Lucy Barber-Hancock

About Lucy Barber-Hancock

Lucy Barber-Hancock is a young writer hailing from Sydney’s inner west. She spends her days creating concrete poetry, doodles, mess, and other spectacular, and giving guided tours to places that don’t yet exist.

Sydney or Melbourne? Finding Australia’s true art capital

New TBS writer Lucy Barber-Hancock sets out to find, once and for all, where Australia’s art capital truly lies.


Comparing Melbourne and Sydney is like comparing apples and air conditioners. Though there may be those that point out the thriving underground arts culture of Sydney’s Inner West, or the massive potential for blockbuster success in Melbourne, the real “cultural capital” of Australia is far harder to pin down.

Basically, the difference between the respective cities’ art scenes comes down to Sydney’s aversion to risk taking and the intrinsic way in which we value art based on the revenue it generates.

Sydney’s best-known contributions to the arts scene are usually some combination of huge, flamboyant or expensive. Festivals like Vivid Sydney, the Biennale on Cockatoo Island and Sculpture by the Sea, which all started as fairly low-octane events, are now internationally attended having blown up exponentially to become tourist events. True, these festivals are all compelling and creative and provide incredible cultural and creative insights; however, one can’t help feeling that they’re also carefully curated so as to ensure maximum financial return. We are home to one of the most iconic theatres in the world, the Sydney Opera House, conveniently located a stone’s throw away from the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Museum of Contemporary Art, both of which are considered some of the prize jewels in Sydney’s artistic crown.

Sydney’s slavish worship of well-established art institutions does begin to make some sense in the context of broader legislation. In May last year, the federal budget revealed that arts funding was to be cut by $100 million over the next four years, with a particularly heavy blow to Screen Australia’s funding, which saw a single cut of $38 million. George Brandis justified this with the (somewhat terrifying) statement that “I’m more interested in funding arts companies that cater to the great audiences…than I am in subsidising individual artists responsible only to themselves.” It’s no wonder, then, that Sydney is jumping on the easy-to-market bandwagon in terms of the arts. With less money to throw around, the Government is less prepared to risk revenue on emerging creatives.

Importantly, the money that is funnelling into the arts industry is quarantined for top-tier companies with pre-established audiences and guaranteed revenue generation. When in 2013 James Packer generously provided $60 million to arts in Sydney, almost half of that entire sum went to the Sydney Theatre Company and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, two well-established and tourist-friendly institutions. What with the Government drawing its purse strings in terms of arts funding, it’s no surprise that the art boards are becoming increasingly money-oriented, becoming what Queensland Theatre Company’s Wesley Enoch describes as “extensions of corporate Australia.”

But how does Sydney’s awkward relationship with the arts translate when compared to our sister city? Melbourne, it seems, is simply more willing to take risks in the art scene. For one thing, arts funding is a lot more lenient in Victoria. Last year, the Victorian Government announced a $44.9 million increase in funding to the arts sector; in contrast, the NSW arts budget has remained static at $311 million. But even within this funding, allocation of money is drastically different between the two cities. Sydney arts powerhouses like the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, or the Sydney Festival, routinely have the Government provide a significant chunk of their revenue (36 percent and 34 percent, respectively) and still turn respectable, even sustainable profits. On the flipside, their Melbournian counterparts in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra or the Melbourne Festival have a higher Government funding allocation and yet have less of a successful return on revenue, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra still plagued by a $840,000 deficit from 2013. Sydney, it would appear, is willing to fund money into already-established arts institutions because we as a city know it will pay off. But when it comes to investing in young or emerging talent without guaranteed money back? That’s when we start to get cold feet.

Conversely, Melbourne’s sheer proliferation of artist-run spaces and initiatives, like Bus Projects and West Space (both of which are non-profit), demonstrates a willingness to support and nurture emerging artists. Melbourne became Australia’s capital of independent theatre with the 1967 opening of the La Mama playhouse and the scene has continued to flourish ever since. Alternative theatre companies such as The Rabble, Sisters Grimm and Red Stitch – just to name a few – thrive in Melbourne as they never could in Sydney, because, in Melbourne, independent theatre-makers carry as much credence as subsidised theatre companies.

And don’t even get started on the street art scene in Melbourne. In what other city would street art be not only tolerated, but actively encouraged, funded by the State Government and sponsored by the likes of Melbourne Design Guide and the Melbourne council? It’s a city that celebrates the overlap between public and private space, and questions whether or not a price tag is what gives art its value.

Despite all this, Melbourne is still a hard place to live for up-and-coming artists. A wealth of galleries and creative spaces, coupled with a thriving creative community, means over saturation of the art market – and thus, less money to be made. Street artist and head of creative space The Blender Studios, Adrian Doyle reiterates that Melbourne is an “incredibly tough” place to make it, ominously advising artists “don’t be afraid of the struggle.” Doyle is quick to emphasise the inclusivity of the artistic community in Melbourne, one which is famously open and experimental, and thus demonstrates the famous catch 22 of a flourishing arts scene: Although the community is thriving with creative people, it’s impossible for any one individual to squeeze money from their creative endeavours. In terms of maximising exposure and networking, Melbourne may be one step ahead of its rival city, but in terms of providing fiscal security to its creatives, it’s as bad as Sydney is.

At the heart of it, Australia just seems to have a weird, awkward relationship with the arts, primarily because we haven’t yet figured out how to reconcile art with money.

Maybe that’s what causes the fundamental difference between the two cities:

In Sydney arts equals revenue, whereas in Melbourne art just equals art.


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