Make Queensland Love Art Again: Opening Statement Transcript

An extended version of an opening statement given at the Pitch Drop panel 'Make Queensland Love Art Again', February 13.

Tonight we’re here to chat on the topic of ‘Making Queensland Love Art Again’. Let me get straight into it by framing the night before we all collectively send the panel on their merry way as they endeavour to solve the Queensland arts industry’s problems in just under two hours.

So. There are a few things that need to be framed before we begin, starting with, and extending outwards from in a prolonged ramble, the obvious question: do Queenslanders love art already—and if so, how much?

According to 2014 research by the Australia Council, percentage-wise, Queenslanders do annually participate, create, and donate to art at either equal or greater levels than, say, Victorians, with a 94% participatory engagement being equal across both states. Now, I bring other states into this comparison—the ACT, for instance, boasts 100% engagement—but given that there are twelve people in the ACT, and that Melbourne tends to be the number-one destination for Brisbane-based artists like some sort of Mecca, I figure I’ll stick with Victoria and Queensland.

Of course, these framing statistics are a little unfair. For starters, the 94% engagement rate includes reading literature and watching films. And as much as I am a local writer, and would like to imagine that the people surveyed by the Australian Council were all reading the work of the wonderfully Brisbane-based Ellen van Neervan, this is probably not the case. Three people in this room have read Ellen van Neervan. This point extends also to film—I imagine people are far more likely to have seen Star Wars—which is still art, mind you—than either Lion or The Daughter, which are the two most recent notable outputs from the Australian film industry. I’m excluding Mad Max not because it wasn’t great, but because I’m just not sure it counts.

A quick aside, and another point of framing: in everything I’ve said so far I have made an assumption: that we’re here to talk about how to make Queensland love local art again. Based on the panel and based on what would actually be an interesting discussion, this is an assumption I think we’re all happy to make.

<check for dissent>

Cool, so let’s drill down on these statistics.

In regards to participation statistics relevant to the panellists:

  • Painting, drawing, or street art: Victoria 22%, Queensland 19%.
  • Traditional or contemporary theatre: Victoria 22%, Queensland 18%.
  • Experimental theatre: Victoria 5%, Queensland 2%.
  • Sculpture and installation art: Victoria 12%, Queensland 10%.
  • Reading: Victoria 87%, Queensland 88%.

So we win on one count, I guess. I believe that’s because of those three Ellen van Neervan readers.

Though then even when it comes to popular and live music, Queensland loses out by 3%—41 to 38%.

So we’ve gotta ask: what is it about Queensland that keeps us inside? It would be easy to go on a diatribe about the quality of art in Queensland versus Victoria, a comparison of the funding amounts and so on, but there just isn’t enough there statistically to justify that.

Even when we get the same big name bands touring through we get discrepancies. People like celebrated folk artist and all-round good guy Sufjan Stevens, who sold out three nights in Melbourne, couldn’t quite fill QPAC’s Concert Hall for one night in Brisbane. Lots of bands—or plays, such as Complicite’s The Encounter, which is touring pretty much every big capital city this year—are now just skipping the Sunshine State altogether.

Speaking of which, is that it—is it the weather that does it? Is it the lack of daylight savings, our unusual preference for One Nation, or what? Is it our alarming suburban sprawl and underfunded public transport? Brisbane’s population is three times less dense than Melbourne’s, and also half the size—is the lack of venue viability beyond the 3km radius of the CBD a key determining factor? Is it local council bureaucracies and gentrification? Is this actually about the nature of the city rather than the people or specifically the art itself?

Questions and non-sequiturs aside, participation percentages are good and all, but at the end of the day are not representative of what keeps venues, shows, and artists alive. What we desperately need are large numbers of bums in seats, feet on gallery floors, or some other equivalent. So let’s measure percentages in bums. Going back to participation statistics in contemporary theatre, which had the biggest discrepancy between states, 18% of Brisbane’s population is 416k people, but 22% of Melbourne’s is 997k. Even if we were to increase Brisbane’s percentage of participation to be in-line with Melbourne’s, we’d still only be engaging 508k people annually—just over half of Melbourne’s current engagement.

‘The Arts’ has always been an uphill battle. I don’t think any of us would be on this panel if we didn’t recognise that. We’re all based in this small and strange city, and we’re all trying to get by. We have a small population and big ideas—this is a competitive city and a supportive city. This is a close-knit and courageous community but also one that is perhaps less honest with itself than it maybe could be. So: how do we get people to come along, pay attention, pay us money?

Is the answer more critique of one another to better the quality of the art, or to give each other unequivocal support to ensure the art, any art, keeps happening?

Should we be making simple, inviting art in our backyards with nothing, for nothing? Or should we throw thousands of dollars at green lasers and hope the spectacle pays off? Has Netflix fucked us? Has Apple Music fucked us? Has Candy Crush fucked us?

Anyway: why has this twelve-year-old come on stage and unleashed this bundle of empiricism and depression upon the panel and the audiences? I think it’s largely to keep us away from lambasting Queensland culture around the arts. To point out that Queensland isn’t so different from Victoria, really, and that we have to work within limitations.

Tonight, rather than focusing on how to nurture a sustainable arts industry—which cannot dream to exist without external patronage and funding, and that’s a whole other discussion—it would be more interesting and beneficial to discuss what concerns us all most directly, which is what I touched on just before as the most important thing. Let’s attempt tonight to answer the core question, informed hopefully by the somewhat-bleak context I’ve just given: how do we get bums on seats, shoes in galleries, and smiling humans around us to keep our practices going? Specifically: let’s talk about the core motivator that will get those Queensland-based bums and shoes and smiles—let’s discuss what might just make our state and city fall in love with the arts.

To answer this entanglement of questions and more with me tonight, joining me on the panel is:

Lincoln Savage, the Director of Jungle Love and Brisbane Street Art Festivals (among many other projects). 
Emily Devers, the co-founder of Frank & Mimi, a graphic design and signwriting company.
Lucy Forsberg, the co-founder of Cut Thumb, an artist-run initiative in West End, and a celebrated visual artist.
Katherine Quigley, the Artistic Director and CEO of Backbone, currently completing her Masters of Fine Arts in Cultural Leadership, NIDA. 

And I’m Jonathan O’Brien, writer and Founding Creative Director of House Conspiracy.

Please clap.

Jonathan O'Brien