Bridget Smyth is the Director of the Design Team at the City of Sydney, charged with the responsibility of making Sydney look great! This team sets a strategic framework for shaping Sydney’s future in response to a number of factors such as climate change, congestion, mobility, cultural programs and public art. A major goal of the Design Team is to integrate public art into the fabric of the city, as encapsulated by their Laneway Art projects. This program has contributed immensely to the reinvigoration of Sydney’s forgotten laneways over the past five years. Bridget Smyth tells arts interview how diversity shapes the City of Sydney’s policies and programs.

Interview by Vi Girgis

For a city like Sydney, why is it important to have diverse cultural programs?

What is so interesting about Sydney is that it truly is a multicultural city. The amount of different language groups in Sydney is just one indication of this. For instance, Chinatown and the way it is growing is a great example, it is not just Chinatown anymore, and I think that is really exciting. The City of Sydney is at the heart of the metropolitan area and it therefore must feel truly open to everyone in that way. The work we do, in terms of how we shape city spaces and the heart of the city, needs to really underpin diversity so it feels engaging, vibrant, and is an open place for all members of our community.

When programming new projects what do you look for and hope to achieve in terms of diversity?

One of the really interesting ways in which we work here at the City is that I do not always feel like I have a predetermined ‘thing’ where “This project is going to do this, this and this.” We certainly have strategic outcomes, and the Sustainable Sydney 2030 program has a whole lot of targets that we are trying to meet, so that ‘big picture’ is predetermined. But the way we shape a space – the way it looks and the kinds of artists we are going to work with – is open. That is what makes the work we do so exciting! The way we start to develop such thinking is through consultation with the community, so we do not say for instance, “the space there is going to be pink and blue and these are the people who are going to use it.” We have a framework, and through engagement with the community it usually gets layered and enriched. It is sometimes quite surprising what comes out at the end.

How do you attract and develop new audiences?

I like to think of our role at the City Design Team as dealing with the hardware of the city; it is almost like we are the stage builders and other areas of the Council who run events and cultural programming deal with the software. But even though there is that distinction, if the hardware and the stage are not right, then no one is going to come and perform. So in the way that we design public spaces, we are very conscious of providing flexibility in the use of spaces. The colour and light of the city is its fleeting, ephemeral nature. The more flexible, accessible, open, and sometimes, the more attractive an amenity is – has shade and people want to use it – helps build audiences. But the audiences themselves cannot be predetermined.

What are some of the pitfalls to avoid when developing new cultural programs?

First of all, the City needs to be really clear about what is happening in the diverse and broader range of cultural activities in Sydney. The last thing we want to do is to duplicate what others are able to do better. For example, in the visual arts, there is already a great biennale [Biennale of Sydney], so why would the City want to reproduce that? Knowing who your partners are and who the other players are in the city is also really important. Another big pitfall is not being open-minded. If you are not open-minded when programming something culturally, you might miss an opportunity to work with someone new and to look at something differently. Sometimes people get comfortable with what they do and they just keep repeating it. So the biggest pitfall is not being open-minded and not being prepared to change to make sure there is freshness, flexibility and difference.

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