27 November 2015

The Case For a Boggo Road Cultural Hub

With the Boggo Road redevelopment process now taking another step forward with the release of the draft application details, I’d like to gradually present a few articles on this website outlining my own ideas, beginning – as we always should – with the Big Picture.

What kind of a place do I want Boggo Road to become?

I’ve been continually involved in this planning process as long as anyone, and like to think I have a decent grasp of what is possible for Boggo Road. Unfortunately what is possible is the framework we have to work within, and so my ‘perfect world’ ideas for the prison are irrelevant.

If we have learned anything from the last four Queensland premiers - Beattie, Bligh, Newman and Palaczszuk - it is that there is no government magic pudding to fund the eternal upkeep of Boggo Road. This was an ideological decision taken way back when, and nine-figure legally-binding contracts were signed with the private sector years ago so there will be no u-turns. We have to make the best of what we have now, which is a private development company leasing Boggo Road from the state government and trying to create significant revenue from reusing the site (with retail and licensed dining facilities) while providing for a decent heritage/arts precinct within the walls.

This is not ideal (from my perspective) but the plans I’ve seen are largely palatable and the people behind them seem genuinely keen on making the heritage aspects work. This makes sense as the success of the licensed dining facilities would be partially dependent upon the rest of the site being a quality drawcard for the public.

My overall philosophy is that it would be a worthwhile achievement to take Boggo Road - an old prison ingrained with decades of negativity and pain - and transform it into a place of positive creativity and community life. In effect, to ‘rehabilitate’ the buildings themselves.

It is a place in need of healing, a scar in the psyche of the landscape. Some people recoil from it. There are some former officers and inmates who suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have psychological and physical reactions to even being near the prison. I know of one old screw who had to quit his job after he couldn’t walk through the main gates anymore, and afterwards he would urinate in his pants if he was accidentally driven past the place.

This is not a happy place, and it can’t be healed by simply filling it with diners and artists and tourists and schoolkids. We must never forget or whitewash or diminish what happened there. That would be unfair on all those who experienced it when it was a prison, and unfair on those who can still learn the important lessons of that history.

What we need to do next is use the history as inspiration for telling stories of the old prison through live performance, visual arts, oral history, exhibitions and the written word. Boggo Road should become a centre for encouraging debate and research about Boggo Road itself. A place where we invite the community in to talk about what happened there, through (as I always say) ‘many stories, through many voices, in many ways’.

Not every artistic event that takes place there needs to address that history, but it is one of those places that inevitably adds deeper layers of meaning to any performance or installation. I would like to see a binding managerial commitment to encourage an ongoing creative discourse about Boggo Road through the arts.

In this way, Boggo Road will become a truly living cultural hub, a place whose own meaning and significance is being positively transformed and challenged through an ongoing process of creative engagement with its own history.

We now have an opportunity to create something great and unique at Boggo Road. Not just another by-the-book prison museum or yuppie/hipster dining Quarter, but an award-winning, living centre of culture that draws inspiration from and engages with the profound history that is soaked into the buildings themselves. And offers some pretty fantastic dining options along the way…

Putting the philosophical aspects of a Boggo Road creative hub aside, there is also a solid commercial argument that a dynamic and varied programme of artistic and History-related events is the best way to bring in repeat customers. It has been acknowledged by both the government and the developers that the potential of Boggo Road has not been realised. The prison has been underused in recent years, and although the buildings are the main drawcard and promote themselves (so even Bill Shorten could sell tours there[i]), it is currently dead space for most of the time. People do one tour and don’t come back.

A varied menu of quality arts and heritage events will get people coming back regularly to see something new. And take in a meal while they’re there. The Boggo Arts & Heritage Alliance has the ideas, talent and connections to make this concept work.

It makes financial sense, but the idea of a thriving, living cultural hub at Boggo Road also seems like a natural fit for the old prison. Let's hope the decision-makers have the vision and energy to make this happen.

[i] This was quite obvious one Sunday in 2011 when the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society volunteers started monthly clean-ups of the prison. The place had been closed for six years, was completely unadvertised, and yet we had about 20 curious visitors walk in that day, even though it was strictly members-only. We tried to keep people OUT and they kept coming in!

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