Planet Of Sound: Can Tuggeranong Arts Centre Become Canberra’s Next Best Music Venue?

Stuck in Canberra’s growing peak hour traffic on an icy winter day, I consoled myself by turning up the volume on a first-rate Kinks compilation. When the instantly familiar chords of ‘Lola’ burst from the car speakers I recalled this song getting a regular spin on the ANU Bar jukebox back in the day. The jukebox itself is a cultural artefact of such importance that it should be on permanent display in the National Museum of Australia.

Later that day I was reading a review of the recent Queens of the Stone Age show at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney and became somewhat annoyed that I had missed seeing them perform yet again because I couldn’t travel to Sydney in time. I wondered why Canberra had been left off the band’s touring schedule, in fact, why this talented, endlessly creative group had never played in Canberra (to my knowledge). Surely Queens would have sold out the Royal Theatre. The annoyance increased when I was driving past the Canberra Theatre and noticed a large banner advertising a forthcoming appearance by Tina Arena. Is this the best Canberra’s live music scene can offer? In years past I have seen the likes of Sonic Youth, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Nirvana, Mudhoney and Lou Reed at the ANU but now – Tina Arena! I’m expecting the University of Canberra and the Transit Bar to put on more shows now that the antique version of the ANU Bar is no more, and we can only hope that the brand new ANU Bar becomes a viable live music venue, considering that the total cost of the forecourt development has been reported at $220 million.

Looking further afield than the inner city, I was pleasantly surprised earlier this year when checking out rockin’ blues stompers Backsliders at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre (TAC). A small ACT Government-funded art gallery with an even smaller theatre space allocated to live performance, the Tuggeranong Arts Centre is situated in the greater town centre overlooking Lake Tuggeranong and provides a cultural haven in a precinct better known for the shopping mall, car repair workshops and KFC. A major asset is the comfortable and bohemian vibed bar area that should be bustling on balmy summer nights.

“You would expect some effort from the relevant authorities to better promote popular cultural activities throughout Canberra.”

Backsliders had previously performed at the TAC during the superb Midnight Oil exhibition held there in 2016. That exhibition had necessitated my first trip to Tuggeranong in many years even though I happen to live in Weston Creek. The show was a first-class historical overview of the Oils’ dynamic history that travelled from the grungy early days of Sydney’s pub circuit to the grand splash of the 1990 Exxon oil protest in New York.

With this in mind, I was happy to return to the TAC in early February to see The Backsliders, a band that includes Midnight Oil percussionist Rob Hirst who let loose great crashing sounds in the tiny TAC theatre. Afterwards, I wondered whether thought had been given to the TAC theatre becoming a regular live music space and asked TAC Chief Executive Officer Rauny Worm whether the TAC had a specific mission statement regarding the artistic ventures it promotes. “Yes, TAC has clear strategic objectives that focus on providing access to and developing a wide range of art forms,” she said. “We aim to attract a broad cross-section of our community and we try to be as diverse and innovative as we can. Our program is influenced by budgetary considerations and the nature of the building we operate out of. Bringing in theatre productions and music performances is a tricky business with a small venue that doesn’t really provide a commercially viable performance space, yet is gorgeous and comfortable.”

I agree with Ms Worm’s assessment that the TAC performance space is ‘gorgeous and comfortable’, so wanted to pursue the more specific notion of the TAC becoming a viable live music space. “We have been programming music events since 2014 and are continuing this throughout 2017,” Ms Worm said. “We are always interested in other proposals; however there are operational and programming limitations that have to be considered. The team here has a good understanding of what will work to fill the seats.” Ms Worm added that, “benefitting financially from music gigs is always a challenge and every gig has different requirements and varying audience appeal to our region. Financial viability means we are able to cover our costs and also pay musicians and artists appropriately. That’s our goal and we remain committed to this.” The ACT Government is the core funding body of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre and you would therefore expect some effort from the relevant authorities to better promote popular cultural activities throughout Canberra. A mini attempt to bring The Rolling Stones to Canberra during their 2014 Australian tour was really not good enough. Bureaucratic speak like ‘operational and programming limitations’ can be regularly trotted out to disguise inaction. Meanwhile, the number of touring bands coming to Canberra continues to languish.

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