Kingston Arts Precinct – to be or not to be?

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When the ACT Government announced in October that they were putting out to tender the development of an arts precinct within the Kingston Foreshore, it did send a quiet ripple through those involved in the arts.

There are many models of precincts that could be classified as being an arts precinct, such as parts of South Bank in Melbourne. Within it are two university arts campuses, large state institutions and several medium sized organisations. Most smaller organisations and the commercial arts galleries are located elsewhere in Melbourne.

Brisbane’s South Bank has a cluster of cultural institutions. There used to be other arts bodies nearby, but over the years the surrounding streets have seen the departure of arts organisations and galleries. This has been due to rising rents as the developers have moved in to take the benefits from the ambience created by the government-funded improvements along South Bank.

The Singapore Government invests seriously in cultural activities with several approaches operating in tandem. Locally there are strong links between the business sectors and arts and cultural initiatives and institutions – something we hope that the ACT Government is learning about on its visits to Singapore.

Singapore has an arts and heritage precinct. This is an area of the city within which are a couple of major institutions, some commercial spaces, several government assisted organisations as well as two huge architectural wonders – the LaSalle College of the Arts university and nearby The School of the Arts, a national pre-tertiary specialised arts school dedicated to arts education.

This huge commitment to major arts events and institutions is part of the city/state’s international profile. The brand new National Gallery Singapore opens soon – 24th November.

Canberra residents have the benefit of a mixture of local and national oriented cultural institutions and organisations. A national arts precinct already exists if you link the national cultural institutions within the Parliamentary Triangle.

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The Kingston foreshore area already has the makings of a locally focused arts precinct with the Glass Workshop and Megalo Access Printing nearby. In between is the very successful Sunday markets held in the old bus sheds.

While the announcement that the government was seeking proposals for the development of the arts precinct at Kingston was understandably welcomed, I noted many were being careful with their praise. No details of the concept were made available.

The agency involved, the LDA/directorate, does not have a good track record of working with the community — think Telopea Park, Yarralumla, Dickson shops, Dickson Parklands and many more. There was a very notable absence of arts people or any arts minister from the announcements.

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The Kingston markets draw huge crowds each Sunday and all the available parking is contested. All that parking is required for the markets to continue to have a future. Yes, the development as mentioned is to provide parking, but I suggest that the LDA/directorate has a questionable record on planning for parking during the construction of such major developments.

For instance in Dickson, some traders are reporting loss of business due to the parking problems that already exist and it is well known that these issues are predicted to become something else given that parking areas are being sold and others earmarked for development. Traders are reporting that people are already factoring in the coming changes and adjusting their shopping habits away from Dickson.

Looking at the many statements around the broad outlines for the proposed Kingston Arts Precinct, I suspect the inadequate forward planning will lead to problems for the markets and subsequently for the nearby suburbs as visitors look elsewhere for their parking — and there goes my favoured spots near the shops!

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To bureaucratically develop such an area as arts oriented destination will be fraught with numerous issues. Fingers will have to be crossed that there will be some increase in cultural activities and more likely this will be conditional on a proportional increase in operational support for the local arts organisations.

It will take a special mix to bring together such a package of arts activities especially in Canberra given the larger institutions are located elsewhere.

This is not to say the development of the area should not be welcomed. There are acres of surface car parking around the precinct now and some mixed development is inevitable and definitely should happen.

Significantly this initiative is being driven by the need to sell land and as such the arts precinct concept is being used to encourage residential developments in this section of the Kingston Foreshore.

The various stages of developing this arts precinct concept and then to delivery something real will take a very bold, intelligent and creative hand to oversee and guide the project.

Let’s remain optimistic that such a person exists within this government and that they will be able to deal with the inevitable quagmire of demands by the development and property lobbyists.

This proposal could result in something positive –I really wish it to be so!

This piece was also on RiotACT

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Paul Costigan

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