Could Sydney become the world’s next big art capital?

"Sydney Scene" by Guy James Whitworth. Supplied.

London-born, Sydney-based artist Guy James Whitworth believes Sydney could become the world’s next big cultural capital. Here, he explains why.

As an artist, one of the few small silver linings to the Covid-19 cloud is that business is booming because people are craving new art to hang in the homes they have, at times, been confined to. I know I’m not the only artist to have experienced this welcome upswing.

Pre-Covid, my artistic friends in Europe were experiencing an ongoing boom-time, and – I’ll be honest – sometimes I was barely scraping by, but in the last year or so, fortunes, mostly, have turned around. I’ve also had this gnawing, dark, guilty feeling for a while now, and it’s willfully opportunistic I know, but I’m just going to say it out loud to make it real: I believe Sydney could become the next big cultural capital that the world is (constantly) on the search for.

The art world is always hungry for new, bold, brave and innovative ways of thinking and seeing, and let’s be brutally honest here, none of the European capitals are in a space to really consider those outputs at the moment.

Covid-19 has rampaged through the rest of the world, so much more than it has here, and while we’ve had our ups and downs, and our ins and outs of lockdowns, we’re still certainly in a stronger place than other cultural capitals.

Betty Grumble, one of Sydney’s most exciting purveyors of performance art. Unlike Europe, which is subject to Covid-19 lockdowns, performance art is flourishing in Sydney. Photo: Joseph Mayers.

NYC

Every decade or so a global capital rises and becomes the coolest of the cool; the place to be for artists and creatives. My favorite such happening was New York City in the late seventies through to the mid-eighties (basically where the tail end of punk met the uprising of hip hop and black urban culture).

There was an incredible underground, underfunded, cool art scene with a community of artists cross-inspiring and co-existing within a huge cultural melting pot of new media (public access television, independent radio, cheap print magazines).

People from this scene who would go onto greater things include Deborah Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Keith Haring, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Basquiat and the list goes on …

Certainly, the art scene here in Sydney has never been stronger or more dynamic. Whereas most of the world capitals have embraced equality and egalitarianism within the last few decades, Sydney still likes to keep its minorities repressed, which – as history has proved many times – produces an underbelly of creative resourcefulness and innovative ideas. 

There is currently an excitement, a multiculturalism, an energy, an edge and an awkwardness (of not fully understanding what you are seeing because you’ve never seen anything like it before) in the art circles I move in. Thankfully, unlike New York in the ’80s, Sydney’s scene is more diverse, less ageist and has less body/beauty fascism. Yes, the scene is still mostly sexy and young, but not exclusively. And Australia is a unique place with a fresh way of seeing art, culture, class and creativity.

Ember Flame, one of the most exciting figures on the Sydney art scene. Photo: Guy James Whitworth.

Tired old Europe

Even before Covid, Europe had had its day. Art mecca Berlin is too caught up in its own hype to push itself creatively. London has lost its way due to bad political leadership and an awakening to the toxicity around its (colonial) cultural identity. 

Paris is too haunted by its own démons créatifs (creative demons, although I reckon you worked that out). It languishes in the past like a très fatigued emaciated dinosaur. Rome is suffocating under its own golden opulence and is bearing the weight of too much religious pressure to ever fully stand boldly upright again. New York (and the rest of the USA) is in the first stages of PTSD and nothing healthy can blossom there until the toxic taste of Trumpism is cleansed from its cultural passages. 

Sydney is one of the few capitals where inhabitants can currently move around freely. We have abundant, joyous natural light, brightness and eternal optimism – and right now, to the rest of the world, those elements are a really fucking big commodity.

Sydney artist Kieran Butler. Photo: Shan B.

Sydney’s time to shine

Sydney has all the components to rise – creatively and culturally. We don’t take ourselves too seriously or pretend we are something we’re not and that manifests in a creative authenticity which cannot be mass produced. We already have world class art galleries – and soon, that is going to increase tremendously thanks to the Sydney Modern Project, which will almost double the size of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Sydney Modern Project animated fly through. Video: Art Gallery of NSW/YouTube.

The main components of creative struggle are oppression, multi-culturalism and the wish to make a statement. The outcomes of these factors are ready like perfectly painted (although slightly abstract) ducks, and are perfectly arranged in a row.

Government funding and support is, of course, vital to a healthy arts scene – and while the Berejiklian Government could do more to support the arts, it’s laudable that they’re stumping up $244 million of the Sydney Modern’s $344 million cost, in the largest public-private arts partnership in Australia’s history.

Could this be the start of a new paradigm where the arts is supported as much as that sacred obsession, sport? Come on, Gladys Berejiklian – come to the party, bring your purse, and show the world what Sydney’s art scene is made of!

Performance poet Mel Ree. Portrait by Guy James Whitworth.

Finally, the most integral element of a being a thriving capital of art and culture are the artists themselves – and I’ll leave you with a way to spend a few hours should you wish to do some Googling. Fabulous artistic Sydney individuals I admire include: creative director and producer Kat Dopper, the brainchild of Heaps Gay; Indigenous drag performers Nova Gina and Felicia Foxx; performance artist Betty Grumble; Mel Ree, the wonderful performance poet; Kieran Butler, whose art practice has taught me much about gender and sexuality; unique drag artist Aaron Manhattan; powerhouse poet Candy Royalle (RIP); emerging painter Kim Leutwyler; burlesque poet Ember Flame; performance artist, singer and DJ, Dyan Tai; and so on and so forth.

Sydney painter Kim Leutwyler. Photo: supplied.

The list is ever growing and endless! Make no mistake: Sydney’s art scene is veritably shining.

Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist and author. His book, Signs of a Struggle – is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter.