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Notes from Dream Big

Lockhart hosted the second annual Dream Big conference, organised by Eastern Riverina Arts and Western Riverina Arts.

The event's debut in Narrandera last year focused on festivals, with talks from artists, organisers and administrators. This year the focus was on public art.

After a welcome from Eastern Riverina Arts' Scott Howie, a welcome to country by Mark Saddler and another welcome from Lockhart Shire general manager Rod Shaw, renowned artist Fiona Foley presented the keynote address.

Foley discussed her formative experiences as an artist, beginning with an introduction to books on Australian Aboriginal history since European settlement that had influenced her. She recalled a critique of her graduating work while at the Sydney College of the Arts, a response to massacres at Queensland's Hervey Bay.

She mentioned criticisms from fellow students led to the development of self-belief in her work when the piece was bought by the National Museum of Australia. From here she skipped ahead to the 2009-10 retrospective held at the Melbourne Museum of Contemporary Art, which included work reflecting on the John Batman treaty that saw the Wurundjeri people transfer 600 acres of land where Melbourne now stands.

Foley said history texts provided the ideas she "crystallised in sculpture". Her work Dispersed was shown as an example, the letter D covered in bullets to comment on the euphemistic use of the word to describe the killing and displacement of indigenous Australians. (Image below courtesy of the artist.)

She outlined the process of developing and installing Witness To Silence, explaining the use of secrecy and subterfuge to see the work installed outside the Brisbane Magistrates Court.

In her initial statement she claimed it would memorialise fires and floods in Queensland townships. Three months after it was unveiled she revealed the 94 sites referenced within it were sites where massacres of Aboriginal people were known to have occurred.

"I like to put hidden histories into the public arena," Foley explained before discussing her works in the Queensland State Library which drew on the history of opium in the state. Her research found the little town of Marborough had three opium dens in the main street during the 19th Century. "Why? Because [the government of the day] wanted a cheap workforce," she claimed. (Image below courtesy of the artist.)

Similarly, Foley's $1.5 million commission in Mackay took inspiration from history. Her brief had been to enhance the river as the city had turned away from it. She researched the South Sea Islander workforce that had been imported to work in the canefields and developed sculptures based on sugarcubes. These featured the names of boats that had brought this human cargo as well as thumbprints from their descendants.

The local council were not impressed and a compromise was required for the project to proceed, where names of boats not involved in this trade were included. Foley said some of the councillors were descendants of the sugar farmers.

It was a provocative and interesting talk. One which Scott Howie said provided a "clear indication of the power of public art".

Wendy Hee, Cultural Development Officer with Waverley Council, introduced her talk on the economic benefits of public art with the well-known statue of the Dog on the Tuckerbox that is sited outside Gundagai. She outlined how this iconic piece stops traffic and creates jobs, although acknowledging the area has undergone some changes in recent years.

"Why have a park bench when you can have a work of art?" she asked, outlining pieces such as a mosaic bench that celebrates the meeting of the Bondi Life Saving Club in Gaza during the second world war.

"Public art commissions generate an economy of their own," she argued while outlining the materials and transport costs that feed into local economies. These activities can also serve to educate communities, such as Port Macquarie works that were funded by the State Emergency Service. "They walk passed it every day, so that reinforces the message" about flood markers.

Another example was an airport work that had been funded through a grant for security improvements. She described the process of the artist liaising with council staff in many departments.

"It's probably cheaper to be beautiful" said Wendy, contrasting the costs of buying council assets out of a catalogue versus employing artists to develop original works for the purpose.

Waverley Council are known for their annual Sculpture by the Sea event, which estimated to attract 1.5 million people over three weekends.

Local artist Vic McEwan asked a question about the process and whether friction between varying interests can create better results. Wendy replied that it was important to overcome resistance and fear with information.

Fiona Foley argued that it's important to maintain cultural integrity to the site. "It's an indictment on Australian society if we can't promote our own culture," she said. "We need to stop giving priority to overseas artists and start cultivating our own."

