Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’

A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century.

Having written an article – even before it opened – about how interesting I expected the ‘Encounters’ exhibition at the National Museum of Australia to be, based solely on publicity about its content, I thought I’d better get there before it finished. The exhibition has now closed and very soon all the ancient objects borrowed from the British Museum will retrace their original paths from Australia to Britain. Why review an exhibition that no longer exists?

The National Museum of Australia sits on the Acton Peninsula in Canberra, on Ngunnawal country.

‘Encounters’ the exhibition, a brief moment in our shared history, may have finished, but it has left us once again to our own drawn-out real encounters with our predecessors on this continent. The exhibition may have finished but the experiences it speaks of continue. For that reason it’s worth reflecting at some length on the exhibition and what it meant from the perspective of Australian culture.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda

There’s an election in the air and I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas. They are about recognising arts and culture as a central part of everyday life and an essential component of the big agenda for Australia. They are about where the knowledge economy, creative industries and arts and culture fit, how arts and culture explain what it means to be Australian and how they are a valuable means of addressing pressing social challenges

There’s an election in the air, and an early one as well – as if we need any more of them, given some of the disastrous outcomes of past ones. I was thinking about what would be a good list of positive improvements that would benefit Australia’s arts and culture, so I jotted down some ideas.
Australian arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda - let's burn that bridge when we come to it.

Central to everyday life and the main national agenda
1. We want to see arts and culture recognised for the essential central role it plays in Australia’s social and economic life, with it included on the main national agenda, recognising its integral relationship with major economic and social factors such as economic development, education, innovation, community resilience, social and community identity and health and wellbeing.

Research, including extensive case studies, make this broader benefit clear. As far back as 2004, ‘Art and wellbeing’ an Australia Council publication by Deborah Mills and Paul Brown, examined this in detail. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community which involvement in arts and culture provides. It’s no exaggeration to say that in many cases it changes lives. The experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government was that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. This is true of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

2. The focus on the economic role of arts and culture is similar to the focus on its community role – both spring from recognition that arts and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The virtual world – research and commentary on Australian arts and culture

When I established my blog ‘indefinite article’, a couple of years back, it was because I wanted to research and comment on Australian arts and culture. This is my main blog that gets most views. It seems to have taken off. I’d always thought that, given the specialist subject matter – after all it’s not a popular culture blog like a cooking one – that it would grow steadily but no more, which all along is what I had wanted. The rate of growth has surprised me. Now, I’m starting to focus on the other blogs that have played second fiddle – about short humour, gardening and cooking and creative writing.

When I first established my blog ‘indefinite article’, a couple of years back, it was because I wanted to research and comment on Australian arts and culture, something I know something about from working for over 35 years in the arts and culture sector. I could have written about other subjects but that would just be me expressing my opinions like every other man, woman and their dog (and cat) on social media. ‘Who cares?’ I thought. ‘indefinite article’ is irreverent articles about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. This is my main blog and it’s the one that gets most views.

Ages ago I used the phrase on this image, thinking that I had very cleverly been the first person to think of. Recently I saw the same phrase, virtually word for word, on an Internet meme. Whether my words just drifted around on their own and were picked up and reused or whether, more likely, it's just a case of a good idea appearing at the same time in many different widely separated places, is hard to tell. There are no secrets or possessions on the Internet. Here's my illustrated take on the meme.

On the morning of 25 February it passed 8,000 views and is now just over 100 views short of the next milestone of 9,000 views. It seems only a short time ago that I was celebrating having passed 7,000 views. That amount represented the total views from when I effectively started the blog, when I left the public service in late February 2014, to 25 February this year, a period of just under two years. My most recent jump of 1,000 views, from 7,000 to 8,000, took just 5.5 weeks. Three days later I was already a quarter of the way to my next thousand, 9,000 views. I seem to have settled around 1,000 views a month.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money

National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important.

In a speech at the National Press Club on 16 March, Australian Government Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, commented about his joint responsibilities, ‘As Minister for Communications and the Arts I see myself as having responsibility for both the sinews and the soul of the nation. The sinews through Communications and the soul through the Arts. The sinews being that which is essential, connective and often unseen. And the soul, well the closest any minister comes to that in a secular, pluralistic democracy is the Arts Minister’.

Policy helps to see the wood despite the trees and also helps to see both through the fog of daily Government chaos. 

Government funding less important
His speech was almost exclusively about media reform but in questions afterwards he made some telling comments, which thankfully have been reported by Deborah Stone in ‘ArtsHub’.

He said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding. He noted ‘I do consider myself to be a strong advocate for the arts. The arts isn’t something that should be seen as a luxury. The arts isn’t something that should be seen as an extra. The arts are core to who we are as a nation. They are core to how we express ourselves and how we interpret our past and how we look to the future. So the arts are core business for government. But it’s not just something for Government. Yes it’s appropriate that government provides funding to support the arts across the genres, but it is also important that the Government money is used to leverage philanthropic, corporate and individual dollars into the sector. So I don’t think an arts Minister or a government should be judged just on the quantum of money that government puts in. But we do put significant dollars into support for the arts.’

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival

Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation.

There has long been an interest in the potential of regional arts activity to revitalise regional communities. In parallel the economic potential of regional creative industries has also interested many communities. In fact regional communities seem to fall somewhere between two camps – those, like Bendigo, that see a role for arts and culture and creative industries and have been boosted by the engagement, and those that don’t and have languished accordingly. That list is long.

