The future of the arts is unfolding before you: right now, more than 4000 artists are presenting new work in the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Outside of a curatorial framework and immersed in the cream of Australia’s arts scene, these artists are showing us what’s vital – and what’s coming.

There’s a lot you already know about the future of the arts. It’s going to use light and sound in spectacular hybrids and at increasingly large scales. It’s going to make use of new technologies in increasingly connected online spaces. It’s going to be more experiential.

Audiences, media and public spaces will be transformed in dazzling ways, and we know to expect the unexpected – but doesn’t this describe the history of the arts to date? Haven’t artists always been at the forefront of technological innovation and experimental materials?

This is a critical time to imagine the future of the arts. After all, the Australian government asks us to: Arts Minister Simon Crean’s national cultural policy consultation closes on October 21, while submissions to the Department of Broadband’s convergence review close one week later.

The relationship between artistic practice, technology and public space is of keen interest to these discussions, but too often they’re framed as parallel trajectories that might come into contact if only the public funding mix were right.

The reality is far more complex. Art thrives within an ecology – an open system of materials, venues, regulations, audiences and artists. When we recognise Melbourne as Australia’s arts capital, we’re celebrating the prolific independent artists, producers and organisations presenting new work here.

The city as cultural attractor has long been a force and its urban densification magnifies this effect. Artists flock to environments where the independent scene is already thriving. Museums, galleries and concert halls didn’t exist before there were cities; they emerged alongside grand railway stations, making ambitious statements about the state’s cultural authority and its alignment with the values of a perceived majority. Today’s publicly owned cultural institutions offer public programs that foster active audiences, as well as presenting imported blockbuster shows for crowds. At the same time, independent artists present thousands of new works each year, to audiences in the many hundreds of thousands – not mass audiences, but thousands of niches.

Melbourne’s artist-run initiatives like Bus Projects, Kings and West Space are highly respected visual arts exhibition spaces and forecasters. Our small theatre, opera and live art companies such as Elbow Room, Chamber Made and Aphids represent the cutting edge of performance practice. Our street art crews are world leaders. Our independent jewellery studios and design collectives like Pieces of Eight and Pin-Up Projects set the Australian agendas in their fields. Melbourne-based Pozible, a crowd-funding platform for creative projects, funds new work directly from artists’ communities. Melbourne-based Portable Content is a data curator and world-leading media channel. And Melbourne-based Renew Australia has created a practical model for the temporary occupation of vacant tenancies by artists.

Artists are creating and sustaining the conditions where new ideas flourish. These enabling structures foster new work, new places and new thinking well beyond the arts – and it’s here that the future lies. Soon our regulatory and planning frameworks will catch up with our artists, recognising arts-led place-making and facilitating investment and development.

Festivals occupy a contested space in Melbourne’s arts landscape. Art asks questions, demanding that we do the same. The future of the arts is emerging from experimental practices and robust structures; working together, Melbourne’s independent artists are standing on the shoulders of giants to create new work, new spaces, new cities.

First published in The Age