Cultural Precinct Boom

Source:  Mathew Westwood, “Cultural precinct boom ‘will lead to mistakes’” The Australian 20 Feb. 2014

A BLUEPRINT to develop Melbourne’s Southbank cultural precinct is but one plan among dozens worldwide to enliven urban spaces with arts venues.

Indeed, cultural precincts are a global growth industry, with at least 20 cities planning such developments, worth a combined $US250 billion, according to research by AEA Consulting.

Saadiyat Island at Abu Dhabi, with its branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, and Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District are two of the best-known projects in a global arts-building spree.

The Economist magazine last December published a special report on the world’s museums, noting some extraordinary figures. Visitors to US museums topped 850 million in 2012. China, undergoing a museum-building boom, will soon have 4000 of them. The global stock of museums has increased from 23,000 two decades ago to at least 55,000.

“The number of museums around the world is growing exponentially,” says The Economist’s culture editor, Fiammetta Rocco. Many of the “cultural hubs” being developed, she says, have museums at their centre.

Rocco was visiting Melbourne to speak at a symposium called Global Giving to the Arts. The one-day event on Tuesday was hosted by the Australian Institute of Art History at the University of Melbourne, and convened by its director, Jaynie Anderson, and deputy chairwoman Kerry Gardner.

Some world cities, such as London and Paris, have cultural precincts that evolved over centuries. The newest precinct developments are being willed into existence, architecturally designed, and constructed with millions of dollars.

Rocco says successful cultural precincts have several common factors. Citing research by consultancy McKinsey, she says great cities have plenty of green space, great public transport, a vibrant mix of migrant groups and a stimulating cultural life.

Although Melbourne has been rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the world’s most livable city — for three years running — Rocco declined to discuss the city’s cultural precinct. The state government blueprint for Southbank, released last week, noted the area was home to 20 cultural organisations, but lacked the “authentic Melbourne experience” that visitors and residents enjoy elsewhere.

Rocco says that, worldwide, “a lot of terribly expensive mistakes” are likely as cities embark on a cultural building boom. The problems often arise in the conflict between ambitious architecture, and the need for human scale and amenity.

“That’s the real struggle, between the grand (architecture) and the human scale,” Rocco says, citing Paris’s Pompidou Centre as an example. “Such a weird place it must have been when it opened. But around it, there was enough free space that became filled up with public entertainers, there were places you could have a picnic, bring the family. (There was) that amazing interaction between grand architecture and street-level human friendliness.”

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in northern Spain, is often mentioned as the exemplar of urban regeneration based around a cultural building. David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart is increasingly cited as another successful venture of this kind.

But Rocco says Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was but the “icing on the cake” in Bilbao: the city had also invested in public transport and riverfront areas. In the first three years after opening, visitors to the Guggenheim contributed (Euros) 100 million in taxes to the regional government.

Several observers in Melbourne have mentioned the need for Southbank to attract artists and creative industries if it is to be a lively cultural centre. But Rocco says that cultural precincts will not attract creative types by government decree.

“I don’t think that you can create art from the top down,” Rocco says. “Artists work from the bottom up. They encounter each other. They like to go to places that are cheap, where the light is incredibly good, and where they can meet their friends. They congregate in a place like Hoxton in East London … and with them came the cafes, the nightlife, the music, the pop-up restaurants. Suddenly, it seems happening.”

Other speakers at the AIAH conference included Australia Council chairman Rupert Myer; Thomas Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles; Simon Mordant, chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art; Clare Jacobsen, author of Building Culture: Private New Museums in China; and Gene Sherman, director of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.