Kandos in Central NSW is a surprising location to have emerged in the consciousness of the Australian art cognoscenti. It sits in the Capertee Valley, between Lithgow and Mudgee at the base of a resounding sandstone escarpment. The town was established in 1913, originally as a place to lodge the employees of the Kandos cement works and associated limestone quarry. As is always the risk for a company town, the closure of the Cement Australia plant in 2011 brought a post-industrial gloom upon the community.
In 2013 Kandos residents Alex Wisser and Georgie Pollard (formerly of Sydney) in collaboration with Ann Finnegan saw in this post-cement environment an opportunity for what funding bodies term a ‘rural arts revitalisation project’. The result was the Cementa festival. Unleashed on the town’s unsuspecting residents over three days in February 2013, it brought a battalion of artists and spectators to Kandos. This ambitious project in an improbable location became a hot topic on the Sydney scene.
There is, however, a distinct difference between coming to Kandos for a long weekend and living and working as an artist in a regional area. Exciting events such as Cementa are all too transient and infrequent. Geographic isolation is a common depressor for rural and regional populations. Artists are no exception to this rule. The cultural networks and professional relationships that readily manifest out of the sheer concentration of people in a metropolis are less easily crystallised in the ‘regions’. The Regional Contemporary Art Network is attempting to producing these networks synthetically. Established in early 2014, it brings together a group of contemporary1 artists from central-western New South Wales, and aims to provide support and to pursue projects collaboratively. The group currently consists of Julie Williams (Lithgow), Heidi Lefebvre (Molong), Kim V. Goldsmith (Dubbo), Mr & Mrs Brown aka Darryl and Kat Brown (Kandos), Mark Booth (Hill End), Greg Pritchard (Natimuk, Victoria), Jack Randell (Dubbo), Peter Aland (Dubbo), Georgia Pollard (Kandos) and Alex Wisser (Kandos).
I travelled to RCAN’s first meeting, held at Kandos Projects in late July. This was the first opportunity for all twelve member-artists to meet, discuss their work and begin to plot a way forward for the Network. The program began with each artist giving a presentation on their work. This was followed by a delegation from Articulate Project Space (Margaret Roberts, Emma Wise and Wies Schuiringa) who gave an overview of the gallery’s exhibition history and ethos. A possible collaboration/exchange between RCAN and Articulate was proposed for later discussion. The afternoon session got down to brass tacks: what were the driving issues that would define RCAN’s mission and how should these be reflected in the group’s structure. The issues raised were multifarious (as one would expect from group of individuals spread across hundreds of kilometres): access to audiences and exhibition opportunities, funding body categorisations, stigmatisation and rejection by the “pretentious” Sydney art scene. A variety of operational models were discussed, ranging broadly across a spectrum between an address book contacts group and a trade union. It was determined that the Network should be informal with a focus on creative, technical and logistical support being shared. (The specific resolutions are detailed here). The group would also organise to undertake a range of projects (exhibitions, residencies etc.). At this point the Articulate delegation re-entered the conversation with their proposed joint project. The machinations that ensued suggest that the Network has the makings of an extremely effective body. Some of the preceding discussion had worried me. The bureaucratic machine that plagues ‘arts organisations’ seemed poised to strangle the enthusiasm that the group sought to draw together. However, by mid-afternoon things began to happen. The Articulate collaboration was proposed, refined and acted upon: emails were being written, dates determined, exhibition opportunities investigated. Within an hour a grant application was being written.
There are a range of difficulties that face artists working outside of the established infrastructure and informal networks that one takes for granted in capital cities (and this observation is by no means novel). Projects like Cementa and RCAN do hold some promise for addressing this divide and enriching cultural production beyond the outer suburbs of our capital cities and diversifying what remains a fairly monocultural and exclusive creative landscape in Australia.
Runway Issue #27 [OUTSIDE], launching in April 2015, will give broad coverage to contemporary art beyond the city limits.
1. The term ‘contemporary’ is admittedly contested. It is used to distinguish the artists in question from more parochial styles (such as landscape painters) who often already have representation and visibility in regional areas through societies and clubs.