David Sequeira has over 20 years’ experience as an artist, freelance curator and art consultant. David draws on his vast experience as a curator, connecting museum collections with people, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of creating a deeper and richer understanding of the place of the arts in communities.
How important are local community art projects in forming social connectedness and a sense of community?
I ran a music festival in my neighbourhood in Canberra where every suburb has their own little shops. I worked with the shopkeepers to develop a program of 6 concerts for each shop. These are small venues that can only accommodate audiences of 20-40. I printed the tickets myself and got the shopkeepers to manage the sales, you couldn’t book over the phone, you had to go into the shops and buy a ticket. We did a performance of lounge music in the takeaway shop and jazz in the chemist amongst the pills and medicines. All of the musicians were professionals. Some had international careers. The program of music was a mix of both well known pieces and lesser known works. The festival captured the imagination of the media and the public and every concert sold out.
Which was probably great for the small businesses?
They loved it! They want to contribute to their community. The community will get on board, there just needs to be somebody with the energy to drive the project and to cut through all the red tape.
How do you cut through red tape which stops so many ideas?
There is always a way. The trouble is that we live in a culture of fear that things are not going to work; that we are going to be criticised, that we’re going to lose money; that things are difficult. One of the issues I faced with the festival was the prohibitive costs of public liability. I teamed up with a local music organisation (who had public liability for satellite events) and asked them to ‘present’ the festival. This strategy saved a lot of money and red tape. For other one off community events I’ve just bought public liability, it’s not too expensive and I found an organisation that specialises in small community events.
What was the community support like?
The community came on board in a big way. They were initially ambivalent but you just need one who starts to get others on board. It was exciting process of meeting people and sharing ideas. Where I failed was I didn’t create a community to take on leadership of the festival after me. That’s not impossible, but it does need a dedicated person.
What do you think contributed to its success?
It’s all about activation. We need to start thinking about how we can activate spaces to generate powerful arts experiences. The festival did not duplicate something that was already happening in Canberra. We used the specific qualities of each shop to create unique intimate experiences for both artsists and audiences. In other words, all stakeholders got excited about the scope and challenge of the project. They began to look newly at their environment and what could be possible…
I like to imagine what would happen if we actually had a few power points in public spaces that could be used by DJs and musicians.
What should a successful public art space look like without forcing or over designing it?
Public art spaces need to encourage the ‘underground stuff’…the impromptu and the spontaneous. Public art spaces need to be homes for both informal and formal activities, and there needs to be an infrastructure of imaginative people to support the spaces and involve local businesses.There is a business case for the arts. We’ve seen a rise in cultural tourism to chosen destinations. This can also happen at the local level. There’s an enormous amount of goodwill amongst the business community, they actually ask, “How can we work together to get people in the door and spend money?” “How do we compete with chain stores?” Spaces and dare I say, arts projects need to reflect this. This does not mean compromising the conceptual ambitions of the arts. Rather, it is a call for a rethinking about what we understand as ‘innovative’ and ‘engaging’.
How can art be used to create or contribute to this?
The arts are about two things: they’re about participation and they’re about excellence. Participation and excellence are not mutually exclusive… public spaces and cultural programming that reflect participation and excellence create opportunities for meaningful encounters between artists and audiences. For me, the most successful public art spaces allow artists and audiences to connect with what they already know and at the same time create new resonances and challenges.
Art that’s in the public sphere needs to have strategic flexibility. It needs to activate the space and contribute something to those who use it. I’m a big fan of public projection spaces for which works of art can be commissioned. Entire programs can be curated and then that space then becomes known for those programs…still tightly curated…but flexible… Given that these types of projects require darkness, the public can begin to consider public space as a 24/7 phenomenon…that the arts take place constantly.
Art that’s in the public sphere needs to have strategic flexibility. You want the infrastructure as well as organic pop-up art events. We are living in a culture that wants to be considered interesting and dynamic. Pop-up projects allow artists to take risks without the burden of permanency. Equally importantly, they often surprise and challenge audiences.
Public spaces must have the sorts of facilities that encourage spontaneity. The challenge for communities is to create informal and formal spaces that are supported by staff and business. In a sense in Australia, the term ‘pop-up’ is misleading. There is little about setting up an arts event that is ‘pop-up’. Public liability, leases, setting up electricity account etc all takes time. It would be so great if the idea of ‘public arts facilitation’ could include funding for people to cut through all the red tape.
How do you get a diverse mix of society participating in the arts?
We all value the experience of being part of something bigger than ourselves. The arts can be a potent access to this experience. Our challenge as thinkers, innovators and consumers in this area is to constantly explore the ways in which this experience can be facilitated.
At the National Gallery of Australia we regularly reviewed visitor statistics – demographics, age, distance from the gallery, things. We looked at not only who was coming to our exhibitions, but also who was not coming. Our major exhibition of Indian art was a great opportunity to work directly with the Indian community. We brought out a stone carver from a South Indian village who completed one of his carvings in the gallery. The local Hindu community came on board to house and look after him. At the end of the project, the sculpture was donated to the local Hindu temple.
We celebrated a big Hindu festival in the Gallery called Sankranti, dedicated to Surya, the Hindu wind god. We had 1,200 people come to a ritual in the gallery…with all the noise it was like a small piece of India was alive and breathing in the Gallery. The event was open to the general public, and the gallery became a space for both Hindus and non Hindus to get a sense of the living traditions of Indian art.
We held a Grandparents Day. We discovered that we had a lot of older people coming to the Gallery, and we invited them to bring their grandkids. We did a check about roughly how old the grandparents were and set up a trail of paintings that portrayed life when they were young. They could talk to their grandchildren about their lives via the paintings, and then we finished the whole thing with afternoon tea.
If you could change one thing in either the process or the outcomes to create more vibrant communities, what would that be?
I would change the way that we currently think about money and budgets. We need to think about vibrancy as being directly correlated not only to physical spaces but also to imaginative and dynamic local councils and staff. So much of what takes place (or does not take place) within local government seems more related to the staff and council’s ability (or lack of ability) to capture the imagination of its constituents. If you’re going to do something do it well. Do what your budget will allow. You’re better off doing one tiny thing that’s like a jewel than spreading your resources too wide – be known for that one jewel.