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Gold Coast’s ever-evolving culture

Samantha Morris

When people conjure images of the Gold Coast, they invariably include our stunning coastline, outdoor lifestyle and world-class theme parks.

But when visitors stay in a city just a few short days, with action-packed itineraries, it's sometimes hard to really unearth a town's cultural heart-beat.

Rest assured though, the Gold Coast's cultural heart beats stronger than ever.

And with the Commonwealth Games taking place early in 2018, the City is gearing up for a cultural explosion. City of Gold Coast is pro-actively investing in local cultural projects, as well as internationally-significant ones and local creative workers are rising to the challenge. Much of this work reflects the priorities identified in the City's Cultural Strategy but much of it is also grass-roots, under the radar, and behind the scenes.

Robin Archer, the City's Strategic Cultural Adviser says a lot of the City's cultural growth can't actually be seen. Certainly not by visitors.

"I say this everywhere," Robyn Archer AO said. "There's an enormous amount happening on every front that you can think of. You just can't see it yet."

"Unless you arrived on the Gold Coast when there's a particular event or festival on, you might not actually see anything," she said.

"12.5 million visitors coming to the Gold Coast every year would be more than happy to have a cultural experience while they're here. They just need to know how they can get it," Robyn said.

There's no doubt the city relies on tourism. And there's no doubt tourism has to include a diversity of offerings for visitors. But any city that's serious about tourism must also be serious about entertainment.

Luckily, the Gold Coast does entertainment very well. From the legendary pyjama parties of the 1950s to impromptu dress-up nights at Swingin' Safari, this city knows how to throw a party. With almost 200,000 convention and conference delegates here every year, massive theatre productions in hotel theatres as well as City's dedicated performance space, international touring acts, cover bands spread from Paradise Point to Coolangatta as well as aerial acrobatics, blockbusters being filmed here, the country's only Bachelor of Popular Music course and open mic and poetry slams week in / week out, the Gold Coast is a melting pot of creative culture. If we look at music alone, some of the world's biggest names have passed through here. Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine, Midnight Oil, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth. Even Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey have stopped in here.

Two key elements set the Gold Coast apart from other cities of similar size. Firstly, the city is linear rather than radial. Secondly, both residents and visitors spend a great deal of time outdoors.

The current evolution of creative activity has moulded itself accordingly.

Rather than having one or two set districts (such as within a CBD) where you'll find high density concentrations of cultural activity, the Gold Coast is a series of villages in which much cultural activity takes place.

And rather than sticking with conventional venues for its expression of creativity, the City makes great use of outdoor and alternative spaces for cultural purposes. Sculpture on the beach, anybody? Installations flapping from high rise balconies? Acrobats on forklifts in the main mall? Film screenings on Surfers Paradise beach? Art exhibitions in the park? International performance art premiering on the beach? Opera on the beach? This is how we do culture on the Gold Coast.

Bleach* Festival is a contemporary example of the City's outdoor lifestyle and penchant for cutting-edge performance colliding in spectacular and often surprising fashion. More than 1600 artists and creatives have been engaged since the event started just five short years ago and the event reported an economic impact of $25 million over four years (most recent data 2015) with $7.3 million of that recorded for 2015. Tens of thousands of people - both locals and visitors alike - attend Bleach* events every year. And the programming is as diverse as the City itself. Kids riding trams with a theatrical conductor, sound installations, skate photography, acrobatic performances, international and local musicians, visual artists and creative development works all get a look-in.

Blues on Broadbeach, which is purely music-based has taken place in the malls, streets and venues of Broadbeach for 13 years. In 2015, an audience of 127,000 attended with an injection of $18 million into the local economy as a result.

And they're just two of the big ones. To sustain events of that caliber, there must by default be a healthy, vibrant and robust creative scene on the Gold Coast. And this is not new. What is new, is the focus by City leaders on strategically investing in cultural growth.

The grass-roots and community-driven evolution of art and culture in this city continues. But in recent years there's been a new-found commitment of creative workers to explore new ideas, to work together and to sustain a diversity of offerings to make sure we continue to grow as a cultural destination.

Truth be told, the phrase 'cultural destination' is one that has only emerged for the Gold Coast, in recent years. Now, people talk about it all the time.

Polly Snowden is a local creative worker. It's hard to describe what she does as a job - she's an entrepreneur, a creative director, she's a stage manager, a photographer, a mentor, a videographer. She's at the coalface of the organic cultural evolution happening right now. And if you talk to her, the ideas spill out of her mouth quicker than you can take them in. Festivals, sculpture parks, music showcases, partnerships with nationally and internationally significant music events are some of the ideas. The actual projects that have come to fruition include working with Council to showcase local talent, curating live music in the park across three Council divisions and even bringing major international acts here. She knows tourism is a driving force, but she's more motivated by creating a city she wants to live in.

Aaron Fenech (Fenech Guitars) is another creative worker, who's chosen the Gold Coast as homebase for his new business - making guitars. He's one of just a few luthiers in Australia and he's already making a massive impact to the local music industry. What's even better, is that Aaron hopes to position himself as a cultural tourism provider. Just like people will travel to the Gold Coast to learn how to make a surfboard, he's hoping they'll come here to learn how to make a guitar - from sustainable native timbers, no less.

Julz Parker and Leesa Gentz are better known as the Hussy Hicks. They tour the world making music, playing massive festivals and collaborating with internationally renowned artists, but the Gold Coast is home. And their music reflects that duality. It's a unique blend of southern USA soul and quirky Gold Coast surf guitar.

Chloe Popa actually grew up on a wheat farm in western Queensland and cut her teeth working in communication in places like Barcaldine but she chose the Gold Coast to settle and raise a family and soon after founded Blank GC - the City's cultural street press (along with your's truly). She quickly identified a gap in the music community and launched the Gold Coast Music Awards in 2015 - which attracted more than 30,000 People's Choice popular votes from around the world and sold-out its inaugural ticketed event.

Cindy Jensen is another creative worker who has intentionally chosen the Gold Coast for her cultural pursuits. The brains behind Buskers by the Creek - which in its first year attracted 10,000 people and in its second doubled that figure, Cindy has turned her annual event into an initiative that works for the City all year 'round. She works with her buskers to make sure they get paid gigs before and after the festival, she actively promotes the live music and cultural scene and the importance of busking and she collaborates in surprising ways to extend the art of performance (for example, she just brought a Freaks 'n' Beats show to NightQuarter which involved all manner of freaky folk performing fantastic feats).

Photo credit: Lamp Photography


Every week here on the Gold Coast there are open mic and jam nights, life drawing accompanied by original flamenco music, slam poetry and expression sessions. There are hip-hop dancers and learn to sew classes, performance art and macramé lessons, there's sculpture societies and one of the highest densities of amateur theatre companies in Australia, drumming circles, buskers, fire dancers, live visual performance artists and musicians that encompass everything from math rock to coastal folk to psych and flamenco.

And that's not even the tip of the iceberg.

Gold Coast punches above its weight but it doesn't like to blow its own trumpet - at least not where local culture is concerned. But if you dig just a little below the surface, you'll be surprised at what you might find.

Samantha Morris

Blank GC

Samantha Morris has lived on the Gold Coast nearly all her life and has been going to gigs here since before she was legally allowed to. Most of her career has been spent working with conservation and land management groups on communication, fundraising and engagement strategies and she's won several awards recognizing her work in that space. In 2013 she decided to focus closer to home and launched an old-school printed monthly newspaper focused on the local music and cultural scene. Blank GC has become the City's cultural voice. In 2015 she also launched the Gold Coast Music Awards. She is a freelance writer and a culture vulture.

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