Should public money be spent for art events?

” So long as my Tax wasn’t wasted on this party of earth worshipers! With Council racking up record debt!” [1]

Here today, gone tomorrow: Should public money be used to support ephemeral arts events?

At 10:30am on Friday, 9th May, 2014, with bicycle and touring trailer I was one of the first to arrive at Big Rock in the You Yangs for Mountain to Mouth: Geelong’s Extreme Arts Walk. By 8pm, on Saturday, May 10th, it was all over. A week later, the fury began, with vitriolic comments online and in the Geelong Advertiser’s letters column following an opinion piece by Michael Martinez, CEO of Diversitat (a multi-cultural organisation which oversaw Geelong After Dark, an associated event).[2] On May 28th, the Geelong Advertiser published an article by reporter Mandy Squires, under the headline, “City’s Mountain to Mouth walk and arts festival proves costly”. Squires used emotive language like “(COGG) forked out $119,000 and Geelong Major Events (a council committee) $50,000” and “…Mountain to Mouth walk and After Dark arts festival has set the council back about $170,000.”[3]

Surprisingly, from the beginning, the local daily paper, News Limited’s The Geelong Advertiser, had been lukewarm to this major local event, with little pre-event coverage. One small picture and a short article were all to be seen in the paper on Saturday 10th May. [4] This was despite the fact that Kaz Paton, Manager of the Arts and Culture department at the City of Greater Geelong, had met with the Advertiser’s editor long before the event and gained the promise of support.[5]

Why is it that a modest outlay of public money on an arts event often garners an extreme negative reaction from some community members and media? Should public money be spent to foster the arts, and, in particular events which are, by their very nature, transitory – ephemeral? Is there any benefit from public arts events? I shall use the example of Geelong’s Mountain to Mouth in order to attempt to answer these questions.

Mountain to Mouth had its genesis at least ten years ago when Geelong took part in an community arts program called Generations.[6] The purpose was to address community needs within specific municipalities. Geelong’s project was called Connecting Identities. The aim was to address the rapid change which Geelong was (and still is) undergoing.

With Meme McDonald as Artistic Director, the project developed into a community event, titled Mouth to Mountain, which was held in 2009. This was a journey (run as a relay with multiple forms of transport) across the municipality from Barwon Heads in the south to the You Yangs in the north. Various ceremonies and arts installations were set along the event which culminated with a ceremony and concert at Big Rock in the You Yangs.[7]

Feedback from participants and spectators was overwhelmingly positive, with, specifically, spectators wishing to be involved as active participants in the journey.   The Arts and Culture Department therefore sought funding from Council for a second event, with the view to this becoming a regular arts event.

Meme McDonald was once again appointed as Artistic Director. It was decided to make the event a twenty-four hour walk, with ceremonies and art installations along the way.[8] The walk would pause in the Geelong central business district overnight, where an ancillary arts event, Geelong After Dark, was to be held.[9] [10]

Local artists garnered the support of their communities to produce art works in twelve sites along the walk. These would provide short resting places and the opportunity for walkers to view and participate in ‘extreme art’. Artists and performers were also commissioned to produce works, theatre and music for Geelong After Dark. To add festivity to the parade and acknowledge the twelve council wards, twelve flags were carried on the walk by a rotation of community flag ambassadors. A key facet of the event was Canoe, an art work which was to be carried with the walk as a vessel for water and fire, set alight at the closing ceremony at Barwon Heads before being carried out to sea with the evening tide .[11]

There was a large amount of community involvement in the making of the art works. While final figures are not yet complete, to date it is estimated that there were 1760 volunteers involved. Most of these worked with the artists to make objects for the art sites along the way. There were also participants in a community choir and other artists performing at Geelong After Dark, as well as helpers with site set up and management. [12]

Around 550 participants registered for the walk, many walking a large part of the entirety of the eighty kilometre route. As well as this there were around 300 spectators at the Big Rock starting ceremony, and over 2,500 at the final ceremony at Barwon Heads. This does not include over 400 flag and canoe ambassadors. [13] Geelong Councillors and elders from various multi-cultural communities participated in ceremonies at Big Rock, Steampacket Gardens and Barwon Heads.

