Local art emerges from Brisbane’s cultural heart
It’s just passed 9am on a warm Saturday in Brisbane, and already the temperature is nudging 30. At West End’s Hope on Boundary, a popular, earthy social enterprise café, it’s market day. Between a plant stall selling $2 begonias and justice advocates Micah Projects’ sausage sizzle lies a colorful array of baked goods: the Chrysalis4101 Knead our Dough bake sale.
Behind the brownies, Midget Boy Universe cupcakes, Greek biscuits, banana bread, and three glamorous tea cakes, a smiling pair of colourful, high-energy arts wranglers greet friends, take photographs, juggle phone calls, and accept baked donations while they flog their wares. Carmel Haugh and Rebecca McIntosh (also known as Bec Mac) are founders of PlaceLove, the venture behind a new initiative to deliver place-based, artistic regeneration projects: Chrysalis Projects – the first of which is Chrysalis4101.
Established creative arts industry leaders and placemakers, Haugh and McIntosh share a vision that centres the arts firmly in place, nourishing artsworkers and their communities.
It may sound like the buzz-term of the moment, but placemaking is an approach that’s been used by urban designers and city planners since the 1960s, says Haugh. “It’s about designing for lively neighbourhoods and inviting humans into public spaces,” she explains.
Haugh’s passion for creative economic development drives a career managing a diverse range of creative placemaking projects, with a focus on public programming, creative business development, and cultural tourism. Haugh and McIntosh have collaborated on public projects over the past six years in both the public and private realms. Placemaking is frequently embedded in McIntosh’s own practice, which lies at the other end of the spectrum – she works as an artist and creative director of innovative work both nationally and internationally, including LOVE TV and POPSART.
“(Placemaking) is about place attachment through a series of experiences that actually build an emotional connection to your place and its community,” says McIntosh. “There is the hardware of a city – its glass, bricks and mortar – but what really makes a place are the memories and dreams and relationships generated there.”
“4101” in Chrysalis4101 references the South Brisbane peninsula, and in particular, its “heart”, West End. The area is known to the Turrbal people, its original inhabitants, as Kurilpa – or place of the water rat. Staunchly community-minded, the locale hosts a high proportion of residents actively working in cultural industries. Within the 4101 postcode lies QAGOMA, QPAC, QCA, Qld Ballet, Qld Theatre, Opera Qld, Qld Conservatorium, Qld Museum, Metro Arts, the Convention Centre, the State Library, and a number of commercial galleries, artist-run ventures, independent theatre companies, and live music venues. It’s easily Queensland’s cultural hub. But it’s not the “legacy” arts organisations the Chrysalis concept initially has in its sights (despite attracting a few big players already).
Chrysalis4101 aims to create a series of creative experiences within its community, by pairing artistic ventures with local businesses. These artist-led projects are funded via a “shared value” model of localized giving, designed to foster philanthropy within the community. Donations of any size are welcomed, from baked goods up to a five-figure sponsorship of an entire project.
The Chrysalis concept was hatched in March 2020, as the reality of the impact of a pandemic-imposed lockdown on those working across creative fields became evident. Many associated with artistic industries work from project to project, and are hence not eligible for economic stimulus support such as the Jobkeeper allowance.
“When lockdown was announced, I saw six months of my own employment vanish overnight,” says McIntosh. “I realised there would be many of my peers in similar situations.”
But it wasn’t just the creative community that faced a miserable winter. Beloved local businesses of all stripes were considering their own insecure futures … the vibrant fibre of the Kurilpa peninsula was threatened. Haugh and McIntosh convened a hasty meeting of a handful of locals with links to the arts and business, and passion for their community. From this anxious round table emerged a nucleus of the Chrysalis concept, finessed quickly over subsequent cups of tea at McIntosh and Haugh’s homes.
“In Australia the arts are reliant on an increasingly dwindling arts funding program,” says McIntosh. “On the other side, artists and organizations needed to reassess their relationship to the community and audiences they are meant to be for.”
