When we think of street art in Australia, our minds are more likely to go to Melbourne’s Hosier lane than any of Australia’s regional centers. Benalla, in regional Victoria, is on a mission to change this. With a population of just 13,000, Benalla is punching above its weight, gaining national and international attention for its street art festival Wall to Wall. Established in 2015, Wall to Wall has brought together acclaimed national and international street artists including Adnate, Guido Van Helten, 23rd Key, and locals Tim Bowtell and Gemma Keating, winners of the Benalla Mural Art Prize and Youth Prize respectively. Each artist is allocated a substantial wall in the main street and surrounds, to create a permanent piece over the three-day festival weekend. To date, 28 major murals have been commissioned, working toward the aim of establishing Benalla as a street art capital of Australia.
Regional street art initiatives in Australia are few and far between. A few notable examples include the Back Alley Gallery in Lismore, the May Lane Street Art Project in Bathurst and the Brim Silos in Victoria. Despite their rarity, street art commissions in regional cities have huge economic and cultural potential. This was recognised by Wall to Wall creators Shaun Hossack, a Benalla native now Director of Melbourne-based street art management company Juddy Roller, and the Benalla Street Art Committee chaired by local businessman Jim Myconos. Walking a fine line between producing an authentic cultural experience and replicating Melbourne’s street art scene, the objective has been to boost local civic pride and engagement, while promoting Benalla as a tourist destination, rather than just another place to pass through on the Hume Freeway.
The first iteration of the festival in 2015 was funded by donations of over $20,000 from local businesses and residents alike. Drawing on the success of the 2015 festival, the 2016 festival sourced a broad range of sponsors, primarily local businesses, supplementing this through a crowd-funding campaign that brought in over $9,500. However despite the community focus of the initiative, and the local support demonstrated, the first Wall to Wall festival was put in place without extensive public consultation. This approach was a deliberate decision to encourage the somewhat conservative community to judge the final product rather than the proposed idea of the festival. Benalla Regional Art Gallery’s then newly appointed Director Bryony Nainby was a supportive force at this time, providing the gallery’s interior walls for a street art exhibition that gave insight into the type and quality of street art that could be commissioned. This exhibition both engaged the community and served to legitimise street art and remove misconceptions that it was essentially unwanted graffiti, or vandalism.
To the contrary, street art is arguably an ideal art form for a regional city or local council seeking a cultural revolution. It eradicates many challenges of other similar initiatives, requiring few resources compared to, for example, public sculpture commissioning. Also key is the perception of street art being an accessible art form. The subjects are and open, the environment informal and unintimidating, and the possibility for broader participation exists. Wall to Wall demonstrated this potential through informal access to artists as they worked through their ‘Meet the Makers’ program, as well as activities such as Kitt Bennett’s ‘Paint by Numbers – Community Wall’ along the back wall of Georgina’s Restaurant, which allowed kids to participate directly in the creation of a piece on show in their own town.
Wall to Wall further emphasised its innovative and inclusive vision by commissioning 14 female artists for this year’s festival – 50% of the artists involved. Many female street artists have spoken about feeling that there is a need to surpass the skill of male counterparts before being given recognition for their work. Often they have embraced the opportunity to adopt relative anonymity as a street artist, allowing their work to be judged on its own merit and without gendered assumptions. While it may be argued that the gender imbalance in street art is reflective of the imbalance in the visual arts more broadly, there are key concerns that may act as a barrier to participation for women artists. Quite simply, women have often been disadvantaged by safety concerns associated with the time and location in which ‘uncommissioned’ pieces have to be created. Formally commissioned street art projects like Wall to Wall are removing this barrier.
By embracing groups and locations that may not immediately spring to mind when you think of street art, Benalla has planted the seeds for a street art initiative that could well become an international model. The festival has already begun to draw international attention, with Adnate’s 2015 portrait of a young Burmese girl listed by street art site Widewalls as the eighth best mural in the world. The calibre of the 28 murals commissioned to date, and the unique weekend-long festival style event surrounding their creation has engaged local communities and visitors alike, leaving only a question of the possibilities for next year. With momentum continuing to build, it seems that Benalla will indeed earn itself a place on the global street art map.