Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’

An important new film about Dujuan, a young Aboriginal boy living in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia, is both engaging and challenging, raising major issues about growing up Aboriginal in modern Australia. ‘In My Blood it Runs’ is a film for our troubled times, that tackles the challenges of a culturally divided country, but also finds the hope that this cultural diversity can offer us all for our overlapping futures.

The National Museum of Australia recently hosted a sold-out preview screening which I was lucky enough to buy a ticket for – one of the last available. Here's hoping the film will have a wider distribution. I'm still thinking about the film, but this is an initial personal response to seeing it, coloured by more than six years working in the Indigenous language and culture programs of the Australian Government. The film unfolds slowly, capturing everyday life in Aboriginal communities in Alice Springs, and later in more remote Borroloola.

The opening frame of the film - with suggestions for action - above members of the discussion panel which followed the screening.

It doesn’t rush its story. It’s about everyday life, touching on everyday dramas and the everyday challenge of getting along. In a strange – and good – way, it's a bit like a family movie. Maya Newell, the Director of the film, commented that it was the result of hundreds of hours of filming, compressed to become the final story – and that pays off in a very powerful way. This is how we all experience the world. Hours of detail pass us by every single moment and are hardly noticed, but from them we sieve out the important things.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Building a life while building a nation – the Jennings Germans

In the great nation-building effort after World War 2, much of the Australia we know today was established – including the features of it we most admire. Waves of immigrants who came to Australia seeking a new life after a war that devastated Europe were central to this achievement. While this might have occurred almost 70 years ago in a previous century, it holds many insights for us today as we attempt to make Australia a modern, forward-looking country that can thrive in the contemporary world. An exhibition in Canberra looks at part of this history – the Jennings Germansand illuminates our future.

There’s an old saying: You never know your luck in a big city and it’s true to a degree. One of the great pleasures of living in cities – whether they be big ones or smaller regional cities – is the unexpected surprises around stray corners. The other day I was walking past the Canberra Museum and Art Gallery when I glimpsed a small sign about an exhibition that looked interesting

While palaces like this one at Potsdam, just outside Berlin, would not have been part of the everyday experience of German tradesmen, it was part of a broader culture that would have been very different to life in Australia.

I went in to ask about it and was promptly invited to the opening a couple of days later. The exhibition was ‘Building a life ­– the Jennings Germans story’, which tells the story of the 150 German tradies recruited in Germany straight after World War 2 to join the vast nation-building exercise happening across Australia.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Art at work – imagining a future Australia

In our strange new universe, where much of Australia burns while politicians make excuses for inaction, it’s time to take a hard look at what the arts can do. It’s an issue in the minds of many in the arts and culture sector. Part of the potential role of arts is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention. Artists have a role to play in designing a different future than what’s on offer and writing the story of a different future. Those social movements that are most powerful are the ones where arts and culture embodies and carries forward the essence of what they stand for. Think of the power of ceremony and ritual in the world – that is ultimately the power of art at work.

I’ve previously written about how artists and those in the arts and culture sector can help make a difference and contribute to building a better Australia for the contemporary world. In our strange new universe, where much of Australia burns while politicians make excuses for inaction, it’s time to take a hard look at what the arts can do. It always looked as though the low-lying Pacific islands would be the canary in the coalmine for climate change, but suddenly in one season, Australia has taken over that role. How to make even more of a contribution than they do already is an issue in the minds of many in the arts and culture sector. Part of the potential role of arts is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention. I’ve recently looked at some of the ways in which artists have contributed to bushfire recovery after previous bushfires. Now I want to revisit some of my earlier comments about the broader role of art and artists.

‘Part of their potential role is around bushfire recovery – a much bigger part is around bushfire prevention.’

I have been thinking about my earlier comments due to the example of a group of artists who have banded together to produce public artworks about climate change. These works have had a limited life due to urgent reaction by self-appointed conservative censors, but they have retained a much longer after life – like the half life of radioactive material, their energy and danger may linger for much longer.

Enough hot air - surrounding Parliament House Canberra, on the day Parliament re-opened, February 2020

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Out of the ashes – art and bushfires

While the current bushfires raging across much of Australia are unprecedented in their scale and severity, they are a reminder of how people have responded after previous fires, rebuilding communities and lives in the affected areas. They have also focused attention on the impact of the fires on creative practices and business and on how those in the arts and culture sector can use their skills to contribute to bushfire recovery into the future.

This endless season of fires has focused attention on the many implications for those in the arts and culture sector. One aspect of the relationship between artists and fires is the impact of the fires on art and artists, with studios damaged or destroyed and many other indirect effects. Many craft practitioners live and work on the South Coast and there are strong links with Craft ACT in Canberra. South East Arts is currently surveying the local creative community in the Bega Valley, Eurobodalla and Snowy Monaro area to ascertain the impact of the fires on creative practices and businesses.


With long term climate change underpinning cyclical weather phenomena, the whole country is drier than ever, everyone is hoping for rain in the affected areas - even though that will bring a new set of problems.

