AT FIRST GLANCE, four years ago, Elwick Bay foreshore in the northern suburbs of Hobart was a barren, reclaimed and disjointed waterfront reserve. The shallow mudflats were considered so contaminated and smelly that dumping a few shopping trolleys and truck tyres didn't raise an eyebrow. At night the adjacent car park would rev up with 'drifters' doing burn outs, such a hassle to police and local residents that a gate was installed to limit vehicle access to the public amenity.
Looking again, however, it was an area with a devoted local user group: sailors and rowers, dog walkers and Sunday barbecuers. Their activities mainly confined to the western edge close to the Montrose Bay High School and a stone's throw from where David Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art now sits. The bay was also one of the last obvious undeveloped north-facing waterfronts in the greater Hobart area. To those who were listening, and looking for opportunity, Walsh's $50 million plus construction project transforming the Moorilla Estate across the bay caused more like a surf break than a ripple effect. A real chance to catch the wave, but timing, positioning and an understanding of the local conditions were essential.
Somewhat astonishingly, in hindsight, for an area almost completely bereft at the time of world-class public buildings and spaces, the Glenorchy City Council was on the front foot. Developing the parkland was seen as an opportunity to make over the bay area and encourage private investment in the region, particularly at Wilkinson's Point at the northern edge of the park. Ironically, given the attention it is now receiving, the Glenorchy Art & Sculpture Park (GASP!) project that emerged was never really built in its own right. Its success, however, I believe, is that contrary to the original intention it was approached in such a way that it could stand up on its own.
GASP! is now a multi-award winning community parkland punctuated by jaw-droppingly beautiful infrastructure and the occasional international art project. As project manager for the Glenorchy City Council and CEO for the start-up GASP! organisation, I have had the privilege of working with many people to see it come to fruition. The vision co-produced by local residents and national business, arts and civic leaders is coming to life.
SOME HIGH-PROFILE producers and curators I have worked with in the arts sector blatantly and unashamedly state that they don't 'consult' community. A piece of pointed advice once handed down to me from a national luminary was 'Don't ask people what they want!'
What are we afraid of, I quietly wondered? Is it because it dilutes the concept of excellence, which can only be determined by specific expertise? Possibly, I can understand this: you're trained, you're experienced and knowledgeable and you've developed a road map on reaching a desired outcome. But, it's a limiting approach. It cuts off potential and the magic of previously only-imagined and long-hidden ideas. Looking at consultation in reverse, it is the key to building momentum and to unlocking the domino effect of support and funding. This can only start to happen when a long-held idea starts to remind and resonate with others. It comes from open conversation that must start with a question. The fear of community consultation may actually just be an aversion to the time and the research that must be invested into a project's planning stage in order for it to be successful.
Wanting to achieve or maintain excellence (often accomplished when a singular vision is adhered to) is a valid concern as multiple perspectives can lead a project to being consumed by competing agendas. The outcome of a committee, I've been told, is, in a negative sense, a camel. However, while strange, we may just need to be thoughtful about its use. The risk is when interest groups doggedly adhere to their own agendas leading to stagnation, or worse, they are sidelined and a project proceeds with no ownership. These issues can only be overcome by allocating time to develop the questions, listening and then distilling the main concerns. What is also necessary is a clear feedback loop. Ultimately it's about managing expectations. While it's not rocket science, the whole process is not an easy one. Especially since there are many voices in public projects and they can be hideously under-resourced in the early stages as well as subject to ridiculously short political funding timeframes.
IN ADDITION TO this, the first inherent risk in consultation for the GASP! project was that there was no funding at the time to do anything. Courage was required to point this out to expectant community members, which led to some cynicism, but also to generosity because ultimately they had enormous pride in place and could 'see' opportunity before many others. They 'got' that their involvement might be the thing to get the funding. The initial questions were framed around whether there was potential, not 'what do you want?' and then eliciting their interests. It is basic, but it's a step often left out. The result, in one instance, was tears of excitement and then the gems: streams of narrative of why the site was important.
The project is much more complex than it first appears. Now, a nationally led not-for-profit company leads the governance of the arts projects and works collaboratively with the Glenorchy City Council, which is responsible for the built infrastructure. Without a doubt, the success to date could not have been achieved without a symbiosis between these two organisations. Three years into this structure the project is starting to grow. A transition to full autonomy is planned for the new financial year. It's a tentative time. There are some anxieties, mainly around financial sustainability, but also excitement as it becomes obvious that the council has invested in something truly unique.
Collectively we are feeling proud. A community member recently remarked in response to GASP!: 'We have lived to see Glenorchy really become the place to be and live -– after all the years of being called the flannelette brigade!'.
The first stages of GASP! have focused on building a 'backbone' for the arts vision and important public access. Room 11, a fresh-faced practice based in Hobart, led by project architect Thomas Bailey, won Best Urban Design in the 2013 Australian Architecture Awards. Significantly, it was their first foray into the public realm and typifies the 'GASP! approach', breaking out of conservative government norms. The design procurement was, again, the result of a consultative approach where the inherent risks were embraced, not dodged. The infrastructure cleverly focuses attention towards the natural assets, the bay now being seen as alive, not dead, and the art and design are bold, but not too tricky or alienating. A truthful, simple geometry combined with gentle, poetic sound art projects have built trust and set the bar.
Over the next three years the arts program is dedicated to achieving Swimmable! Reading the River, a catchcry from early consultation where a college student summed up the views of her generation – being able to swim in the bay again is a priority. Swimmable! invites our best-known artists in collaboration with Tasmania's innovative environmental organisations to respond creatively to issues around water quality and climate change.
What would it be worth if we could develop a formula for successful community and regional development projects? In Artlink in 2010 I optimistically remarked that love, money, vision and timing are everything. The will of community leaders and a specialised team, not adverse to risk, may well be the start of the formula but real momentum comes from love, which is the relationship you build with the community. The vision and money stem from that.