In Conversation with Robert Buckingham

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Features
20th anniversary
The Future Laboratory co-founders Chris Sanderson and Martin Raymond talk to one of their oldest associates and supporters, Robert Buckingham

In 2003, as founder and director of the Melbourne Fashion Festival, he invited Chris and Martin to address the Australian fashion industry at a business seminar. This invitation ignited a relationship with the country that has seen them and other members of the team visit and work with Australian businesses and brands over the past 17 years. Here, recorded during Melbourne’s 112-day lockdown, Buckingham muses on the cultural impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the future of the arts in Australia.

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video.

Chris Sanderson:      … Back in 2003, as you’ve said, you were the director of the Melbourne Fashion Festival, which you also founded, and you invited us to Australia.

Robert Buckingham:      Correct.

Chris:      You’ve since moved into a cultural remit in terms of where you look and where you work. And so, moving forward into the future, I’m interested to hear what you think beyond just the commercial; to understand how you think your market, your society – Australia – in general is beginning to shift culturally. And not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, but in terms of how you think it’s now changing as a reflection of where it sits geographically, and also how you believe your society is continuing to evolve and change as a culture?

Robert:      You know, Australia is wonderful in many ways, but it has been referred to sort of sarcastically as the lucky country. It has had enormous luck for 200 years and it’s continued to be able to exploit its resources very successfully; so much of Australia is based on speculation and greed, and it’s been an easy market. That’s a frustrating element of Australian culture. That said, there is a risk-taking quality about Australians, which – because of the distance from the rest of the world – has always encouraged them to look elsewhere and to consider what goes on in the world and to be open to new ideas. So that’s a really good part of the Australian character. And I think there’s a can-do attitude, an attitude that really does want to get on with things and not worry about the status quo. So, it’s not as hierarchical as other countries and that is in our favour.


From a cultural point of view, at the moment the arts community is suffering enormously because they physically can’t show their work. Galleries aren’t open, museums aren’t open, theatres aren’t open and so the contact with an audience has gone. And that’s extremely frustrating. My thoughts at the moment are about the city and how at this point in history we can think about maybe re-introducing creative industries and culture back into the centre of cities or into the CBD – what we would call the Central Business District – and how you can embed creative production into cities. Because what’s happened is that economic boom has pushed artists, designers and creative makers out of cities and I think that’s to their detriment. And so perhaps now, because people are going to be moving out and not going to be as willing to go back into offices, because the value of property in the central city areas is going to fall, and because so many commercial retail and office spaces are going to have to be rethought, this may be a perfect opportunity to think about how cultural production and creatives can actually be inserted back and embedded into the Central Business District, how that can re-engage and re-invigorate cities so that they don’t become, as we’ve seen in places like New York’s Manhattan, just dull because all the creatives have been pushed out. Now perhaps with the fall in property values this may be a time when that can be addressed – maybe we retrofit our buildings, our architecture. But also, thinking about it in a long-term sense, in the past, artists and designers and creatives have been used as part of the gentrification of areas. We have to think long term about how they’re important in the social, cultural and economic life of our cities.

Published by:

20 November 2020

Author: The Future Laboratory

Image: Melbourne Fashion Festival

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1. Rober Buckingham
2. MPavilion

Martin Raymond:      With MPavilion what do you think – coming out of lockdown – are likely to be the key drivers of activity for artists and designers? Which areas do you think they’re going to be focused on?

Robert:      Interestingly, when you talk about the in-between – the people in between the gatekeepers and the people who prevent the connections – and if I look at what I’ve done with Melbourne Fashion Festival, it was a direct-to-consumer event as MPavilion is. It’s a design-focused event activity, but it was never about designers talking to designers or architects talking to architects within that bubble. It was about talking to the users, the users of design and the users of architecture, it wasn’t just talking about the people who were in that (world). So I think this direct-to-consumer attitude, in a way, is a breaking down of the hierarchy, and what we’ve seen from a retail perspective is that wholesale disappears because it’s all about the vertical.

It’s all about how you can go from manufacturing to retail, cutting out the middle person; in a way it’s also, from a customer’s point of view, about how you can go direct to your consumer. I think with businesses we’ve all seen that the process of the Zoom meeting has cut out a lot of the hierarchy, and a lot of the speed humps which allow people in businesses to talk to one another because there are no middle management saying ‘no, you have to talk to me first’ because to some extent, everyone is in it together and that’s interesting.

Chris:      Does that make gallerists the speed bumps of the cultural sector?

Robert:    Yeah, I think, actually, that’s an interesting point. I think that could conceivably be the case. And really, if you think about highly successful artists or people like Picasso, like Dalí, they spoke direct to their audiences, and it’s interesting to see how something like the Venice Biennale, which was the great event of the past 20 years, broke down the gallery, collector, audience, artist relationship and made it much more porous. That said, it also came with its own hierarchies, but it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves, but also the relationships between artists – I’m sure a lot of artists have gone direct to their customers. Auction houses have already broken that link or road block.

Watch the full Zoom conversation between Chris Sanderson and Martin Raymond co-founders, The Future Laboratory and Robert Buckingham, founder and director, The Melbourne Fashion Festival below.