A few months ago I was conducting a phone interview with a Sydney string player for a national magazine. After we wrapped what had been an energetic half-hour chat, she warmly turned the questions back onto me: ‘So where do you live?’. Equally upbeat, I replied that I live in Hobart.
All enthusiasm had drained from her voice; I was no longer someone she had to charm or entice with her energy. I was from Hobart – not a place important enough to impress. Recomposing herself, she went on to excuse my unfortunate living situation by explaining that at least I could always travel up to see what’s happening in the bigger cities.
Experiences like these remind me that there is still a lot of prejudice around our country’s southern-most state – not only from external sources, but from the tall poppy syndrome with which we’re so stricken, and which provokes many of us to run away – mainly young people, and less than half of those wanting ever to return – in grim acceptance of our perceived inferiority compared to our mainland counterparts. It’s an issue that touches most of us on a personal level. Most of my should-be-lifelong friends left years ago, bound for the shiny idealism of Melbourne; a few others Sydney, Brisbane, and even Japan. There’s an illusion that it’s necessary to move in order to achieve success – cultural, life experience, economic – and if you stay, you’re a small-town failure. In many ways it’s self-perpetuating: we’re conditioned to feel this way of thinking about our home state is normal.
I’m no different – I often wonder if I’d still be living in Tasmania had I not engaged with our artistic community. After all, it’s certainly a small one – but for a state with a population of just half a million people, we boast some of the highest quality art music events, performance venues, and creative talent in the world.
For a state with a population of just half a million people, we boast some of the highest quality creative talent in the world.
Tasmania – specifically, a musical Tasmania – is all I’ve ever known. I was raised here and spent my childhood engaging with our arts scene, ever since my dad first took me to see the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra when I was eleven years old. In fact, this played a strong role in inspiring me to study here, and pursue a career in the classical music industry.
Anyone who has visited Tasmania will know that it’s – somewhat ironically – known as the ‘best kept secret‘, of Australia (even the world, according to Buzzfeed). Indeed, it does feel like a world away – geographically and culturally – and in the past few years the state has transformed from Australia’s little country town down south into not only a tourist destination but a cultural destination worthy of global praise. The ‘Mona effect’ can’t be underestimated – the outsize success of David Walsh’s eclectic collection has shone a spotlight on the quality of Tasmania’s creative arts scene overall, and had flow-on effects for the wider economy; doubling searches for hotels in Hobart, surging the local housing market, and boosting our hospitality industry. Mona’s latest festival, Dark Mofo, heralded an attendance of 427,000 people, a number that nearly matches the entire population of the state; this year, the festival is shifting its focus away from the capital and putting on its show in Launceston, too. What other state in Australia hosts an arts event that generates an interest per capita of that scale?
Tasmania brings in international acts for its festivals and events without the sacrifice of its local artists, who can be found performing weekly across popular music jaunts. Ten Days on the Island, Cygnet Folk Festival, A Festival Called Panama, Falls Festival, and The Festival of Voices keep us sustained throughout the year. We also celebrate the First Nations culture of the island through Indigenous community events such as the Nayri Niara good spirit Festival, and the putalina Festival. The Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival of food, music and dance is celebrated with a large burning sculpture, not unlike The Wicker Man, ignited by a flaming arrow – one year recently, as local legend has it, the bowman missed the mark, his arrow flying off into the distance along with the ambition of this climactic moment. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there for that particularly comical occasion, but we Tasmanians are used to hearing stories like that. They remind us that we’re not too big for our boots. We’re real, we’re a little weird, and we kinda dig it.
Tasmanians have grown to appreciate and embrace the different…We’re real, we’re a little weird, and we kinda dig it.
Perhaps Tasmania is more culturally liberated today because, for a long time, we have had to take what we can get. And when you aren’t spoilt for choice, you’re more open to seeing the beauty in what’s in front of you. Even if we dislike the idea of something (or feel the art isn’t always that great), we’ve become more open to the experience – which many of us are often surprised to enjoy. In recent years the offerings have increased in both frequency and diversity. No matter what music is taking place – the soundtrack to Twin Peaks performed live, Scottish art-rock, or a local leather orchestra – Tasmanians have grown to appreciate and embrace the different.
In the classical music world, Tasmania has experienced recent success with the inaugural and sold-out Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival in rural Evandale, sharing with hundreds of guests its goal of running ‘a classical music festival for Tasmania and showcasing the built heritage in Northern Tasmania.’ It follows in the footsteps of the defunct Hobart Baroque festival, a financial failure that sent its founder Leo Schofield packing from a state he later described as a ‘land of dregs, bogans, and third-generation morons.’ But unlike Schofield’s ventures, TCMF was very well received, and is scheduled for a return in 2018. Notably, its founder, Allanah Dopson, is also the founder of fine art gallery Handmark – she has a clearly stated love of classical music, food, wine, and our oldest buildings, and a dream to bring them all together. And so she did.
In some ways, I feel that this sums up what it means to be an arts practitioner in Tasmania: if you want to make something happen, you can. We are still in a teething era – there is still so much that can happen here; so much scope for innovation and collaboration between artists who live in such close proximity to each other, and to the events that they create across the disciplines. Tasmania is something of a blank creative canvas, in so many ways. And this is combined with our interconnected community that would be starved of any artistic experience if we didn’t support each other to create it.
Tasmania is something of a blank creative canvas, in so many ways… if you want to make something happen, you can.
For emerging art music creators, a (very) welcome change is on the horizon as the University of Tasmania Conservatorium of Music is soon relocating to The Hedberg – an ambitious, multi-million dollar performing arts centre being constructed in the space of an old garage. Bizarrely, its name pays ‘respect to the rich history and heritage of the commercial waterfront district,’ according to the university (though it also shares the name of a well-known Hobart whaler – an awkward look for a state internationally recognised for its role in antiwhaling activism.) But outside the Conservatorium itself, young Tasmanians are receiving a wealth of opportunity through programs such as the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s Composers’ School and Composers’ Project initiatives, which sees young talent from right across the state team up with orchestral experts for industry based learning (though, the TSO also extends opportunities for young interstate musicians through its outreach programs – including nationally notable emerging artists Jakob Bragg, Timothy Tate, and others.).
We can only hope that Tasmania’s burgeoning artistic programs and events are sustainable in the long term – and that the new artists we train choose to present their future works in the state. Because the longer we stay here, the better it gets. It comes down to cause and effect – we’re showing the world that we are ready to engage with and to produce the best of the arts. We’re ready to do it just as well as anywhere else – in fact, better. So to the next person who responds with disappointment when I announce that I am a Tasmanian, I would say this: it’s hard work bringing an entire state to life. But we’ve worked hard against the odds. We’ve experimented and we’ve broken ground. And for those of us who choose to stay, we should celebrate our differences without shame.