Embracing arts and cultural tourism is paying dividends for regional areas.
Before January this year, Yarriambiack Shire was most well known for its prolific wheat production and large population of sheep. But, after Brisbane artist Guido Van Helten scaled a grain silo to paint a 60-foot mural, the regional Victorian area has attracted a lot more attention.
Van Helten made international headlines as he painted the work over a hot summer in the small town of Brim. The mural features images of four farmers from the local area.
Yarriambiack Shire Mayor Ray Kingston said the region previously attracted visitors because of its natural landscape and camping opportunities, “but in terms of being on any sort of map tourist-wise, you’d have to say we really weren’t”.
Now, a steady stream of visitors chooses to pass by the silos in Brim, which is creating flow-on economic benefits for the region.
The mayor said the artwork arose organically. The Shire was approached by GrainCorp, the owner of the decommissioned silos, and Juddy Roller, a street art collective from Melbourne, who were both keen to tee up the project.
The Council hoped the project would attract some attention, but it has been astounded by the result, said the mayor.
“Arts projects don’t have certain outcomes. The Brim community didn’t know what they were getting themselves in for, but they saw an opportunity and took it.
“The interest and peoples’ reactions to it have been beyond our wildest dreams.
“A lot of stories that get told about country Victoria are about natural disaster, so we were rapt to have a positive story.”
The mayor said he is aware of numerous other instances of recent regional arts projects.
“This is a dramatic example, but I see a bit of a renaissance in country Victoria celebrating the arts. I guess we have been perceived, or we have perceived ourselves, as devoid of arts… Now, communities and Shires are getting involved [in arts projects].
“I see this happening everywhere – ours just happens to be 60ft tall.”
Tracey Callinan from New South Wales’ arts organisation Arts OutWest agrees there has been a recent “awakening” to the benefits of arts initiatives in regional areas.
Arts OutWest is one of 14 regional arts organisations across New South Wales; it works with 11 local government areas in the central west of the State and it is partially funded by the council members.
Ms Callinan said there have been some long-running arts initiatives in the area, but she has noticed a recent surge towards cultural tourism.
“It’s just starting to develop here now. Councils traditionally have had tourist information centres that haven’t been that strong on recognising cultural tourism, but a shift is happening… People are realising it’s an area of massive potential.”
She said the trend is partly due to landmark examples in other areas.
“Seeing successes elsewhere [such as] the influence of Mona. People have seen how Mona has driven tourism in Tasmania. Key successes like that are important.”
Her advice to councils looking to develop arts projects: “Spend the time doing the scoping and looking where opportunities are. The best thing is to build partnerships; there are organisations and businesses that can help, Councils don’t have to do it on their own.”
A Council that works with the organisation, Parkes Shire Council, knows the benefits of supporting cultural tourism. The Parkes Elvis festival – celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017 – injects an estimated $11 million into the local economy each year.
Other regional towns have had similar success with festivals built around pop-culture: Broken Heel, a Priscilla Queen of the Desert festival, was held recently in Broken Hill with support from the Broken Hill City Council, and The Fraser Coast Regional Council helps
facilitate a Mary Poppins Festival in Maryborough, Queensland.
Cultural festivals can be particularly important for remote areas, both to bring in visitors and to solidify a sense of community pride.
A recent festival in the Shire of East Pilbara in Western Australia, the Outback Fusion Festival, celebrated local cultures and talent.
Manager Recreation and Events at the Shire, Simmone Van Buerle, said the festival held in Newman had major benefits for the small town, which has been struggling economically since the mining downturn.
“We’re in a very remote mining town… so something like this helps makes us feel not so isolated.”
The three-day event gives a platform to Western Australian musical acts and showcases food and culture from the 30 different nationalities within the town.
Ms Van Buerle said the festival has flow on effects for local businesses and accommodation providers, helps with social cohesion, and encourages workers to stay in the town with their families, instead of opting for a ‘FIFO’ lifestyle.
She said supporting the arts has “been on the agenda for a while at Council”, which has facilitated a sculpture trail, an artist-in-residence program and recently celebrated the opening of the East Pilbara Arts Centre.
On 30 September it was announced that Yarriambiack Shire would receive state and federal funding to expand its silo art project and create a trail of similar works across the region.
Six more silos will be painted and the brief for the chosen artists will be to engage the local communities as much as possible.
Mayor Kingston hopes the trail will bring even more people to the region.
He encouraged other regional communities to think about embracing arts and cultural tourism even if it means taking chances.
“When we first started talking about the Silo Art trail, the Yarriambiack Shire had no idea how we were going to fund it, so a leap of faith was required to devote time to developing the concept in the belief that we would find a way.
“Local Government can be quite risk averse for very good reasons, but sometimes you’ve got to see through the unknowns and grab an opportunity with both hands.”