Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Why Australia still needs a cultural policy – third time lucky?

It’s no longer the pre-election campaign we had to have. It’s become the election campaign we can’t avoid. We are spiralling inexorably towards election day and Ministers and members have been plummeting from the heights of the Coalition Government like crew abandoning a burning Zeppelin. We may wake on 19 May to find we have a national Labor Government. With Labor pledging to implement an updated version of the short-lived ‘Creative Australia’, its national cultural policy, first promised by the Rudd Government, it’s a good time to reconsider its importance.

National cultural policies come and go – but mainly go. If the relentlessly negative election campaign currently being waged by the Coalition doesn’t succeed, we may find on 19 May that we once again have a Labor Government.

The school student strike against climate change inaction in March 2019 highlighted this as a pressing issue for our political leaders - Australia's culture and its relevance to Australian society is less obvious and more easily overlooked.

It’s certainly strange for an incumbent Government seeking a third term to make absolutely no mention of any achievements in its political advertising – but perhaps there’s a good reason. Depending on how the day turns out, it seems we may be entering a moment in Australian history where once again consideration of the potential of a cultural policy becomes relevant. If so, it will be only the third national cultural policy in our history.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity

When I was visiting Paris last year, there was one thing I wanted to do before I returned home – visit the renowned French bakery that had trained a Melbourne woman who had abandoned the high stakes of Formula One racing to become a top croissant maker. She had decided that being an engineer in the world of elite car racing was not for her, but rather that her future lay in the malleable universe of pastry. Crossing boundaries of many kinds and traversing the borders of differing countries and cultures, she built a radically different future to the one she first envisaged.

To appreciate how creativity manifests itself and what drives artists to create, we don’t need to look only in the immediate world of arts, culture and creativity. Examples of this crop up in the most unexpected of places.

Bakery Du Pain et des Idees, Paris

What strikes me about arts, culture and creativity is that at heart it involves crossing boundaries and frontiers – of accepted forms of expression, of widely shared tastes, of expectations, and also of countries. It also requires studying for years to gain skills or qualifications or both so it’s possible to make a career and a living from the training and experience.

‘Abandoning the Formula One racing world, she persuaded the owner to take her on as an apprentice, which he did, recognising the same passion in her as the one that drove him.’ 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Creativity and culture in change: Change in creativity and culture

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. Artists, culture managers and cultural specialists today are confronted with radically different challenges and opportunities to those they faced in the 20th Century. There are a number of strategic forces which we need to take account of in career planning and in working in or running cultural organisations.

DESIGN Canberra is an illuminating example of many of the major contemporary trends in the creative and culture sector. Having heard about many of the issue it throws up, I’d like to talk briefly about some of the general issues this raises – moving from a specific case study to more strategic issues.

Panel at 'Creative and Cultural Futures: Leadership and Change' - a symposium exploring the critical issues driving change in the creative and cultural sector. 

It’s easy to appreciate why someone would seek a career in the creative and cultural sector (‘whatever that is’, as my philosophy professor used to say). It doesn’t usually pay that well (but better than cleaning, or digging ditches – or filling them in again), but it’s interesting and fulfilling work.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Who owns Australia’s ‘soul’? Our cultural institutions, our history and our future

The announcement of a substantial sum from the Government for expansion of the Australian War Memorial has highlighted some crucial issues around shrinking support for our cultural institutions, recognition of our history and heritage, and sponsorship in a time of diminishing budgets. The Director of the War Memorial has commented that ‘the Australian War Memorial is…a place that reveals our character as a people, our soul.’ In the end though, Australia's ‘soul’ might turn out to be larger, longer and wider than our history of wars.

In a time of tight budgets and creeping efficiency dividends on cultural institutions that cripple their ability to do their job, it seems the Government can manage to find an odd 500 million dollars for an expansion of the Australian War Memorial. Director of the War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, has commented that ‘the Australian War Memorial is…a place that reveals our character as a people, our soul.’

It’s generated some heat for them in the world of culture and heritage and some incisive commentary beyond that, but with the Government’s much bigger problems, I suppose they will be unlikely to notice. Still, it’s a pity about all the other declining national cultural institutions which care for our heritage – including our military heritage, witness the extensive war records held by the National Archives of Australia.

Our major national cultural institutions, such as the National Library of Australia, amongst many others, are battling neglect to maintain their services in the face of growing need.

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.