Luisa LaFornara (Producer of Geelong After Dark) reported that because of the free, ‘pop-up’ multi-venue nature of Geelong After Dark, it was difficult to gauge actual numbers. However, several thousands of people were estimated to have attended.[14] This included around 1000 viewing projections on the Wool Museum, 450 attending GPAC, and 400 people braving the May cold and wind to attend the rooftop cinema.

Conservatively, more than five thousand people were involved in one way or another with the dual event.   From these participants, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.[15] Individuals had their own highlights of the event. For some, the canoe’s final journey, set alight and drifting out into the night on the outgoing tide was overwhelming. For others, the achievement was achieving a physical challenge. Others relished finding new places around their extended city, or the delight of the divers walking circles and their inspiring and transitory art.

Financially, from a minuscule budget of $210,000 for such a major event, the economic impact of the project was conservatively put at over $1,000,000.[16]

I interviewed some of those closely involved with Mountain to Mouth. Zoe Ennis, who was Operations Manager, in charge of the logistics of the event, was troubleshooting and leading the event by bicycle. A highlight from her point of view was:

… when it was all calm, there wasn’t a gate to open or a road to cross, on the Bellarine or other parts. It was just listening to people talking behind us and having a good time. …It’s just picking up on little things – people making friends, or realising they knew people or just chatting was really nice too.[17]

Similarly, Kaz Paton, producer, walked several sections of the event. She talked to people about their experience. She also escorted Geelong’s mayor to some of the events in Geelong After Dark, finding both his, and the public’s response excitement and delight. [18]

Esther Oakes was the artist responsible for the Moorpanyul Park walking circle- which was one of the night installations. She found people taking the time to look closely at the lantern-lit hyperbolic crochet and other features, really experiencing the work. She, herself, was delighted when darkness came and her concept was not just realised, but spellbinding.[19]

The overwhelmingly positive feedback from those who experienced Mountain to Mouth shows, that, for this city, at this time of change and uncertainty, there is a positive result for using public funds to finance public arts events, even if there is no permanent art object resulting. Indeed, from pre-history it can be seen that public ceremonies and expressions of creativity have been used to bind communities, consolidate customs and religion, and educate people in the places and stories that go to make up societies.[20]   There is a lasting impression left by public art events.   However, that impression is not a physical entity, but a shared memory of the people who participate.

Art cannot be measured only by collectability. Indeed, the concept of permanency and collectability is a relatively recent, Western phenomenon.[21] Alongside the contemporary trend for art as a tradeable commodity, runs a much stronger and permanent thread that art’s purpose is to enhance our lives, strengthen our communities and explain and comment upon our world. It therefore becomes not just desirable, but essential, for communities to fund arts events for the ongoing growth and health of society.

 Appendix 1

Post-event statistics (not yet complete) – presented by Duncan Esler at final Production Meeting 4th July, 2014

Event statistics – Duncan (as outlined in final Production meeting, July 4th, 2014)

Some figures from District Coordinators and Bron still to come.

  • Unpaid work – 1760 volunteers – participating – making e.g. lantern making
  • Around 5200 hours of work into the project (unpaid and paid)
  • Spectators to M~M (not GAD) – will increase – 5500 – at sites – some figures outstanding

(the real power is in the community volunteering and participating – not the actual walkers or spectators)

  • Over $1,000,000 of economic input from the project (conservative figure)

Anonymous (2014), ‘Panem et Circenses (Bread and Circuses)’, <http://www.capitolium.org/eng/imperatori/circenses.htm>, accessed 17/7/14.

Purpura, Allyson (2009), ‘Framing the Ephemeral’, Introduction to a special issue: Ephemeral Arts I, 42 (3), 11-15.

