Excellent cultural policy and research documents, including a five year cultural plan, had been commissioned and adopted, in principal, by Wollongong Council from the mid 1990s. However there had been little political action around integrating that policy and research work into visions for the city’s future, particularly its economic future, and no significant cultural infrastructure investment since the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in 1988. The Cultural Broker role came out of the recommendations of The Wollongong Cultural Industries Audit (Guppy Associates and National Economics 2000), which found that, despite Wollongong’s considerable cultural assets, including its culturally vibrant communities, the city lacked the following:
- A vital cultural precinct
- An appropriate profile for the cultural industries with the business community
- Appropriate connections between culture, tourism and hospitality
- A regional cultural strength which could compete with Sydney
- Appropriate resource commitment from state and federal Govt to provide infrastructure commensurate with population and importance as the centre of the region
- Definition as a regional urban centre
- Positive and expansive thinking to aid the creative planning process
- Appropriate networks and partnerships
- Ability to retain talented cultural workers
- Opportunities for training and retaining young people in Wollongong
The brokerage role coincided with the arrival of a new Director of Planning at Wollongong City Council (Mike Mouritz). Collaborative professional practice between a team of urban change agents including; Mike; Strategic Planner, Bronwyn Seiden; project managers of the “City Centre Revitalisation” and “Wollongong Futures” processes, Corey Vervey and Etienne Brits, and the consultants to this process Russell Olsson Urban Projects; Hill Thallis, and Jane Irwin Landscape Architects – along with many others – built understanding of the importance of cultural infrastructure development as an integral part of urban planning processes.
I wanted to get the idea of ‘culture’ into the same breath as urban and economic development – beyond the idea of culture as a peripheral affair unconnected to ‘big picture’ city futures. The cultural infrastructure initiatives evolved include plans for the development of a Burelli Street cultural precinct including:
A ‘cultural incubator’ facility in a Council-owned 1960s building in MacCabe Park. This will re-animate the city’s main urban park while adapting for creative re-use a city-owned asset. A feasibility study for this facility is nearing completion (Hill PDA, with Brecknock Consulting and Choi Ropiha Architects).
Proposed redesign and refurbishment of Wollongong’s Civic Plaza including re-orienting current cultural facilities into a city-centre ‘cultural cluster’ including: Wollongong City Gallery; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre; Wollongong Library; Wollongong Town Hall performance venue and South Coast Writers Centre.
These would be joined by cafes, arts retail outlet and bookshop in redesigned public space.
There is renewed energy and optimism in Wollongong with a greater understanding of the role of arts and culture in building identity; economic sustainability; civic pride and urban amenity, making Wollongong an exciting place right now.