The closing event for DESIGN Canberra 2014 at the National Museum of Australia.

Regional arts and regional creative industries
The challenge is achieving a broad recognition of the important potential of arts, culture and creative industries and consolidating and expanding the link between local arts and culture and the local creative industries in the region.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

National arts policy – excelling in the mediocrity stakes

I am not too concerned who manages national arts funding. Both the Australia Council and the Ministry for the Arts have long managed numerous funding programs. I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs much sooner, rather than later.

As I have said on many occasions, I am personally not too concerned who manages national arts funding – whether the Australia Council or the Ministry for the Arts. Both bodies manage numerous funding programs, both large and small – and have done so for some time.

Small though my readership might be, at least it's something. I would be surprised if amongst the many voices in the arts and culture sector, I wasn’t one of only a few who have defended the role of the Ministry for the Arts as a funding body in this particular dispute.

A broad experience in the Australian and international arts sector, including as CEO of major cultural icons like the Sydney Opera House and London's Southbank Centre, and major cultural developments like the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, give added perspective to comments critical of Australian arts policy.

Upon reflection I think the Australia Council would be better at funding small arts and culture organisations. Apart from the Indigenous cultural programs, the main area where the Ministry does support such organisations – and does it well – is through its Regional Arts Fund, but that is devolved to other organisations to administer. However, none of that is my major concern.

The issue is what is funded – and what is not
I am more concerned about what is funded. The fact that the national pool of arts funding available to support the operational costs of smaller arts and cultural organisations has shrunk substantially is a deep concern. Watch as Australia’s arts and culture sector reels over the next five years from this exceptionally bad policy decision – and expect the early warning signs of the impact of this cultural vandalism much sooner.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The long hard road of regional revival – putting arts and culture through its paces

Unfortunately what’s often missing in all the analysis of economic and social problems in regional and remote communities is the importance of culture. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community. The long hard road of regional revival really puts arts and culture through its paces – but it delivers.

I’ve always been interested in the broader effects of arts and culture – the ripples that spread out through a community and often change the future, sometimes subtly, sometimes in very drastic ways. You can see it really clearly in smaller communities, even though it happens in all communities, no matter what size.

Unfortunately what’s often missing in all the analysis of economic and social problems in regional and remote communities is the importance of culture. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community.

Australia's regional heritage is immense - the challenge is to keep it as a living heritage.

For years we argued the case in government, explaining how involvement in arts and culture changes lives. The experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs was that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. This is true of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

The long hard road of regional revival really puts arts and culture through its paces. This engaging video is more about the role of a visiting artist in reflecting a community back to itself, rather than direct involvement by community members themselves, but it’s still terrific. Strangely, while the video about the artwork shows clearly the role women play in holding a community together, the artwork itself doesn’t reflect this. Having said that, though, I love it. For anyone who has driven the long flat plains of Australia, the grain silos are unforgettable as they rise up out of the fields. The monochromatic images really sum up the even colours of the countryside and take on the colour of the concrete silos.

See also

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. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, 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’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities
‘It is becoming abundantly clear that in our contemporary world two critical things will help shape the way we make a living – and our economy overall. The first is the central role of cities in generating wealth. The second is the knowledge economy of the future and, more particularly, the creative industries that sit at its heart. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, both of these come together in a scattering of evolving creative clusters – concentrations of creative individuals and small businesses, clumped together in geographic proximity. This development is part of a national and world-wide trend which has profound implications’, Creativity at work – economic engine for our cities.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world
‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’, Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement

What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions.

I spent over five years working closely with Aboriginal languages revivalists who for many decades have been toiling away tirelessly in communities across the nation maintaining and reviving their languages – and I had the benefit of a good education on community languages as an unexpected bonus. I bring a particular perspective to it, as a former public servant who has had reasonably long and close experience with the role of government in supporting community efforts to save languages. I’ve seen the highs and lows and some of the successes and failures of government engagement with Aboriginal communities. Unusually this has been from a perspective provided by being only incidentally involved in the bloated government universe of ‘Indigenous Affairs’ and rather part of the support provided by the Australian Government for arts and culture.

The challenge for governments is translating inspiring speeches in Parliament into focused policy and action.

I don't particularly like talking about Indigenous languages because there are a host of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists who have plenty to say about them and know about them far better than I. However, because I am familiar with how government has intersected with Indigenous languages, I think I can add some useful comments about that aspect.

Long overdue – but better late than never
I was pleasantly surprised when the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address earlier this month, recognised the importance of Indigenous languages. I’d seen the annual report being provided to Parliament, outlining the failures (and some successes) of the Closing the Gap effort but after a while it’s easy to skim over the details. I’d been impressed that the Prime Minister made the effort to begin his address in the language of the Ngunnawal, local Aboriginal people of the Canberra region. However, apart from that, I hadn’t listened closely. This meant I’d missed the part of his comments about languages. When I saw a report on them in the media yesterday I was initially excited. This is long overdue. We’ve heard it before from Labor politicians such as Peter Garrett, who recognised how interrrelated languages were to other issues. His recognition culminated in the joint announcement with Jenny Macklin of Australia’s first National Indigenous Languages Policy in 2009 – but that’s the Labor Party, only half the story as far as major political parties are concerned.