Wendy Hee concluded "It'd be a really good start for local councils to have a public art policy".

Wagga Wagga City Council Cultural Development Officer Tracie Miller spoke on her work in incorporating public art into planning processes, so that it's not just plonked down at the end.

She mentioned the challenges faced by the city due to rapid growth so the urban sprawl retains a sense of personality. "Public art fails not from negativity but from indifference" is a quote I've recorded but am not sure now whether she said it or quoted it.

One artist Tracie is working with is Col Henry, who has recently been awarded a commission for the city airport. "Public art requires all sorts of conversations," he said. "Everyone loves it -- especially after a year," he joked but acknowledged that installation can be "an intensive process".

"Everyone is an artist. My role is to get into people's heads so their ideas can be realised," said Col. Fiona Foley argued against this statement, saying that everyone has opinions but that doesn't necessarily lead to good art.

Penny Davies from Southwest Arts spoke on the Growing Our Place sculpture trail. "We wanted to nurture and support our local government areas to feel confident incorporating art into their works." She said that project management required being clear with councils and communities about the process and outcomes, outlining how a popular vote helped ensure support while councils auspiced their projects and participated in their commissioning.

John Wood was one artist involved in this project but he spoke more generally about his sculpture and experiences. "Making the break into public art can be a slow and deflating process but persevere," John said. "Remember it's a competitive process, so give it your best shot and it gets easier [to write proposals] the more you do."

"Research the brief and take time to talk to locals," he continued. "Have a realistic budget and timeframe."

Public art, John believes, gives a community a sense of place but he encouraged the use of interpretive panels to help them understand a piece. "Feedback is very useful to an artist," he concluded.

Ursula Jones, Tourism and Economic Development Officer at Lockhart Shire Council, spoke on the Spirit of the Land Festival which began in 2007 as a way of creating activity for farmers as "a distraction from the drought". The $10,000 acquisitive prize has the title National Farm Art Award and in 2013 it becomes a non-acquisitive prize to open the Festival to a wider group of artists. The event brings 5000 people each day.

Scott Howie spoke on the Animals on Bikes sculpture trail between Orange and Dubbo. 111 sculptures have been placed along roadsides to encourage tourism. "They're coming together to promote their towns and drive the dollar through," he said.

Linda Tillman from Riverina Regional Tourism spoke on their plan, which includes cultural tourism, as well as funding available through Destination NSW and hopes to double overnight visitation.

"They want to see local governments and industry working together to promote regional NSW," she said. Scott Howie observed this means promotional activities "become more sustainable because everyone has invested more into them".

The final part of the Dream Big conference was called Wisdom of the Crowd and invited local artists to pitch their dreams for audience comments.

Andrew Whitehead, a sculptor from Urana who had won the Spirit of the Land Festival a number of times, spoke first on his idea for a trail of his work through the region.

This would be akin to a solo show for an artist and Andrew argued he had a "proven track record in delivering popular art works". Col Henry suggested he should consider inviting other artists to be included, which lead to discussion of whether diversity or consistency would be selling points.

Vic McEwan of The CAD Factory spoke on his work rather than pitching a dream. "Art is about finding truths about ourselves" and "breaking down hierarchies," he said. The CAD Factory focus on creating temporary artworks with a view to embedding memories into the landscape which will encourage audiences to daydream. "There's poetry in all things," Vic concluded.

Poetry is the focus of Derek Motion's work and he talked on a project developed with Vic when they worked at Booranga Writers Centre and Wagga Wagga City Council respectively. Together they solicited poetry for installation in bus shelters. Derek said the "key thing isn't money" when developing art projects in local government, "it's a go-to person who will argue the case". He outlined his dream to project poetry onto the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.

The conference was an engaging event with interesting speakers talking on a variety of projects from their perspectives as artists and project managers

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