Saturday, August 1, 2020

Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia

Creative organisations and artists often collect information and research in order to report to funding bodies about how grant funding has been used. Apart from the need to report on funding or to make a case to government, or society in general, the creative and cultural sector also needs evidence and understanding for its own purposes. While government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, the organisations need it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities. They need it to know whether what they are doing is effective and worthwhile – or whether they should be doing something else.

Effective research and evaluation is a key element in ensuring long term growth of creative and cultural organisations, to ensure that they are effective in meeting their own objectives. Across all areas of the creative and cultural sector, it is clear how critical research, evaluation and measurement is to understanding what the creative and cultural sector does and what works best.

Music is a universal language in a world full of languages.

The critical importance of research
I have previously looked at the importance of research about creativity and culture and its role and significance in Australian society and the Australian economy. In my article, ‘Better than sport? The tricky business of valuing Australia’s arts and culture’, I noted ‘Most arts and culture organisation – and, increasingly, most government departments – don’t have the ability, expertise or resources to undertake research. This is where partnerships are crucial, whether in actually carrying out the research, or in helping set it up so it can be done in an economical and effective way.’

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Good news in a world of gloom – Craft ACT designs a stronger future on the global stage

Amongst all the gloom at the state of our once thriving creative sector, it’s easy to overlook important successes and achievements. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic creative organisations have still been endeavouring to maintain momentum with some of the inspiring projects and programs that had been underway, strengthening international partnerships and building longer-term resilience.

In this challenging environment I almost forgot to mention two very important and encouraging pieces of news from an organisation close to my heart. Canberra-based creative organisation Craft ACT, the umbrella organisation for craft and design in the region, has secured an important international coup for its DESIGN Canberra initiative. DESIGN Canberra’s signature exhibition Glass Utopia, featuring 12 Italian and Australian designers, has been selected for the internationally renowned festival, Venice Glass Week, from 3-26 September 2020.


Chief Minister Andrew Barr launches DESIGN Canberra 2019 beneath the Murano
glass chandelier in the Italian Ambassador's Residence.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A world turned upside down – UNESCO Creative City of Design Wuhan

World-shaking events can completely reframe your perspective. When I drove from Canberra to Adelaide and Kangaroo Island in March this year, everyone was being urged to visit regional centres to help them recover from the devastating bushfires. Only weeks later, as I was heading home – via Victoria, a State entering lockdown as I passed through – everybody was being encouraged to stay home to help stop the spread of disease. Back in Canberra I had been involved in a long-running effort to have the city listed as a UNESCO City of Design. The new reality that threatened to overshadow that effort was the global COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically that pandemic had originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which as I discovered, was itself a City of Design in the global UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

I came home to the bubble of Canberra, where it was possible to hole up in the mountains and avoid the worst of the pandemic. It seemed only a few months before, in better times, that we had been arguing once again that Canberra should consider seeking to become a UNESCO City of Design, part of the international Creative Cities Network. All of this had been superseded by the challenge of responding to the pandemic – and to the devastation the lockdown used to deal with it had brought to virtually the whole creative sector.

The universal vocabulary of design
The good news is that the idea of Canberra as a City of Design is still being discussed. 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.

Inside the bubble at DESIGN Canberra 2019 - Berlin-based Plastique Fantastique presents
pop up events in specially designed portable structures.

Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Better late than never – does Powerhouse Museum turnaround signal new promise?

For years the community campaign to halt the planned closure, transfer and site sell off of the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, Sydney has struggled to change the mind of a stubborn and out of touch State Government. Given that NSW had the potential to be in the forefont of the new economy – and jobs – of the future, abandoning the promise of the Powerhouse Museum and its vast collection to contribute to this exhibited mediocrity of vision and incompetent economic management. Perhaps, after all the effort by supporters of this great museum, we are now finally seeing some progress.

Breaking news this morning is that the planned closure, demolition and site sale of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has been halted by the State Government. Instead the Museum will operate from both the Ultimo and Parramatta sites.

In its own way, the Powerhouse Museum is as important a landmark as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House.

Exactly what this will mean in practice remains to be seen, but retaining the Museum where it is and adding a campus in Parramatta could be amajor improvement – if handled properly. This is what those opposed to the closure and transfer have long been calling for.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Now for the bad news and the good news – creative sector relief package finally announced

For the creative sector it’s a case of both good news and bad news in a world that has been very much about bad news. With the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shutdown of most of the creative sector, the announcement of massive reductions to Government support for humanities courses in universities, job losses at our major cultural institutions and continuing loss of ABC services, there has not been a lot to smile about.

First the bad news – the National Gallery of Australia will shed staff due to a range of pressures including the ongoing impact of the efficiency dividend. I’ll write about this separately later. What I want to focus on first is the good news – Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has been persuaded by relentless lobbying from the creative sector that it has been disproportionately impacted by Government action to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and needs relief.

Life saving buoy - Emergency use only.

He in turn has managed to persuade the Government it finally needs to act. There have been hints around for a while that this might occur, coming to a head in the last few days. The creative sector will get access to $250 million worth of grants and loans under a COVID-19 recovery package unveiled today.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Creative and cultural futures – understanding the creative and cultural economy

Survival in the creative sector in a post-COVID will require enhanced literacy in the opportunities of the new industries of the future, the clean and clever knowledge economy which is altering our world on a daily basis. Now a new short course delivered completely online in the new digital universe we are all increasingly inhabiting will look closely at the broader impacts of creativity and culture, both economic and social. It will outline the role of the creative sector in managing meaning and explain how telling Australian stories puts us on the international stage in an increasingly globalised world.

