What makes Melbourne the world’s most inspiring city?

Melbourne ranks consistently as one of the world’s most liveable cities. But that qualification doesn’t quite capture its magic, says Time Out Australia’s CEO, Michael Rodrigues

Certainly, great public transport, low crime rates and a relatively temperate climate (by global standards) contribute to making Melbourne a great place to live, but these elements alone are not enough. Melbourne has something extra, something that can be better summed up by a word more potent than ‘liveable’: inspirational.

73 per cent of Time Out Melbourne readers love living in Melbourne. That’s far higher than any other city surveyed in the Time Out City Index. 55 per cent strongly agree with the statement “Melbourne is an energising, inspiring place to live.”

Let me explain. Inspiration is that feeling you get when you are mentally stimulated; it’s the sensation associated with possibility. It’s essential to our wellbeing, and linked to feeling happy.

There is an identifiable link between being inspired, and feeling happy.

Late last year, Time Out Melbourne and Sydney participated in the very first Time Out City Index, which was a global survey in which we polled over 20,000 people from 18 different cities around the world. We asked them 81 questions, ranging from how safe they feel in their city to how often they see live music. Then, we assessed all the answers, based on six factors: dynamism, food and drink, community, sociability, affordability, and inspiration. Melbourne came a very close second in the world ranking to Chicago (and that was before the US election), but there was one factor where we came first in the world. You guessed it: inspiration.

Experiencing live arts and culture in community leads to inspiration.

The survey found that 73 per cent of Melburnians – far more than any other city in the survey – love their city, with 55 per cent strongly agreeing with the statement that “Melbourne is an energising, inspiring place to live”.

I am not Melburnian, I live in Sydney. But I believe that my years of straddling two cities has afforded me a rather unique insight into what makes Melbourne tick.

It comes down to two factors: accessibility and collaboration.

Accessibility and collaboration in live arts and culture give Melbourne its competitive advantage over other cities.

It is so important that people don’t feel barred from accessing culture – and price is one of the greatest barriers to the arts. Melbourne’s calendar is one of constantly rotating free festivals, exhibitions and events. Just look at the half a million people streaming through the streets at White Night; the crowds that gathered at Fed Square for Melbourne Festival’s Tanderrum, a meeting of the five clans of the Kulin Nation; the families, friends and couples reclining on bean bags at the NGV’s Summer Sundays program; the punters who had come from across the state to ACCA’s Sovereignty exhibition.

Accessibility in this context means pricing, relevance to community and ease of physical access.

In Melbourne, these barriers are much lower than my hometown, Sydney (with the exception of Newtown). Free from lockouts and throttling licensing laws, you can come into the city in the evening, and explore until you find yourself in a free live music venue or a comedy club. And thanks to all-night public transport on weekends, you can get home more safely and easily than ever before.

Which brings me to collaboration – in multiple forms. Many of Melbourne’s most significant cultural moments have involved multiple arts venues and organisations working together, often with a helping hand from local and state government.

Collaboration means arts organisations, venues (including hospitality) and government agencies working together to avoid an “either/or” decision matrix for Melburnians. It shouldn’t be either a great meal or a live arts experience. Audiences need to be able to do both as part of one experience.

And then there’s collaboration between arts, communities, and cultures. In May, Jacob Boehme’s Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival will bring Indigenous artist and Elders together from not only across the country, but the world. Last year, a different community choir took to the Malthouse Theatre stage every night in The Events.

Increasingly, arts organisations are combining forces with the food and beverage sector in meaningful ways. These sectors often battle for time and money – and when this happens, it’s arts and culture that usually lose out. After all, everyone needs to eat. But when arts and culture and food and beverage bring a shared vision to the table (or the stage, or both) – that’s when inspiration is sparked.

Just look at the way that, during Asia TOPA, Arts Centre Melbourne invited three renowned chefs to transform three separate spaces into three distinctive pop-up dining experiences that fit in with the kind of artistic works on offer in the theaters downstairs.

But, even the most inspiring city in the world can’t rest on its laurels. There are threats looming over Melbourne’s magic.

The first threat to getting people engaging with arts and culture is a global one: the trend towards inwardness.

In a world of on-demand everything, how do we get younger audiences out from the palliative care that is Netflix and Uber Eats, and onto the miracle cure that is a vibrant city where affordable arts and culture abound? Perhaps you have heard about the correlation between high numbers of social media followers and loneliness. In a word in which we’re increasingly tuning out of real, live interactions, is this any surprise?

“Netflix and Uber Eats is palliative care.
Live arts and culture is the miracle cure.”

Secondly, as I mentioned above, arts and culture is in danger of being eaten by audience obsession with food and beverage. Melbourne is famous for its incredibly diverse and creative food scene – one which we’re passionate about – but F&B alone is not a substitute for engaging with arts and culture. Eating and drinking out should be part of our city experience, but it should not dominate it.

Continued, and even closer collaboration is also key to keeping the sector vibrant. For those in arts and hospitality, I urge you to keep working with, not against, your compatriots. Don’t create the either/or matrix that Sydney often suffers from. Audiences should not have to choose between EITHER a night of theatre OR a food and drink experience. They should be able to enjoy both as part of a going out experience. For those in programming and curation, think about the share of wallet you are asking for. What’s the cumulative price a customer is going to have to pay for tickets, plus transport, plus drinks, plus food? How does that value proposition stack up against your their alternative – a binge watch of the latest House of Cards season, plus a  burger from Uber Eats?

To give you an example that’s quite close to home, last year we worked alongside Art Centre Melbourne to launch their revamped restaurant and bar, The Barre. The aim was to position The Barre as being part of a whole cultural experience – that of eating, drinking and then seeing a show. And so we curated an event inside The Barre that integrated all of these elements. Guests drank cocktails and participated in workshops by a local distillery, explored hidden parts of the Arts Centre on tours throughout the night, and watched live music by a local artist.

The way we feel about our city is hugely important for our sense of belonging, happiness and wellbeing. And live arts and culture is the spark that keeps this inspiration alive. I’d encourage Melbourne’s creative infrastructure (government, arts and hospitality) to learn from Sydney’s mistakes; to continue to work collaboratively to keep the city accessible in every sense. It’s the secret recipe for inspiration that leads to happiness. And the antidote to inwardness.

Michael Rodrigues is Founder and CEO at Time Out Australia. You can reach Michael on 02 8239 5990 or michael.rodrigues@au.timeout.com, and connect with him on LinkedIn.