To be fair, art festivals make an enormous effort to get new blood in (for example, Facebook events has been used to great success for reaching new crowds, and Sydney Contemporary shone focus on disenfranchised tenants at Waterloo, Sydney). And, once you’re there, you often find that the focus is usually more on the art, conversation and free nibbles than aggressively quizzing your neighbour on the pros and cons of a group show.

Yet, the feeling of exclusivity remains in the art world. It has gotten to the degree that some critics, such as Saksia Sassen, are arguing that art is increasingly being used as an "Art-washing" tool to gentrify and thereby increase rent in neighbourhoods.

The large art-loving crowds attracted to openings might be unattractive to those who feel "unintiated" into the arts

The large art-loving crowds attracted to openings might be unattractive to those who feel "unintiated" into the arts

Why is it important to keep trying to get everyone through the door? Well, firstly, an arts festival might find it hard to reflect society if all of society isn’t there, critiquing and examining. It’s sort of like Lisa Pryor’s recent complaint that an International Women’s Day Breakfast, populated by white, CBD nine-to-fiver females isn’t exactly in the spirit of the thing

Secondly, it’s important to the economy of the artist to make people aware that supporting the arts in their community doesn’t always have to consist of buying that $30,000+ artwork. It can be as simple as turning up, and engaging with the work (although the odd bought painting would definitely not go amiss).

One way to engage midway is to get involved with artist workshops - and there’s always great ones around during festivals. From jewellery silversmithing, glass blowing and pottery making; to dominatrix life drawing, retro dancing workshops, and wine & watercolour evenings.

Not only is this beneficial for economic reasons (the artist gets a solid payment from all those taking part), but this active participation achieves what all festivals strive for - engagement with the community. People are interacting, getting to know their neighbours, all the while while learning about what is important to one of their local creatives.

For example, Sydney based collective Welcome Studio use their platform to introduce skilled artists (who are also asylum seekers) to the local Sydney community. 'Welcome' partner with the artists; empowering (and paying) refugee artists to run the workshops themselves.

One such artist, Alwy Fadhel, taught participants to paint with coffee, focusing on achieving different colour tones with the grains. This was something he’d been taught by a  fellow artist while he was in an Australian Immigration Detention Centre.

The low barriers to this level of involvement between artist, individuals and art, is real community engagement; each party learning each other stories.

The Green Light Workshop invited the general public and asylum seekers to create together. Photo credit: Damir Zizic, 2017 / Olafur Eliasson

The Green Light Workshop invited the general public and asylum seekers to create together. Photo credit: Damir Zizic, 2017 / Olafur Eliasson

A workshop at internationally acclaimed Venice Biennale festival has taken a similar approach, when it hosted the Olafur Eliasson’s Green Light Workshop in it’s 57th year. The workshop invited refugees, asylum seekers and members of the public to take part in a program of creativity; making green light lamps, intervention performance art and screenings.

In order for festivals to reach their full potential, and reflect society, they need to shake things up by being as welcoming as possible. This could be as simple as making it more in the open - think the spectatorship of Vivid Sydney - or by reaching out into different communities.

So start small and see what’s around you. You might learn a bit more about the people out there than you think.

Read more from the Australian Art Curator Blog here


2018 is on the horizon, and in the tradition of the good old New Year’s resolution, I am suggesting you make a commitment: to participating in an art prize!

Involvement is not limited to artists, as any art enthusiast can enjoy the opinions of others on cutting edge and thought-provoking contemporary art.

For artists, whether you are well-established or rising through the circles, merely entering a competition can be hugely rewarding. There is also the potential for gaining the prize to look forward to.

Global art prizes create big business, in Australia specifically the industry is worth around AUD$4 million. As some in the field would be aware, there can often be some questionable bureaucracy within the funding and judging processes.

However, when regarding an artistic career through the lens of a business, which we cannot deny is an important aspect, the rewards can definitely outweigh the risks.