“Bec and I had been discussing the ‘broken-ness’ of arts funding and the immaturity of philanthropy in Australia for a couple of years… In March, as we were to host a panel discussion with (South Brisbane) local council candidates on ‘Attachment to Place’, Covid crisis response hit hard and fast. Festivals, events, concerts were cancelled and galleries and gatherings closed,” explains Haugh.
The placemakers put their “entrepreneurial brains together to re-imagine a place programming model based on resilience building for local and creative economies.”
“We could see the tsunami of devastation coming for the creative sector and the small businesses in the beating heart of our beloved West End and 4101,” adds McIntosh. “We identified three clear actions in our plan to ‘protect’ our place: employ the creative workforce, energise the retail experience, and reconnect the community.”
Individual projects partner with local businesses, physically or virtually. At the centre of CHRYSALIS PROJECTS is what the founders call “a new model of philanthropy designed to fund creative purpose driven public programming”. They present an invitation to their community to invest in “the creative energy of their ‘place’”.
Participation is not prohibitive and the model is anti-elitist, but the outcome will be top shelf culture. All support is welcomed. The cream of creatives may be on board, but the project remains resolutely grass-roots. Anyone can make a donation, whether it’s $5 or $5000 or a plate of cupcakes.
“Lessons are being constantly learned in this prototyping phase, and we did confuse our messaging in the early days, with people thinking ‘philanthropy was only for the wealthy’,” says Haugh. “(But) the power of creative arts economy will be stronger from ‘citizen philanthropy’… whether your donation is $2 or $2000, you are a part of a public creative process.”
Three projects are already in train, comprising the pilot phase of the Chrysalis “experiment”. Beloved bookstore Avid Reader was a natural fit as pioneer, paired with Vernon Ah Kee, an internationally acclaimed artist with long-standing links to the Kurilpa peninsula. Store owners and West End heroes Fiona Stager and Kevin Guy are keen supporters of the Chrysalis philosophy, hosting information sessions, writing about the project in their newsletter, and enthusiastically giving their time and energy as advocates.
“At the beginning (of the Covid-19 lockdown) it was terrifying,” explains Stager. “I was waking in a cold sweat thinking we’d lost everything. But we’ve been very fortunate (that) we’ve been supported by the local community and by the Avid Reader community throughout Australia and the world.”
With Avid Reader’s business holding its own, Stager’s worry shifted to her peers. “(In West End) we are a strong ecosystem and we all need each other to survive… (knowing) we were going to make it, the concern then was for the other businesses around us, and … for my friends who are artists and performers.”
Stager believes Vernon Ah Kee’s large public artwork, to be painted on the front and side of their building with the blessing of Avid Reader’s landlord, will ultimately become an artistic destination in itself, to the benefit of the local business community. An artist who usually works in solitary practice, Ah Kee is looking forward to working with a team at a level of collaboration he doesn’t usually experience. He’s also anticipating new challenges related to the scale of the work, as well as the challenge of the work being so publically visible.
Chrysalis collaborator, global public arts facilitator UAP is on-board as Designer in Residence to help with the practicalities of physically securing Ah Kee’s vision, but he sees a personal limitation when considering the public-facing nature of the work.
“I’m not used to censoring myself so there will be a few little challenges here and there,” he explains. While the work is still in conceptual development, he notes this mural will not reference Covid-19 or the BLM movement.
Ah Kee was a keen Chrysalis supporter from the start. This project arrived “with equal amounts of desperation and passion, and both of those aspects of the project are attractive,” he says.
“I think it’s pretty exciting just thinking about how much support there is out there (for Chrysalis4101)… 2020 had no rules so you’d expect leaps of faith everywhere… people taking risks.”
Avid Reader supports the project because, as Stager explains, “you can see real benefits, and this will make a difference to real individuals’ lives. It will give them a little bit more of the support that they need — not just financially, but also knowing that art matters.”
