This is a guest post by Darwin arts curator and criminal barrister Koulla Roussos. It was originally published in the Sunday Territorian on Sunday 18 June 2017 

As one of the few independent curators in Darwin, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Gunner government’s release of $500,000 to revitalise the city through the arts. I have been dismayed by our City’s demise. Having been a witness to booms as well as minor busts, nothing compares to the current downturn- our city looks and feels dishevelled, tired and poor.

I am sceptical however, the $500,ooo injection will achieve more than a convenient short-term camouflage. Throwing money in an area where consecutive governments and institutions have failed to nurture and support is like throwing render at a building without walls.

I often wonder what visitor’s experience of our city is like, and note their perplexed sense of the unremarkable during their short stay. Our rich contemporary culture is not obvious. The sad reality is that after 4:21pm the city is a ghost town. Apart from the odd pop-up market, and the travelling circus that is annual Darwin Festival, the city has no defined identity, vibe or cultural pulse.

How did we come to be looking at Singapore for direction, how did we fail to use our strategic and comparative advantage in the region to become a culturally thriving tropical mini-metropolis?

Since Cyclone Tracy, we have failed to rebuild with principled urban planning and infrastructure in mind.  A liveable and enticing city requires iconic building and landmarks. Our transient urban planners, architects and bureaucrats have singularly failed to draw the lessons from such elegant and archetypal buildings like Government House, Burnett House, the old Town Hall ruins, Browns Mart.

Our key cultural institutions- the Museum and Art Gallery NT (MAGNT) and Charles Darwin University (CDU) are on the periphery of the city. Whereas other cities locate their main cultural institutions in the heart of their city, with imposing, alluring and identity defining architecture these two look and feel like patch-worked bunkers, shaped by the prevailing temporary donga mentality of the frontier.

As institutions, they have made little effort to expand and bring the institutional regard for contemporary art and culture by forging a presence, even a temporary one in the city.  Whilst CDU has now expanded its presence into the Waterfront, the impact has been negligible, with limited exhibition openings or public programming at the Waterfront Campus.

Unlike PICA in Perth or Salamanca in Hobart, the city lacks an arts precinct linking visual artists, students, lecturers and the public with studios, exhibition spaces and other recreational amenities. Since private rental in the city is expensive there is a dearth of small galleries, artisan and boutique stores offering unique culturally bespoke products and experiences.

Despite MAGNT and CDU being staffed by professionals with a solid foundation in the liberal arts, they have failed to create a critical culture. Whereas other cities have generated monthly periodicals available to the public with critical analysis of the arts, Darwin’s institutional intelligentsia haven’t been able to muster up an annual publication.  If it wasn’t for the Sunday Territorian and Tamara Howie’s interest in reporting on the local arts scene, there would be next to no in-depth analysis on the visual arts.

Since the closure of the Chan, we do not have a visible space in the city where we celebrate our contemporary artists. We fail to revere the likes of Gary Lee, Chips Mackinolty, Therese Ritchie, Franck Gohier, Aly de Groot or Karen Mills as homegrown heroes. These artists are nationally recognised, yet our institutions fail to carve out a prominent space of revolving exhibitions to showcase their worth.  It is remiss that our few contemporary art spaces are so poorly funded, they are unable to offer an artist fee in the case of DVAA or secure their immediate future as in the case of NCCA.

Whilst we have the annual Telstra Art Award, this is a national Indigenous only arts event. The TOGART art award has ceased since the interstate developer left. Our city needs an annual art award that reflects out dynamic multi-culturalism and encourages participation of Darwin artists regardless of race or creed.

How does an artist prosper or a city become imbued with contemporary culture when our artists are not being written about, regularly exhibited, lauded through awards and presentations, let alone securing the value of their work for private collectors if institutions are not collecting? MAGNT and CDU have a minuscule collection budget for local artists.

The Darwin Festival has failed local visual artists.  Spending money on a roving class of interstate creatives and acts is capital that gets drained out of the local culture making economy. There is no substantial quota for local engagement, there is no compulsion that local creatives get engaged and employed.

The current festival model fails to connect with and engage the local culture makers. Even the influx of DF production crew in August are like carnies – here for the month then off again to fleece another community with their generic arts festival business model.

ArtsNT has not been able to advocate for local artists, nor offer a strategic vision and advice developed after proper consultation with all the local stakeholders to our revolving elected politicians, let alone offer a grants model that is agile, transparent, fair, and reflective of the economic imperatives of art and exhibition making.

The recent information session regarding the $500,000 cash injection was conducted during hours when most artists were not able to attend. Neither NCCA has been involved in or invited to offer strategic input nor had DVAA been consulted before the announcement to ascertain whether they had the capacity to auspice individual grants. Announcing that creative producers will be chosen by ArtsNT without a competitive and transparent process, is not accountable public policy. Not disclosing in an open forum how much of the $500K will be spent on the bureaucratic anointed coterie is indicative of a bureaucracy not compelled by notions of transparency and accountability.

If we want a liveable and loveable city we need to recognise these strategic bureaucratic and institutional failures.  Let’s face it, this city has been stifled across all areas by a bloated parasitic bureaucracy and institutional transience and by a revolving circus of elected ministers who have not been vocal champions for the arts, nor able to exert effective ministerial accountability.

Until I see a serious engagement by all levels of government, developing serious foundational policies that are responsive to and reflective of the needs of the local culture makers, I will remain sceptical of all half-baked, poorly planned knee-jerk measures conceived and implemented by agents who I believe have been largely responsible for the visible cultural impoverishment of our city.

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Photo: Self Portrait with Chips Mackinolty’s Dingo. Darwin NT Supreme Court Robing Room. By Koulla Roussos

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ABOUT KOULLA ROUSSOS

Koulla Roussos, is Darwin born and based a criminal law barrister with an interest in art history. As an independent curator, she has managed a busy court and Royal Commission practice, as well as engaging local artists, developing cutting-edge exhibitions focusing on Darwin’s shifting urban identity. After securing the in -principle support of Janet Holmes a Court and the participation of the Utopia Batik artists, she is currently developing a commemorative exhibition to celebrate the impact of 1988 Batiks. She is also hatching a revitalisation plan for an important Darwin thoroughfare with local restauranteur and provocateur Jason Hanna. For more information visit: www.koullaroussos.com

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