Mitch Cairns, ‘Agatha Gothe-Snape’, 2017 (Archibald 2017 winner)

Mitch Cairns, ‘Agatha Gothe-Snape’, 2017 (Archibald 2017 winner)

The more high-profile institutional prizes are often well recognised and garner great exposure for finalists and winner (the Archibald Prize immediately comes to mind).

The subject matter in the prize is full of famous faces, from portrait subjects to artists and even the judging panel. The Art Gallery of New South Wales stands by the 96 year old competition, although the quick judgment calls at the beginning of the process have come into question.

Not everyone is suited to these competitions, and if the big leagues aren’t your style, then there are plenty of small prizes to fill the gaps for a wide range of practices.

The Stencil Art Prize is an example of a small-scale award that seeks to recognise the exceptional works of artists working with stencils in their practice. It includes a major prize of $5000, which was presented this year to winners Jana & JS.

Jana & JS, ‘I wish everybody knew’, 2017.

Jana & JS, ‘I wish everybody knew’, 2017.

However, artists should not be scared off by the sheer size of the art prize industry. So here are a few benefits to help convince you of the merits of this New Year’s resolution.

  1. Back yourself

Get involved in some healthy competition and back your skills and message. It may be daunting placing your work in an arena to be judged, but this is the same as any time a piece enters the public arena through an exhibition with anyone open to make similar judgements.

  1. Exposure is everything

In order to make a living off your work, building a profile is essential. Art prizes are a way of self-curating your brand through entering yourself into particular circles that suit your message and practice.

Just think of it as another exhibition - finalists are often shown publicly and through the guise of an art prize.

  1. Friends in high places

Judges can arrange an invested party with academic experts or a fellow artists and if your work is memorable or even one of the winners you can grow a very influential network. Even if you don’t win the award this time, your new-found network is sure to play a role for you in the future.

  1. Did I mentioned the cash?

Aussies love competition so you can bet that the prize pool for a winner can often be a substantial amount of cash to give you a well-deserved boost. The romanticised idea of the struggling artist isn’t quite such a romantic reality, so the money can not only help your practice but support a full-time career.

  1. Don’t change, don’t give up

The golden rule for these competitions is not to back down from what you know and what you want your work to represent. Many artists say there is pressure to change your work to suit the prize or its judges, but don’t compromise.

As I mentioned before, there are so many prizes out there so it is possible to find one that already subscribes to what you represent.

If all this has convinced you of the merits of art prizes, then the next step is finding one to get involved in. There are heaps of websites and apps such as Art Prizes that keep a very detailed system of both national and international prizes for you to engage with.

For emerging artists, the John Fries award is the perfect platform, with applications closing mid-January. A bigger option for 2018 is the National Works on Paper Prize, which closes in April and has a prize pool of $50,000 (an amount that’s hard to pass up).

So, make your new year’s resolution to enter the next step in your career through one of the hundreds of art prizes in our country.

'The Australian Art Curator blog': Talking Placemaking & Community

It’s a fact of life that’s so obvious it sounds vaguely unhelpful: people avoid some places, but not others.

You’ll take the longer route through the sunny park where your friends hang out, rather than go the quicker way that would mean crossing two roads of busy traffic.

But have you ever asked yourself what is it within these spaces that give us these impulses?

Public placemaking asks these questions and attempts to heighten our positive associations with place. It’s is a fascinating practice that has in recent years taken the design world by storm. It can incorporate elements of design, architecture, artworks and events planning.

Celebrated by some as a creative way to reinvent and reconnect the community, and condemned by others as a method of gentrification, placemaking can be divisive.

But just what is placemaking?

Placemaking is an increasingly popular term for the holistic practice of designing and capitalizing on the character of public spaces in order to promote inter-connection, interaction, wellbeing and social identity.

It intrinsically relies on local identity and what is already there, and is a holistic practice. You must consider the space as a whole; not just focusing on one part.

Yes, you could plonk an art installation into the centre, but it needs to interact with the elements already in the space, particularly the community that is already there.

