Last year, Parramatta hosted Australia’s first music and technology festival, Sound West, to develop the talents of local artists and equip them with the tools for international success while bringing in major acts to draw crowds.
Some two months before the western Sydney festival was being held, the Perrottet government trumpeted its coup to bring the highly influential and globally recognised South by South West Festival (SXSW) held in Austin Texas, to Sydney.
Because western Sydney has always felt like Sydney’s poor cousin, the decision to import the cultural juggernaut, reputedly at a cost of $12 million-plus, instead of pumping the dollars into the homegrown Sound West, appeared like a public snub.
To add insult to injury, when SXSW Sydney opens this October it will be based in Haymarket, Ultimo, Chippendale, and Darling Harbour. No west, or south-west, venues in sight.
At its launch, SXSW’s Colin Daniels said the festival needs a “walkable footprint” to showcase creative industries to all visitors: “What we are asking is all of our communities surrounding Sydney and all across the state that they come in. There is a stage and platform for everyone.”
But David Borger, executive director of Business Western Sydney, says: “I don’t think it was even a consideration to put South by South West in south-western Sydney.
“The whole festival industry seems to be squatting on a small piece of real estate in eastern Sydney, and it almost seems like western Sydney is not on brand, and I’ve heard that said.
“How else do you explain the fact there are four mega festivals based in eastern Sydney: Vivid, Elevate, South by Southwest, and Sydney Festival?
“It’s no wonder people in western Sydney feel pissed off and left out when these major events barely touch the region.”
The funding divide
Western Sydney is home to more than two million people, a culturally and linguistically diverse economic powerhouse that stretches from Parramatta to the Blue Mountains, to the Hawkesbury River.
And yet most money to attract visitors to Sydney is being spent east of the Harbour. Destination NSW, the tourism and marketing arm, spent $2.5 million of its $82.5 million budget in 2021-22 on tourism-generating projects west of Olympic Park.
Seven per cent of Create NSW’s $66 million in arts and funding grant money in 2021-22 was spent in western Sydney, according to Centre for Western Sydney director, Professor Andy Marks.
“If that was to happen in any other sector, say education or health funding, there would be people rioting in the streets, but when it’s the arts it’s somehow deemed acceptable,” Marks says.
The disparity reflects major cultural institutions based in capital cities but also “negative stereotypes of the suburbs and their willingness to be engaged in the arts”, Marks says. “There seems to be a logic that people in the suburbs will be happy with sports stadiums and giant megalithic clubs.”
A report by Western Sydney University and Business Western Sydney will this week make a case for priority state and federal spending in arts and culture in western Sydney, dropping in the middle of an election campaign.
Six of the Coalition’s most marginal seats are in south or western Sydney, among them East Hills, heartland of Bankstown Poetry Slam, a grassroots success story scrapping for resources and a venue.
Volunteer-run, Bankstown Poetry Slam celebrated its 10th birthday at the Art Gallery of NSW two weeks ago, having outgrown the Bankstown Arts Centre.
“Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Richard Tognetti says, ‘build me a theatre’ and he gets one,” says Chris Brown of the think tank, Western Sydney Leadership Dialogue. “The Opera’s got one, the Australian Ballet’s got one. Bankstown Poetry Slam should have one, too.
“If any group is deserving of public support it’s groups like them and so many others. Instead of cracking down on the rappers why don’t we engage with them? Don’t lecture them. Give them performance spaces. Indulge their creative spirit.”
The blind spot
To the government’s credit, major pieces of infrastructure are under way. Arts Minister Ben Franklin points to the $915 million Parramatta Powerhouse, an upgrade of Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, an $80 million expansion of the Campbelltown Arts Centre, and a commitment to acquire the Roxy Theatre.
All up, $345 million had been spent from its tollway sale fund on 14 arts and culture projects. “We remain committed to delivering world-class infrastructure to enhance the creative and cultural activities and blockbuster exhibitions on offer throughout the western Sydney region,” Franklin says.
Artist studios, rehearsal spaces, film editing, sound mixing suites and writers’ rooms are needed. Lead arts organisations operate on tiny budgets compared to CBD-based sisters. The state gave $244 million for Sydney Modern but Parramatta has no dedicated music venue or publicly funded art gallery.
Bonnyrigg’s Khaled Sabsabi is an acclaimed artist whose work is informed by the migrant experience and complexities of place yet struggles to afford studio space. “And even if I did, where would that studio space be?” he asks, adding: “It’s fine that my neighbours work in construction or manufacturing but wouldn’t it be nice to say you live next door to an artist showing inspiration and imagination of what’s possible?”
Meanwhile, a collection of colonial heritage buildings at North Parramatta worthy to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage listing has no single authority responsible for their preservation and restoration.
Says heritage campaigner Suzette Meade: “Those of us in western Sydney committed to heritage can’t help but look at resources committed to Macquarie Street and wonder, ‘What do we have to do to get the same?’.”
The paucity of festival funding particularly rankles, with councils doing most of the “heavy lifting”, says Borger, using small pots of money too small to build national brands.
Destination NSW names 15, mainly sporting events, it is supporting in the region, including the NRL grand final, Valleyways Festival in Camden, Women’s Basketball World Cup, Madagascar the Musical, Sound West, Ironman, HallyuPopFest at Sydney Olympic Park, Duel in the Pool and the Sydney Super Cup.
On the Westside
Nowhere is the gap between talent and need greater than in live music. Western Sydney is ground zero for some of the most interesting electronic, rap and hip-hop music acts, but it doesn’t have the venues.
Marks draws a direct line between the high concentration of poker machines in western Sydney and the collapse of the region’s pubs and clubs’ live music circuit, and the Coalition is going to the election on a cashless gaming card.
“There’s no dedicated music venue I know of in western Sydney like Oxford Arts Factory or the Enmore Theatre”, says rising R&B artist Nardean. “That’s outrageous.”
Without such stages, Nardean says it’s almost impossible to develop a large fanbase to support a regional or national tour.
Though Nardean is grateful for the grants she received to finish two albums and film her latest single Westside, giving voice to the region’s lived experiences, she’s leaving for London in two weeks for a more established music scene.
“I can’t be the soundtrack for western Sydney and not be supported to do that,” she says. “It’s really exhausting.”
Brown says young content providers from western Sydney shouldn’t have to move out. “How do the kids of Bankstown Poetry Slam go from getting up before 200 people at a voluntary gig at a Bankstown community hall to becoming the next The Kid Laroi? What’s the pathway? That’s what we need to fix.”
Slam’s co-founder Sara Mansour can see the positive reputation shift in western Sydney that has followed government investment.
“Western Sydney artists contribute so much by way of diversity – not only of culture but also of innovative practice, and yet they get so little back. It’s time for Western Sydney to shine, and government funding will be instrumental in making that happen.”
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