Esther Anatolitis
Director, Regional Arts Victoria 

Making things together

When we make things together, we share more than just a constructive collaboration. We learn new ways of doing things. We work with our hands, our minds and our hearts. We uncover memories. We find ourselves telling stories. The world’s oldest cultural practices involve sitting on country together to initiate new exchanges, and in doing so, they create public spaces where new ideas can emerge. Coming together to imagine the artistic transformation of your entire town takes this intimate collaboration to a whole new place.

In late 2012, Regional Arts Victoria challenged small towns across our state to imagine: ‘How can art transform your town?’ It was a deliberately broad provocation, well exceeding the scope of Small Town Transformations, and designed to promote adventurous thinking. Art asks questions, and demands that we do the same. An artist might set out to stimulate new thinking through one single work, but what might a creative community imagine for their entire town? We were overwhelmed by the response, and astounded by the vision. Around a third of all eligible towns responded, and out of these sixty-five projects, only five could be supported.

Each of the five projects in the Small Town Transformations book and at proposed something compelling. Not only did they envision artworks that would continue to inspire us long after their creation, they also imagined a way to reframe local relationships into creative collaborations – now, and into the future. For some neighbours in these towns of fewer than 1,500 people, this meant coming together for the very first time: to develop the kind of shared vision that would start something big.

Five extraordinary projects

When you’re challenged to articulate a vision, that vision once formed does not go away. It’s persistent; it nags at you; it calls for all your creative energies. Each of these five projects has come together because of a shared commitment to process, nurturing the frameworks that would come to guide the work. A garden, a forecourt, a quarry, a town’s verge, a bower bird’s nest: each of these propositions offered the initial spur for artists to lead in new directions.

The Garden of Fire and Water in Avoca was nurtured by a series of seasonal ceremonies, extending new collaborations into lasting connections with both the place and the temporality of the garden. Just as each bronze curve of Lindy Lee’s complex Scholar Rock bears the distinctive hand of the maker, the bonfires, sod-turnings and plantings welcomed many more makers’ hands into the cultivation of their community. The Garden now holds memories in space and in time for the people of Avoca – a rich place for contemplation.

In Dookie, story-telling was vital to this, and as a result, Dookie Earthed was a twelve-hour expression of those stories: a series of artworks distributed all around the town, culminating in stunning silo opera and night-time projections on the majestic rock face. The Dookie Arts Collective continues to meet regularly, and with their new home in the converted memorial hall, they have the skills and the technologies to keep presenting new work – in the hall, on a silo, at the quarry, or wherever their artists might imagine.  

A maverick community of artists and climbers make Natimuk their home – a home premised on creativity and adventure. Inviting everyone into those adventures was the challenge that compelled the project’s focus on an extension of land that divided rather than uniting the community. The Verj is now an active space that rewards experimentation, curiosity and play by offering gathering spaces as well as unexpected delight with Dave Jones’ The Thing, a giant sculpture with pedals and hidden projection technology, inspired by Shaun Tan’s Lost Thing.

Large community gatherings characterised Neerim South’s approach from the outset: people coming together to share inspiration, overcome differences, and craft new work. With the local primary school and high school involved, and a range of art prizes and public events, the town’s embrace of the arts is ingrained. Designed by Christine Cochran, Keith Graham and Phil Henshall, the magnificent Bower heralds all comers with Neerim South’s creative confidence.

Ouyen’s process of making a new public space connected artists with local makers to focus on the forecourt of one iconic piece of architecture, and its pivotal role in linking the town’s people. In doing so, locals young and old uncovered utopian histories and dystopian fantasies to create a series of works in terrazzo, landscape and film: The Great Ouyen Zombie Apocalypse. It was a hit at the spectacular opening night of the Mallee Up in Lights.

A lasting legacy

Each of these five projects would have been impressive enough on their town-scale own, had that been their limit; instead, the impact of each of these five projects has spanned the state and stretched out across the world. Part of Small Town Transformations’ aim was to change people’s perceptions of the arts, and that’s a long-term project – just like the creative transformation of one community. The book is peppered with first-hand accounts of what Small Town Transformations has meant for so many. The media response has been phenomenal both nationally and internationally, and among the creative collaborators behind each project there are several Australia Day Awards, as well as local and regional recognition.

For each one of us, Small Town Transformations has been a humbling experience. The generosity we’ve seen has been astounding. Art is a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world, and a way of expressing complex ideas. It takes great courage to project those ideas onto your entire town, casting them out into new places, taking on a custodial role as well as taking new risks. Each project, and every moment that led to it, makes a public gesture: a commitment to the future we make together.

Every work of art creates its own space for contemplation, and welcomes you into that space. At Avoca, Dookie, Natimuk, Neerim South and Ouyen, you are most welcome. This website renews their call and asks you to take the provocation anew: How can art transform your town?

To find more information about the Small Town Transformations book please contact Regional Arts Victoria