The contemporary-art scene in western Sydney is evolving. Not historically a destination for creative pursuits or socially engaged artistic work, a host of local arts organisations have developed exceptional programs that seriously outplay the standard ho-hum of any typical regional arts centre. The Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C) draws in the artistically engaged and touches the local community.
When we meet C-A-C director Michael Dagostino, he shows us through to a cafe annexed to the main exhibition hall, which opens out into a quiet, leafy courtyard. “The Arts Centre Café definitely has the best coffee in Campbelltown,” he smiles. Inside the centre, an installation of coloured glass and brilliant neon bars by Perth-based artists Rebecca Baumann and Brendan Van Hek is mesmerising. Guarding the entrance is a thick curtain of gold tinsel, moving gently under the breeze of a disguised fan. The exhibition is entitled Colour Restraint, and is a consideration of dreams, surrealist agendas, wishes and desires, ideals and illusions.
“Whether it’s Urban Theatre Projects at Bankstown, or Information & Cultural Exchange in Parramatta, the Blacktown Arts Centre or Casula Powerhouse, we all work in similar ways, and that’s really unique to western Sydney,” says Dagostino.
Under the leadership of Lisa Havilah (who is now at the helm of Carriageworks), Campbelltown Arts Centre quickly developed a reputation for innovative and community-based programming, and increased its visitor numbers more than six-fold. “We’ve been around since 1988, but in 2005 there was a major renovation,” says Dagostino. A theatre and other facilities were added. “This allowed us to really change the way that C-A-C operated,” he says. Dagostino took over from Havilah in 2011. “We went from a regional gallery, showing fairly traditional works, to something really contemporary.”
The C-A-C program offers a very diverse collection of visual art, performance and live art, dance, theatre and music. Earlier this year, the centre hosted Pixel Sounds, the award-winning electronic music festival that celebrates chip music compositions (rudimentary computer sounds). Currently in development is Swarm, a live-art project curated by award-winning interdisciplinary artist duo, Branch Nebula. Over the next 12 months, a selection of local and international artists will explore the role of the artist within a city.
“I’m smiling because it’s a really fun project,” laughs Dagostino. “[The artists] are going to do a series of actions and interventions along Queen Street. It’s a really interesting, diverse street that is going through a massive renewal, so we wanted to place artists within that context and to see what kind of projects they would come up with.”
Each of the artists spent three weeks in March this year on site in Campbelltown, developing their ideas and their relationship with the local community. A two-day event showcasing the resulting works is scheduled for 2016. “Rather than being a centre for arts sake, C-A-C has become a place where the community can actually engage with the artistic practice of all of the artists,” says Dagostino.
David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art is perhaps a very bloated example of contemporary art’s capacity to shape and change place, and to engage and enliven local communities. The Campbelltown Arts Centre is more softly spoken, and doesn’t want to turn western Sydney into the next artistic Mecca. Instead, it’s using the rich history and culture of the region to inform its program and its output. “There is a generation of artists now that have grown up in western Sydney and still live and participate in the culture of western Sydney. There’s a few generations now,” adds Dagostino. “I see it continually growing, because it’s recognised as a unique region.”