As McIntosh’s own practice during Queensland’s lockdown swerved from location-based interviews to mastering the Zoom universe, some local artsworkers used the downtime to hone their own works. In addition, artists and performers usually travelling across the globe for their work found their wings suddenly clipped. Chrysalis’s second and third projects benefit from grounded stars.
Applauded cultural couple and Opera Queensland luminaries Sofia Troncoso and Dane Lam will perform at Caravanserai Turkish Restaurant, providing an urbane yet accessible experience for patrons and a surprise gift for passersby in project two: The Little Opera. A baroque repertoire will be sung in the intimate setting, reminding Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director of hearing opera singers perform in a rehearsal room.
“That is where I fell in love with opera,” says Nolan. “My first time I was in a rehearsal room with opera singers it was like ‘Wow, there is something really extraordinary going on here’ and (we look forward to) creating that opportunity for people who come to the (Chrysalis) show, to actually be present.”
Conductor Dane Lam celebrates the community aspect.“This awful pandemic has made us realise that we need to connect to our communities… We’d gotten to this stage where orchestras and conductors and musicians were interchangeable, flitting in from one country to another.”
Lam believes Opera Qld connects to its communities at a grass roots level.
“Chrysalis epitomizes that really: a community that wants to get behind local arts and local artists as a way to galvanise and bring people together and explore what we have in common, what sets us apart, and how we can come together.”
Where Opera may be the grand old dame of the performing arts, Chrysalis4101’s third project, “Redlight Distancing”, returns to signature West End eccentricity. An experimental physical theatre live art project directed by David Carberry in collaboration with the Sideshow West End, this “Circuslesque” work will showcase local cabaret and acrobatic artists and transform a corner of Vulture Street into cheeky “Tableaux Vivant”.
These three Chrysalis4101 pilot projects (and supporter funding) fell into line perhaps speedier than their organisers had intended; participants and locations were paired quickly. Existing arts networks delivered three striking pilot projects, and some locals questioned whether emerging or lesser-known artists would get to have their time in the spotlight.
Definitely, say Haugh and McIntosh. The pair is aware of the optics of quickly organizing these big-ticket projects, and pledge a participatory structure for determining the remaining suite of Chrysalis4101 projects. In 2021, a public expression of interest stage will open, setting out themes of creativity that diversify the current program. Potential participants should understand the objectives of Chrysalis Projects, which encompass creative employment, benefits to small business, and a connection of community. Chrysalis4101 has also pledged a minimum of three projects to be delivered by first nations artists.
McIntosh is hoping one of these projects will fuse her two passions, art and sport.
“I am obsessed by the relationship between sport and art,” she says. “Imagine a project that integrates and build relationships between rugby league and their audience and contemporary artists and the work that they do! I’d like to see Johnathan Thurston become a (Chrysalis Projects) Patron of Place!”
With cultural and creative activities in Australia contributing more to Australia’s GDP than the agricultural, forestry, health care, retail, or education industries, this sector is a significant economical driver, says Haugh. It might make you feel good, but it’s an opportunity to “build back better”, post-pandemic.
Bake sales may seem suburban, but that’s the idea. It’s a grassroots concept with big scope, and it already has the support of major organisations and the Queensland government through Arts Queensland.
Haugh dreams that the Chrysalis model can be rolled out and shared with as many places and people as possible.
“There is so much value to be added to our society with culture, arts and creativity,” she adds.
Avid Reader’s Fiona Stager agrees. “If we’ve learned anything during Covid, it’s that art is fundamental to our lives. (During lockdown) so many people went to books, to music, to Netflix – they needed art in their lives. That has to come from somewhere, and this is a grass roots support for artists.”
The Chrysalis philosophy recognizes that artists support and sustain their community equally in return.
Photographs: Jonathan Oldham, Caroline Gardam, and Chrysalis Projects
Caroline Gardam is Chrysalis Project’s Writer in Residence.