Melbourne vs Sydney: which is Australia's arts capital?

Old rivalries flare up as the country's two cultural heavyweights battle for the prestigious title.

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When Australia became a federation in 1901, its wealthiest city, Melbourne, got a cushy temp job as the capital. But when Australia gained nationhood in 1927, something went awry… For various political reasons, Melbourne 

was passed over for the permanent position. Today, the city has compensated for this historic slight by becoming the capital of everything else. Welcome to Melbourne, Australia’s coffee capital, fashion capital, comedy capital, sporting capital…

But the most abundantly made – and widely accepted – claim is that Melbourne is Australia’s arts (or cultural) capital. Melbourne certainly has a thriving, varied arts scene, making it an excellent candidate for the title of Australia’s cultural capital. 

But there is an elephant in the room. An elephant called Sydney.

The Melbourne vs Sydney debate has been raging for the greater part of a century, with civic pride running high on both sides.

The oft-cited axiom that Sydney has the beauty and Melbourne has the brains could be applied not only to the architecture and natural environment, but also to the arts: without a breathtaking harbour on which to stage a flashy La Traviata (the most memorable fireworks display in Melbourne this past year set fire to the Arts Centre spire), the Melbournians burrow even deeper into their labyrinthine laneways to cultivate their creative credentials. Sydney, meanwhile, is more often referred to as a business capital than an arts Mecca.

And so the struggle for cultural superiority continues, with Sydney trying to rise above its reputation for frivolous, showy brilliance in order to wrest the title of arts capital out of Melbourne’s wool-gloved hands (yes, Melbourne is the undisputed knitting capital of Australia).

The now-defunct Melbourne is Better Than Sydney Facebook group had 84,730 members singing the Victorian city’s praises, yet it’s rare to hear an endorsement of either city that is informed by evidence, rather than parochial pride.

In an attempt to bring clarity to this debate, we have compared Sydney and Melbourne in seven key artistic categories: Classical Music, Other Music, Opera, Theatre, Visual Arts, Dance and Festivals. Film and literature have been omitted, given that any book or film released in Sydney, say, can also be seen or acquired in Melbourne – which obviates the need for comparison.

The goal of this exercise is not to exalt one city, or to demean another, but to grant the title of arts capital based on merit, rather than hearsay or presumption.

Classical Music

Sydney
Melbourne

So which city emerged victorious overall? Find out in the new-look June issue of Limelight, on sale May 16. Get your copy here.

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Melbourne vs Sydney: which is Australia's arts capital?
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