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’

 The other aspect of the relationship between artists and fires is the impact of art and artists on the fires, particularly their aftermath. 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 – from creative expression to event management to managing fundraising. There is also the bigger issue of the potential role that the arts can play in bushire prevention, rather than just bushfire recovery, but that’s a whole other matter, about the big picture and imagining a new Australia.

Responding to Black Friday 2009 – a Victorian example
It reminded me of the period after the 2009 Black Friday Victorian bushfires. At the time, as part of its constant circumnavigation of the public service universe, the Arts Division of the Australian Government had just moved from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport. Ironically this department, now refolded back into the Infrastructure Department and renamed as the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications is the very department that Arts will be rejoining as part of the latest restructure of the public service.

One of the roles that the Arts Division inherited was helping to judge the annual Local Government Awards in 2013. The winning project in the Arts category was ‘Into the Light 2012—The Unfolding Story’ by Whittlesea City Council, a project that attempted to address the ongoing community impact of the 2009 Victorian bush fires through the arts.

‘Built on an inaugural event in 2011 as part of community healing, the 2012 event created partnerships between neighbouring councils, communities, arts community organisations, local businesses, local artists and individuals throughout the fire-affected areas.’

The Awards noted that ‘in the wake of disaster, communities are often fractured and individuals isolated. In February 2009, the areas surrounding Whittlesea, Victoria were burnt and the township became a service centre for people from the surrounding fire-affected areas. The Whittlesea Community Activity Centre became the emergency relief centre.’ The project was a ‘community driven, creative process where a steering group of local artists met regularly over many months to develop the event that reflected the unfolding story of a community still moving through the aftermath of bushfires.’

Comprehensive and inclusive 
It’s worth reproducing the description of the event in some detail, to give an idea of how comprehensive it was and how many people it involved. The description in the outline in the Awards is a little unclear, but I’ve tried to draw it out as best I can.

Built on an inaugural event in 2011 as part of community healing, the 2012 event created partnerships between neighbouring councils, communities, arts community organisations, local businesses, local artists and individuals throughout the fire-affected areas. After the event, feedback from artists, school children and other event participants centred on the enjoyment of being part of a group and feeling supported by the community. The comments showed event organisers that the event was important enough to take place annually.

Parade of renewal 
As light fell on 1 September 2012—the first day of spring being symbolic of renewal—a parade of participants of all ages carrying magic lanterns wound its way towards onlookers, spiralling around a football oval as young local First Nations people sang in language. The main lantern was dressed with hand-made silk paper leaves, symbolising the new growth that sprouts from burnt trunks after a bushfire.

More than 1500 people were involved in working towards the event. School children, working with artists in primary schools throughout the Kinglake Ranges, made 600 lanterns; community members made personalised lanterns during community workshops; and a seven metre high tree lantern, begun in Flowerdale, was completed in workshops leading up to the event.

In addition, all the individual lanterns together provided a single strong image – a metaphor for community cohesion and a shared experience for everybody there. Giant projections of hand-drawn images by teenagers were splashed across a five metre high tin shed transforming the surroundings. A shadow play, performed by a children’s art group, portrayed the things they remembered, they missed or now appreciated. A poet, reflecting on the events of recent years, invited audiences to take a stone, ‘charge it with your memories, cast it in a pool of water in the centre of the spiral and let the water wash away pain’.

More than 1500 people were involved in working towards the event. School children, working with artists in primary schools throughout the Kinglake Ranges, made 600 lanterns; community members made personalised lanterns during community workshops; and a seven metre high tree lantern, begun in Flowerdale, was completed in workshops leading up to the event.

This is an example that I became aware of by chance. I am sure there are many others, just as I am sure that artists somewhere on the South Coast or in other affected area are already thinking about how to respond to the latest fires. They will be as much a crucial part of community rebuilding as all the other essential components.

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary 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’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook

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’, Art at work – imagining a future Australia.

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 to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.

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’, Presentation at ‘Creative and Cultural Futures: Leadership and Change’ – a symposium exploring the critical issues driving change in the creative and cultural sector, University of Canberra, October 2018, Creativity and culture in change: Change in creativity and culture.

See also – indefinite articles in a definite world
‘If you are losing track of the articles I have published to my 'indefinite article' blog over the last few years, this is a summary of all 133 articles up until mid July 2017, broken down into categories for easy access. 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’, See also – indefinite articles in a definite world.

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’, Crossing boundaries – the unlimited landscape of creativity.

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.

Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding
‘Everyone is still recovering from the shock of the announcement by the Australia Council back in May this year of which organisations had been successful in obtaining four year operating funding – and which had not. It’s not so much directly due to the transfer of funds from the Australia Council but more a matter of new applicants applying in a competitive funding round, with an expanding sector, yet limited funds and a shrinking arts budget. Planning how to operate in the arts landscape of the future is something everyone needs to do. Having a Plan B and Plan C will be critical’, Making ends meet – the brittle new world of arts funding.

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, caused by lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding and falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture

‘Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map’, Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture.

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’, Arts and culture part of everyday life and on the main agenda.

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.

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.

Applied creativity
‘I have been dealing with the issue of creativity for as long as I can remember. Recently, I have had to deal with a new concept—innovation. All too often, creativity is confused with innovation. A number of writers about innovation have made the point that innovation and creativity are different. In their view, innovation involves taking a creative idea and commercialising it. If we look more broadly, we see that innovation may not necessarily involve only commercialising ideas. Instead the core feature is application—innovation is applied creativity. Even ideas that may seem very radical can slip into the wider culture in unexpected ways’, Applied creativity.

Creative industries – applied arts and sciences
‘The nineteenth century fascination with applied arts and sciences — the economic application of nature, arts and sciences — and the intersection of these diverse areas and their role in technological innovation are as relevant today for our creative industries. From the Garden Palace, home of Australia’s first international exhibition in 1879, to the Economic Gardens in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens these collections and exhibitions lay the basis for modern Australian industry. The vast Garden Palace building in the Sydney Botanic Gardens was the Australian version of the great Victorian-era industrial expositions, where, in huge palaces of glass, steel and timber, industry, invention, science, the arts and nature all intersected and overlapped. Despite burning to the ground, it went on to become the inspiration for what eventually became the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences — the Powerhouse Museum’, Creative Industries.

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