May 01, 2007

COMMENT | Plonk Cultural Infrastructure

by Linda Carroli

Particular types of public art can be criticised as ‘plonk art’. This refers to an approach to public art that does not reference its site in any way – it lacks integration with its context or local community and does not contribute to a sense of place. This is regarded as undesirable in the placemaking endeavours of current planning and design practice. Many public art strategies and policies make provision for the minimisation of plonk art.

In reading through various policy statements and planning guidelines, there appears to be an emerging temptation to plonk cultural infrastructure into communities and localities in the view that it the infrastructure will do something or produce some effect. Increasingly, we see urban regeneration strategies that prioritise the cultural effect without any significant sense that cultural infrastructure requires ongoing maintenance or attention, that infrastructure and the practices it intends to support or enhance needs some sustainability. The view seems to be that the infrastructure is an end in itself. Typically, in developments at various scales, there may be some condition for a cultural effect such as public art and design. Major initiatives often include provision for cultural infrastructure such as galleries and museums, particularly in regional areas. Having worked briefly in the regional galleries and museums sector, it is evident to me that resourcing deficits plague this field particularly in relation to staffing and programming.

In Queensland, there have been some minor language shifts, perhaps consolidations, in the way cultural policy is constructed, particularly in its references to cultural infrastructure and arts industry. This is also inflected in the South East Queensland Regional Plan, which includes provision for cultural development through the provision of infrastructure and spaces. Prior to the state government releasing its Arts Industry Sector Development Plan, several arts service and program organisations were referred to as cultural infrastructure (as soft infrastructure), providing much needed cultural services and opportunities in reasonable secure funding agreements for several years.

The policy language now emphasises industry rather than infrastructure. In industry, those organisations must now operate more competitively, potentially in a procurement environment, and with less secure funding and, in general, less funding on offer. Yet, there is some concern expressed in the Arts Industry Sector Development Plan that the arts resource and development agencies need to be more sustainable. Apparently, the way to do that is to fund fewer of them (or fund them less) and construct buildings for them for them to occupy for which they will need to pay commercial rents. However small scale initiatives in Brisbane have seen some government owned buildings refurbished as providers of affordable rented space, indicating that government can, when it chooses, provide incubators for small to medium organisations.

The running joke over a decade has been that government funds the buildings but not the content, except perhaps for the flagships like state or major galleries, events and theatre companies, which are better equipped to operate in the sponsorship and/or philanthropic environment. The facility often does not pay for the content either - exhibitions, I often hear, are good for artists' careers and thus they are not paid hires fees for work. Government funded facilities, usually suffering their own funding shortfalls, are just as likely to operate on a hire basis and artists rent the spaces to present work. In the endless cost shifting, finding the dollars falls to the artists. It should be ok though because there are so many offerings of enterprise development training for cultural enterprises and this is emerging as a pillar in both arts industry plans and creative industries activity.

What are the implications of continued financing and investment of large scale facilities with little resourcing to the individuals and groups who are shaping the culture? It's enough of an issue in the United States to warrant initatives such as Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) This is a ten-year national initiative to improve the conditions for artists working in all disciplines: "as a vital and immeasurable component of our cultural and collective identity, artists help us interpret our past, define our present and imagine our future. Working artists make resonant contributions to the daily lives of our communities, not only as creators, but also as entrepreneurs, educators and involved citizens ... LINC believes that providing artists with a relevant system of support and resources will enhance their creative output, enabling them to make greater and more meaningful contributions to our communities and society as a whole. "

For sure, buildings and architecture are culture and they inflect in the cultural environment in ways that are constructive, defining and productive. However, there are many cases where major capital works simply are not sustainable or necessary and without strong cultural or economic argument for their commencement. This is what I refer to as plonk cultural infrastructure and it should cause us to consider what types of cultural infrastructure are needed or warranted to sustain a dynamic cultural sector and creative industries. Where government continues to count its successes and commitments in terms of the money it spends (did you notice that the state government continually reported on the cost of GOMA?), we begin to wonder whether it is money appropriately spent in effectively meeting a genuine need.

While I am not arguing against cultural infrastructure or cultural funding, I can’t help but wonder how it can be done better or more meaningfully. At this juncture I do not have any particular approach in mind other than to wonder about the ‘plonk infrastructure’ approach, which in many instances seems to attempt to replicate what is happening elsewhere rather than enhance local strengths and develop locally unique creativities. I am calling for more innovative and open-ended approaches to policy that have spatial, social, economic and cultural diversification. In the scrambling for more creative cities and towns, it would seem a lost opportunity to deliver a veneer of 'creativity' or 'city', as something to be consumed rather than experienced or imagined.

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