The Global Financial Crisis knocked the wind out of the Gold Coast.

Australia’s sixth largest city by population, with its theme parks and towering hotels designed for tourism, was left exposed to the 2008 near-implosion of the world economy, even as much of the rest of Australia sailed through the crisis with relative ease.

International visitors stopped arriving in the city – and then stayed away because of a subsequently high Australian dollar. The crisis became a reckoning, and the Coast began to look inward toward its own communities for growth. The green shoots soon appeared of what would become a thriving food, drink and cultural scene.

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In 2022, the Gold Coast is a city transformed. It brims with first-class restaurants, cafes, bars and boutiques. There’s the buzz of Burleigh Heads, one of Australia’s most in-demand beachside suburbs; or the clutches of boozers and refined eateries dotted along the Gold Coast Highway in Mermaid Beach, Currumbin and Palm Beach.

In the process, it’s come full circle. The Coast’s very focus on itself has changed its appeal for travellers. Now, as many holiday here for these local experiences as they do the big-box tourist attractions.

Perhaps the rise of a thriving Gold Coast arts scene, then, is just another part of this rapid evolution.

“I think so,” Rosie Dennis says. “Our current mayor [Tom Tate] is so committed to arts and culture. He absolutely recognises it as an economic driver for this city. Because if we don’t have that, what are local people going to do? You can only go to the beach and work so often. You need something that wraps around that.”

Dennis is the artistic director and CEO of Bleach, the Gold Coast’s signature contemporary arts festival that every year takes over the city. She’s talking to Broadsheet at the festival’s North Burleigh hub on what’s a pretty miserable late-winter morning, by Queensland standards. But she hardly seems to mind – it’s the second day of the first full instalment of Bleach since the beginning of the pandemic and Dennis, along with her producers and artists, is energised.

Over the coming days, the festival will host a stack of impressive performances, events and installations, a bunch of them pre-existing and brought to the city, but also many that are homegrown or have been commissioned for the festival. There are recent staples of Australia’s cultural circuit such as We Built This City, Polyglot Theatre’s celebrated cardboard-box city building exercise for kids, and The Nightline, Roslyn Oades and Bob Scott’s moody confession line-inspired audio-theatre production, which has been refreshed with the anonymous stories of Gold Coast locals.

But there’s also Crossing Borders, which presents the stories of nine Gold Coast women from different migrant backgrounds; Feast at Bleach, a one-night-only dining event in which chef and Quandamooka and Kullilli man Kieron Anderson uses traditional techniques and customs to cook a menu of locally sourced produce; composer and Bleach artist-in-residence Lawrence English’s Boulevard of Shells, a multi-projection installation of sound experiments made with locally found objects; and Radial, a new production by Geelong-based Back to Back Theatre that features local Gold Coast artists Tralala Blip, Lauren Watson and Tara Sales.

Bleach emerged quite literally from the sea in 2012 as Bleach: Surfing the Fringe, an adjunct to the Quiksilver Pro surfing competition. It was an enormous success, and over the following decade it has grown from a fringe festival intended to entertain punters when they weren’t at the beach, into one of Australia’s leading place-based contemporary arts festivals.

“Festival models in the past, particularly pre-Covid, have been directors going offshore or around the country, looking for work that they then bring back to the community,” Dennis says. “It’s quite a colonial model: ‘Here’s my ship and I’ve gone and found the spices and the animals, and I’m bringing them back.’ We know we can do better now.

“As a place-based festival, we invest in new work that’s connected to this place and of this place. It’s not necessarily as resource-intensive, but it’s more time-intensive … It’s going, ‘Let’s interrogate an idea and invite artists to come and interrogate that idea with us.’ We don’t play inside theatres, so we have to work with the natural architecture, the natural landscape, and country and place and the environment become critical players in the work you’re presenting.”

So you have Homegrown Opera, which presents new arrangements by composer John Rotar, performed by Queensland Opera singers and musicians. But it’s not in a concert hall – rather, it’s set in the bucolic surrounds of the Gold Coast Regional Botanic Gardens. Or workshops on Indigenous printmaking and the local Yugambeh language, which Dennis says were among the first events to sell out.

There’s also an impressive set of artist residencies, including Daruvaty, in which choreographer and artist Liesel Zink taps into her Ukrainian heritage to share the tradition of pysanky – painted Ukrainian eggs that are gifted to others to demonstrate friendship and goodwill. Or A Heart Stops Beating, theatre-maker Lisa Smith’s rumination on grief, which is framed by an intimate game of bingo.

“We don’t want to have a transaction [with artists], we want to build relationships,” Dennis says. “The Gold Coast is far more interesting and far more diverse than it’s often portrayed, and people are up for sophisticated conversations. They’re up for these experiences.”

Bleach’s ambition is simply a reflection of the wider arts scene on the Gold Coast. Drive 10 minutes north to Surfers Paradise and you’ll find Home of the Arts, or Hota as it’s known locally. This enormously impressive arts precinct last year opened its new $60.5 million Hota Gallery. Spanning six levels and over 2000 square metres of international-standard exhibition space, it’s now Australia’s largest public gallery outside the capital cities.

Three of Hota’s galleries are currently dedicated to Hota Collects, a showcase of more than 100 works from the gallery’s own 4,400-strong collection that includes some startling local and Australian art. Next month, it will welcome the latest edition of Energies, the longstanding annual exhibition of local visual arts students that has previously helped launch the careers of Michael Zavros, Abbey McCulloch, Michael Candy and Rebecca Ross.

There’s also a busy grassroots arts scene in places such as Cronulla and Karen avenues’ creative precinct, which features Sweet Fine Artist Studio and Terri Lew’s much-loved 19 Karen art space and gallery. Further south in Currumbin there’s Dust Temple, an old industrial warehouse that’s been transformed into an art gallery, artist studios and enormously popular cafe – it overflows with locals every weekend.

On my last night in town I sit in the Botanic Gardens and watch Homegrown Opera. The rain finally cleared just before sundown and it’s turned into a bitterly cold evening by Gold Coast standards – there’s even a fog rolling into the gardens, to add to the vibe. But the punters, young and old, hardly care. We warm our feet by the fire and watch as the performers, all from different cultural backgrounds, sing their way through these new works that capture the city’s modern multicultural nature. It feels very Bleach. It feels very Gold Coast.

“The challenge for us arts and culture kids in town is that there’s still a perception outside this city that the arts and culture scene isn’t sophisticated here,” Dennis says. “That you come to the Gold Coast for theme parks and beaches. But that’s changing – it’s really changing – and we’re committed to being part of that.”

The writer was a guest of Bleach Festival. The festival runs until Sunday August 21.