With local government elections this year in Queensland, NSW and now Victoria, your vote will influence the arts in your area. What are your councillor candidates promising for arts and culture in local government elections? It will make all the difference to your experience of community and place.

Victoria goes to the polls tomorrow, following local government elections in NSW last month and Queensland earlier this year. As the level of administration and leadership that’s most closely connected to country and community, local government’s duty to the arts is paramount. The most successful and engaged councils have active arts strategies that have been developed as the result of regular community consultation. Their councillors are comfortable speaking out on the cultural issues that matter most to them, because they understand that the success of their leadership depends on that authentic confidence.

Successful councils don’t risk disengagement from their communities by avoiding the things that people value most. They embrace community values – and they take the further step of inspiring communities to express those values publicly, joyfully, creatively.

Across our regions, long-term partnerships with local governments strengthen Regional Arts Victoria’s capacity to foster artists and creative industries. Working generally in specific regions with one local government partner per arts development consultant, we’ve recently launched the Great South Coast partnership of five local government areas – heralding a new era of strategic relationships that inspire important new conversations across a broad and diverse geographical area. Glenelg Shire and Moyne Shire are now joined by Warrnambool City Council, Corangamite Shire and Southern Grampians Shire, coming together to affirm their recognition of the importance of the arts to their communities. Regional Arts Victoria is also active in close partnerships with the Ballarat, Wellington and Swan Hill Shires, as well as Murrindindi Shire for a bushfire recovery project culminating across the next six months.

As well as Regional Arts Victoria’s work across over forty years, organisations such as the Cultural Development Network, and more recently Renew Australia, have developed sustained local government networks and innovative new models combining arts and local industry. As a result, an ever-increasing sophistication of arts and cultural expertise exists at local governments across the state and across Australia.

In Melbourne’s inner-city suburbs, councils explicitly compete with one another on their arts and culture credentials. The City of Darebin has just launched an innovative arts development project situated in the heritage-listed Northcote Town Hall. Responding to community and trader nostalgia for the Melbourne Fringe parade, the City of Yarra has recently called for proposals to revive its street festival. The City of Maribyrnong has been developing its Festival City approach for some time now, aiming at the activation of a diverse range of its iconic spaces. The City of Moreland has an integrated arts strategy that includes the Renew Australia model. The City of Melbourne late-night programming initiative, and its Creative Spaces program – now nationwide – recognise the power of the arts to make place – as well as creating exciting, desirable cultural experiences of appropriate scale.

The most successful local governments take an active interest in place-making, and they understand that its benefits extend well beyond the arts: economic development, tourism, crime prevention, community health and well-being. As our urban and regional cities grow, fostering accessible and walkable precincts becomes more and more important. The high street of a small town – with its community hall, restaurants, post office, gathering spaces – describes the city village that’s the most highly sought-after inner-city experience, responsible for rising property prices as well as outrage over out-of-scale development. So crucial is our sense of place that we will pay dearly for the opportunity to live in an environment where creative industries, strong communities and diverse cultural experiences are the norm.

Across Australia, our cities seek to emulate our regions in sustaining city villages of human scale, and local governments play an active role here. The councillors you elect have the greatest capacity of any elected officeholder to impact on our local places and foster creative development. Local government makes that unique, hands-on, on-the-ground connection between communities, businesses, venues and our homes; between flows of people, where they go, what they enjoy, what they expect, what they make, how they make it, and what they leave behind. In other words: roads, rates and rubbish – plus the visionary leadership to go far beyond these three Rs of local government.

When you take that pencil into the polling booth, take heart in the places where you feel the most inspired – and demand that your councillors do the same.

First published in Arts Hub on 26 October 2012