I grew up in the Blue Mountains, a well known National Park and World Heritage Area approximately two hours west of Sydney. My Mum and Dad still live there and I often visit, so be prepared for quite a few posts about mountain folk, mountain issues and mountain trail fables as my Dad and I make attempts at traversing the wilds together in an effort to work our way through his bible Blue Mountains Best Bushwalks by Veechi Stuart.
But last week it was Mum and I who ventured out together on a journey of the more cultural persuasion. Last year Katoomba enjoyed the Sydney arts and culture spotlight for a brief stint after the official opening of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. The centre has been on the drawing board for over 10 years and as the Blue Mountains has a long history of being a creative hub and arts refuge many stakeholders and locals considered the addition long overdue.
Interestingly the project was jointly funded by the Blue Mountains City Council, the NSW Government and the Coles Group which explains why the gallery sits on top of the smallish shopping centre and parking lot to form a mixed use development that also includes a state of the art new library- which I’m told attracts a queue of boisterous high school students around 4pm everyday.
Whilst the location on top of a shopping centre isn’t going to seem ideal for arts purists the involvement of the Coles Group would have been key to the realisation of the project. Gone are the days of full-scale public investment in cultural infrastructure and with over 70% of the Blue Mountains Local Government Area comprising National Park revenue sourcing is an ongoing issue, as it is for many regional local councils.
The architecture by Hassel is clever, simple and successful. The barrel roofs give a spacious and light feel and establish continuity between the library and the centre successfully. Notably the centre incorporates a large amount of public open space, helping it to double as a performance space and music venue for the town. The vistas out over the surrounding township from the ‘viewing platform’ are beautiful but it is the view looking up towards the heritage facade of the Carrington Hotel which really struck me as special. Framed by the large arch windows of the centre a different, less well known view of the iconic Hotel is opened up to the public, with the raw brick wall and famous chimney emphasising the gritty, utilitarian side of the otherwise luxe building.
My friend Nicole who was in my year at high school is working as Front of House and Memberships facilitator for the Centre and as we chatted Nicole informed us that in her experience visitors were engaged and interested in the architecture and not in any way shy in expressing their opinions on what they perceived to be the centre’s design strengths and weaknesses. Thinking back now, Nicole’s observation is completely consistent with my experience of the Blue Mountains community- very hardy, down to earth, full of pride for their environment and heritage and definitely not afraid to be critical of the new.
In terms of the exhibitions themselves, Into the Blue is a transportative, interactive and multimedia exhibition celebrating the addition of the Blue Mountains to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. Featuring over 45 minutes of stunning footage, surround sound, interactive historic maps and activities as well as in depth interviews with conservationists, indigenous elders, writers and historians the exhibition appeals to all ages and categories of viewers, both tourist and local.
The National Photographic Prize 2013 is a touring exhibition from the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra showcasing excellence in contemporary Australian photographic portraiture. The chosen subjects and their stories are captivating, some of them very familiar (Chris Lilley, David Stratton, Reg Mombassa etc) and others intriguing in their normality (a girl from the artist’s local cafe, Granny’s 90th etc). We concluded our visit with the Goya etchings which are on loan from Albury City Art Museum and are a disquieting introduction to enlightenment morality (and a bit too dark and gory for Mum!).
As a new institution the coming years will be challenging for the Centre as it tries to keep both the local community and the more occasional visitors as a captive and involved audience. Membership with its many perks and the diverse public program will become key, with a local poet already taking up residence in the cafe to conduct workshops. With arts in the regions flourishing as creatives are priced out of the city, venues like this also become important purchasing entities as they build up collections representative of the local artistic talent and culture.
For more information on the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre and for a cute promo video starring Lisa Mitchell visit their website: http://bluemountainsculturalcentre.com.au/
Entry is $5 for Adults, $3 for students and free for kids under 18 and the centre is open everyday. Membership is even more reasonable, especially if (like me) you visit the mountains frequently and are a sucker for all things arts and culture.
Big Bonus = Lunch at Leura Garage on the way back down the mountain. Hello rosemary salted fries with Aioli!
Til next time culture vulturers!