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Richard Jordan: Adelaide offers cities a thrilling model for cultural regeneration

Adelaide Fringe Festival opening parade in 2017. Photo: Krisztian Portscher
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People from Adelaide will proudly tell you how they would not let Starbucks get a foothold in their city and, as a result, it is filled with independent coffee shops and a lively cafe culture.

It’s a city that people walk around, but that also has a decent public transport system, and the busy independent cafe and bar industry can help in building its cultural economy. People are brought together and ‘cultural collisions’ happen as a result.

Those of us who work in the arts constantly strive to bring people together to share something live and unique that hopefully they will talk about with others afterwards.

If a city has cultivated an environment where these collisions can happen, whether on the bus, at a cafe table or in the queue for a fringe show, it will also create cultural connections: a key to creative success.

Out of these exchanges – between the audience and artist on stage, a conversation between strangers in the street watching a busker, or sitting next to each other at play – comes discovery, engagement and ideas. These conversations may reveal a shared synergy that could ultimately lead to collaboration, and at best even getting something put on, or creating an artistic space.

‘Culture can start a revolution  – at the very least, it can galvanise communities’

Rather than being a new concept, this has been happening for centuries. Look at artists and writers to emerge from great cultural cities such as Dublin, Edinburgh, London, Moscow or Paris, all which have always had a thriving bar and cafe scene, and where there are plenty of people walking the streets. In the simplest sense, that’s how culture can start a revolution and maybe even change the world. At the very least, it creates a fearlessness that can galvanise communities.

The arts are about bringing people together, and through shared experiences of creativity, we can better understand each other, and of course be entertained.

However, this all has to be treated with the greatest care because the power of culture means it cannot be commoditised or adopted by governments as a tool to be manipulated for its own gain. The arts need to maintain a fearless independent identity – now more so than ever.

As a city, Adelaide has demonstrated that the arts are a fundamental part of its economic growth and well-being. Its success in cultivating culture has given the city status, and the government of the State of South Australia a considerable and enviable profile among its peers at home and abroad.

Adelaide’s cultural significance continues year-round across a range of events and festivals. But during February and March, the city truly comes alive as it stages the second-largest fringe festival in the world alongside the Adelaide International Festival.

So what is behind the success of this ‘county town’ in Australia – as Adelaide is frequently (but unfairly) described – especially as it offers an enviable blueprint? The same goes for Winnipeg in Canada, which also hosts a thriving arts scene and annual fringe. Culturally, it is one of Canada’s most interesting creative cities and, over many years, has become important within its country’s own artistic growth.

In Adelaide’s case, its greatest strength may be that it’s not Sydney or Melbourne, in the same way that Winnipeg is not Toronto or Montreal. As a result, there is often more affordable housing that encourages artists to consider living and working there.

Another fundamental component to the success of these creative cities has been a clear commitment from its communities to support the work. Over many years, this builds into a cultural identity that is core to the city’s identity.

The strategy has succeeded by putting its local audiences front and centre. They have been taken on the same creative journey, watching their city build its own creative identity to which many feel intrinsically linked and feel a responsibility towards protecting it.

In Adelaide it is evident, simply by listening to the excited buzz on the streets ahead of the fringe and festival, that this is their city and they are proud of the cultural riches. A similar pride in local culture was shown over here in 2017 when Hull had the title of UK City of Culture. The results of the project continue to be felt across the city.

Government creates £20m fund to replicate Hull City of Culture effect

To build an artistic landscape, the work must be relevant to its own communities and offer opportunities generated for its local arts industry as a result. It can then expand, attracting national and international artists and audiences, creating new work from the cultural collision. The general standards of the work, and its stakes, will soar with thrilling results.

This also allows local audiences to celebrate their artists, and invest in their creative journeys. One such example is the talented cabaret performer – and Adelaide local – Michael Griffiths, who returns to the fringe this year. As a young artist, he used his hometown’s fringe to develop his skills and gain the profile which has taken him to international success. Many have followed in his footsteps.

Knowing where you came from is vital. Adelaide is a fringe where artists tend to remember their roots and give back. The local audiences do not forget they were there for established artists’ first tentative steps in some tucked-away fringe venue somewhere in their city.

As performer Cazeleon reminds us at the end of his moving show about acceptance: “Liberation is when you realise your dreams can lead you to the reality you always wished for.” In his return to the Adelaide fringe, he demonstrates the power of arts as a catalyst that can break down barriers in every community.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

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