Saturday, October 13, 2018

Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights

The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps a proposed fresh approach focusing on cultural rights may offer some hope of a breakthrough. What makes this approach so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies – something that currently we sadly lack.

The thing I like about going to a forum about arts and culture is that you never know who you will find yourself alongside. It’s definitely not a world of the colourless and quiet. In March this year I was at an Arts Front forum at the Brisbane Powerhouse to discuss framing arts and culture in terms of cultural rights.

Setting the agenda - sharing experiences and views from across the country at the forum on cultural rights.

At the start, as I sweltered in the riverside humidity, I found myself next to Frederick Copperwaite, a Bunuba man from the South-West Kimberley region of Western Australia. He is co-founder and co-artistic director of Moogahlin Performing Arts, based in Sydney, one of a powerful trio of First Nations theatre companies, comprising Yirra Yaakin in Perth and Ilbijerri in Melbourne – what not to be impressed by? Yet he was only one of a very weighty coterie of artists and others who have been working for many decades in the arts and culture sector to change the world for the better.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Going, going, gone – the final spiral of a cultural icon?

Despite its fragmented nature, the Powerhouse Museum was a great design museum precisely because it was also a museum of science and technology – and a museum of social history, which could place it all in a historical and social context. 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. The current travails of the internationally renowned Powerhouse are a measure of a lack of strategic vision, including from successive governments which have never properly grasped the power of culture in shaping society and the need for the long-term substantial commitment to enable it. The Powerhouse continues to play a crucial role in the area of creative industries, especially design. Yet no-one seems to know about it. Where will exhibitions of this relevance and calibre be exhibited and, more importantly, developed, once these short-sighted changes have become real?

Who would have known? I thought there weren't many exhibitions of note on in Sydney during a recent visit because I'd seen no publicity. I searched online and discovered that in fact there was nothing on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I was shocked, though, to find that the Powerhouse Museum had a major mens fashion exhibition from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Costumes from the Reigning men: Fashion in menswear 1715-2015 exhibition.

Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015 explores the history of men’s fashionable dress from the 18th century to the present. As the Museum notes, 'it is the largest and most important menswear exhibition ever assembled, and explodes the myth that menswear is restrained.'

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Standing out in the crowd – a regional road tour of arts and culture

A recent regional road tour through Victoria to South Australia showed how a focus on arts and culture is a pointer for how regional centres can take a path other than slow decline. It also showed how a small country on the edges of the mainstream can become a global design force by staying true to its language, locality and culture – the things that make it distinctive in a crowded, noisy marketplace dominated by big, cashed up players.

At the end of last month I came back from a regional road trip to South Australia which inevitably was an arts and culture tour. This involved a quick stop in Euroa. In Euroa the temperature reached 16 degrees – perfect to my mind, just like summer in Scotland. I was reminded of Elephant Sessions, the band from Inverness which I saw at the National Folk Festival earlier this year. The members of the band had just come from WOMAD in Adelaide.They said it was snowing back home in Inverness and 36 degrees Celsius in Adelaide. They said to the locals 'It gets hot here in summer.' The locals replied 'It's not summer.'

The monochromatic mural of Guido Van Halten on grain silos at Coonalpyn

A path other than slow decline
From there it was time to hit the road to Bendigo, one of my favourite places in Victoria. I've been visiting the Bendigo Art Gallery for quite a few years now. It presents fashion and design exhibitions that you can't see anywhere else in Australia. I've seen a string of them. Apart from the ones the gallery curates, it seems to have a special arrangement with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It's certainly a pointer for how a regional city can take a path other than slow decline.

‘It's certainly a pointer for how a regional city can take a path other than slow decline.’ 

I saw an extensive Marimekko exhibition from the Design Museum in Helsinki. Ironically its most well known design, the poppy motif, is referred to as 'the rebel flower' because the designer disregarded the dictum that Marimekko would never use floral motifs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world

What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage.

I knew that the exhibition ‘Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters’ at the National Museum of Australia Seven Sisters was getting close to the end of its run and I knew I definitely wanted to see it. However, like so many things, I discovered that it was only days away from finishing – and even then only because it was extended for a few days. I missed the accompanying virtual reality show because unfortunately that wasn’t extended. I’m told it was excellent.

Visitors view moving digital images of some of the many participants in 'Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters' before entering the exhibition.

Yet I did get to see the exhibition and I am very happy I did. I don’t know what it meant to Aboriginal Australians – I know from years working in the Indigenous cultural programs how much the maintenance and revival of culture and languages is valued. What interests me, though, is what an exhibition like this means for Australians generally, even if most of them won’t ever see it.

A mere 220 years
After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Regional Australia recognised as Bendigo named City of Culture

It’s been apparent for some time that regional centres and smaller cities and towns can be interesting and creative places and that cities that have missed out on the benefits of globalisation in the era of neo-liberalism can be brought back by community action and imagination. It’s certainly not happening everywhere but it’s true of many lucky regional towns and cities and some suburban and outer suburban areas – witness Sydney, where it’s increasingly clear that the excitement never really stopped at the edges of the inner city. The regional rollout of interesting keeps on happening.

Perhaps as large cities become more and more crucial – to the economy, to innovation, to creativity and to cultural diversity – we are seeing a balancing focus on the regional, the local, to life on a human scale. Both globalisation and regionalism, the fast (and vast) food economy and the slow food movement at the same time.

Bendigo has a rich history of cultural diversity and is firmly a part of Australia's cultural heritage and contemporary culture

Amongst all the cheer and beer of the festive season I see that Bendigo and the surrounding region has been named as a City of Culture by the Victorian Government. It certainly deserves it. I remember several years ago planning a visit to the Bendigo Art Gallery to see one of their series of fabulous fashion exhibitions from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Expecting to turn up and buy tickets, I was shocked to see the queue stretched along the block.

Monday, July 31, 2017

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture

With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and apply what already exists – and to take it further.

If we think – for whatever reason – that arts and culture is of value, it is helpful to be clear exactly why it has value. Apart from the secondary usefulness of this for arguing for support or commitment of government and private resources, it has a much more important primary use. If we value something, it is useful to understand what that value consists of.

Breakout session at the Arts Value Forum on the link between arts and culture and identity and society.

We value many things – how do we make a judgement about what we value most? It’s like the thorny question asked of those about to flee a fire – what would you take first, your family photo albums, your pets? It’s a question that tends to sharpen the mind and has many useful applications. If we understand how and why we value something we are better placed to fully realise that value – as well as share it, protect it and extend it.

The Arts Value Forum
The recent Arts Value Forum (#ArtsValueForum) presented at the Canberra Theatre Centre by local ACT arts advocacy body, The Childers Group, of which I am currently a member, in conjunction with the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation, has turned my mind again to some work I had been preparing over the last 12 months. It looks at how we understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world

I was losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years. For easy access, this is a summary of all 133 articles, broken down into categories. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian arts and culture.

1. Cultural landscape
2. Artists and arts organisations
3. Cultural institutions
4. Cultural policy
5. Arts funding
6. Creative industries
7. First Nations culture
8. Cultural diversity
9. Australian society
10. Cities and regions
11. Government
12. International
13. Canberra
14. Popular culture
15. About my blogs
16. Parallel universe

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia
‘The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government’, Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia.