Music, art scenes give sense of identity - The Australian

It is the cultural heart that reveals the Darling Downs’ community spirit.

Southern Queensland’s arts and cultural scene is said to punch above its weight, including picnic performances attracting thousands to see opera, emerging public art and open-air rock concerts.

Building on a tradition of music groups in Toowoomba and performances for more than a century, new festivals are planned to bring tourists and locals to the blue-sky surrounds.

University of Southern Queensland professor and head of the arts and communication school, RhoderickMcNeill, says the region has long been an arts hub with a creative culture, pointing to its enduring local classical music groups and its innovative festivals.

“[Arts] brings the city a sense of identity and wellbeing,” he says. “The cultural activities in the place are a good barometer of how happy and content a place is.”

Western Downs’ historic Jimbour Station hosts one of Australia’s biggest music events, Opera at Jimbour, that brings up to 10,000 guests to the sandstone property to watch the performance from their picnic blankets.

Planning for the biennial performance — which last year featured David Hobson and Emily Burke in The Merry Widow — is under way as part of the Queensland Music Festival for July 2019. Burke also starred in Fledermausin 2015.

And after May’s biggest rock concert west of the Great Dividing Range — the Western Downs’ Day on the Plains, part of the 10-day Blue Skies Festival — the region will soon display its contemporary arts bona fides with a light-installation festival.

Toowoomba’s LIT Festival will tell “stories in light” with projections and sculptures during September’s Carnival of Flowers.

Festival director Ben Tupas says LIT will kick off with three installations projecting on central business district heritage buildings, across the under-utilised Bell Street Mall, and over the city’s famed trees.

“We want to play with tradition and get people to start thinking outside the box,” he says. “There are spaces that have a lot of potential.

“On one level it is just beautiful lights but if you chip away a bit you could find out about an untold story or an unsung hero from the Toowoomba community,” Tupas says.

He says Toowoomba has a strong history of artist-led initiatives, including his Story Artist Run Collective, and its small-city community means people know each other and can make things happen.

“If you have an idea and you feel you can do it, you just do it,” he says.

This includes four years of the successful First Coat street art festival, which attracted international and local painters to create almost 100 large-scale murals across prominent city buildings.

First Coat curator Grace Dewar says the local craft and art is now self-generating through studios and the arts program at USQ.

“The public art is situated between the historical buildings. It has been an absolute pleasure to work in contemporary art in these spaces,” she says.

“There’s this mentality that you need to access art and culture from metropolitan areas and it’s just not the case. Regional Australia offers exciting spaces to engage,” Dewar says

Fresh ideas to generate creative arts and tourism are also in the works.

Queensland’s Palaszczuk government last year granted $250,000 for a feasibility study into a Quarry Gardens development to create a permanent botanical attraction based on Vancouver’s Butchart Gardens in Canada.

The proposal envisages a series of gardens and attractions, potentially with a hotel, set across a dramatic escarpment and forest setting adjacent to the city centre.

The plan was first mooted 15 years ago but shelved amid a southeast Queensland drought, when the city was placed on severe water restrictions. Garden designers from New Zealand recently visited Toowoomba to advise on the proposal.

Toowoomba has had a thriving arts culture since its cattle-and-grain days. Its Choral Society has been singing for more than 80 years and the Philharmonic Society was founded in 1903. The tourism award-winning Carnival of Flowers started in 1949 as a post-war festival to boost business activity.

Last year it attracted more than 250,000 people to the city.

USQ — formerly the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education — has offered an arts program since 1974 and its McGregor Arts Retreat has been running for 50 years. McNeill regards Toowoomba’s arts scene as competitive with those of other regional centres.

- Rosanne Barrett