Arthouse is Dead > Long Live Arthouse

Arthousians United!

As you may or may not know, the independent artspace I have been running, Arthouse, is having to close its doors after some 4+ years of critical cultural development.

Art spaces such as Arthouse are inevitably, rare and temporary, and they usually occupy older buildings at the end of their life. While I acknowledge this fact when taking on a building such as this, its always a curious and unsettling time when given the heave-ho.

The former Croatian Club, affectionately known to those in the know as the Hrvatski Klub, had been a cultural space for the Croation Community since the mid-90’s. We saw that the work that Arthouse undertook, was following this tradition, of utilising the space for the celebration of culture.

It’s all culture right? From live graffiti to hardcore metal, traditional PNG hut making to steel pan drumming, experimental performance and sound art to animation festivals and indigenous dance, film-making workshops to independent verbatim theatre.

As a presenter, producer and practitioner of experimental practice, it was a critical mechanism to support and present experimental work: work that the very well funded institutions in our town just don’t support.

Part of the model was to place experimental and risk taking forms in a broader, multi-arts program. This enabled experimental work to get an audience (which is hard in a small town), and it also allowed audiences to be exposed to experimental work and forms.

The past 4+ years has been a great reminder of the power of an accessible space to enable enterprise, creativity, collaboration and innovation. These ‘active ingredients’ take on a biological life of themselves, outside of the organism that birthed them (Arthouse), and spread the ‘host’ ethos like a pathogen. Red tape and idiots can’t stop this process.

Its not easy being a creative producer in a small regional city, nearly 2000km’s away from a capital city. The financial returns are negligent, institutions don’t come near you, programmers/directors/curators don’t attend your events, and if you want to present anything left of centre, you have to build audiences and support from scratch.

Yet the rewards have been incredibly rich, vivid, absurd, stimulating,  inspiring, and fulfilling: for myself, and for the many punters, artists and culture keepers that shared this unique place-in-time.

So yes it was odd when told that we were in contravention of the planning act by our local Council. Ironically, the week that we were handed a ‘Show Case’ letter, we were hosting the RISE Project, led by Jessi Lewis, which was the culmination of a residency at the Tanks Art Centre (a Council venue and program).

So one arm of Council was happy to close down the community facility that was actually subsidising their residency program. (Arthouse gave the venue, and all equipment and services, as in-kind for the RISE show). We actually lost money through supporting this Council project outcome.

In my response to the ‘show cause notice’, I articulated to Council the potential for these actions to close down one of the few accessible cultural spaces for Cairns, and this would be a great loss to the community. In fact the landlord at the time intimated that if we weren’t here he’d probably ‘knock it down, put a shed up and sell it off’.

Unfortunately my warning, while not profound, was dead on the money!

Our last three shows that we were ‘allowed’ to present, is testament to the diversity of artform, context and community that Arthouse supported: the residency project RISE (experimental theatre/performance), the Australian International Animation Festival (End Credits partner), and the Blak Project (a fundraiser for indigenous writing project EROS).

Arthouse went out with a bang: the On Edge program, over some 6 weeks, and without any Government funding, proved that Cairns is sophisticated enough to have a high level arts and cultural festival. Arthouse then took 2 shows to the Brisbane Fringe Festival: Cherry Tree Creek (verbatim theatre) and The Don Johnson Butlers (music/cabaret).

The message from the universe was clear: the Far North is a good place to make work, but if you really want to present it, be supported and access audiences, then you have to take cultural product out.

Arthouse excelled at a time when the cultural landscape of Cairns went back up its own sphincter. The cultural models that the town built over 10 years ago are out of date, and either purveyors of mediocrity and popularism, or about to fall over.

Arthouse had a broad, yet focused cultural agenda: ‘can do’ access for artists and groups; supporting experimental practice within a community and cultural context; create an enabling environment for young and emerging artists; to facilitate the making of new artistic works; the enabling of cross-fertilisation between artists and art-forms, and the building of a cultural ecosystem.

We’ve had some stellar artists, shows and guest over the years, far too many to name all, but gee there’s some great highlights: Freak Nasty under the tarps at Mixed Grill, Indonesian artist Arahmaiani working with Zane Saunders in a performance based on sand flies, Trinidad pan master Lennox Jordan hand making steel drums by hand for 6 weeks, hardcore UK band Rolo Tomassi bumping into the ceiling fans while crowd surfing, and Rome/UK’s Mike Cooper’s exquisite live film scores under the stars.

Arthouse is a strong believer is ‘human capital’: we believe that is our greatest asset, yet one that town seems to not invest in. As a town we are happy to spend millions on new pavers, bus shelters, and paint, yet we’ll invest almost zilch in local human capital.

Investing in culture sometimes takes years for that ‘return on investment’ to mature. You need a long lens throw if your serious about developing longer term returns.

Arthouse puppet master Falcon Krest stated it so eloquently (see link below).

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