21 January 2012

Cultural Growth & Opportunity Damned

A note by Rjn to introduce correspondence held with the shire council at his last place of dwelling some years ago.

Ever since I was introduced to the idea by the wonderfully pro active Gosford, NSW, city cultural development officer  Mr Elio Gatti, I have for many years advocated the idea of Citizen's Cultural Exchanges. Like a Stock Exchange or Money Exchange, a Cultural Exchange is a place where people can exchange, share, buy or sell differing cultural gifts of performance, of artifacts, of lifestyle or belief. Simply put, these Exchanges encourage artists of every stripe and hue to come together and create events where residents of an area can enjoy an interchange of all forms of culture, be it visual, kinetic, singing, drama, dance, poetry recital or even olfactory. Such events would improve community connectivity, bolster social inclusion (particularly for newcomers to an area), and give interested participants and spectators access to art forms they may only have heard about previously (or did not know existed at all). People from all walks of life would converge and be given time to showcase their talents and wares in a nurturing, sharing and constructively critical environment.

When I moved to Nhill in Western Victoria some three and a half years ago, I thought it the ideal place (being a remote rural village located on the main road between Adelaide and Melbourne) to institute such an Exchange. Accordingly, the Hindmarsh Shire Council, supposedly responsible for the health and wellbeing of some 6000 residents (how else would you describe the benefits of regular exposure to cultural events other than as a marvellous fillip to one’s ‘health and wellbeing’?), was sounded out about making its Community Memorial Hall available for a regular series of such Exchanges. What I am writing now testifies to the consequences of my overtures and serves as a brief introduction to the correspondence exchanged with the Council.

As you will see from the letters received from the Council and now posted on this blog, I was met with ignorance, incredulity, hostility and recalcitrance at every opportunity. I was accused of being rude, my idea was flatly rejected for being unviable economically, the Council refused my modest request for ‘funding’ to help inaugurate the project, I was personally abused, discriminated against and psychologically battered by a council supposedly there for the benefit of its citizens. I had tried to think locally for the global benefit of mankind and give all and sundry a chance to tell their own intrinsic stories through performance. I had tried to bring some sort of renaissance to a town often mired in petty internecine political squabbles, beset by the dislocations caused by ‘cliques’, ready always to fund and promote sport (especially Australian Rules Football) but averse to sponsoring anything else, insisting time and time again that only old-fashioned, ‘time-honoured’ cultural pursuits like tired musicals and operettas or Jazz festivals designed more as a sly means of advertising a local industry than as a real way to engage people with culture were what people in the village and surrounding areas needed or wanted.

I was refused access to the Memorial Hall, even though the ‘money’ required to hire it was available from the Council (they ultimately own the building anyway, and so could easily afford to rent it to me with ‘moneys’ that would simultaneously be received back into the council's bank account or simply be effected by a book keeping contra-entry recording the "gift" to the citizens). I was told there weren’t enough people in the Hindmarsh Shire to justify such an audacious programme. I was informed that my scheme would pressure performers into producing works of little or no interest....

When I rightly queried the basic ignorance and biases behind such a response, I was accused of being rude and effectively silenced by the Council. At no stage did I become pettily personal and name wrongdoers in some sort of orgy of peevish retaliation. I merely argued that such wrong-headed refusal to countenance my idea spoke to the unsophisticated ignorance of a selfish cabal of high-powered locals who have little interest in culture and no desire to support it (especially not when it is being spearheaded by an alien of foreign appearance, who had not ‘paid his dues’ in the shire). What such people failed so spectacularly to realise, what UNESCO has enshrined in its desire to engage all people with cultural activities at a grass-roots level, is that culture need not only refer to the reified artefacts and habits of the past. One does not need to go to an opera house or a museum or gallery to be exposed to ‘culture’. It is all around us, everyday, everywhere, in the stories and skills all of us have. Such stories and skills only need an environment in which they are encouraged and allowed to be set free. This I tried to do and in fact am now doing with this segment of the blog. Whether it be defined as tragedy, comedy or drama I am do not know. The results you will see in more detail below. I think you will agree with me that it augurs very badly for the continued future of cultural creation in Australia and the world at large if the attitude of the Hindmarsh Shire Council is allowed to spread unchecked like some kind of totalitarian virus stifling all creativity (whenever I re-read the Council’s correspondence I am reminded of Joseph Goebbels’ famous dictum: “whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”)…..for the sake of our continued investment in the future of this planet, we need to overcome the prejudices of people like the Shire Clerk….though I am not by nature a man with Utopian proclivities, who would dispute with me that culture of the sort described above and nurtured by things like the Cultural Exchange isn’t absolutely vital to our ongoing survival and humanist development?© 2012 Rjn

Here is the correspondence:-

And the reply five months later :-

My Response to Mr Miller:-

 Mr Miller's Christmas Eve Reply :-
And to this day the Shire's residents continue to be denied such benefits.