Engaging creative communities in an industrial city setting

This article discusses the politics and practicalities of research process in a major government-funded, academic/community collaborative research project on cultural assets in Wollongong, a regional industrial city 85 km south of Sydney, Australia. It does so through the theoretical concept of ‘enclosure’, which helps illuminate how policy discourses are framed, and reveals capacities to challenge and reframe policy imaginations through research. The setting is pivotal: Wollongong has a legacy of steel and coal industries that dominates contemporary discourses about the city’s future prosperity. Cultural industries such as music, film, art, circus and theatre have at various times been either marginalised as insignificant to economic futures or, when they have been noticed, have been worked into city planning in very particular ways – as cultural pastimes, as prospects for economic diversification or as means to renew socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Such visions have rested on notions of what constitutes ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’, with a focus on the performing arts, while other forms of vernacular creativity have remained largely unnoticed. Our research project has sought to respond to this, identifying and engaging with people involved in forms of vernacular creativity outside the arts orthodoxy among Wollongong’s blue-collar and youth populations (including surfboard shapers, Aboriginal rappers, custom car designers and alternative music subcultures). Our hope is that such engagement can better inform future planning for cultural industries in Wollongong. However, engaging with such creative communities is complicated, and in different times and places research strategies confronted apathy, suspicion, absence of representative organisation and ‘consultation fatigue’. We discuss our efforts at engagement with creative communities beyond the arts orthodoxy, and appraise some of the prospects and difficulties of the research methodologies adopted.

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