Monday, July 18, 2016

The big picture and the long view – creating a cultural future

The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic cultural policy or overview guiding the Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build wide-ranging alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture.

On the eve of Britain's entry into the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’. They could as well have been uttered about World War 2, as fascism transformed Europe. In our times, as the world heads further and further towards the dead end offered by neo-liberalism and the racism and intolerance unleashed in the reaction against it, those words keep echoing in my head. As the whole world makes big choices, let’s hope we can avoid the slippery slope to a place we won’t like and certainly won't recognise – though our parents and grandparents might.

Arts and culture deals with fundamental values for our society and through its economic impact helps put food on the plate - it even designs the plate. The big picture and long view is crucial for its future.

The never-ending election campaign
The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government – for some reason the word 'unrepeatable' springs to mind. If this is a mandate for much at all I’d hate to see what being told to piss off looks like.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The grand design of things – the lost unrealised potential of the Powerhouse Museum

With its extensive collection of design of all kinds, from engineering to fashion to ceramics and jewellery, and with its links to industry, I always had high hopes for the Powerhouse Museum – but it was not to be. Unfortunately the Powerhouse always had a slightly fragmented nature. Was it about social history, design, science and technology or the crossover of all of them? All too often and for far too long it was something for everybody – a strength in itself, but also a great weakness, as it meant it fell between too many stools, well-designed as they might be. 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. As a result the Powerhouse should have gone much further and achieved much more. That it failed to realise that potential is a measure of the lack of strategic vision, including from successive narrow 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.

A long time ago in a universe far, far away – well at least Sydney in the second half of the 1990s – I worked at the once mighty Powerhouse Museum. I was the Membership Manager there for five years, a period of great gains when the membership doubled. This was after a skyrocketing increase followed by a distressing plummet straight after it opened – luckily before my time. When I started the Museum had been struggling to recover from those sudden subsequent shocks for several years without much success. It was my introduction to the Museum and confirmed my belief always to look for the long-term and be wary of sudden successes and equally sudden failures. I had promised myself I would stay for five years – what I thought was an inordinate length of time in a job at that stage in my life – and double the membership. Then, having well and truly achieved that goal, as the events of the Sydney Olympics wound down, some in the same precinct as the Museum, I made my own long jump and headed to Canberra for a marathon in the public service.

'Looking down on birds' - view from the Members Lounge down over a Catalina Flying Boat.

I'd made my contribution and that could have been that. But I couldn't forget the Powerhouse and I found myself drawn back there often. Since my time there I have been back many times, sometimes to see exhibitions, sometimes for other reasons. The Powerhouse tended to be a centre of attention that hosted events – roundtables about digitisation, workshops about Indigenous languages that brought together cultural institutions and community languages organisations, and forums about the intersection of communities and information technology.

'The Powerhouse tended to be a centre of attention'

Half of Sydney through its doors
When the Powerhouse first opened it had a huge impact. I remember being told that later visitor research showed half the population of Sydney had visited – once. Similarly the massive leap, then fall, in membership reflected this initial enthusiasm coupled with a popular belief that once you had seen the contents of a museum you had seen everything there was to see, forever.