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Residency Spotlight: Broken Hill Arts Exchange

Broken Hill, Australia’s first heritage listed city, is most well-known for its instrumental role in shaping the nation’s mining history. But beyond its expansive reserves of lead, silver and zinc – amongst the largest and richest in the world – is a city with a long-established and thriving artistic hub, whose diverse members are attracted to the Silver City’s dramatic industrial landscapes, endless skies, and inclusive community from all corners of the earth.

While Broken Hill’s permanent population has decreased in recent decades, the creative community is still making strides. Today, the city’s 19,000-strong population has access to over 20 public art galleries, including those dedicated to the late Pro Hart, who formerly used his hometown as an artistic base. Along with the city’s strong migrant history, there is also a constant stream of workers from diverse backgrounds circulating throughout the city, transplanted from BHP’s work in the local region. The result is a bustling and international city with a rich, well-developed arts and cultural scene.

Crucial to this flourishing creative community is the Broken Hill Arts Exchange (BHAE). Established in 2001 and inclusive of all art forms, the not-for-profit is staffed entirely by volunteers and aims to facilitate the ‘exchange of skills, knowledge and resources between different art practises, industries and communities.’

How this is carried out is fluid – BHAE flexibly responds to what is needed in the community – but what has been consistently offered over the past 18 years is its in-demand residency program. The initial scheme saw artists being housed in eight self-contained studios in a converted 1950s shopping centre near Patton Village, Broken Hill’s charming southern district. Each featured living quarters at the back, while the restored former shopfronts could be flexibly fashioned into galleries, or to provide more living space for longer term residencies.

Fast forward to today, and demand for Residencies @ Duff Street is still incredibly strong. The program is almost always booked out by professional and aspiring artists alike, keen to immerse themselves in their craft and to enjoy the city’s warm hospitality at very affordable costs. Each residency is self-directed in focus and goals, and draws a significant number of international artists, from countries as diverse as Japan, Switzerland, Jamaica and the US. Striking natural landscapes, including national parks and the Murray Darling, are close by. There are also residents from business and academia, such as scientists and engineers, whose outcomes and research are often used by artists for their own works. When combined, the residency program presents a unique and incredible wealth of opportunities for collaborations, learnings, experimentation and networking.

Indeed, artists in residence at BHAE have gone on to be exhibited at high-profile art events including the Venice Biennale, the Biennale of Sydney and at the Tate Modern, London. The public-fronted studio spaces have been turned into galleries, workshop spaces which generate income for artists, impromptu performance venues and more, providing an ever-rotating array of engaging cultural experiences for the community to enjoy. Meanwhile, some residents have elected to stay on for years beyond the scheme’s minimum 2 weeks, and now happily call Broken Hill home.

“There are a lot of reasons why artists are drawn to Broken Hill,” says Susan Thomas, Founder and Project Manager of BHAE. “With its history of 130 years of continuous mining, [Broken Hill] has a very dramatic landscape that is also in the arid zone, desert area of NSW but still accessible.

“You have a very beautiful landscape from that desert, and the light attracts filmmakers, photographers and painters … It’s an incredible opportunity as an artist.

“A lot of artists [also] come out travelling and looking for a place to settle for a while, so the residencies are that first landing point, where they can get to know the community and make friends, find their feet.”

The resounding success of Residences @ Duff Street has been such that last year, BHAE expanded into its new headquarters in the historic Grand Guest House. A converted former pub built in 1888, The Grand sits on the western side of Arden Street (the city’s bustling main road), at the heart of an area that Broken Hill City Council is driving to become the CBD’s cultural precinct. The new hub has also allowed BHAE to house a second residency program, Residencies @ The Grand, where residents are surrounded by galleries, museums, libraries and cafes. Lovingly restored, the heritage building at The Grand offers private artist studios, a functional art gallery, six “sample rooms” (spaces where travelling salespeople traditionally set up to sell goods) that can flexibly used as pop up galleries or workshop spaces, as well as a courtyard, conference rooms, and an onsite information office. Like Duff Street, The Grand has also proved popular as a residency space, making invaluable contributions to the city’s cultural landscape – and with BHAE always on the lookout for future participants.

Outside of its residencies, BHAE has also been heavily involved in driving the city’s building of cultural infrastructure, taking part in the AIM (Art Interagency Meeting) Group. With participation from NGOs, local stakeholders, and arts and cultural organisations (including Broken Hill Regional Gallery, West Darling Arts and Screen Broken Hill), the group discusses new initiatives and identifies any issues or barriers to facilitating any community creative needs. BHAE also organises a monthly independent artists forum, inviting artists and those interested in the arts and culture to exchange ideas and thoughts, and provide updates on the creative horizon.

However, it’s BHAE’s Desert Equinox program that highlights the organisation’s future ambitions not only for itself, but for the Broken Hill arts sector and community at large. Since 2012, it has run the environmentally-focused, yearly program of artist events, exhibitions, workshops and special projects, which spring up around the city from March to November. Encompassing general themes of Earth, Water, Air and Sun/Solar, the program reflects the deep focus Broken Hill has on environmental sustainability – a perspective that could come as a surprise to those only acquainted with the city’s mining roots. Indeed, the city is in the process of transitioning towards renewables, and is home to one of Australia’s first environmental bush regeneration projects, which provides a protective green belt that shields it from dust storms. Along with a constant focus on water conservation, there are also large local wind and solar farms nearby. As such, environmentalism is often close to mind for local arts organisations, and BHAE’s Desert Equinox program highlights the city’s focus on ‘balance, equilibrium and interdependence between the elements of nature and society.’

It is also in this vein that BHAE is working towards its next big goal – an environmental and deserted-focused biennale of arts, which will hopefully take shape by the end of 2020. Likely beginning small, it will nonetheless be an incredibly unique event that focuses on the relationship between people and the environment. For this, there has already been a great deal of interest from local and visiting artists alike, bolstered by the city’s growing international profile and creative community.

In the meantime though, BHAE continues its tireless work in nurturing the city’s vibrant creative landscape, supporting artists established and new, local and visiting, as the city looks towards the future.

“Broken Hill is a place of phenomenal change, which is tradition.” Susan says. “When there’s something major affecting Australian lives… Broken Hill is at the nexus of that.”

Residencies at Broken Hill Arts Exchange are by application only, with a minimum stay of 2 weeks. Subsidised residencies begin from $190 to $265 per week.

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