Aerial view of the Brisbane River, Botanical Gardens and the central business district. Courtesy Brisbane Marketing.


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The capital of Queensland, Australia’s second-largest state, Brisbane seems perennially on the cusp, always on the lookout for defining moments and keen to mint a progressive identity. Previous stereotypes—a city-sized country town, home of the “branch office” or poor cousin of southern cities—are stale. Currently promoted as Australia’s “New World City,” Brisbane is challenged by fast growth and conflicting desires to retain its discrete communities, as intimate neighborhoods and character architecture face transformation into master-planned urban villages with hubs, nodes and corridors. The city’s in-between-ness is a powerful metaphor of its potential and striving—rather than stagnation or recession—and keeps at bay any consensus on what the city has become. 

Often flagged as a gateway for the Asia-Pacific region, Brisbane is marketed primarily via the promotion of its major events calendar, bolstered by having hosted the G20 World Leaders Summit in 2014. While coastal areas outside the city are usually championed as emblematic of Queensland’s subtropical appeal, at Brisbane’s heart are two major precincts aligned to the river’s edge in the central business district (CBD). The Cultural Precinct hosts the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), the State Library, the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Next door is South Bank, essentially a vast artificial beach with sprawling pools and restaurants amid family-friendly parklands. The city’s publicly led arts infrastructure, largely supported by the state government, but also with federal funds, is seeing increasing pressure to raise private support and sponsorship. Business and corporate voices are in this mix too, augmented by allied institutions such as Griffith University, the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology, all invested in forging a greater role for creative industries.

Catalytic initiatives in the public domain have raised the city’s profile on the international stage, none more so than QAGOMA’s Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT). Initiated in 1993, the APT series continues to be the biggest recurring global event dedicated to exhibiting and collecting material culture from Asia and the Pacific. In 2013, APT7 recorded over 565,000 visitors—almost 100,000 more than that year’s 55th Venice Biennale. Aaron Seeto, former director of 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney, is now a key player in APT as QAGOMA’s curatorial manager of Asian and Pacific Art. In this new role, Seeto seeks to capitalize on APT8 (opening on November 21) as being one of the few voices extolling cultural activity occurring in Australia as part of a larger global conversation, reflective of the politics and societies specific to the country’s most immediate geography. Additionally, he argues that the inclusion of the Pacific into the contemporary art lexicon is also key, given it is most often left out of mainstream reporting on and from an Australian perspective.

The meta-narrative du jour for civic leaders is urban planning for major infrastructure and international partnership investments from Asia. Recently the state’s center-left government announced that a major Chinese-Australian casino consortium won rights to develop Queen’s Wharf, a huge inner-city riverside holding opposite the Cultural Precinct and South Bank. The multibillion-dollar tender included proposals to expand the city’s public and performing arts capacity with design elements, a major new theater and a cross-river walking bridge linking the precincts.

Arts bodies not situated in these central hotspots will need to watch developments closely, as centripetal forces can favor areas with multiple, convenient offerings. The Judith Wright Centre, a multi-arts performance venue that also houses the nonprofit Institute of Modern Art (IMA), and the Brisbane Powerhouse, a commercial performance venue, along with a range of private art dealers similarly on the CBD fringe in the Fortitude Valley, New Farm and Woolloongabba neighborhoods, may ultimately benefit from their critical mass, but they will also need to further promote their niche abilities. Standout models that negotiate local and global tensions already exist, such as the IMA, and Brisbane’s high-profile artist collective, the ProppaNOW group of contemporary Indigenous artists. There are a few well-regarded stalwarts that survived recent funding changes, such as conceptual players Level and Boxcopy, but the Hold’s demise as a rental venue is imminent, and Jugglers’s street-level community space will need to morph further if a genuine ecosystem is to remain.

As rents balloon in districts around the CBD due to development and gentrification, pressure will mount further on the small- to medium-scale arts sectors, with artist-run initiatives particularly vulnerable. If further planning for the ambitious Cultural Precinct Master Plan proceeds, and all boats rise with the tide, there will be a strong opportunity for Brisbane to evolve with a resilient cultural infrastructure at the heart of its identity—one that entertainingly, and cleverly, refuses to be fixed.