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Putting art at the heart of our city

Catherine Carter

From classical Greek sculptors to Venetian glassblowers, from the Beat poets of New York to the Impressionists lining Paris’ Left Bank, artists have always been at the heart of our cities.

Artists are attracted to the city’s bright lights for many reasons – for its creative inspiration and stimulation, for its urban forms and physical beauty, for both the anonymity and the closeness to other creators and makers. Each artist who makes a home in the city is shaped by it, but also leaves behind their own mark.

Increasingly, city planners and policy makers understand that art is more than just a pleasant add-on to the gritty real world of commerce. Art can influence a city’s economic prosperity.

Consider this one fascinating study of baroque opera houses in Germany. The study, published in the Labour Economics journal in 2011, examined the impact of seventeenth and eighteenth-century opera houses on talent attraction and economic growth. Believe it or not, proximity to a baroque opera house is a strong predictor of a region’s ability to attract more than its fair share of talent and capital. In some cases, the opera houses came centuries before the jobs.

Opera may not be our strength in Canberra, but glass art certainly can be.

The nation’s capital is building an international reputation for glass talent, with the ANU Glass Workshop and the Canberra Glassworks supporting the development of many acclaimed artists and amazing works of art. For over thirty years, the ANU Glass Workshop has graduated highly talented artists, a large percentage of whom go on to have careers in the arts. The Canberra Glassworks, now in its tenth year, is a dynamic facility providing artists with access to people, equipment and programs to develop their work. Both institutions have the capacity to draw artists to live and work in Canberra: it is a unique place that catalyses creativity and sustains artistic practice.

One of those artists is Harriet Schwarzrock, who was recently awarded the inaugural Art Group Creative Fellowship which aims to support professional glass artists and contribute to Canberra’s standing as a world-class centre of glass.

A Queanbeyan-based glass artist who has exhibited extensively throughout Australia and overseas, Schwarzrock’s work is widely collected, and her piece, ‘breathe’, won the sculpture prize in the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize in 2014.

Schwarzrock will spend the next six months working from dedicated studio space in the Canberra Glassworks and says the fellowship presents a rare “opportunity to experiment and to develop a new area of glass”.

She intends to explore the ideas of interconnection, illumination and electricity within the body by blowing forms that are pumped with neon gas. These will form an “installation of blown heart glass vessels that respond to human touch”. If all goes to plan, the finished work will be showcased at the Enlighten Festival in 2018.

Canberra’s status for spectacular glass is “gaining momentum” Schwarzrock says, as the Glassworks’ attracts both emerging talent and established stars to visit, work and showcase their creations.

Schwarzrock and her partner, fellow glass artist Matthew Curtis, have travelled to America several times to exhibit their work, and she observes that “Australian glass has a strong following” which is in part owed to the makers who are based in in the Canberra region.

But arts funding is elusive, she says. The solution may be found in connecting the business and arts community to build our glass arts scene. “We could create a really strong bond, generate more buzz and foster the sense that culture is important in Canberra”.

When she moved to Canberra, Schwarzrock says she couldn’t initially pinpoint Canberra’s character, but now it “feels like it’s evolving and developing its own distinct identity”. One of the ways this is happening is through new precinct development, she says.

“The precincts in Canberra that have public art or bespoke objects in their buildings don’t just create interest – they also create our sense of place.”

Art Group, which is currently developing a $400 million precinct on Northbourne Avenue, recognises that artists play a central role in creating a vibrant, dynamic city. The Art Group Creative Fellowship not only provides professional glass artists with a six to 12 month opportunity to work at the Canberra Glassworks, but showcases how the business community can get behind Canberra’s world-class arts scene to build a better community.

Molonglo Group has invested millions in public art at NewActon, and its Art Not Apart festival grows in strength and stature each year, while another Canberra developer GEOCON has recently been awarded the contract to create a new cultural and community hub at the Kingston Arts Precinct.

But we need more businesses to play a role. Building an artistic city is about give and take. We can’t expect to be a cultural hotspot without supporting the people who make and create.

How we do this is up to us. We can support the arts by voting with our feet, sending our children to art classes and theatre troops, joining a choir or dance group, buying raffle tickets to support art shows, applauding the local street art or attending a concert.

But we need more than ‘random acts of kindness’ towards the arts. We need a large-scale investment if we are to build a cultural capital infused with art.

Feature image: Martin Ollman


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author