Cultural institutions were also affected, whether due to the impact of smoke on the national cultural institutions in Canberra or the evacuation of valuable and irreplaceable artworks in the collection of the Bundanon Trust near Nowra in the NSW South Coast hinterland. The national collecting institutions in Canberra have focused their attention on contingency plans if their public buildings or collection stores are threatened in the future. Matthew Trinca, Director of the National Museum warned that institutions would need to consider how they approached international exhibitions in future Australian summers.

‘The fires started discussion about what those in the arts and culture sector could do to contribute to bushfire recovery. I’m sure there are plenty who have actually been fighting the fires or assisting in other ways, because artists are everywhere, playing active roles in every community. However the suite of skills that they have that are specific to work in the arts and culture sector have much wider application’

Monday, December 9, 2019

Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture

Understanding, assessing and communicating the broad value of arts and culture is a major and ongoing task. There has been an immense amount of work already carried out. The challenge is to understand some of the pitfalls of research and the methods that underpin it. Research and evaluation is invaluable for all organisations but it is particularly important for Government. The experience of researching arts and culture in Government is of much broader relevance, as the arts and culture sector navigates the tricky task of building a comprehensive understanding in each locality of the broader benefits of arts and culture. The latest Arts restructure makes this even more urgent.

I have spent the bulk of my working life – and most of my non-working life, as well – in various parts of the arts and culture sector. Even when I worked in Government I was mostly in the section of it responsible for arts and culture. In that time, across all those areas, it became absolutely clear how critical research, evaluation and measurement is to understanding what the arts and culture sector does and what works best.

Research and evaluation - drawing class outside Mary Quant exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2019

In July 2016 I listened with great attention to the outline by Professor Geoffrey Crossick of the massive Cultural Value project of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, summed up in its major report, ‘Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture’. Following this, in July 2017 I was closely involved in organising the Arts Value Forum, a major event in Canberra which looked at valuing arts and culture. This was presented by independent ACT arts advocacy body, the Childers Group, in conjunction with the Cultural Facilities Corporation of the ACT Government.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Making a living – building careers in creative and cultural futures

Making a living in the developing creative economy is no easy task. For a viable career, flexibility and creativity are crucial. For this a strategic outlook and a grasp of the major long-term forces shaping Australian creativity and culture is essential. To help foster this amongst emerging cultural sector practitioners, a new flagship course, a Master of Arts in Creative and Cultural Futures, was launched at the University of Canberra in 2019, building on earlier experiments in aligning research and analysis with real world cultural sector experience.

A vast transformation of contemporary culture not seen since the breakdown of traditional arts and crafts in the industrial revolution is under way due to the impact of the digital and online environment. Not only artists, but also culture managers and cultural specialists today are confronted with radically different challenges and opportunities to those they faced in the 20th Century.

Dior exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2019.

In parallel with the traditional focus on the arts and arts funding, there has been growing interest in the broader area of the creative or cultural economy and the related, more commercial, creative industries. While the arts and culture sector cannot be reduced simply to economics, it would be a mistake if, for that reason, we ignored the fact that it plays an important economic role. The economic role parallels the broader social role it plays. What the two roles have in common is that both spring from the reality that creativity and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The future of arts practice – navigating the creative economy

In a rapidly changing and difficult environment, it often seems a miracle that artists can continue to practice at all – and even sometimes make a living from their art. Increasingly we need to try to answer some important questions, including: ‘What does a sustainable arts practice mean and what does it look like’, and ‘how does the business of art affect the practice of art?’ These questions about the role of artists in the cultural sector, let alone in the broader society and economy, are important because they are linked to a range of crucial issues for the future of our society.

In a rapidly changing and difficult environment, it often seems a miracle that artists can continue to practice at all – and even sometimes make a living from their art. Canberra arts advocacy body, the Childers Group (of which I have been a member for the last couple of years), with the support of ACT Government agency, the Cultural Facilities Corporation, will tackle this complex issue at a forum towards the end of this year. ‘Sustainable arts practice: creativity and business’ is on Friday, 1 November 2019, from 3.30pm to 6.30pm at the Theatrette at the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG), London Circuit, Civic in Canberra.

Breakout forum at Arts Value Forum, 2017.

This is the most recent of a long series of both large and small forums addressing crucial issues in the arts and culture sector, that have been jointly presented by the Childers Group and the Cultural Facilities Corporation. The previous event, in June 2017, was the well-attended Arts Value Forum, which I reported in my article What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture

The business of creativity
For a nominal contribution of $15 towards costs, attendees can join the Childers Group, supported by the Cultural Facilities Corporation, renowned cultural economist, Professor David Throsby, and a local panel that includes novelist Nigel Featherstone; theatre maker and musician Chrissie Shaw; contemporary Indigenous artist Krystal Hurst and dance artist and choreographer Alison Plevey. The forum will be moderated by Cultural Facilities Corporation Board member Genevieve Jacobs.