But it can be used to deter antisocial behaviour in certain spaces, like local hotspots known being a drug dealer hangout: an action that alienates others from the community from the space

Byrant Park, New York (Image Credit: Travel Digg) 

Byrant Park, New York (Image Credit: Travel Digg) 

One notable work that was undertaken to reduce crime rates was undertaken by Project for Public Space at Bryant Park, New York. A park once known as a drug dealer hang out became much more sociable after placemaking efforts. Taking a holistic approach, the space was opened up by removing hedges that were contributing to constricted viewpoints, while food kiosks were added to encourage socialising.

It’s this consideration of the dynamics of the space beforehand that is vital. Placemakers should ask themselves, what do people come to the space expecting, and should this be changed.

For example - does the space itself already feel safe? Are there an equal amount of women and men in the space? What are the interests of the demographics of the area? And perhaps most importantly: how can we address this in a sustainable and ethical manner?

Sometimes the best approach to placemaking is simplicity. Or at the least - the placemaking doesn’t have to be overly complicated.

While recently attending a Placemaking conference in Europe, I was walking down a quiet Utrecht street with some relatives, when we came upon a group of children going to town with utensils on some pots and pans. They had been hung up by in the square by an artist on a metallic structure as part of a community engagement project.

Children play in Utrecht

Children play in Utrecht

Provided with utensils, the kids had a freedom that terrifies me as a parent - to make as much noise as they could! The effect (besides an almighty din) was that children and by extension, their bemused parents, had a welcome opportunity to loiter in the sun.

While the swarming and excited children were distracted, parents were relaxing: talking to each other, and getting to know their community that little bit more.

Groups of people stopped and interacted within the space, rather than passing through it; providing a rare and unexpected opportunity for ‘play’ in a world that is all too serious.

The simple addition of the pots and pans made the street not a thoroughfare - but a destination!

Which leads me to my next point: placemaking doesn't have to be expensive. As The Project for Public Spaces points out, less costly options can make a placemaking project not only just as good, but better.

Less costly, temporary and/or smaller scale installations can act as community research; gaging what works for larger projects down the track.

This temporary work was not only sustainable in terms of recycling, but in terms of ensuring the vitality and effectiveness of placemaking attempts by allowing budget for future projects.

If done well placemaking has the power to bring once disconnected people together on common meeting ground in what is an increasingly disconnected world.

This could even be needed in spaces that already have a strong cultural heritage. For one placemaking project I worked on in Five Dock, Sydney, we drew heavily from the large Italian community already living in the space.

Alongside the artist Marta Ferracin, we decided to use the Italian oral storytelling tradition to highlight the heritage of the area.

Collecting local stories, the artist made recordings in Italian and English that were looped from speakers inside tall, coloured, clustered sculptures.

Marta Ferracin's work at Five Dock

Marta Ferracin's work at Five Dock

The setup was designed to encourage people to sit in, interact with, and take a moment of rest in Fred Kelly Place where the speakers stood. Here, strategic placemaking gave the community a rare moment of rest and reflection.

But like anything, placemaking has its critics. Some placemaking efforts have been likened to ‘Art-washing’, which suggests that that cultural development via activities such as public art projects leads to financial gains by developers through gentrification.

While to some, gentrification is welcomed as a ‘cleaning-up’ of suburbs, to other it is simply a sign that rent is about to go up and minority groups will be forced out by rising costs of living.

Clearly this is a complex issue, as encapsulated by urban critic Matt Yglesias in this ‘Project for Public Spaces’ article - “[While concerns about people being priced out are not] crazy, it is crazy that this is the kind of thing people need to worry about in urban politics. ‘Your policies will improve quality of life in my community’ should never be a complaint about a policy initiative.”

It leads to the question, just who does the public space belong to? As people move more and more from their roots, community lines can become more malleable; individuals more isolated in unknown environments.

I would argue that this should give greater incentive to strengthen community ties in the areas. Instead of always trying to create new culture, great placemaking projects are the ones that strengthen the existing culture as well as foster new ties and being socially inclusive.

As placemaker Cara Courage says, ‘Conversations happen in hyperlocal’. It is well thought out placemaking that has the power to trigger these conversations.