Sunday, 13 March 2011

Morwell (part II)

Since Bilbao got its Gehry-designed franchise of the Guggenheim empire, art has been lauded as the cure-all for cities with the post-industrial blues. Oh, high unemployment, low community morale, no investment, no hope...? Let's build a gallery! Fundamentally the aims of an art-led recovery are to attract two particular groups of people to the town: tourists and creatives.

It is incredibly myopic to imagine this as the antidote to the ills of every post-industrial town. Yes, it has worked. It worked in Bilbao because the building itself makes people want to go there. No one travels to Berlin just for its (admittedly tiny) outpost of the Guggenheim. I doubt anyone travels to Venice just to pop in at Penny's (although they should). Yet people travel to Bilbao just to see the Spanish campus. Ergo it's the building, the spectacle, not the collection. Which means that opening any old gallery ain't going to cut it in terms of creating a tourist destination and building a service industry based around that influx.

The creatives then? This worked in Dunedin. Build a beautiful gallery right in the heart of town and watch the demographics shift? Simple? Not quite. Dunedin also has a university, so it has an established population of younger people. With the loss of industry around Dunedin there was a surfeit of cheap housing and commercial spaces. So a support network of smaller galleries, cafes, coffee roasters, music venues, musicians, artists, designers, studios and boutiques sprang up around the gallery. Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson called these people cultural creatives. Planners, advertisers and developers are among those who have come to recognise the importance of cultural creatives in transforming tastes and spaces. All of the elements aligned in Dunedin.

Morwell built a gallery. I love it. I never know what I'm going to see but it is invariably good. Sometimes the works are challenging and not easily accessible, other times I'll be surprised to see an old master up close and personal. The shows may not always be to my tastes, but I like to visit regularly to support the fact that the gallery exists at all. But the building itself isn't ever going to be a tourist destination in its own right.

Morwell does have two quite beautiful new buildings, the council building and the courthouse. When the town was struggling to re-establish itself after the privatisation of the SEC it was decided to move the council to Morwell in the hope that an influx of public servants would re-invigorate the CBD. A building was constructed alongside the railway, diagonally opposite the gallery. It truly is eye-catching, its coloured panels shifting along the spectrum as your perspective changes. Again, not astounding enough to be a tourist destination, and proof that it's not enough to get people to work in a place, they also have to live and shop there.

The second new building is the courthouse and police precinct. It is as spectacular as a modern public building can be in a regional town. Not only is the building adventurous and bold, it houses one of the most remarkable pieces of furniture I have about. That's right, read  about. That's because every time I have been to see it I haven't been allowed. So, after half a dozen visits to the courthouse I am still yet to see Damien Wright's table. But you too can read about it at The Monthly.

The courthouse is beside the gallery and within a stone's throw of the council building. This triumvirate should have been the catalyst to a sense of renewed pride in Morwell. Except... That the people who live in Morwell have no connection to the gallery, little affinity for the council and try to avoid court as assiduously as the rest of us. So the street front opposite the council building is still pocked with empty spaces, aging flyers and an 'under new management' announcement that has outlasted the business it trumpeted.

How could things have been different? How could anticipated urban renewal and civic pride have successfully followed on from this investment? There are so many difficulties to understand and I don't claim to know. But there is one simple issue that holds Morwell back - its isolation from the Monash University campus at Churchill. It is too far to walk or ride and the bus service is adequate at best.

If I was in a position to change anything I would invest in housing in Morwell. I'd buy as many houses as I could. Just quietly, not pushing up prices too much... There were empty houses in every street that I drove along this morning. It was possible to buy houses in Morwell for less than $20,000 a decade ago. Although they're no longer that cheap, they're still cheap. I'd offer free rent to people prepared to move to Morwell. I'd take submissions and make places available to students, artists, baristas, designers, architects, etc. I'd offer grants to people wanting to open studios, cafes, galleries. I'd organise free, regular shuttle buses to and from the university. With ADSL it's possible to work from anywhere. Trains run from Morwell to the city and vice versa every hour. The freeway runs from Morwell to Melbourne. It'd take less than a decade to transform the town. The cultural creatives would be the catalyst. They'd bring ideas, energy, spirit. They'd bring that intangible thing that has transformed inner city workers' suburbs into desirable, vibrant places world over. And the investment in property would more than pay for itself. It'd pay for itself in a financial sense, but in time it would also buy hope, and that is priceless.

And that doesn't even begin to touch on the possibilities available to new energy industries. If the Latrobe Valley could attract the next generation of post-carbon energy investment it could remain at the centre of this state's power generation beyond our reliance on brown coal. So much potential. If only I was in a position to change anything...

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