Monday, November 7, 2016

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture

Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map.

This is the second in a series of two articles. The first one, ‘If the arts are important but not enough people know it, are they really important?’ looks at some of the critical issues raised by the current malaise in the arts and culture sector in Australia. This second article discusses some of the ways available to address it.

Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared vision about what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture.

Without a cultural policy to map out the destination, it's difficult to find the road forward, especially in unexpected circumstances.

Many of our current problems with Australia’s arts and culture come down to a lack of policy. If the Government doesn't have a policy that spells out what it thinks is important about arts and culture – and why – and what it intends to do about it and what that will lead to, then the present ad hoc and inconsistent situation will continue.

Monday, October 31, 2016

If the arts are important but not enough people know it, are they really important?

As the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture emerge in the post-Brandis era, we are starting to see how organisations are adapting and the issues they are facing in doing so. To a lesser degree we are also seeing how artists themselves are responding. It seems clear that the absence of any overall strategic approach to arts and culture – whether from the Government or from the arts and culture sector – is having a deadening effect.

This is the first in a series of two articles. This one looks at some of the critical issues raised by the current malaise in the arts and culture sector in Australia. The second article, ‘Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture’, will discuss some of the ways available to address it.

We are starting to see what the new landscape of Australia’s arts and culture will begin to look like post-Brandis and his merry band of bright ideas. Now he’s no longer Arts Minister he can turn his full attention to the legal system – but at least the arts might be spared more havoc.

'Advocating the arts' forum panel at Canberra School of Art.

The week before last I went to a forum at the Canberra School of Arts about advocating for the arts. It covered a wide range of topics but I thought there were several things that emerged that are worth noting. I had planned to publish this article earlier but I’ve been distracted by all the events that have been on or are about to happen as part of Design Canberra 2016. I’ve been covering some of those but the implications from the presentation at the School of Arts are long term and worth considering more closely.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy

With the ongoing malaise due to the absence of national arts and cultural policy in Australia, it's worth reminding ourselves what beneficial impact good policy can have. To understand the power of policy to make an impact in the world, it’s worthwhile contrasting two recent major Australian Government cultural policies – the National Cultural Policy and the National Indigenous Languages Policy. This helps illuminate how cultural policy can promote the long view, innovation, breadth and leadership. Both policies showed that more important than funding or specific initiatives was the overall strategic vision and the way in which it attempted to place culture not just on the main agenda, but somewhere near the centre of the main agenda.

Government can do some very important things, but usually doesn’t. Sometimes in despair at the shortcomings of government, I’ve been forced to comment that it’s better if government is ineffective, so it does less damage.

The power of policy to connect - in an increasingly interconnected world it's crucial not to miss the boat.

However, when it works, even if it only moves the world one centimeter, because it is able to move everything that one centimeter, it can change the world. When I worked as Membership Manager for the iconic Powerhouse Museum in Sydney I was able to achieve some very useful things but they were mainly only of value to the Museum and its supporters.

'Government can do some very important things, but usually doesn’t'

In contrast when I worked for twelve years in the arts and culture agency of the Australian Government – under the various names and in the assorted departments through which it travelled – the policies and program I was involved with developing had an impact across a whole country.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding

Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. It’s not so much directly due to the transfer of funds from the Australia Council but more a matter of new applicants applying in a competitive funding round, with an expanding sector, yet limited funds and a shrinking arts budget. Planning how to operate in the arts landscape of the future is something everyone needs to do. Having a Plan B and Plan C will be critical.

Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. For the moment life goes on for everyone involved, with both those funded and those not, trying to adjust to the brittle new world of Australian arts funding.

Limited and locked up arts funding has always been an issue with a growing population and an expanding arts and cultural sector - in an era of shrinking funding, the problem becomes accentuated.

On a rainy Canberra afternoon I thought ‘this will be good for farmers’, as I headed off to a briefing by the Australia Council for successful ACT recipients of four year funding for organisations. I was there because Craft ACT, an organisation I am on the Board of, was a successful, if small, applicant and needed to know how the funding will operate, what we need to do and what it means for the future.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Banish the bland – Kim Williams spells out a positive Australia

Australia needs more far-sighted strategic vision and discussion and less of the self-serving waffle we get from too many of our politicians. The creative and intellectual capacity of our people is central to a bright, ambitious and optimistic future and essential to avoid a decline into irrelevance, according to Kim Williams, former media executive and composer. He is an Australian who values ideas and his vision for a positive Australia is firmly focused on our artists, scientists and major cultural and scientific institutions.