[1] Realist of Geelong, online comment, in Geelong Advertiser online, posted 15th May, 2014 http://www.geelongadvertiser.com.au/news/opinion/arts-event-proves-a-journey-of-discovery-in-more-ways-than-one/comments-fnjuhr1j-1226918781143

[2] Michael Martinez, Arts event proves a journey of discovery in more ways than one, The Geelong Advertiser, p. 11, May 15th, 2014 also published online, retrieved 12/7/14 http://www.geelongadvertiser.com.au/news/opinion/arts-event-proves-a-journey-of-discovery-in-more-ways-than-one/comments-fnjuhr1j-1226918781143

 [3] Mandy Squires, City’s Mountain to Mouth walk and arts festival proves costly, The Geelong Advertiser, p. 12, May 28th, 2014. Online version retrieved 12th July 2014, http://www.geelongadvertiser.com.au/news/geelong/citys-mountain-to-mouth-walk-and-arts-festival-proves-costly/story-fnjuhovy-1226934134358

 [4] Putting this into context, for any large community sporting event, fun run, marathon, etc. and for events like the Celtic Festival, The Geelong Advertiser‘s policy is to present a 4, 8 or 16 page post-event insert featuring pictures, names and commentary.

[5] Kaz Paton, Interview with Helen Lyth, 2nd July, 2014, Helen’s Journey (private online blog) – https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-kaz-paton/

[6] Cultural Development Network, The Generations Project, n.d., retrieved 12 July, 2014, http://www.culturaldevelopment.net.au/projects/generations-2/

[7] Kaz Paton, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, 2nd July, 2014, Helen’s Journey (private online blog)https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-kaz-paton/

[8] Meme McDonald, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, May 28th, 2014, Helen’s Journey (private online blog), https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-meme-mcdonald-artistic-director/

[9] Kaz Paton, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, 2nd July, 2014, Helen’s Journey (private online blog)https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-kaz-paton/

[10] For a more detailed background and description of Mountain to Mouth 2014 see

Helen Lyth, History and Background to Mountain to Mouth, Mountain to Mouth 2014-Helen’s Journey, https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/history-and-background-of-mountain-to-mouth/

[11] Meme McDonald, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, May 28th, 2014, Helen’s Journey (private online blog), https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-meme-mcdonald-artistic-director/

[12] Duncan Esler, “Event Statistics”, Minutes of M~M Production Team Final Meeting, Friday, July 4th, 2014, retrieved 17/7/14. https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/meeting-notes/ reprinted here as Appendix 1.

[13] Duncan Esler, Interview with Helen Lyth, 18th June, 2014, retrieved 17/7/14 https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-duncan-esler-production-manager/

[14] Luisa LaFornara, “Geelong After Dark Report”, Minutes of M~M Production Team Final Meeting, Friday, July 4th, 2014, retrieved 17/7/14. https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/meeting-notes/

[15] A post-event survey was part of the Connecting Memory ap. Due to issues with few people accessing this download, only about 30 surveys were returned. However, there was a lot of feedback via emails, and by word of mouth to the organisers and city – overwhelmingly positive. From participants, the small amount of negative feedback was about the speed of the walk (too fast for some), and the timing which meant walkers were arriving in the city when Geelong After Dark was ending making it impossible for them to participate in both events. Other negative feedback was largely from non-participants, who read press coverage in the Geelong Advertiser – and concerned the cost to the city for this event.

[16] Duncan Esler, “Event Statistics”, Minutes of M~M Production Team Final Meeting, Friday, July 4th, 2014, retrieved 17/7/14. https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/meeting-notes/ reprinted here as Appendix 1.

[17] Zoe Ennis, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, 18th June, 2014, retrieved 17/7/14, https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-zoe-ennis-operations-manager/

[18] Kaz Paton, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, 2nd July, 2014, Helen’s Journey (private online blog)https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/interview-with-kaz-paton/

[19] Esther Konings-Oakes, Interviewed by Helen Lyth, Thursday, July 4th, 2014, retrieved 17/7/14, https://walktowater2014.wordpress.com/esther-konings-oakes-district-coordinator/

[20] An example of this comes from the classical tradition. Indeed, Juvenel, a Roman poet and satirist of the late first century, cynically coined the term ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and circuses) to describe how a political regime can keep the public happy.

Panem et Circenses, Capitoleum.org, n.d., http://www.capitolium.org/eng/imperatori/circenses.htm, retrieved 17th, July, 2014.

[21] Allyson Purpura, ‘Framing the Ephemeral’, Introduction to a special issue: Ephemeral Arts I, 42/3 (09// 2009), 11-15.

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