Five years ago Melbourne didn’t have a literary centre. Soon it may have two. 

Early this month, the City of Melbourne released its 2013-14 draft budget. Very unassuming, way down the list of funding projects, a City of Literature Office was announced.

There was quite a bit of cash splashed at the arts, $1.2 million in fact, with $135,000 of that going to this new literary initiative. As a designated UNESCO City of Literature, it’s not surprising that the city council would be injecting a little money into a literary initiative. The real interest lies in just what this office will do in a city that already has the Wheeler Centre.

‘The City of Melbourne is passionate about literature in this city,’ Councillor Jackie Watts, who handles the Knowledge Portfolio told us. ‘So we’re really going to enliven the literary scene.’

Melbourne’s literary scene is already enlivened. Last night was the launch of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the Williamstown Literary Festival is coming up, as is the Melbourne Writers Festival, not to mention the weekly offerings from the Wheeler Centre, and the plethora of books launches and lit mags events.

So what will the City of Literature office have to do?  Watts says it will ‘lend support in a formal way’ to the city’s rich literary offerings. The plan furthers the council’s push to cement Melbourne’s status as a ‘Knowledge’ city. In 2010, Melbourne was recognised with the Most Admired Knowledge City Award (MAKCi) at the Knowledge Cities World Summit.

‘This city is a designated knowledge city. We’ve got nine tertiary institutions, countless public and private TAFEs, and serious research houses,’ explains Watts. ‘We’re going very well on international indicators. If you look at how these things are determined, what criteria are used, Melbourne ticks every box. We’ve got all the infrastructure.’

There is wariness  that the City of Literature office may be stepping on some rather big toes up Swanston Street. But Watts assures us that the proposed office will work alongside the Wheeler Centre.

‘This is not going to be anyone’s patch. This is literature – full stop – in the city. The arts traditionally collaborate, that the way it works, and this is the intellectual life, as well as the arts. We can’t disentangle these. They spill out over the economic life of the city.’

As we reported earlier in the year, the creative economy in Australia is booming, worth around $35 billion to the GDP. Watts realises this, and the City of Literature office intends to promote further growth. As a former librarian, teacher and as an academic, she understands ‘the way culture drives economic benefit’.

Not to mention a report by ACIL Tasman released in March found that Melbourne’s knowledge economy is worth $28 billion, more than half of the city’s estimated GDP of $53.29 billion.

‘Traditional manufacturing in Melbourne has declined, now we have a different economic driver which is the service industries attached to the knowledge economy – research, design and culture are our new manufacturing. The city recognises this and is incorporating it into the budget.’

By championing the arts, Watts hopes to further enhance the city’s intellectual life, which is ‘important to attract the kind of knowledge worker that we require to drive our knowledge economy’.

In a way, this is playing to Melbourne’s strengths. The city doesn’t have the natural wonder of Sydney, Queensland or Perth, rather Watts says, ‘what we have is our people and the intellectual life. We have a sophisticated offering in the intellectual space.’

While the initial $135,000 is to ‘kick start’ the office, the initiative will later require ‘funding from other sources’ says Watts. Arts Victoria are also ‘very behind it’.

Like its future funding, exactly what the proposed City of Literature Office will actually do remains to be seen. While Watts assures us that there is ‘universal support’ for the idea, until the council votes on the draft budget she doesn’t want to be too pre-emptive.

‘We’ve got some serious high-level discussions about how this might be approached, but I think it’s really exciting.’

This article was originally published on artsHub under the title Double or nothing: another literary centre for Melbourne on 24 May 2013.

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