Survival in the rapidly changing and reshaping world of work in the creative sector post-COVID-19 will require enhanced literacy in the opportunities of the new industries of the future, the clean and clever knowledge economy which is altering our world on a daily basis. Over the last couple of years I have developed and presented a post-graduate course at the University of Canberra called ‘Impact and Enterprise’, which looks at the creative and cultural economy and its broader impacts. What is unique about the course is that it doesn’t cover only the economic impacts but also the social impacts, threading the two together.

Wheat silos with stories - the interrelationship of creativity and culture with society, community and the economy is complex and dynamic.

Economic relevance and community connection
Both economic relevance and a sense of being embedded with community are complementary aspects of contemporary creativity and culture that make it so strong a force. It links up my interest in both the economic role of culture and creativity and in their community role of building resilience, well-being, social inclusion and liveable cities. What they have in common is that both spring from the reality that culture and creativity are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Shutting down Australian creativity and culture – timeline of a trainwreck

In its response to the pandemic the current Government came a long way in terms of its narrow economic views about minimising the role of Government. However the longer history of neglect of the creative sector shows how severe the Government's economic limitations are and how its grasp of the economy (without even mentioning the social sphere) is too narrow and out of date. It has missed a whole sector of the economy that was large, fast growing and included many of the jobs of the future. It's most recent actions have merely compounded a seven year history of neglect and damage.

The not quite forgotten former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has reappeared as if from the dead to speak some disturbing truths about the current Coalition Government. It’s a reminder of the hopes raised and then dashed for a more forward-looking and relevant Liberal Party when he became Prime Minister and was subsequently undermined by the hard right of the Party.

In the park outside the fabulous Bendigo Art Gallery, a plaque reminds us of the long Australian tradition of defiance against injustice and bad Government - something that is an integral part of our culture.

Wishful thinking
At the time of Turnbull’s rise I wrote an article that now seems more like wishful thinking, suggesting that the Government might become less fixated on the dirty and dying industries of the past. The sad reality is that this current Government and its immediate predecessors under both Turnbull and Abbott have systematically shut down Australian creativity and culture.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Caught in the past – economic blindness overlooks the creative sector

The last few months have been a wild ride. First the national bushfires and now global pandemic. In February people were being encouraged to visit fire-ravaged regional centres to help boost local economies. By March they were being urged to stay home to help reduce the spread of pestilence. I’m quietly seething at governments which knew this was coming, but just didn’t have a fixed date, and thought they could make savings by pretending it wasn’t coming. Now the Australian creative sector has largely been infected as well, but without the ventilators required to keep it alive.

What I find amazing – but not unusual ­– is that for the last five years, medical experts have been predicting another pandemic. Meanwhile penny-pinching governments have been cutting funding for medical research. Now people are going to die because Government failed. Governments exist for the big challenges, the long term issues. But we keep electing politicians who can't see beyond the next election in three years time. We've had drought and massive bush fires and now pestilence. To top it off we are about to see a whole crucial economic and social force crippled, as the creative sector is largely sidelined.

Too little, too late
Unfortunately, as the ‘too little, too late’ response to the bushfires showed, our current Government is not well suited to deal with this crisis, for two reasons – temperament and ideology. Firstly, temperament – Morrison is just not a decisive, strategic leader. He's been forced to respond to the coronavirus, but it's not a natural fit. Luckily, just like Rudd during the Global Financial Crisis, he has listened to the advice of his departments and the experts, but it was not a natural or instinctive response.

Recognising the crucial role of the creative sector is central to understanding the clean and clever industries of the future - Daylesford Primary School displays its support for STEAM - Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Mathematics - as the engine of the contemporary world.

Secondly, ideology – the Coalition don't believe Government should have much of a role at all and they are also fixated on the myth of the centrality of the individual above community, so they aren't very good at social mobilisation or public health campaigns. As a result they are the last people you want running this sort of whole of Government response. Hopefully they'll learn, but it goes against the grain, so they will always lag and be less decisive than needed. I am equally as pessimistic about their role in leading the economic and social rebuilding that has to happen down the track.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Arts and sport and an essential service under threat

In this dangerous age of pandemic that has succeeded our months of fire and smoke, all sorts of things we have taken for granted have become apparent. One of these is how similar in many respects the arts and sport are. The other is how community organisations are kept alive by an essential service that is often overlooked.

Amongst all the coverage of the response to this pandemic, something caught my eye. Former Socceroos player Craig Foster (the man who played a pivotal role in the release of wrongfully-jailed Hakeem al-Araibi from a Thai prison in 2019) has been mobilising the nation’s now-unemployed sporting community to volunteer with community organisations.

Strathalbyn Craft Centre in the main street - closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

His ‘Play for Lives’ initiative enlists sporting heroes to volunteer for everything from packing food boxes to driving cancer patients to appointments.

Holding communities together 
What a tremendous effort. It reminded me of when the Arts Division of the Australia Government was developing the short-lived National Cultural Policy, ‘Creative Australia’, under Gillard as Prime Minister.

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’