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How regional centres are driving innovation

Richard Watts

Living outside a major metropolitan centre can liberate artists and organisations alike, allowing them to escape from the influence of group-think and fashion.
How regional centres are driving innovation

Toni M by Georges Antoni; image supplied.

Whereas artists and other creatives once left country towns for the big smoke as soon as they were able, that pattern has begun to shift. Now, arts workers are reversing the trend by relocating to regional cities like Bendigo.

As Rosemary Sorenson, Director of the Bendigo Writers Festival explains, the ubiquity of the internet has had a significant impact on the movement of young people away from regional centres.

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‘You do not need to go, “Oh my god the kid’s really clever, we’ll have to send her to the University of Melbourne” – you don’t have to do that anymore because the kid can work online and become an innovative person in regional Victoria,’ she said.

Coupled with the tree-change effect, the digital revolution has helped regional centres develop a strong culture of innovation and creativity, according to Leanne Fitzgibbon, Senior Curator, Programs and Access at Bendigo Art Gallery.

‘I think we have a tremendously strong culture of innovation and creativity. We have the benefit of course of many artists, musicians and performers choosing to live in a regional setting. Obviously studio space is more readily available and the lifestyle is pretty fantastic, and I think there’s also a collective vision, a shared purpose for many in the area that’s about improving our region, improving our city, and being our best,’ said Fitzgibbon.

Another bonus of living and working in a regional centre is the creative freedom of being able to ignore the sometimes confirmative approach that can inhibit artists and organisations working in metropolitan areas.

As Sorenson put it: ‘The paradigm is that competition drives innovation but if you actually unpick that you might discover that competition can drive banality. Because often you’re looking to repeat something which has been successful.’

And it’s not just artists who benefit from living in the regions; arts workers too become more flexible and innovative, said Raph Beh, Major Events Officer at the City of Greater Bendigo.

‘In the city you have giant sponsorships and huge businesses donating or contributing to events but in the country – I still call Bendigo the country because we’re outside the Melbourne city itself – we have to be more creative in the way we design events and get local support for the events. So yes, in lots of ways we have to be more innovative in the way we approach activities and events that we design and deliver,’ Beh said.

A cultural city

The city is set to deliver innovation from 12-14 August and beyond, with a​ suite of exhibitions and the Writers Festival opening within a few days of one another, ensuring an abundance of activities for visitors and residents to enjoy.

Bendigo Visitor Centre’s Living Arts Space will host the exhibition Flamingo Park and Beyond, a celebration of the fashion and textile creations of Australian designers Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, whose exuberant designs captured the imagination of the world last century. The exhibition features everything from their ground-breaking Australian-fauna inspired designs of the 1970s through to contemporary pieces – works which in Jackson’s case are influence by Bendigo itself. 

Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson 2016; image supplied.

‘Why would a jet-setting designer, a world renowned designer be living in Bendigo? She told me that her family, her ancestors actually started in Bendigo during the Gold Rush, and her mother lives here and her brother is in Maryborough. So it all made sense that in 2013 she moved to Bendigo and is now settled here permanently,’ said Beh.

‘And since then, we’ve had contact with Jenny, obviously being Linda’s best friend, and we decided to develop this exhibition as a tribute to their friendship and also what they’re currently doing now.

‘Linda, like Jenny, is a very spiritual person and she’s devoted a lot of her time as a volunteer at the Great Stupa in Bendigo … and that relationship is starting to reflect in a new series of work she’s developing. They’re very, how do I say it, psychedelic and very abstract. I think it’s almost like a work by Kandinsky and Mondrian, using colours and shapes to express a type of spirituality,’ he said.

Learn more about Flamingo Park and Beyond

Another internationally respected Australian designer is the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery. Maticevski: Dark Wonderland focuses on the remarkable work of Melbourne-based fashion designer Toni Maticevski, who Fitzgibbon described as ‘obviously exceptional … He’s not a designer who’s restrained in terms of his practice; I think he’s always looking to do something different. And it’s not just about innovation; it’s about the unexpected, and such a compulsion to create. So it’s not just creating beautiful garments, it’s about sculpting with fabric, it’s about using contemporary and traditional fabrics and materials in new and unexpected ways.’

The exhibition will feature objects and designs from throughout Maticevski’s career, Fitzgibbon continued.

‘He’s had the foresight to archive his collections as he progressed through his practice so he has this wonderful record of his experimentation and innovation in terms of fashion design.

‘One of the highlights I think, will be the Monaco Gown which was selected by Princess Mary and which she apparently absolutely adores. Obviously he’s known for the earlier works which are long, flowing, exceptionally romantic-looking gowns, but we’re also looking at some of the more structured, tailored pieces.

‘I think a favourite for me however would be the doona dresses, which are extraordinarily voluminous. They’re gowns, and as the name would suggest they’re doona-like but they have a weightlessness too, so it’s a wonderful contrast between volume and lightness – it’s a really clever approach to fabrics. I think they’ll be pretty stunning in the exhibition space,’ Fitzgibbon said.

Learn more about Maticevski: Dark Wonderland

The same weekend that Maticevski: Dark Wonderland opens its doors, Bendigo Writers Festival will be offering an equally stimulating and innovative program – including a much-anticipated conversation with Julian Assange, a man synonymous with breaking down boundaries and challenging established hierarchies and the powers that be.

Sorenson notes that the great thing about Writers Festival is that they encourage thinking.

‘Though you don’t have to,’ she laughed. ‘You can come along to our festival and have a nice time and see Kerry O’Brien and think he’s terrific, and see Stephanie Alexander and go home and cook something lovely. You can do all that, but the other thing that writers’ festivals do is make people aware that there are people around you who are willing to have a debate, not just a “I disagree with you and I’m not going to listen”. It is about listening and talking and improving your ability to do all that, and boy do we need that!’

The Bendigo Writers Festival program also features a broad range of writers, poets, panellists and topics designed to provoke, comfort and entertain – perfect winter fare for the mind.

Explore the 2016 Bendigo Writers Festival program

‘I really do count myself lucky to be in Bendigo right now because you’re right – there’s something in the water,’ Sorenson said.

‘We’ve really all been enjoying that fabulous moment of change, intellectual as well as economic growth … and now we’ve got critical mass. We’ve got a great theatre, a great gallery, and now we’ve got a Writers Festival that works really well too.’

Bendigo Writers Festival
bendigowritersfestival.com.au
12-14 August 2016

Maticevski: Dark Wonderland
www.bendigoartgallery.com.au
Bendigo Art Gallery
13 August - 20 November 2016

Flamingo Park and Beyond – Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson
10 August – 6 November
www.bendigotourism.com

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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