The National Library of Australia puts on some fine talks, quite a few of which I have attended. Last night I went to hear Kim Williams, with his background as a media executive and a composer, talk about the promotion of a positive Australia. Williams has had a long and complex career and while the careers of all interesting people inevitably get mixed reviews, his seem to be more mixed than most.

Ignore all this and his talk was fascinating, especially in the historical moment in which we find ourselves. He ranged across many topics that resonated with my interests in Australian culture. I was particularly struck by his discussion of philanthropy, because it is an immediate practical issue for one of the projects I work on, Design Canberra.

The Kenneth Myer lecture was presented by the National Library, one of the institutions responsible for our national memory that Kim Williams values for Australia's future.

His talk, ‘Holding to true North’, the latest in a long-running series of annual Kenneth Myer lectures, managed to roam widely, as befits someone who has an extensive arts and business background. As the Library noted he has headed prominent organisations such as Musica Viva Australia, Foxtel, the Australian Film Commission, the Sydney Opera House Trust and News Corp Australia. How he ever survived as head of News Corp is hard to imagine - but then the answer is, he didn't.

‘Falling down in our education of future generations is the grand failure of our intergenerational duty of care’.

There needs to be more of this sort of talk in Australia and less of the self-serving, short-sighted waffle we get from too many of our politicians. Thanks are due to the National Library for providing the opportunity. Canberra seems to be the venue for both the best and the worst of what passes for our national political life.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Greater than the sum of the parts: cultural funding and the power of diversity

Cultural diversity is critical to the richness and energy of Australia's arts and culture life and has a crucial role to play in innovation, that favourite word of the era. Where cultures intersect and different world views and perspectives meet, innovation is far more likely to occur. Unfortunately the importance of cultural diversity to our cultural life is not always reflected in what government chooses to support in the arts sector and how enduring that support is. As Parliament resumes after the election, talk will turn to the need for savings and the importance of innovation for Australia's economy. This is when clarity about the role of Australian culture is essential.

Cultural diversity underpins so much of value in Australia. It creates an exciting country which is enjoyable to live in. It also ensures innovation flourishes, because where cultures intersect differing world-views come into contact and fixed ideas and old ways of doing things are challenged.

This innovation, and the creativity that underpins it, is essential to the new clever and clean industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape.

The Aboriginal Memorial, 1987-88 Ramingining, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, natural earth pigments on wood. An installation in the entrance National Gallery of Australia of 200 hollow log ceremonial coffins from Central Arnhem Land. The Aboriginal memorial was created in response to the Bicentenary of Australia, which marked 200 years of European settlement. This is the single most important work in the Gallery and a powerful expression of the centrality of Aboriginal culture to Australian culture.

Culture and creative industries are pivotal to jobs and to income. For Indigenous communities in particular one of the most important economic resources they possess is their culture. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam in the long term – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal.  

'It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam in the long term – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value'

But how does government help cultural diversity grow – or not – through its support for culture? 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans

In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. The many promises of design come together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.

In a rapidly changing world, heading inevitably down a path of greater globalisation, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international), between globalisation and regionalism. It’s apparent across Australia, not least in the regional centre in which I live, Canberra – a town which also happens to be the nation’s capital.

‘There is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international), between globalisation and regionalism’

In recent years Canberra has reached a cultural critical mass, attracting more people to live, work and study in the city. This has been reflected in an increased level of positive national and international recognition. The annual Design Canberra festival is one sign of this.

Ceramics by artist Tjimpuna Williams, Ernabella Arts Centre, in a Design Canberra pop up, 2015. Design Canberra is firmly based on local creativity, but as a national festival located in Australia's capital, it has broad links. In a perfect example of cross-cultural and cross-national collaboration, the ceramics were created during a residency in Jingdezhen, China, in early 2015, with long-time Craft ACT member, Janet deBoos as host and mentor.

A vision for the designed city – design comes of age in the city of Burley Griffin
A celebration of all things design, Design Canberra is one of the most exciting initiatives of Craft ACT. Having started in 2014, Design Canberra is now entering its third year, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all.